Racism — August 11, 2015 at 12:36 pm

White privilege can work to silence even white supporters of the #BlackLivesMatter movement


Photo by Anne C. Savage.

“Great way to build a political movement. Those of you who defended the Netroots Nation takeover by #BlackLivesMatter need to explain this.”

I’m on a number of private national listservs for progressive activists, bloggers, and organizers. This demand was thrown at those of us on one of them who defended the BLM protest at the 2015 Netroots Nation conference in response to a similar protest at a Bernie Sanders rally in Seattle last week.

When I had the audacity to challenge a well-known journalist on another listserv who argued for respectability politics – the idea that black protesters needed to be more respectful – he told me, “I wonder if you know who you are addressing when you write shit like this.”

Both of these things came from white progressives, people who are largely on the same side as me on nearly every progressive issue you could mention. Yet they speak volumes about how far even the progressive movement has yet to go when it comes to addressing systemic racial injustice in America. These sentiments from white progressives, hardly unique in the discussion of the tactics of the #BLM movement, suggest that the people who hold them believe they know better than young BLM protesters about how they should make themselves be heard. Some have even gone so far as to try to smear one of the Seattle protesters as a secret supporter of Sarah Palin as if her message had anything to do with that (it did not.)

I find it hard to give much credence to white folks like these who are telling black people fighting for racial justice, “You’re doing it wrong.”

After centuries of discrimination, terror, and suppression, to suggest that they be nicer about things and to stop making white people uncomfortable strikes me as the epitome of white privilege.

I would suggest that challenging the most progressive Democratic candidate in the race is exactly the right starting place for these protesters. Because if our most progressive campaigns can’t get this right and if the supporters of the most progressive candidates can’t understand the emergency black lives are under in our country, what hope do we have of shifting the conversation outside of the progressive sphere?

Here’s the thing: it’s working. This week, Bernie Sanders released his plan for dealing with racial justice issues. He has hired black organizer Symone Sanders as his press secretary. BLM organizers confirm that he has reached out to them and is working with them on this issue.

That is progress. That is “building a political movement”. That is, simply put, success.

I challenge those of you who think black protesters are being disrespectful to point to any significant social change that came about by adherents being anything but disruptive. If not for the disruptive tactics of the ACT-UP movement, we would be far behind where we are today in dealing with the AIDS epidemic that ravaged the LGBT community. If it weren’t for the disruptive acts of anti-war protestors or women’s rights activists or LGBT activists or the advocates for any other major social movement, our country would not be anywhere near where we are today on those issues.

Martin Luther King, Jr. had this to say in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail:

First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.”

Those words are a salient today as they were 52 years ago on April 16, 1963 when they were published.

If you, as a white progressive, want to know how you can truly support racial justice in America, I highly commend your attention to an essay recently published by Sally Kohn at the Washington Post titled, “This is what white people can do to support #BlackLivesMatter”. In it, she talked to black leaders and asked them what white “allies” can do to be truly supportive. Here are a couple of their replies and do hope you’ll read the entire thing:

I don’t like the term ally. It’s too passive and doesn’t provide a sense of risk equal to the level of risks black folks experience every single day. Black folks are never safe, so it’s important for white co-conspirators or comrades to think about the level of comfort — safety — that is assumed to them by sitting on the sidelines and not actively engaging in the movement for black lives because it seems “too risky.” I want comrades who will show up when I’m most vulnerable and be in active solidarity with my struggle as a person in a black body and take some risks, because I’m putting my life out on the line every single day.

Dante Barry, executive director of Million Hoodies Movement for Justice

Stop acting like black people are stupid. We are politically savvy. And black women especially have a higher voter turnout than anyone else. No candidate can win without black women, yet a bunch of black women stood up and expressed their feelings on an issue that is literally killing our people and white progressives are acting like they were a bunch of uppity Negroes who didn’t know their place… These are young people who are learning as they go. Every movement has growing pains. I’ve seen too many people who are writing off their efforts because they don’t think the effort is being organized in the right way. That is not helpful. White allies need to give these young people space to grow, space to fail, space to learn. And they need to amplify their voices.

Imani Gandy, senior legal analyst for RH Reality Check and co-host of This Week in Blackness Prime

Want more? Check out the website ShowingUpForRacialJustice.org. SURJ is a national group that, “through community organizing, mobilizing and education, moves white people to act as part of a multi-racial majority for justice with passion and accountability.”

Here in Michigan there is currently no SURJ affiliate. Those with the bandwidth and sincere interest in being true crusaders for racial justice should consider forming one. Because our state, as much as any other, could use one. It’s time for white people to stop cheering from the sidelines and critiqueing the techniques of black racial justice warriors and enter the fray.

I’ve said it before and I’ll restate it here: “The notion of ‘respectability politics’ is one that should be rejected by progressives in this situation and if you’re not rejecting it loudly, you should take a very hard look at yourself and ask why not. Because there is a strong likelihood that you are jaded by your own white privilege or your participation in the cult of personality surrounding your candidate.”

The next time black protesters make you feel uncomfortable, stop for a moment. Analyze how that makes you feel. Do you feel silenced? Do you feel ignored? Do you feel disrespected for your contribution or the contribution of your candidate? Do you feel like you are being treated and judged unfairly? Slide into those feelings for a moment and know that racial minorities in this country experience those feelings several orders of magnitude more intensely than you ever will every day of their lives.

Link arms with them and face the fight together, not from the sidelines. Take actual, physical risks with them. Be a comrade, not an ally.

And quit telling them they are protesting wrong. Nothing smacks of white privilege more loudly than that.