And Not In The Way You Might Think
By Bryn Buchanan
The vigil at UVA after the events of this weekend should have been beautiful, touching; the community rallying together to reject white supremacy in their streets and on that campus.
But all I saw as I watched the solidarity action on the internet was a sea of (mostly) white people with fire, coming in the night, claiming space as if they own the place. And that scared the HELL out of me.
Now, although these images are composed in similar ways, they HAVE to be ideologically opposite, right? Not as much as we’d like to believe. In the wake of Charlottesville and the “Unite The Right” rally which has sparked all kinds of white outrage I’ve seen something insidious emerge from the depths of “good” white people’s psyche, as they’ve wrestled with the events of the past few days on social media and, even more personally exhausting, with and at me. This beast, which I’ll name “White Distancing,” has condemned “extremists,” “fascists,” and “white supremacy” as a whole while also trying to claim white goodness and outrage. Trumpeted from platforms and across the news, the perspective of the average white person has been outrage.
I am not here for it.
Just a few days after the “Unite The Right” rally my community had a gathering, a “Unity Rally” (again, we must take a moment to see the similarities and wonder about the appropriateness of the title in light of recent events). It featured the Mayor, the leader of an anti-hate group (note the title, it’s important later), and leaders like the chancellor of UC Davis. When activists in the community wanted to disrupt the event and draw attention to the Picnic Day 5 — young Black and Brown people who had been attacked by vigilante police and prosecuted by the local DA — others, again largely white people and their sympathizers, argued that this event was neither the time nor the place. Our white, male Mayor is sensitive.
If a rally, organized around combating white supremacy, is not the right time to confront white supremacy right here at home I don’t know when is.
So why has the silencing of Black and Brown bitterness, of our anger, and our tactics been so prevalent — our voices so rejected — in the wake of the “Unite The Right” rally? There are two main components to explaining this phenomenon:
- White Fragility
Most white people love to claim outrage at the latest events, without realizing that even if they are outraged their uncles and aunties are probably attendees and that their concern over “affirmative action keeping them from schools and jobs of their choice” lays the groundwork for white supremacy to operate in very, very mundane, institutional ways.
I’m unconcerned about your feelings. I’m interested in whether or not you can move past the outrage of the week to address the ways white supremacy happens *everyday* outside wearing polo shirts and swinging Nazi flags.
We know, you reject Nazis, but do you reject state sponsored Black genocide?
Racism was never just about feelings. In fact, as a scholar of race, the focus on feelings of prejudice is actually just a small part of the way racism and white supremacy operate today. The rejection of any kind of “racial prejudice” allows white people to disavow racism while still passively receiving it’s benefits and privileges. White outrage similarly centers feelings — as if Black people care about you feeling bad (we don’t). What we want is structural change and the addressing of racial practices in your everyday lives and institutions. Now is not the time to be dismayed; now is the time to put your nose to the grindstone and *work*.
- Tokenized Black Folks
The other danger is that white people are looking to individual Black folks to confirm or support their feelings. And some, for whatever reason (including the fact that white people often have structural power over Black folks sooo…you know people still gotta pay that rent) Black folks will and do sometimes support actions which do not challenge white supremacy.
But here’s the thing. Identity is not an inherent political frame. Being oppressed doesn’t mean you don’t buy into the system that oppresses you.
It’s not enough to be made vulnerable by various structures — that may give you experiences of oppression but doesn’t necessarily organize those experiences towards a historical and contemporary understanding of collective liberation. Being against hate (broadly) is not enough to build a cogent historical and liberatory framework.
Those experiences are a part, but not the whole, foundation for political and social action. When Black folks ask white people to deal collectively with white supremacy they are not asking white people to free individual Black people, or center individual voices, but *all* of us.
This means that having a Black person speak (cough, cough Gary May) at your event doesn’t mean it’s oriented towards Black liberation and it certainly doesn’t mean it’s challenging white supremacy.
So stop using us as weapons against your guilt and outrage.
At the End of the Day
At the end of the day, white supremacy of the everyday sort hasn’t been challenged by all the posturing on Facebook or the signs declaring a fight against it. In fact, I’ve seen many white people use white outrage, and vigils, to bash direct action and critique *from Black people.* White supremacy is insidious because it is so woven into our societal and social fabric that even when people perform allyship that is all it is — performance. A number of other folks have spoken to how to channel outrage into something valuable (See “So You Want To Fight White Supremacy”). White people: check them out, check yourself, and next time you want to express your outrage do NOT come to me for a pat on the back.
Bryn Buchanan is a PhD student in the Sociology Department and an organizer of SWERV (Students and Workers Ending Racial Violence).