White Antiracism: The Contradiction and the Community By Rebekah L. Forni

Class: Women of Color                                                  Major: Philosophy/Sociology ’12

    The writings of women of color have helped to develop my vision of what a white-antiracist identity might look like, through the idea that building a community is an act of agency against the racialized norms and customs of U.S. culture. Through the course of writing this paper, I have come to believe that a white-antiracist identity plays a necessary role in ending racism, and that this role can only be actualized if white-antiracists make a choice to use their agency to form a community with one another based on dismantling white supremacy. I will use this paper as an opportunity to record how my thought has progressed since the beginning of the spring 2012 semester, in the class Women of Color with professor Belisa Gonzalez, at Ithaca College. At first I viewed whiteness as a bureaucracy and the constraint that a racialized society puts on people of color as well as white people. Then I discovered the agency that women of color find through community, which has led me to question what it might look like to create a community of white-antiracists committed to ending racism through building intentional relationships with one another, and how this action can be an instrument of social change.

When I first conceived of this paper, I wanted to point out the primary aspects of U.S. society that perpetuate racism, and to begin thinking about the ways that a community of people can combat those aspects of society that perpetuate racism. For this topic, I would have needed to provide a foundation for the understanding that whiteness operates in our society as more than a racial identification category but also as a social and cultural norm which all members of US society are expects to assimilate much akin to a bureaucracy. What I mean by calling whiteness is bureaucracy is that in the U.S., the social construction of whiteness functions as a measuring stick that all people are measured up against and constricts all people to meet certain standard. Those who failed to meet that standard where ostracized to some degree. I was drawn to this topic because I was interested in examining the way that identifying factors of whiteness such as individuality, independence, and competition serve not only to oppress people of color, but also serves to constrain white people. This rational would have made it easy for me to argue that all people have a stake in ending racism because racial identities are dependent on one another and so all people are constrained by racism.

Approaching my paper this way would have resulted in very theoretical paper arguing the existence of whiteness as a social ideology which seeps into social structures and manifests in the consciousness of all people. This paper would not have been a new idea for me and would have been an exploration of social structure in ways that I have already explored. It construction of my paper would have used the writings of women of color that we have studied in class with an add-on approach at the end of the paper about how building community can be a powerful tool in social change. It would have looked a lot like many of my papers where I spend the bulk of the paper qualifying and justifying information that I have already grasped leading me to conclude an idea that while I believe to be true, I spend little time integrating into the rest of the paper. The idea that the very act of building a community is an act of agency against oppression is an idea that the women that we have been reading in class discuss directly. Much of the works that we have been reading explores different ideas about consciousness, agency, and community and how the three are linked. By narrowing down my topic to focus on the solution of my proposed topic (intentionally building community), instead of the problem (a bureaucratic like racial system) I will be able to engage more with the writings of women theorists of color rooting my paper and researching in ideas that I gained from this class instead of adding them onto research that I have accumulated of four years of undergraduate study in philosophy and sociology.

My journey for this project began when I read Maria Lugones’s piece “Speaking Face to Face” about Ethnocentric Racism. Lugones explains that ethnocentric racism works through ideology in the sense that, “you do not see me because you do not see yourself and you do not see yourself because you declare yourself outside of culture”.1 Lugones is arguing that culture is intimately connected to an individual’s identity and that her identity as a Latina living in the U.S. is different from my identity as a white women living in the U.S. because we have different cultures. Using this understanding, she pushes her argument to say that because I am a white woman and I am living in the U.S. where the dominate culture is white culture, I do not view myself as having a culture. I cannot truly see myself because my identity is linked to my culture and I view myself as not having a culture. By being unaware of my culture, I am unaware of the ways that ways that I force my culture onto others and how I constrain others through my expectation that they adapt to my culture. Of course I am not talking about my actions alone, but how the position of being unaware of one’s identity is linked to being white and impacts others through ethnocentric racism.

Yet being unaware of one’s culture does not mean that one does not belong to a culture. Lugones says that even “one’s experience of time, of movement through space, one’s sense of others and of oneself are all culturally formed and informed”.2 She then compares some common sayings between English and Spanish that capture similar situations of daily interaction. In these interactions, the English interpretation is consistently of a colder, distant, and more alienated tone, while the Spanish interpretations focus much more on the value of connecting with friends. Her point is that the ways in which people talk to each other and relate to each other and think of time and space, and the way that we exist in both of these dimensions, is intimately linked to the culture that a person comes from. My take-away from this piece was that whiteness does have a culture – and it is one which assumes individuality, and separation from one another, a community in which people are identified by a kind of separation from one another.

I have trouble claiming this white culture as my own because of all of the oppression which stems from it. It has become clear to me that white culture not only constrains people of color but white people as well.

After I read this piece I began to think about whiteness as a bureaucracy and a system which goes beyond any personal identity. Lugones’s piece reminded me of Bonilla-Silva’s article, “Rethinking Racism: Toward a Structural Interpretation”3 in which Bonilla-Silva means to shift the paradigm that is used to think about race from an individual psychological paradigm to a structural paradigm. She argues that racism should be thought of as a racialized social system in which the economic, political, social, historical and ideological structures of a society work to place people in a racialized social hierarchy in which racism is the normalized outcome of social relations. I think that what one important point to take from Bonilla-Silva is that racism is the normal outcome of our social relations in two ways: First, it is the norm because it resides in our ideology and so white people are able to justify their privilege in ways other than race (in part because of the intersection of race, class, and gender providing multiple intersections for privilege); Second, racism is the norm because it is the unavoidable result of the intersections of our economic, political, social, historical and ideological social systems. Whiteness becomes invisible and white culture is seen as the norm because of the way our social systems intersect and connect with one another. An example of the interconnectedness of these systems in racialized societies is the prevalent theme in the responses that upper middle class white men gave when questioned about their attitudes about racism as recorded in Fegan and O’Brien’s book White Men on Race: Power, Privilege, and the Shaping of Cultural Consciousness, 4 in when the white men associated someone’s race with the likelihood that they will be a productive addition to our capitalist society. Similarly, Fegan and O’Brien identify a history of segregation to be a contributing factor to a lack of empathy across color lines, an ingredient that is essential in building community. Another theme that was found throughout the responses was the use of a color-blind ideology, where respondents did not often attribute their privilege to their race, or else referred to the few black men with whom they had amicable relationships as “just like everyone else” or “white black”,5 signaling that the respondents have distanced themselves from their white culture and use it as a norm for how all cultures should interact. White people can conform to this white culture differently according to gender, class, and religion. Because of this, people are likely to attribute privilege and identity to these other factors without seeing how they are constituted along racially segregated lines. Fighting racism inherently means fighting against the ideological norms of the very fabric of the way that we think about ourselves in relation with one another.

To further my thought on the impact of our racialized social system and the normalization of whiteness, I decided to read Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment,6 by Patricia Hill Collins. This book helped to solidify my belief in the ultimate power of the community as a tool of agency in social justice. By intentionally creating a safe space through relationships with one another, women of color are able to reclaim the freedom to define themselves as individuals in a community with one another. The act of developing loving relationships is an act of agency against a multi-dimensional oppressive structure because these relationships allow people to define themselves instead of following the roles and scripts determined for them by the capitalist social structure. What I took from this is that there exists agency in relationships with other people. Hill-Collins writes about how black women are able to find agency through self-definition within the space of the relationships that they have with one another. Self-definition and relationships with other people becomes a way to develop a new form of knowledge based on an ethics of care. These relationships create a space where women of color are able to reimagine how they relate to the world so that they are not constrained by the dominant ideologies, but are able to create their own type of community through freedom of consciousness. Hill-Collins integrates these two ideas, that of group solidarity and that of individual agency, into black feminist thought.

This means that it is a characteristic of individual consciousness to be able to redefine the self through relationships with other people. For white people, this would involve developing both an antiracist personal identity, as well as interpersonal relationships within the broader community. For white people to act against the “white bureaucracy” is to create an intentional community with one another. While Hill-Collins paints many pictures of what these kinds of relationships look like for women of color, I am left questioning what it might look like for a white-antiracist community.

I finished reading Black Feminist Thought on the bus on the way to New York City to interview for a missionary internship focused on community organizing and social inequality at a religious agency, where both my mother and my step-father have worked for the past twenty-two years. I walked into this three day long interviewing knowing that the internship would compromise many of the beliefs which I had critiqued and revised throughout my undergraduate career, but I felt that I needed to go because of familial obligation. To be honest though, a part of me still held onto the hope from my youth that a career as a missionary devoted to social change would provide me with the community committed to social justice that I had always longed for.

I sat through three days of a strict, conference like schedule where I engaged in conversations with the twenty other applicants about social justice, theology, and community building. Being in competition with one another for the internship, all under the watchful eyes of the staff, made it impossible to build the “organic community” which we were supposed to cultivate. During this interview I could not help but noticed the striking contrasts between what the staff said, most of which I felt were good things in principle, and the ways in which they actually interacted with one another. They talked about building community while at the same time complaining about how much they hated living in New York City. They talked about including others while there was a striking racial divide between those who spoke and those who did not speak before the group – those who were white or else highly educated and without an accent spoke freely and those who were of color, or who had an accent were usually occupying a job title which pulled them to the corners of the room to work with technology or logistics. Sometimes, they would just be sitting silent at tables. Then there was the uncomfortable racial and economic divide between those who had offices and those who had cubicles, as I observed when walking through the office spaces. Those who were white and highly educated, or who were missionaries from other countries, took up much of the office space while many who just had cubicles were usually women of color who spoke with accents, and who were usually secretaries. When talking to my mother about my experience I told her that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,”7 the title of an essay by Audre Lorde, an Africana Womanist thinker who has recently inspired my thought. I questioned how an agency who clearly has trouble creating a community within their own walls could possibly add to a community in the far corners of the world. She thanked me for going to the interview, though I believe that she held many similar concerns as I do. Perhaps I think this because she was smiling and nodding in that way which says, “I know where you’re coming from and I don’t like what I’m hearing and I hope you shut up before anybody important walks by.” Perhaps I think this because I want to believe it. While I was there I had an interaction with a woman who was a retired missionary. She explained to me that the symbol for United Methodist missionaries was a cross with an anchor at its base. This symbol represents the way that missionaries are supposed to ground themselves in the communities they are visiting in order to do their mission. I could not help but think that Hill-Collins would point out that they had it backwards. In order to properly do social justice work, Hill-Collins would argue that one needs to ground themselves in their self-definition through their home communities and not turn to others to define them. I would add that looking to others to define the self is characteristic of whiteness because whiteness is defined by what it is not and so grounding ourselves in the culture of another only serves to propel us further into the ethnocentric racism that Lugones warns against.

The idea that community is an act of social change made me think about the roles that community plays in my own life. I am part of many communities, though this does not mean that these communities play an empowering and liberating role in my life. Indeed, many of the communities in which I live play a more oppressive role on my person. Or rather, I constrain myself within these communities for fear of being abandoned by them. Like many of the other writers that I have read in this class, I am able to shift from one setting to another, changing which parts of myself I show in each setting. From being alone in my house, to being in relationship with my roommate in my house, to each different class, to walking through the hallways with friends, to practicing yoga downtown, to communicating with family members, to working in relationship with my co-workers at work, to working in relationship with customers as a waitress, to drinks at the bar or simply walking home with my co-workers or friends at the end of the day, I find myself shifting the parts of myself. I once defined myself as being “adventurously flexible” on the application for the missionary internship because of my willingness to shift between these parts of myself in such a way that allows me to use the parts of myself to help fit within the communities within which I am operating at a given time. In this way I am always constructed by my surroundings, attempting to put others at ease by meeting their expectations. The problem that Hill Collins might point out with my consciousness about myself within the world (and I’m sure I share this self-consciousness with other white women in the US) is that I allow myself to become defined – I lack the empowerment of self-definition.

One important idea that I have gained from Lorde’s essay, “The Use of the Erotic: Power of The Erotic,”8 which has inspired my thought for this paper, is the power of the “erotic.” The erotic is an extremely powerful feeling of pleasure that one gains through indulging in doing what feels good. It is not a rational feeling, it does not fit into a logical proof, however it is another powerful tool in self-definition and therefore in empowerment. Lorde describes the erotic as a kernel that exists within the depths of each person which we are taught to constrain and feel shame about encountering. Even behind closed doors with people who we love, women like me (white, Christian raised, young, middle class women) are taught to fear and feel shame and regret for interacting with that kernel of the erotic and are taught to act as an empty vessel through which our partners are able to exploit our erotic for their own gains. So I would argue that a first step in creating a community is to reclaim our access to the erotic power that exists within each of us or, to reclaim our knowledge of our deepest selves. According to Lorde, as she articulated in “The Master’s Tools,” we come to interact with the erotic by interacting with the difference that exists deep within ourselves. These two pieces by Lorde helped me to begin to see what it might look like to begin to develop a meaningful relationship with myself. One element of self-definition is getting to know the self and sharing that self with others. Just as we must develop relationships with others where we struggle to empathize and understand those who we love, we must also develop that relationship with ourselves. But again I am lead to my first question, what would this look like for a white woman and what would this look like for an antiracist?

How do we create a community which intentionally targets structural inequalities according to race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality, age, religion, and nationality (to name only a few) that allow us to accept our whole selves and to engage meaningfully with other people. And how do we even begin such a task? I think that some light was shed on this question the first week of class when we read a piece by a group of students who took a class on the Latina feminist identity called “Imagining Differently: The Politics of Listening in a Feminist Classroom.” In this piece, the students in a class on Latina studies began their class believing that because their identities were identified as the same that they should be able to develop a bond of solidarity. They were surprised when they found that this was not the case. While they were able to form bonds of solidarity with one another, doing so took a lot of intentional work, and the community that they developed did not look like the one that they had originally envisioned. They say that in order to create an intentional community with other others, they needed to develop a “loving perception” of one another which was developed through active listening and a willingness to grow, with they define as playfulness. While I understood the concept of what they were talking about in this article, I was somewhat confused about the process. Then I stumbled upon an article in Making Face, Making Soul called “Playfulness, ‘World’ Travelling, and Loving Perception” by Maria Lugones which helped to clear the fog for me. Lugones begins by explaining that we love each other incorrectly. The type of love that we often have for one another is based on a dependency and so when we become independent of each other, we become incapable of loving each other. Love is instead developed through learning to travel across “worlds”. When Lugones talks about traveling “worlds” I believe that she is talking about frames of consciousness. Worlds are the way that we imagine ourselves within our environment. Loving somebody, she goes onto explain, is developed through a conscious effort to enter into someone else’s “world” and learn how she sees herself and other constructed through her own consciousness. We do this “playfully” making up our rules as we go along, as though we are playing a magical game full of learning through developing a relationship with one another in an effort to understand. Through this piece I began to understand that because white people are encased by and held to the standard of a white cultured society, they have difficultly forming relationships with one another because they are unable to travel to each other’s worlds. I think that this was a boundary that we faced in our own class and that this uncomfortable dynamic was magnified by competition of being students of a class together. The act of creating empathy between two people is difficult across color lines but it is also difficult within color lines as well, even with those people we have known for our entire lives. This piece made me realize that intentional relationships require an aspect of playfulness, of making up the rules as two people go along, getting to know each other. In this way, two people must expand their consciousness to imagine new possibilities as they learn to empathize with one another. Through empathy, two people are able to see each other not as society sees them but as individuals see themselves, in contexts where they are both comfortable and uncomfortable.

The final book that I read for this project was Whites Confront Racism by Eileen O’Brien.9 In this book, O’Brien explores how white people are able to form an antiracist identity through community with one another. I found that she drew, as I did, from the writings of women of color, and many of the strategies that I have explored above were incorporated into her book to help analyze two antiracist organizations: Anti-Racist Action and People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond. The first step that O’Brien outlines is that white people need to create empathy for people of color through what she calls, “approximations.” Approximations are experiences that white people have where they develop empathy for people of color and realize that white privilege is the root of racial disparity. The next step is for white-antiracists to be able to connect antiracist narratives by sharing their own. As white people are able to connect their antiracist narratives, they plant the seeds that other white people may need to develop empathy across color lines as well. O’Brien stresses that planting seeds is important and must be done intentionally. Sometimes this means using anger in the midst of a situation, while other times it means staying quiet and waiting for the right opportunity to speak. One way to plant seeds that are powerful in creating empathy between white people is through sharing our experiences that brought antiracists to begin their antiracist work.

Another important part of antiracist work that O’Brien outlines is creating an autonomous white identity through developing empathy with people of color, and building relationships with white-antiracists. The first step in creating a community of antiracists is to identify antiracist role models. White people can do this by surrounding themselves with people who are passionate about white-antiracism. Through community with other antiracists, the white-antiracist then becomes a role-model herself. I think that a big part of this process is taking others along with you. It’s very easy to write people off but it’s much harder to stay at the table and maintain relationships with others – especially loved ones. O’Brien notes that an important part of building community with white-antiracists is to be able to hold yourself and others accountable. Through community with others white-antiracists learn that their words, thoughts, and actions all have consequences and so being intentional about the relationships that white-antiracists have with one another allows them to become more intentional about the ways that they relate to others who are not antiracists as well. Authentic relationships take trust, and so part of being an antiracists is working toward developing trust in all of your relationships not just in ones with people of color and not just with white-antiracists.

O’Brien also touches on how important it is for the white-antiracists to develop an intentional relationship with herself that mirrors the community relationships that she is building with her fellow antiracists. Through this relationship with the self, it is important that the white-antiracist develop humility to recognize her mistakes and then regenerate after them. Through this relationship with herself, the white-antiracist comes to understand that authentic humility is a lifelong process, and that she can offer knowledge to other people through her mistakes and her acknowledgment of her mistakes.

When I reflect on the first time I read Black Feminist Thought one year ago, I remember feeling like I was reading something that was written for someone else, like I was being a voyeur into someone else’s world. This time when I read Black Feminist Thought, I gained so much more insight into myself as well as my relationships with the people around me. I wonder what made me look at the writing through new eyes only a year later. I think that part of this change was the acceptance that it is not my place as a white woman to fix the problems of other people, but it is my place to develop empathy. Through cultivating empathy with people I am around in my everyday life, a group of people who are predominantly white, I am doing antiracist work. Through developing authentic relationships with each person in my life, I become an ally in the struggle for racial equality. I think the hardest part in this process is learning how to listen and developing the humility to forgive myself.


Bibliography

1 Lugones, Maria. “Speaking Face to Face: An Exploration of Ethnocentric Racism,” in Making Face, Making Soul, ed. Gloria Anzaldua (Berkley, CA: Crossing Press, 2007), 46-54.
2 Ibid, 53.
3 Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo, “Rethinking Racism: Toward a Structural Interpretation,” American Sociological Review 62 no 3. (1997): 465-480.
4 Joe Feagin and Eileen O’Brien, White Men on Race: Power, Privilege, and the Shaping of Cultural Consciousness(Boston: Beacon Press, 2003).
5 Ibid.
6 Patricia Hill-Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (New York: Routledge, 1990).
7 Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider (Berkeley, CA: Crossing Press, 2007), 110-113.
8 Ibid, 53-59.
9 Eileen O’Brien, Whites Confront Racism: Antiracists and Their Paths to Action (New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2001).

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