what white people gain from racial justice

Though it is still a relatively new area of thinking, there are now many books, articles, thinkpieces, and movies about the toxicity of masculinity and the fact that men- in addition to cis women and trans and gender nonconforming folks- are also negatively impacted by sexism and misogyny.  Though I wish people with privilege were ready to commit to movements for social justice that don’t address them, it is an extremely important and powerful message that puts the responsibility for emotional, psychological, and intellectual healing from sexism on everyone, regardless of gender.  Men, in addition to those marginalized by gender, have to negotiate the harm that has been done to them by sexism, and then together, no longer victims, we will move forward into a new, better era (we hope).

Collectively, we don’t talk about whiteness the same way.  Some people do name whiteness for what it is (toxic and dehumanizing, for whites and non-whites), and even more theorists talk about the dehumanization that oppressors in general impose upon themselves when they dehumanize others (so what I’m about to say is not really a new idea).  But when the mainstream liberal conversation about race focuses on how people of color are hurt by racism and what white people can do to help.  Not only does this put the majority of the emotional labor on people of color by positing that they are the only ones hurt by racism, but it also positions white people as potential saviors.  No matter how many articles about “how to be an ally” reiterate that white people should not view themselves as saviors of people of color, how can white people avoid thinking of themselves that way unless they also start to think of themselves as being negatively affected by racism?

And yet, we don’t consistently talk about what white people gain from racial justice movements.  Simply Googling “Why Men Need Feminism” and “Why White People Need Racial Justice ” (I also tried it with Black Lives Matter and anti-racism) shows the differences in the ways that we discuss race and gender.  Almost all articles under the search about white people are related to the topic of allyship: how can white people be good allies?  In contrast, there are pages upon pages of articles specifically pointing out the ways that men benefit from gender justice (to be perfectly frank, most of these articles are pretty much political garbage; however, the point remains!). Sometimes, the differences in the ways that we discuss race and gender are good; specificity of language can be very powerful in social justice movements. But in this case, I think that the lack of thought on what white people can gain from unlearning racism is unfortunate and ultimately, stymies the coalition-building capacity of movements for racial justice.

I want to address a few things, because if I read the above paragraphs written by someone else, someone anonymous, I might feel uncomfortable, or even angry.  I am coming both from my own experiences as a person of color who was radicalized in a mostly white environment.  I learned about race theory in a place where, because the whole school was extremely white, many of the politically radical communities included white people.  (This isn’t to say that most white people at the school were involved in social justice activities, just that, by the numbers, I knew quite a few white people who were woke.)  I was able to see, from white friends and classmates, exactly how little they had addressed their own racial pain, even though they were better than most white people at hearing people of color talk about their racial pain.

I do not think it is possible to overestimate the pain- psychological, emotional, physical- that racism inflicts on people of color, and by saying that white people are also hurt, I do not mean to diminish the hurt that POC face.  They are different kinds of hurt, but nonetheless, I do think everyone is hurt by racism. My point is not that the hurt people of color face is exaggerated or overanalyzed, but that white people ALSO need to deal with their own shit. They need to look their racial baggage in the face and try to reconcile.

Whiteness is a myth (and has been redefined countless times throughout history), much like manhood/masculinity, that is sustained by an ideology that values violence and competition rather than compassion and coalition.   Whiteness requires something else against which to define itself; whiteness requires an Other, and to maintain distinct boundaries between the concept of a white person and a nonwhite person, false differences have to be created, and it always ends up as a hierarchy with whiteness on top.  And deep, abiding pain in all people is the primary product of the long history of whiteness.  White people need to understand just how deeply they have been hurt by racism.  They are hurt every time they define power as the ability to dominate another person physically or financially or linguistically; they are hurt every time they feel unsafe because they are surrounded by brown and black faces; they are hurt when they feel entitled to economic prosperity they never achieve; they are hurt every time they look inside of themselves and find they cannot empathize with communities who are being systematically murdered by the state; they are hurt when they cannot even cry over the murder of a child.

That is my point.

As much as we need to emphasize to white people that they have dehumanized people of color for centuries, we need to emphasize that at the same time, they have dehumanized themselves.  Racial justice movements shouldn’t hesitate to say that white people need this too.  White people would also be liberated in a world that is free from white supremacy.  It is hard to walk the line between asking white people to deal with their own pain caused by racism and telling them that racial justice should prioritize people of color, not them, but I think it is possible and necessary to walk it.  We all need to heal, and we all need racial justice to do it.

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6 thoughts on “what white people gain from racial justice

  1. I think you bring up many interesting points here. However, I would argue the pain, at least as you are describing, white people may feel is primarily superficial. The pain, as you describe, is never an option for people of color. It’s an omnipresent emotion which while you never become numb to, you do become accustomed to. I would argue that there’s never truly been a time when white people could not express their emotions (such as crying over the loss of a child as you write). In those moments the offended community is aware that not all white people fused together to kill one community member, but rather American racism took the form of whatever body pointed the gun at the community member (such is the argument of Ta-Nehisi Coates). Therefore, white people are allowed to grieve with the community to some extent. You are correct in that they are not considered entitled to the same level of sadness over the event, but I believe that this is just as they cannot ever comprehend knowing that the community member’s death could have been any person of color. So whatever pain they may feel in not being allowed to grieve in this manner is not well-founded as people of color experience the additional knowledge of what its like to have a family member, close friend, schoolmate, neighbor, killed for doing nothing. White people need racial justice to alleviate any sense of guilt they might feel for being privileged, not for the pain of feeling emotionally stifled.

    Also, to compare race and gender is akin to comparing raspberries and blackberries: the two carry many similarities, but there are a few key differences. For one, no gender was ever enslaved. Certainly many were marginalized, but none were ever imported to work as slaves. That’s not to say gender all along the spectrum did not, and do not, face their own pains and sufferings, just that the circumstances from which each discrimination and distinction arise are different. So, to compare race inequities and pains to gender inequities and pains provides an inaccurate depiction of both realities.

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    1. Thank you for taking the time to comment so thoughtfully!! I appreciate your views.

      I definitely agree with you that race and gender are different identities and the construction of race and gender have happened in different ways, and as such, shouldn’t be lumped together, but I do think that because both race and gender involve oppressor/oppressed relationships, that we can learn from the discourses around each and sometimes apply those discourses (appropriately modified) to the other, which is what I was going for here.

      I think that I should have been clearer in my writing about what I meant by “pain” or “hurt” felt by white people. To be as blunt as possible, I meant that white people (as a group; individuals can and have worked against this) have real trouble having empathy and compassion for people of color because white people have dominated POC to such an extent that it’s impossible for them to recognize their humanity. And I think that if they can’t recognize the humanity of others, they dehumanize themselves as well. I didn’t mean to address white guilt/white tears as much as a psychic wound that goes so deep that white people don’t usually recognize it or experience it as “pain.” The fact that many white people can’t feel compassion for people of color shows just how much white supremacy ruins them (albeit in an EXTREMELY DIFFERENT and LESS VIOLENT way. I capitalized just to emphasize that I definitely agree with you on that; not trying to be aggressive!) My ultimate point was that white people, as a group, are damaged when they subscribe to white supremacist values (even if it upholds a hierarchy that benefits them), and so they should also desire a racially just world BOTH for others AND for themselves (because otherwise they’ll continue to see this work as something that doesn’t affect them unless they choose to participate in racial discourses, when, in fact, it does affect them either way. Also, I don’t want white people to feel selfless for doing this work, or to do it to relieve guilt. It’s work that is necessary for everyone.)

      But I also see the risks in articulating this viewpoint because I think that some people might take it to mean that white emotions are not being taken care of in racial justice movements, when in reality, even in progressive movements, people of color are shown less tenderness and compassion than white people when it comes to emotions. So I really agree with you that white people are pretty much always allowed to express their feelings in ways that POC are not. Thank you again for your comment! I realize that I need to be more specific and careful in my language. I hope that I understood and addressed your points fully, because as I read your comment, it didn’t seem totally at odds with my points, but perhaps my points were not clear enough. I would love to hear back from you!

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      1. Thank you for the clarification. I agree with you in that the relationships in gender issues and race issues are very similar and that some conclusions from both sides may be applied to the other. For example, the areas where discrimination is evident and its effect on the oppressed. However, I would still argue that the pain felt by oppressors in sexism is almost too different to provide a comparison as one describes the pain felt by being limited to specific standards, while the other only truly limits the oppressed. I suppose my sticking point is not your argument, but rather the correlation you are trying to make.

        I believe the real problem lies not in white people lacking empathy or compassion for POC due to their role as oppressors as you suggest, but rather their inability to ever fully be able to comprehend the experience of living as a POC. In essence, while they might mourn the death of an innocent POC that has been murdered, the true level of trauma inflicted on the community is lost in translation. I believe the problem is not dehumanization, but desensitization. If the deaths shown in the media daily do not have a tangible impact on one’s life, if they are another sad news story. It is then easy to feel less and less pain each time. The first times a calamity, the second a tragedy, the third a piece of information. Obviously I am being facetious, but I believe the basic premise to be true. Thus, the lack of empathy and compassion stems from a lack of realization about how these experiences affect the oppressed. I don’t know if this can ever be corrected, for if the oppressors could live as the oppressed for a time, I’m not sure we would still being having this conversation. But, it is absolutely necessary to try.

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  2. This was really well written and definitely brings a new (to myself at least) viewpoint that needs to be examined and understood by white people in general and especially white people that are allies to racial justice movements. I was just listening to a podcast the other day that Pastor Mike McBride was speaking on and he explained that race/white supremacy etc. is robbing EVERYONE of their full humanity. He mentioned, just as you did, that achieving racial justice will set white people free too. Not sure what the right word for my reaction was other than “Wow”, I hadn’t thought of it that way before. I think it can be an uncomfortable realization for white allies because we so badly want to point out the injustices and shift the focus off of what affects us but definitely a needed understanding in order to really align ourselves properly and whole-heartedly. Thank you for writing this, it has definitely made me reflect on my recent writings and the fact that I should re-examine a lot of things.

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