So, I read stuff.
[TW at the links for racism, and on the Tim Wise piece for ableism. This TW also holds for this post]
The thoughts for this particular post coalesced when I read Elle’s post on Shakesville “Same Script, Different Cast”, about the movie The Help, close on the heels of having read Renee’s post on Womanist Musings “Tim Wise offers a solution to racial acrimony”, along with the Tim Wise piece “Racism, Violence, and the Irony of Stereotypes” that Renee wrote about.
A Side Note About Wise’s Piece:
One thing that it is very important to remember while writing is that ad hominem attacks serve no one. Wise’s post starts off with a description of a racist email he received regarding the attacks on whites in Milwaukee. In his public riposte, Wise says “Nazis sure do get up early for people without jobs”, and that zie is in “a regrettable state of undermedication.”
I have nothing but contempt for this kind of one-liner ableism, and it is particularly offensive in light of all the work done in the blogosphere in particular to draw attention to the inherent racism surrounding the language of terrorism – that Muslims are just extremists, but Andre Breivik is a “lone wolf” and possibly mentally ill. The man who shot Gabrielle Giffords was almost immediately deemed to be mentally ill, and the peddlers of violent eliminationist right wing rhetoric spent considerable time declaring their innocence in the whole affair. One does not need to be neurodiverse or have a mental illness or disability to be an asshole or a racist.
The casual suggestion that people without jobs don’t get up early (and the way the sentence casually links unemployment with Nazism) is also unnecessary and harmful. Many people with jobs get up early in the morning because they spend all day looking for jobs, or have kids, or just like mornings. Not having a job =/= laziness, and it does not mean that one does not work – as long as your definition of work can include the unrenumerated tasks of everyday life, raising kids, and looking for a job. In the current economy, people with jobs are much more likely to get other jobs that the unemployed, and the communities hit hardest by unemployment are those people of color to whom Wise claims to be such a valuable ally, which he might want to think about. There is nothing about racism or assholery that implies joblessness. Some pretty terrible people manage to hold down some pretty good jobs (cough DSK cough!).
Finally, being racist is not the same as being a Nazi or a white supremacist. Rather, Nazis and white supremacists are racists, but not all racists are Nazis and white supremacists. Lots of them are just ignorant privileged assholes.
Resorting to such ad hominems does double harm: it takes what could be a reasoned or even satirically funny rebuttal and makes it offensive to people it need not be offensive to, and also makes the writer look like a self-aggrandizing douchenozzle, and it also teaches us to be wary that only certain kinds of people are racist assholes. Much like the “Stranger Danger” campaign, which led to a still-widespread assumption that the people who would hurt us are not the next-door neighbor, the casual acquaintance, the intimate partner, if we see these associations often enough we imprint them – even if they are shown to be empirically untrue. Racists can be (and more often than not are) neurotypical people with steady jobs who would not self-identify as Nazi or neo-Nazi or white supremacist – even ones who send ranting all-caps emails. Doesn’t that emailer’s email alone give you plenty to mock and criticize in and of itself? Keep it about the ideas and actions – the things that are relevant.
(And the exposition of Jewish stereotypes was completely gratuitous.)
But to get down to it:
The point of Wise’s article is to point out how stereotypes of people of color can end up hurting white people:
“Where do these racialized images — of black strength and toughness on the one hand, and white weakness on the other — come from? One guess, and trust me, the answer is not from black people. Black folks didn’t create these racialized images. Black folks didn’t create and perpetuate the stereotype that it was their group that was big and bad and dangerous. Nor did black folks create, as a corollary to that first point, the opposite belief: that whites were weak and less likely to defend ourselves. In fact, those beliefs are part and parcel of a larger umbrella of racism directed against black people, but which, in this case, ends up putting white folks at risk too. If the society puts out the message that black folks are violent, and dangerous, and tough, and to be feared, many whites and many blacks will come to accept those messages, and the necessary flipside: that whites are passive and not to be feared. Then, on occasion, opportunistic thugs may take advantage of that notion, targeting whites in situations like this, because being less tough, we are viewed as “easy targets,” and not just that, but targets who will likely be scared shitless if approached by angry black people, and thus, not put up much of a fight.”
He pulls this from a comment made by a 16 year old who admitted his involvement in the assaults in Milwaukee, who said they focused on white people because they are “easy targets.” He draws the analogy between this effect of racism to sexism (women as natural nurturer means men are viewed as incompetent with kids). Here, as the sexism-hurts-men-too argument lands in feminist spaces, it smacks of “oh noez, what about teh white peoplez?!” As if the sufferings of people of color aren’t enough of a reason to end racism. I get the self-interest argument, for sure, but if you don’t care about the huge number of people of color who are detained, arrested, beaten, killed, or “just” discriminated against every single day, but you suddenly become antiracist because of your own self-interest…I’m going to step out on a limb and say that you probably aren’t actually very antiracist on the inside. Trying to act in solidarity with people of color would probably be a very bad idea, if this is your foundation.
Wise goes on to suggest that the way to combat racial tensions in the USA is to talk about racism a lot more – which I’m on board with – and specifically point out white allies in the anti-racist struggle – not so much on board with that.
“After all, if young people of color and young whites learned that there have been, in every generation, whites who stood with black and brown folks and challenged racial injustice, how might youth of all colors respond to one another differently? If white youth learned that there were role models in their community who they could follow in this regard, how might that change the racial attitudes of white people, and their willingness to challenge racism? And if young blacks in places like Milwaukee learned of those persons — as with Father James Groppi, who stood shoulder to shoulder with black leaders in that city to fight racist policies in the 1960s and 70s — how might such knowledge effect their perceptions of their white brothers and sisters?In other words, teach not just about racism but antiracist resistance, including that engaged by whites, in Milwaukee and across the nation. Doing so would promote allyship, break down stereotypes on all sides, and encourage the kinds of solidarity that troubled and divided cities like Milwaukee need in order to move forward.”
I have extreme mixed feelings about this suggestion. I can’t condemn the ideal wholesale, as Renee does, because hell yeah it would have been nice to explicitly learn about someone who looked like me doing something that wasn’t being a horrible racist. Yet so much of our precious classroom time in US schools is already devoted to white people and their achievements. In the civil rights movement, it was the people of color who did the campaigning, the organizing, and the struggling that made the progress – not white people. Education about white allies should find another setting, and it’s not POC’s job to learn how not to be prejudiced toward white people! Why is that something deserving of teaching, but the current and ongoing racism in our country is simply erased or ignored in schools? Something tells me too that education about past solidarity wouldn’t have as much positive effect as increased solidarity now.
Kids in classrooms aren’t just reflexively blurting out what their parents told them – they can see the world around them. The kids in my elementary and middle schools who accused me a being a racist weren’t simply attacking me because of my skin color – they were picking up on all kinds of privilege I hadn’t noticed I had yet. I was hurt and angry, and I went crying to my (white) teachers and (white) parents. I hadn’t been taught about institutionalized discrimination, and I lived in my safe white bubble and didn’t look too closely, so I didn’t see until it was far too late how my complaint to the teachers, which resulted in a few lunchtime detentions, fueled the fire of Us v. Them.
If you want to talk about education reform to build allyship, there’s a whole mess of things that could be done. Bring accomplished people of color into the classroom and curriculum (stop equating old white guys with expertise). Read the actual words and stories of people of color about their experiences. Stop pardoning and excusing white people for our historical actions in the US and around the world (emphasizing white allies is one way to downplay the role of white people in oppression). Talk about white privilege instead. If the white students can recognize their everyday, ongoing privileges, a “that’s fucked up” coming out their mouths about the situation now would probably go a much longer way towards building solidarity than a “that was fucked up back then” or a “but there are/were good white people too!”
The best reasons not to teach about white allies in the class are of course expounded by Renee:
“It takes an astounding amount of privilege to announce that Black children need to sit in a class and learn about Whiteness, as though they don’t spend almost every waking moment doing this already, because Whiteness is an integral part of every single into every single social institution.”
The marginalized always know the world of the marginalizer better, because it is a condition of their survival in a milieu hostile to their very existence.
it is important to note that while White allies are necessary, placing them into a position where they once again are authority figures does not destabilize racism and it also does not deal with the fact that even with the best intentions the very nature of exsisting[sic] with White privilege means that critical mistakes are bound to happen.”
Now I’m coming around to my main point. Elle’s piece on Shakesville centers around themes brought up by the movie “The Help” (note: Elle herself has not seen it, the post is about the themes, remember).
I have also not seen The Help, but I have seen plenty of movies like it. Perfect Harmony made a particular impression on me as kid. It was from movies like these that I got the idea of Good White Person as Anti-Racist Superhero. In movies like this, there are the White roles of perhaps-idealist Superheroes, and there are racists of varying degrees. Read Elle’s post for an awesome rundown of other problems with these films. I’m going to focus on this:
“First, we cannot dwell too long on racism, in this case as exemplified in the Jim Crow Era and by its very clear effects. “Scenes like that would have been too heavy for the film’s persistently sunny message,” suggests Boyd. I’d go further to suggest that scenes like that are too heavy for our country’s persistently sunny message of equal opportunity and dreams undeferred.
Second, when we do have discussions on the Jim Crow Era, we have to centralize white people who want to be on what most now see as the “right” side of history. They weren’t just allies, they did stuff and saved us! And so, you get stories like “The Help” premised on the notion that “the black maids would trust Skeeter with their stories, and that she would have the ability, despite her privileged upbringing, to give them voice.”
These stories perpetuate racism because they imply that is right and rightful that white people take the lead and speak for us.”
There is definitely a need for white antiracist ally role models. I understand completely the psychological pull of these films. Everyone wants to be a Superhero, and the films are mostly made by white people for white people – so the people of color end up as Inspiration or Sidekick.
I’m going to frame this in terms we can all understand:
In the fight against racism, white people need to accept that they are the sidekicks, not the superheroes.
So imagine anti-racist superhero Doctor Equality (being the antiracist advocates, organizations and campaigns run by people of color) had a sidekick Flash Ally (being white allies). If Flash Ally finds zieself alone in the presence of Bad People (being racist remarks and/or actions), zie will, of course, fight and do the best that zie can. Zie will probably make some errors, perhaps resulting in a rescue or an admonishment by Doctor Equality. Flash Ally, as a loyal, heart-in-the-right-place sidekick, takes the advice from hir mentor with grace, humility, and kindness.
If a superhero and hir sidekick are attacked together though, what happens? The sidekick looks at the superhero and goes “Jinkies, Batman, what are we going to do?!” – Doctor Equality takes the lead, and Flash Ally take hir cues from the Doctor.
What white discourse about racism in the media is doing and has long done is to turn the sidekicks into the superheroes, and the superheroes into the sidekicks (or worse). This is not just harmful because it’s historically inaccurate and dispossesses already marginalized people of their experiences and accomplishments. It’s harmful because we don’t see any realistic portrayals of what it means to be a Good Ally. Being a Good Ally means being a sidekick. Accepting that you don’t get to lead the charge, judge the Bad People, or draft the Plan.
As a sidekick, your input is value and your support is appreciated, but you’ve got to stand back and let the superheroes do their work. When white people see themselves as heroes, voice-givers, and liberators, they learn a condescending we-can-save-them approach to “anti-racist” work. How different would it be if we had role models in films that did realistic and valuable ally work? Role models who listened, offered their help, and took direction from people of color. Role models who didn’t try to capitalize on their work or steal the limelight. Those are the kind of role models of white allyship we need. And it probably wouldn’t hurt to have a few portrayals of Bad Allies who get the tongue-lashing they so richly deserve.
Other posts on Whiteness: