|White Supremacy On My Mind: Learning To Undermine Racism|
Growing up in California and coming of political age in the 90's, race has been a central factor in my development as a person and as a radical. California elections have been the battle ground upon which fights over immigrant rights, bilingual education, affirmative action, criminal justice, labor rights and queer marriage have been fought. The explosion of rage in Los Angeles after the Rodney King verdict clearing four white cops of all charges in the internationally witnessed beating of King was to have a profound impact on my way of seeing the world. I rarely ever thought about what it meant to be white, I was just a person. The ability of whiteness to be so universalized, to be the norm, to be the standard and all others just that, others. I grew up in the post-Civil Rights era, where racism has operated in a way that rarely even speaks directly about race.
I remember as a small child listening to other children speak Spanish, and I assumed that it was because they were not smart enough to speak English or if they were bilingual, then I assumed that Spanish was some sort of silly gibberish. This would have been a childish mistake or misunderstanding on my part, but as a white person, I assumed that my language was THE language and that it was the true form of speech and this thinking was not childish, it was the institutionalized logic of white supremacy, which was reinforced all around me.
In 1986, California voters passed a proposition that declared English as the official language of California. In 1998, voters in California passed a proposition that ended bilingual education in California. Prop 227 was known as the "English Only" measure. California was once part of Mexico. As white settlers moved westward, the idea of Manifest Destiny was developed which simply stated that all of the land towards the West were for citizens of the United States - white people. The US war of aggression against Mexico resulted in a huge land grab. However, in the Treaty of Guadeloupe signed in 1848, the rights of Mexicans living inside the newly created US border were to be respected and language was one of them. The Treaty of 1848 stated that the United States must respect the culture and language of the people formerly of Mexico.
The debate over language is truly about control, not communication. In his amazing book, The Coming White Minority: California, Multiculturalism and America's Future, Dale Maharidge writes, "The truth ignored in the debate [over bilingual education] was this: only three out of ten of the 1.4 million California students with limited English proficiency were enrolled in a bilingual education class. Due to a shortfall of 20,000 qualified teachers, 70 percent of these students were already taking English only classes. The failure of many of them had nothing to do with bilingual education."
Maharidge writes further that "Prop 227 [English Only] is just one more way that the third world work force will be kept in place, providing a pool of janitors and dishwashers..." The struggle to make English the official language in California is about delegitimizing another people's language and culture and reinforcing inferiority. Simultaneously, English and 'white' culture is reinscibed as superior. This is why many who opposed English Only used the slogan, "English Only means White Only."
My thoughts as a small child that Spanish was a dirty language where drawn from society and reinforced. I use this example because it demonstrates how white supremacy operates. As a small child I learned that my 'language', my 'culture', my 'history' was all central, all important. I didn't need someone to tell me that white people were better or superior, it was indoctrinated in my surroundings in a way that it need not be spoken.
It is important for white people to look at their experiences and deconstruct them, look into events and find their meaning. One of the crucial ways that people of color resist white supremacy is by confronting internalized racism, by coming to terms with a society that has systematically devalued their humanity, covered up their history, brutalized their memory of themselves as a people and then placed white standards as the mark by which they are judged (in terms of beauty, in terms of culture, in terms of language, and in terms of intelligence).
Black feminist theorist bell hooks writes, "Oppressed people resist by identifying themselves as subjects, by defining their reality, shaping their new identity, naming their history, telling their story." Shaping history and defining a new reality is a strategy that must be embraced by white folks who desperately want to see the end of racism. Racism will always exist so long as whiteness exists, as white identity has been developed through the process of slavery, genocide and cultural annihilation. White identity was fused together as a way of dealing with massive injustice - to be white is to be human and all others are subhuman, savages, beasts of burden to be worked, raped, beaten and robbed - they deserve what they get and little else can be expected of them anyway.
White identity has mutated and evolved over the years, but its core belief in being better, of being above others is deeply intact. When white people complain that Mexicans are taking their jobs; when white people complain that Asian Americans are taking over their country; when white people complain that Blacks are ruining their neighborhood - this concept of ownership, of entitlement, is all based on the notion that this is a white society that is supposed to benefit white people.
W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the great intellectuals of American society, wrote that white people are rewarded for their support of a system that largely does not benefit them - in terms of how much power and wealth is concentrated into the hands of the few. He called this reward the "psychological wages of whiteness." The ability of white people to think of themselves as better than Black folks, regardless of how poor they are, how many hours they have to work, how their labor makes someone else rich. "I might be poor, but at least I'm not a nigger" is how white identity helps shape a horribly disfigured humanity of hierarchy and punishment in the service of power and wealth.
If white people are to work for an end to racial injustice then we must come to understand how the psychological wages of whiteness have (mis)shaped our identity and (de)formed our consciousness. Until white people confront their internalized superiority, the dynamics of racism will be reproduced unconsciously.
Becoming conscious of how race operates, one will still make many mistakes and reproduce racism, but at least we can work to undo this and undermine this dynamic. Furthermore, when the internalized impact of white supremacy - of (un)consciously believing that white people are simply better - is confronted by white people, then as bell hooks suggests, new identities can be shaped and we can work to define our own reality.
Audre Lorde, Black lesbian feminist superstar, said "It is axiomatic that if we do not define ourselves for ourselves, we will be defined by others - for their use and to our detriment." While whiteness does carry many privileges and benefits in a white supremacist system, it also comes with a heavy price.
James Baldwin, another superstar of radical thought, compared whiteness to a factory and he encouraged white people to get out. In his essay, "On Being White and Other Lies," James Baldwin writes about the price of being white: "But this cowardice, this necessity of justifying a totally false identity and of justifying what must be called a genocidal history, has placed everyone now living into the hands of the most ignorant and powerful people the world has ever seen: and how did they get that way? By deciding that they were white. By opting for safety instead of life. By persuading themselves that a Black child's life meant nothing compared with a white child's life. By abandoning their children to the things white men could buy. By informing their children that Black women, Black men and Black children had no human integrity that those who call themselves white were bound to respect. And in this debasement and definition of Black people, they debased and defamed themselves."
Booker T. Washington once said, "When you hold me down in this ditch, you too remain in the same ditch." The ditch is a society based on race, class and gender hierarchies; a society that devours the planet and threatens ecological disaster; a society so full of fear and hatred that queer youth commit suicide; a society that demonizes and punishes whole segments of the population because they are poor, regardless of how the economy creates and needs poverty; a society where rape and countless other forms of more subtle sexualized violence are regular occurrences. The list of damage is enormous, and so too is the daily impact of our humanity cut off because of all of this damage - this is how white people have debased and defamed themselves, as Baldwin wrote.
Baldwin also wrote, "As long as you think you are white, there is no hope for you." No hope for you? No hope for what? I believe what Baldwin is saying is that as long as you identify with a system that is based on domination - regardless of what privileges, concessions or wages of whiteness you receive - then your humanity will be horribly distorted and hope will be lost. I also believe that the hope Baldwin speaks of is a hope for a new humanity that works for equality and liberation. So what does this mean for us white folks - what do we do and how do we organize?
In her book Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment, Patricia Hill Collins writes, "Suppressing the knowledge produced by any oppressed group makes it easier for dominant groups to rule because the seeming absence of an independent consciousness in the oppressed can be taken to mean that subordinate groups willingly collaborate in their own victimization." White folks need to read and study the knowledge produced by people of color.
Furthermore, in fighting against a system of domination - the works of queers, women, working class whites, labor organizers and radicals of all colors must be read and we must learn and develop an analysis that connects all of this to an understanding of how power operates in ways that both oppress and liberate. Collins quotes a student of hers, Patricia L. Dickenson, who writes, "It is a fundamental contention of mine that in a social context which denies and deforms a persons capacity to realize herself, the problem of self-consciousness is not simply a problem of thought, but also a problem of practice... the demand to end a deficient consciousness must be joined to a demand to eliminate the conditions which caused it."
While we are developing an analysis of race, class, gender, age and sexual identity - we must also work to end inequalities based on race, class and gender in the structures of our society. This means that we need to bring an understanding of race, class and gender to the work that we do - around environmentalism, sweat shop labor, affordable housing, police brutality, child care, globalization, poverty and militarism.
One way that we can do this is by shifting the center of our analysis. How does environmentalism impact working class Latino/as? The environmental justice movement that organizes against toxic waste dumps in poor communities (among many, many other things) offers answers to this question. How does immigration impact Asian American women? The group Asian Immigrant Women Advocates have been doing amazing work around this, and books like Dragon Ladies: Asian American Feminists Breathe Fire and State of Asian America: Activism and Resistance in the 1990's, edited by Karin Aguilar-San Juan.
How have Black women organized and developed forms of resistance to race, class and gender oppression? Check out books like Paula Giddings, When and Where I Enter: the Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America. Read Words of Fire: an Anthology of African American Feminist Thought edited by Beverly Guy-Sheftall. Check out the book Women in the Civil Rights Movement that simply rocks as it contains essays on activism, resistance and community building that offer so many important insights and lessons for our work today. We need to read books like Reluctant Reformers by Robert Allen on racism and social reform movements in the US to understand how white supremacy has lead white activists to undermine the activism of people of color and how those dynamics continue to get played out. Additionally there are so many amazing activists and organizations out there that we can learn from and work in solidarity with.
Chicana lesbian feminist writer and activist, Gloria Anzaldua, wrote in her book Borderlands: La Frontera, "Nothing happens in the 'real' world unless it first happens in the images in our heads." This is why it is crucial that white people consciously, critically and consistently work to undermine internalized white supremacy that prevents many of us from seeing people of color as fully human. Additionally, white activists need to know about the resistance and organizing of people of color so that we can image new ways of resisting and organizing in a way that works for collective liberation.
Here are some more books that can help us develop the radical analysis that we need in order to survive. David R. Roediger's Black on White: Black Writers on What it Means to Be White. Elizabeth 'Betita' Martinez's De Colores Means All Of Us: Latina Views for a Multi-Colored Century. Red Dirt: Growing Up Okie by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. Michael Omi and Howard Winant's Racial Formation in the United States: from the 1960s to the 1990s. Barbara Smith's The Truth That Never Hurts: Writings on Race, Gender and Freedom. William Upski Wimsatt's No More Prisons. State of Native America: Genocide, Colonization and Resistance, edited by M. Annette Jaimes. Charles Payne's I've Got the Light of Freedom: the Mississippi Freedom Movement and the Organizing Tradition. There are many more excellent books out there.
The analysis that we learn and the creative and thoughtful ways that we apply this analysis to our work will lead to important developments in the struggle against white supremacy and the entire monster of domination, which white supremacy is part of.
Chris Crass is a white anti-racist, left/radical organizer who works with the Catalyst Project, a center for political education and movement building guided by a vision of collective liberation for all people. He is a member of the Heads Up Collective and the Against Patriarchy Men's Group. He is a co-founder of Colours of Resistance, colours.mahost.org. His essays on anti-racism, movement building and anti-authoritarian organizing have been published widely in Left Turn Magazine, Clamor Magazine and on ZNet and Infoshop.org.
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