As A White Liberal Woman Surrounded By Other Liberals, What More Can Do?
QUESTION: As a white woman who lives in a very liberal area, I often feel like I don't know what to do when I see statements about how white women can/should do more. I feel if I lived in a conservative area where the politics were different, I'd have more opportunities to step in or speak up when I hear racist or oppressive things, but where I live I honestly don't even know one person that voted for Trump, I don't have friends that make racist jokes and I wouldn't tolerate it if they did.
I have recently realized that I need to take ownership of how I have benefitted from white privilege. I vote for minorities and LGBT, I teach my daughter the reality of race and America and Thanksgiving, I listen and believe the stories of my friends and their experiences. But I don't have any sense of how I can do anything beyond the basics in order to support BIPOC in a meaningful and tangible way.
So my question is, what can you recommend as steps for someone who is a white woman who wants to do more than the basics, or who is missing a piece of the puzzle that she should already be doing in order to be a true ally and to help advance the progress?
ANSWER: That’s easy. Step one: Unpack your white saviorism. Step two: unpack your white exceptionalism. Step Three: rinse and repeat.
OK. Let me back up a little bit. First of all, thank you for asking this question, whoever you are. I don’t say that sarcastically. I sincerely mean it. I get this question a lot from others who self-identify as white liberals, so I appreciate the chance to address this topic within the first Community Q&A (CQA) Blog post. Second, there is a LOT to unpack here, so I will limit today’s post to this one question. I think it’ll leave you all with enough to chew on until Thursday.
I’m just going to jump right in and point out/clear up a couple of dangerous assumptions being made in the statements leading up the question at the end of this submission. This is meant in no way to shame the author. It’s just a necessary part of the educational element to this work.
It’s why you’re here. It’s why I’m here. For you to learn and for me to help you do that.
Assumption One: That antiracism is work has to be tangible in order to be meaningful.
Antiracism work self-work. I’m going to say that often in this post, because it is very apparent that most white people attempting to do this work have yet to come to terms with what that actually means. There is a huge difference between helping black, indigenous, and people of color in tangible ways, (such as buying from BIPOC owned business, voting, or donating to causes) and the deep diving self-work of becoming antiracist. Your internalized white supremacy deploys saviorism and exceptionalism in an attempt to equate the two, but they are absolutely not the same thing. I’ll explain why.
Donating to causes, voting for black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC). and financially supporting their authors, businesses, educators, etc. infuses those communities with much needed economic resources and visible representation. This is a good thing. An admirable thing. A necessary thing. But it’s basically just a glorified, self-congratulatory form of the reparations that should have been given a long time ago.
Given the way white supremacy has structured and distributed resources in this country, reparations are very much a part of the broad work we’re talking about. It’s how we progress toward economic equality. It’s how we advance equal representation and equal access to opportunity. It just doesn’t make you antiracist. And there is no amount of those things you can check off a list that will allow you to bypass the lifetime of self-work that is needed to become truly antiracist and an ally to BIPOC.
Any time you want to advance progress, you must start with yourself. And I’ll give you the million dollar hint to determine if you’re navigating a season where you need to double down on that self-work. It’s when you find yourself asking a question like this.
Antiracism is the active practice of opposing racism by countering race-based inequalities, prejudices, and discrimination, both individually and systemically. White supremacy is a deeply ingrained system hell-bent on its self-preservation. Self-work comes into play because it will be impossible for you to recognize the subtle ways in which white supremacy shows up in others and within your community when you haven’t done work to recognize the subtle ways it shows up within yourself and disrupt their patterns from informing how you navigate society.
So you see. Self-work is meaningful in antiracism work because it is antiracism work. It is vital to it. And should be a constant in your lifelong journey of becoming an antiracist ally to black, indigenous, and people of color.
Assumption Two: Being a liberal is an automatic moral positive when it comes to antiracism. It is not.
Remember when I said that your internalized white supremacy deploys saviorism and exceptionalism to equate things with self-work? Well, here is another area where that happens. For starters, the tendency to separate white people based on political beliefs as a means of determining who needs the work and who doesn’t is peak white exceptionalism. (It’s also a form of bi-passing, but we don’t have time to dive into that as well.) White people are white people. They just are. Whether liberal or conservative. Whether lower, middle, or upper class. Where uneducated or an advanced degree holder. No white person is exempt from this work.
And I get that the author of this question isn’t outright saying such a thing, but is absolutely implied in the two paragraphs leading up to her question. The practice of drawing a distinction between oneself and other white people is effectively saying that you think the ways other people perpetuate white supremacy is more harmful than the ways you do. That is an incredibly dangerous thing to assume.
There is more to racism than casting a vote for Donald Trump. There always has been. There always will. be. Self-work would reveal that to you. He and his voters cannot be the measuring stick for whom you consider racist enough for your intervention. Which is honestly one of my forever frustrations with the white liberal’s obsessions with Donald Trump’s racism. He is low hanging fruit. He, and those who voted for him, are easy to “other” and become the villains in this heroic story of the white liberal “doing something” and saving the day. Because every white savior story needs an easy-to-identify villain.
Have you ever watched a superhero movie? How many of them ever show the superhero quietly saving the damsel in distress from the harm within themselves, without needing any public acknowledgement of the fact that they had? I’d bet money that you won’t be able to find one. You know why? Because superheroes will never see themselves as villains. How, then, could they bear the title of a superhero?
This leads me to a question I ask everyone who falls into the habit of focusing their antiracism work more on others than they do themselves – if you fundamentally understand that white supremacy is everywhere and that your white privilege gives you ample opportunity to perpetuate it, who is saving BIPOC from the white supremacy within you, if you’re too busy trying to save BIPOC from the white supremacy within everyone else?
White supremacy will deploy white saviorism and white exceptionalism to make you think that tangible contributions and the impact you have on BIPOC and other white people is what makes you antiracist. They aren’t. That’s why despite having done so, you still feel frustrated by a feeling of not doing enough when you hear calls to action for white women to do more. And until you start attacking these things head on, you’ll remain restless in this work.
Tangible contributions create a temporary positive impact on those individuals, but they don’t protect BIPOC from the white supremacy within you. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t good work being done by donations, voting, and financially supporting BIPOC. There is. I assure you, it still needs to happen. It just doesn’t make you antiracist.
Start by learning about white saviorism and white exceptionalism. Unpack the ways they show up within you. Unpack the ways in which they’ve kept you from seeing the ways you still harm BIPOC and why that is no better than the Trump voter low-hanging fruit. Self-work is the missing piece of the puzzle, my friend.
Self-work is the puzzle.
Disclaimer: Dear readers, there are plenty of other themes/elements of white supremacy that I could have addressed in this post. I made the choice not to. This blog is not about me nit-picking every single element in a person’s submission. It is about me using them as an opportunity to address common questions and concepts that others may be wrestling with. I cannot litigate everything in one response. I won’t. That is not my style.