note: While we did not write the following essay,
we agree with the writer's point of view.
White Anti-Racist Is an Oxymoron:
An Open Letter to “White Anti-Racists”
By Tamara K. Nopper
I received an annoying
e-mail about white people and their struggle to do anti-racist work.
I keep reading and hearing white people talk about their struggle to
do anti-racist organizing, and frankly it gets on my nerves. So I am
writing this open letter to white people who engage in any activist
work that involves or affects non-whites. Given that the US social structure
is founded on white supremacy, and that there is a global order in which
white supremacy and European domination are at large, I would challenge
any white person to figure out what movement or action they can get
involved in that will not involve or affect non-white people.
That said, I want to begin with what has become a realization for me
through the help of different politically conscious friends. There is
NO SUCH THING AS A WHITE ANTI-RACIST. The term itself, "white anti-
racist" is an oxymoron. In the following, I will explain why. Then,
I will begin to detail how this impacts non-white people in organizing
work specifically, along with how it affects non-white people generally.
First, one must realize
that whiteness is a structure of domination. As such, there is nothing
redeemable or reformable about whiteness. Intellectuals, scholars and
activists, especially those who are non- white, have drawn our attention
to this for years. For example, people such as Malcolm X, W.E.B. DuBois,
Marcus Garvey, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Ida B. Wells, Sojourner
Truth, Frederick Douglass, and many, many others who are perhaps less
famous, have articulated the relationship between whiteness and domination.
Further, people such
as Douglass and DuBois began to outline how whiteness is a social and
political construct that emphasizes the domination, authority, and perceived
humanity of those who are racialized as white. They, along with many
other non-white writers and orators, have pointed to the fact that it
was the bodies who were able to be racialized as "white" that
were able to be viewed as rational, authoritative, and deserving. Further,
and believe me, this is no small thing, white people are viewed as human.
What this means is that when white people suffer, as some who are poor/female/queer,
they nevertheless are able to have some measure of sympathy for their
plight simply because they are white and their marginalization is considered
an emergency, crisis or an issue to be concerned about.
Furthermore, even when white people have been oppressed by various dimensions
of classism, homophobia and heterosexism, they have been able to opt
for what DuBois, in his monograph "Black Reconstruction" brilliantly
called "the psychological wage of whiteness." That is, whites
that are marginalized could find comfort, even if psychological, in
the fact that they were not non-white. They could revel in the fact
that they could be taken as white in opposition to non-white groups.
The desire for this wage of whiteness was also what drove many white
people, albeit marginalized, to engage in organized violence against
Of course, legal cases such as the Dred Scott Decision along with many
different naturalization cases involving Asian individuals, has helped
to encode a state-sanctioned definition of whiteness. But there are
other ways in which white people can be racialized as white by the state.
They are not stopped while driving as much as non-white people. Their
homes and businesses are not raided and searched as much by police officers,
INS or License and Inspections (L&I). White people's bodies are
not tracked and locked up in prisons, detention centers, juvenile systems,
detention halls in classrooms, "special education" classes,
etc. White people's bodies are not generally the site of fear, repulsion,
violent desire, or hatred.
Now some might point
out to me that white people are followed, tracked and harassed by individuals
and state agents such as the police. This is true. Some white women
get sexually harassed and experience state-sanctioned discrimination.
Queer whites are the subject of homophobia, whether by individuals or
by the state through laws and the police. Some queer whites are harassed
by cops. Activist whites are stopped by police. White people who play
rap music and wear gear are stopped by cops. Poor whites can be criminalized,
especially by the state around welfare issues. What I want to point
out is that, while I do not condone police violence and harassment,
there is a way in which white people will not be viewed as inherently
criminal or suspect unless they are perceived as doing something that
breaks particular norms.
Conversely, other racial groups, particularly Blacks and Native Americans,
are considered inherently criminal no matter what they do, what their
sexual identity is or what they wear. Further, it has always struck
me as interesting that there are white people who will attempt to wear
what signifies "Blackness," whether it is dreadlocks (which,
in my opinion, should be cut off from every white person's head), "gear,"
or Black masks at rallies. There is a sick way in which white people
want to emulate that which is considered "badass" about a
certain existential position of Blackness at the same time they do not
want the burden of living as a non-white person. Further, it really
strikes me as fucked up the way in which white people will go to rallies
and taunt the police with Black masks in order to bring on police pressure.
What does it mean when Blackness is strategically used by whites to
bring on police violence? Now I know that somewhere there is a dreadlocked,
smelly white anarchist who is reading this message and who is angry
with me for not understanding the logic of the Black masks and its roots
in anarchism. But I would challenge these people to consider how they
are reproducing a violence towards Blackness in their attempts to taunt
and challenge the police in their efforts.
Now back to my point that white anti-racism is an oxymoron. Whiteness
is a social and political construct rooted in white supremacy. White
supremacy is a structure and system of beliefs rooted in European and
US imperialism in which certain racialized bodies (non-white) are selected
for premature negation whether through cultural, physical, psychological
genocide, containment or other forms of social death. White supremacy
is at the heart of the US social system and civil society. In short,
white supremacy is not just a series of practices or privilege, but
a larger social structure and system of domination that overly-values
and rewards those who are racialized as white. The rest of us are constructed
as undeserving to be considered human, although there is significant
variation within non-white populations of how our bodies are encoded,
treated and (de)valued.
Now, for one to claim whiteness, one also is invested in white supremacy.
Whiteness itself is a political term that emerged among European white
ethnics in the US. These European ethnics, many of them reviled, chose
to cast their lot with whiteness rather than that with those who had
been determined as non-white. In short, anyone who claims to be white,
even a white anti-racist, is identifying with a history of European
imperialism and racism transported and further developed into the US.
However, this does not mean that white people who go around saying dumb
things such as "I am not white! I am a human being!" or, "I
left whiteness and joined the human race," or my favorite, "I
hate white people! They're stupid" are not structurally white.
Remember, whiteness is a structure of domination embedded in our social
relations, institutions, discourses, and practices. Don't tell me you're
not white but then when we go out in the street and the police don't
bother you or people don't ask you if you're a prostitute, or if people
don't follow you and touch you at will, act like that does not make
a difference in our lives. Basically, you can't talk, or merely "unlearn"
whiteness, as all of these annoying trainings for white people to "unlearn"
racism will have you think.
Rather, white people need to be willing to have their very social position,
their very relationship of domination, their very authority, their very
being...let go, perhaps even destroyed. I know this might sound scary,
but that is really not my concern. I am not interested in making white
people, even those so-called good-hearted anti-racist whites, comfortable
about their position in struggles that shape my life in ways that it
will never shape theirs. I recently finished the biography of John Brown
by DuBois. The biography was less of a biography and more of an interpretation
by DuBois about the now-legendary white abolitionist. Now while John
Brown's practice was problematic in many ways--he still had to be in
control and he had fucked-up views that Blacks were still enslaved because
they were too "servile" (a white supremacist sentiment)--what
I took from Brown's life was that he realized that moral persuasion
alone would not solve racial problems. That is, whites cannot talk or
just think through whiteness and structures of white supremacy. They
must be committed to either picking up arms for other people (and only
firing when the people tell them so), dying for other people, or just
getting out of the way. In short, they must be willing to do what the
people most affected and marginalized by a situation tell them to do.
Now I am sure that right now there are some white people saying that
other people cannot understand what is going on, that they do not have
the critical analysis to figure stuff out, or that non-white people
have fucked up ideas. This is just white supremacist bullshit because
it is rooted in the idea that non-white people have not interpreted
their experiences and cannot run things themselves. It also assumes
that there are not internal conversations within communities--which
I do not think white people need to be privy to or participate in--in
which people struggle out their own visions for society and how to go
about achieving them. In short, this perspective by whites that non-white
people cannot be in control of our own destinies is rooted in a paternally-racist
approach to non-white people.
Further, it is also rooted in the idea that white people are not racist
or do not benefit from racism. Rather, white people at meetings will
often discuss how they feel "silenced" by non-whites, or that
they are being "put in their place." Let me make one thing
clear: it is impossible for a non-white person to put a white person
in her place. This is not to say that non-white people cannot have a
sexist or homophobic attitude towards a white person. But to say, or
even hint at that as a "WHITE" person someone is being put
in their place--whoever says this just needs to shut the fuck up because
that is some bull. It is impossible for whiteness to be put in one's
place, because that is a part of whiteness, the ability to take up space
and feel a prerogative to do so.
Further, the idea that white people are being put into their place relies
on the neo-conservative view of reverse racism that has characterized
the backlash against non-whites, especially Blacks, in the post-civil
rights era. So when you say these types of things you are actually helping
to reproduce a neo-conservative racial rhetoric which relies on the
myth of the "threatened" and "displaced" white person.
Additionally, white activism, especially white anti-racism, is predicated
on an economy of gratitude. We are supposed to be grateful that a white
person is willing to work with non-white people. We are supposed to
be grateful that you actually want to work with us and that you give
us your resources. I would like to know why you have those resources
and others do not? And don't assume that just because I have to ask
you for resources that it does not hurt me, pain me even. Don't assume
that when you come into the space, that doesn't bother me. Don't assume
that when you talk first, talk the most, and talk the most often, that
this doesn't hurt me. Don't assume that when I see you get the attention
and accolades and the book deals and the speaking engagements that this
does not hurt me (because you profit off of pain). And don't assume
that when I see how grateful non-white people are to you for being there,
for being a "good white" person that this doesn't hurt me.
And don't assume that when I get chastised by non-white people because
I think your presence is unnecessary that it does not hurt me. Because
all of these things remind me of how powerless non-white people are
(albeit differently) in relation to white people. All of these gestures
that you do reminds me of how grateful I am supposed to be towards you
because you actually (or supposedly) care about what is happening to
me. I am a bit resentful of economies of gratitude.
Further, this structure of white supremacy known as white anti-racism
also impacts the larger social world because it still makes white people
the most valued people. Non-white people are forced to feel dependent
and grateful to white people who will actually interact with us. We
are made to feel that we are inferior, incapable, that we really do
need white people. And the sad thing is, that given all of the resources
that whiteness has and that white people get and control, there is an
element of material truth in all of this, I am afraid. But white people
need to think of how their activism reproduces the actual structure
of white supremacy some--not all whites activists--profess to be about.
This structure of white supremacy is not just in an activist space,
it actually touches upon and impinges on the lives of non-white people
who may not be activists (in your sense) or who do not interact with
you in activist worlds.
But consider what your presence means in a community that you decide
to set up your community garden in, or your bookstore in, or your meeting
space in, or have your march in. What does it mean when you decide that
you want to be "with" the oppressed and you end up displacing
them? Just because you walk around with your dreadlocks, or decide that
you will not wear expensive clothes does not mean that your whiteness
does not displace people in the spaces you decide to put yourself in.
How do you help to bring more forms of authority and control in a neighborhood,
whether through increased rent and housing costs, more policing, or
just the ways in which your white bodies can make people feel, as a
brilliant friend of mine once asked, "squatters in somebody else's
So what does this mean for the future of white anti-racists? This might
mean to first, figure out ways in which whiteness needs to die as a
social structure and as an identity in which you organize your anti-racist
work. What this looks like in practice may not be so clear but I will
attempt to give some suggestions here. First, don't call us, we'll call
you. If we need your resources, we will contact you. But don't show
up, flaunt your power in our faces and then get angry when we resent
the fact that you have so many resources we don't and that we are not
grateful for this arrangement. And don't get mad because you can't make
decisions in the process. Why do you need to? Secondly, stop speaking
for us. We can talk for ourselves. Third, stop trying to point out internal
contradictions in our communities, we know what they are, we are struggling
around them, and I really do not know how white people can be helpful
to non- whites to clear these up. Fourth, don't ever say some shit to
me about how you feel silenced, marginalized, discriminated against,
or put in your place. Period. Finally, start thinking of what it would
mean, in terms of actual structured social arrangements, for whiteness
and white identity--even the white antiracist kind (because there really
is no redeemable or reformed white identity)--to be destroyed.
In conclusion, I want to say to anyone who thinks that this is too academic
or abstract, I write as a non-white person, meaning that from my body,
my person, I experience white supremacy. I also draw my understanding
of white supremacy from non-white people, many engaged in various struggles
of activism, but most importantly just to speak out and stay alive.
They did not get accolades from many for speaking out but instead experienced
constant threats on their lives for just existing and doing the work
that they did. Moreover, I want to know when a discussion of whiteness,
white supremacy and domination became seen as abstract and not rooted
in the everyday concrete reality that we experience?