Dear White Advocates for Social Justice,
If you are silent about your pain, they will kill you and say you enjoyed it—
Zora Neale Hurston
There is a pain, and an accompanying rage, that builds when you are frequently in white spaces as a person of color [POC]. There are aggressions, slipped in between the dual reality of race as an outlandish illusion and race as a terribly real lived experience that reminds us of our place within the system.
These racial aggression come in equally contradictory dualities of what is said and not said; what is done and not done. The job held open for the white person and the door left to slam in your face. The supposedly tension easing jokes about Kwanza and the silence on the mattering of Black Lives. This is the death by a thousand cuts of America’s causal caste system.
The obvious solution, for any person of color, would be to just refuse to spend time in white spaces. Unfortunately, oppression breeds in isolation. This is as true for being the only POC in a white space as it is for allowing white people with power to make decisions without any POC’s in the room.
If you are the only POC in the room, you will be tokenized.
Your melanin will be used to push an agenda that is not your own. That same melanin that got them to center you in the photographs about their “victories” will be the reason they toss you out afterwards. Over time, without any other POC to vent with and discuss how to navigate through a cacophony of biegness, you will inevitably begin to believe what they say about you.
As a Black person, it is often not even enough to have another POC in the space with you. So often, Black America’s position at the bottom of the racial caste system makes it difficult even for non-Black POC to relate to our experiences. Our dualistic identities are real enough to divide us even in the shared onslaught of impending whiteness. As Meek Mills says, “there’s levels to this shit.”
White Supremacy is systemic, ubiquitous and holds the same insufferable dualities as everything else about race. There is the objective fact of what is said or done [or not said and not done] and the infinite subjective responses to and experiences of that objective reality.
The scary thing about White Supremacy for those of us in valuable relationships with white people [our daily beatings, humiliations and near death experiences not withstanding] is the fact that this duality means that sometimes it is not merely the case that white people don’t see what is going on, it is the fact that for them it didn’t actually happen.
When the subjective experiences of POC’s are not in the room at all, or worse, the POC in the room are too busy holding up their armor against a barrage of weaponized whiteness to speak their truth into the space, the subjective experiences of those without power are completely forgotten.
All of this is just to give weight to the following question: why is social justice advocacy so white?
Especially in a city like DC which only recently stopped being a majority Black city.
The overwhelming whiteness of advocacy is a disturbingly under asked question. In nearly every field of advocacy in the city, the advocates most often asked to speak to an issue are white.
I recently sat through a hearing on police body cameras in which the only Black person who testified was the police union rep. White man after white woman read about the turmoil of people of color [most couldn’t bring themselves to say Black]. Black people also received fewer follow up questions from council members, if asked at all.
I like to imagine, in moments like that, what it must feel like to be a white person who feels that they can so confidently speak towards an experience that they know nothing about. Does that sort of arrogance leave a bad taste in their mouth, I wonder?
For instance, I remember mansplaining child birth and parenting to my mother once when I was a teenager. The irony of speaking to my mother, a mother of four, about the real facts of childbirth based on a documentary I had just watched alluded me at first.
My mother gave me the most simultaneously disbelieving and dismissive look of my life and asked me what it was like when I gave birth. I remember that the slow realization of the irony left a dry but gamy taste in my mouth. It is the distinct flavor of remembering your privilege that has saved me and my acquaintances from many [though sadly not all] such faux pas later in life.
I wonder then, if the white advocates who decided to “compromise” on the private bathroom for the replacements to DC general tasted that same gamy taste when they decided what families facing homelessness [overwhelmingly Black] could live with.
I wonder if DC Council members tasted the gamy absurdity when they asked middle class white advocates what compromises they could live with.
I wonder if the white people who talk about the marginalized communities of color they work in taste iron when they provide their “expertise.”
I wonder too if all of those so called progressives ever wonder why all their co-workers but one, or two or maybe three are white. When they say their subjective truth: that they work on behalf of low income [read: BLACK] residents– does the fact that they haven’t had an authentic conversation with a Black person in months leave them with a bad taste in their mouth?
Maybe it’s just me…
To be Black in America, is to be the victim of an unending horror story with a multi-cultural peanut gallery more concerned with why you chose to run upstairs than the fact that an unkill-able white man is stalking you.
Think about that.
America is so concerned with how Black people have managed to cope with being oppressed that we forget to ask ourselves why they are oppressed. When the white man shows up with a knife, we might forgive the terrified victim of few moments of shock but eventually we begin shouting instructions at them. Run here. Don’t do that, do this. Don’t complain that you have no exits if you decided to run upstairs.
There are people, if you are reading this you probably know them, who make a living telling Black people what to do with their pain.
There are people, sadly some of whom are themselves Black [see Plantation Politics], who love to explain why Black people sat on their houses shooting at helicopters to get their attention when the levees broke.
There are people, most of them white, who make a living deciding what families facing homelessness [or low wage workers or mothers of color] can and cannot live with who have never been homeless [or low wage workers or mothers of color].
There are people who leave their newly white neighborhoods, to go to mostly white jobs to welcome their new white director replacing the Black girl…what’s her name?…
These are people who decide what changes to the mechanism of my oppression they can live with. They sometimes have the audacity to force Black staffers, whose labor they believe they own, to communicate these compromises on their own humanity to world. They under pay Black people and other people of color to shuck and jive just to give it all a shiny veneer of post Obama color blindness.
I haven’t named names. Not out of decency or a sense of professionalism. Not even out of a fear of back-lash. I haven’t named names because I don’t have the time to write them all. I don’t have the time to categorize the scars I have received from three years of working in this field and explain to you which one is yours.
While some events are fresher in memory and some advocates more culpable than others, I don’t want to give any one of you reading this the impression that this doesn’t also apply to you.
Sit with that for a minute.
You all need to do better.
As a cis-gendered Black man paid to do this work, I would remiss if I didn’t admit that I also need to do better. When a Black council member [you know who you are] asks a Black single mother facing homelessness due to domestic violence why the father is not in the picture, we cannot pretend that this is only an issue of race.
When the only people advocating for directly affected communities in the council are women who are constantly belittled and second guessed we cannot pretend that patriarchy is not also at play. When all of us talking about this on social media and at the Wilson building go home after losing a fight on homelessness, we cannot pretend like class is also a non-issue.
We all have to do better. We have to be accountable to the communities we serve. We cannot allow service to be paternalistic charity. We must realize that we all make our money off the backs of poor people. If we fundraise based on the extent of our clients’ marginalization and not on their resilience against unfathomable odds we are taking away their power.
We need to build power with our clients and not struggle to maintain our positions as gate keepers over them. We must build a culture of constructive disagreement on tactics when the strategy and goals are set by affected communities. Our inside game cannot continue to take us outside our authentic relationships with directly affected communities.
We must understand sexism, racism and classism as the stories of dominance that they are. We must create and live out counter stories that require us to sacrifice power over for power with.
We cannot be silent. We cannot rest comfortably in our privilege. We cannot rest comfortable in a fundamentally unequal status quo. We cannot continue to ask our fellow advocates to be silent, or be respectable or say “be practical” when we really mean “be docile.”
We cannot allow our Black co-workers to be “so well spoken” or Latina colleagues to be “feisty” or the young white women we work with to be “cute” and rhetorically patted on the head. We must recognize and actively combat the multiplying effect oppression has on the Black women we work with.
Oppression must not be comfortable around us.
The [too often] only Black kid in the room.
5 thoughts on “The Unbearable Whiteness of Advocacy”
What a great commentary. I will think about it in many settings I find myself in. Thank you. I am a white cis straight woman but this made me think about something that happened with my foster son who is Black. I found a bilingual preschool that have him a scholarship. After preschool, they were a private school, so, nice. Lots of staff, low turn over. That did this behaviour evaluation that was great – the kids would determine their own evaluation for the day, but the other kids would weigh in as well. It was sweet and thoughtful. There was one other black boy in the same year as mine. They were placed in separate classrooms. I said to the principal that he should consider clustering the black kids in one class so they’d have more critical mass. He was a sweet guy and good administrator. He said the other parents liked diversity in each class. This commentary reminded me of how different it feels when you’re not the only one. It’s important.
You seriously need to proofread more. I’m not sure you know what “duality” means. And also, did irony *really* taste gamy? I have serious trouble believing that, and if it’s just a metaphor then I have serious difficulty seeing how that metaphor makes sense.
Thanks for anonymously posting on my blog about white supremacy with comments about grammar! As a Socratic, I’m also not sure I know what duality means. Perhaps I know enough to know I know nothing.
Anyways, I really appreciate the feedback. My heart also goes out to you. You seem to be having some “serious trouble” and “serious difficulty” understanding basic metaphors. This all must make enjoying good writing very difficult for you. Such a shame. Perhaps some self reflection and self education might be in order. Then you might have understood what the rest of the essay was about. Anyways, thanks for reading and taking time out of your day to comment!
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