Friday, April 6, 2012

Who is paralyzed by white privilege? A reply to Sherry Wolf

"Certainly there are very real differences between us of race, age, and sex. But it is not those differences between us that are separating us. It is rather our refusal to recognize those differences, and to examine the distortions which result from our misnaming them and their effects upon human behavior and expectation...It is a lifetime pursuit for each one of us to extract these distortions from our living at the same time as we recognize, reclaim, and define those differences upon which they are imposed. For we have all been raised in a society where those distortions were endemic within our living." - Audre Lorde

In her recent blog post written in response to the "I Am Not Trayvon Martin" YouTube video, Sherry Wolf argues that analyses of white privilege are paralyzing in the sense that they deny possibilities for action and speech to, well, people with privilege. Her arguments miss the point and make a variety of inaccurate assumptions and generalizations about the meaning and purpose of arguments about privilege, but they also reflect some real disagreements that exist on the left and which need to be addressed in a principled way.

My purpose is to engage with Wolf's arguments in terms of the analysis of white privilege in general, and not for the sake of defending the YouTube video in particular. That said, it's instructive to note that Wolf wildly misrepresents the actual statements of the woman in the video. Here's the second paragraph from Wolf's post:
Essentially, [the woman in the video's] argument amounts to this: 1) social-justice minded white people (all described as middle class) should not and cannot identify with victims of racism like Trayvon; 2) white people, including antiracists, can only identify with homicidal racist maniacs like George Zimmerman; 3) people of color are multifaceted individuals capable of independent thought and action; white people are an undifferentiated mass of privileged racists who must constantly resist the urge to oppress racial minorities — no matter what they do, say or think they think, all whites are racists and benefit from racism.
In fact, the woman in the video says none of these things. She explicitly addresses her video to white, middle-class activists, but that is a very different thing from claiming that all white activists are middle-class, which she neither says nor implies. She makes a rhetorical argument about an "I Am George Zimmerman" shirt, but what she says by way of explanation is not that white activists ought to identify with Zimmerman, but that we ought to recognize that we are socialized to the same kinds of racist ideology as Zimmerman, and that to the extent that we have escaped that ideology, we have done so through luck and hard work and not as a natural process. She claims that all white people experience privilege (which is true), but she does not claim that white people are all the same or all racists.

Wolf makes a variety of other strawman arguments as well, arguing against the supposed claims that white people cannot participate in anti-racist organizing, that racism is just a set of bad ideas and not a system that materially benefits a ruling class, that people wearing "I Am Trayvon Martin" shirts are seeking to justify racism and privilege, and so on. None of these claims can be found in the video or in the works of the majority of writers who have developed the white privilege analysis. These bizarre mischaracterizations say nothing about the people that Wolf is criticizing, but they say plenty about the biases and ideas underlying Wolf's own positions.

Wolf is not really responding to the video at all, but rather to her idea of white privilege analyses in general. She clearly thinks of this position as something arising out of a non-Marxist, non-systemic conception of racism, and she clearly seems to feel that something in her own conception of capitalism and racism and the relationship between the two is threatened or obscured by an analysis of privilege. I am a Marxist, and I believe in racism as set of institutionalized systems of oppression developed largely for the material benefit of a ruling class, but I also believe that white privilege is not only real, but absolutely essential to understand if we are to overcome the system of racism that allows a young man to be murdered on a snack run just because he's black. I think that there is much that is right about the kind of analysis of racism and capitalism that Sherry Wolf and many others on the left employ, but I think there is also something missing from it. There are several points that come up in Wolf's blog post that I want to address.

First, does white privilege even exist? Wolf seems to think that it does not. She acknowledges that white people are better off in a variety of ways in our society than black people, but she doesn't think this amounts to privilege. She suggests that it is in the interests of all people in our society who aren't members of the ruling class to end capitalism and racism, and that therefore working class white people do not benefit from racism. But there is a confusion here. White privilege analysis does not say that working class white people are better off under racist capitalist heteronormative patriarchy than they would be under an alternative system like socialism; it says rather that within our current system of racism, white people in all classes are given real privileges that people of color are not.

Indeed, as Wolf seems to understand, whiteness was created not for the direct benefit of the ruling class, but in order to give privileges to white workers that would separate them from black workers. And it worked. Whiteness does not only make white people feel that they are better off than black people, but it makes them actually better off. It gives them privileges--privileges defined in relation to the real circumstances of non-white people, and not in relation to the ideal circumstances of people in a fair and just society.

So yes, it is a form of white privilege that we as white people are able to walk through our neighborhoods late at night and have people assume that we belong there and that our intentions are benevolent. It is white privilege that when our children go to high school, they are judged based on their performance, while their black schoolmates are automatically assumed to belong in "technical" (as opposed to college) tracks regardless of their performance. It is white privilege that we can walk through supermarkets or malls without feeling the eyes of armed security guards following us as we shop. It is white privilege that we are visually identified as Americans, and never have to answer the question "where are you from?"

But privilege goes beyond freedom from acts of discrimination and prejudice. We have the general privilege to be socialized such that we think of ourselves, and are thought of by others, just as people, and not as people of a certain race who are expected to be all kinds of things based on that race. And we have had the historical privileges to belong to unions that excluded people of color, to have access to higher paying and more comfortable jobs, to live in safer and cleaner neighborhoods with better schools, etc.

But what does all this mean for us as activists? Does it follow from an analysis of whiteness as privilege, as Wolf thinks it does, that we are paralyzed and unable to act against racism without ourselves being racist? Of course not. Many dedicated anti-racist activists, both white people and people of color, accept an analysis of white privilege and yet still do wonderful organizing against racism. The question is not whether anti-racism is possible for a white person who takes seriously the idea of privilege, but what kind of anti-racism follows from this analysis. What are the real implications that follow from the analysis of white privilege?

People who take white privilege seriously, myself included, believe that it is important to recognize our differences and not to obscure them. Difference is more than just a broad category employed by capitalism to divide the working class. It is a lived experience that significantly shapes the way each of us experiences the world. I am a white, male, queer person living in Appalachia. All of these categories, among others, have shaped my experience and my behaviors and my identity in very real ways. To a large extent, I am therefore unable to truly understand the experiences of women, of people of color, of people who grew up in Harlem or in the Southwest or in Algeria.

I do not know what it is like to be Trayvon Martin--I am not Trayvon Martin, and while I can feel solidarity with him and sympathy for him, as well as outrage at the system and the individual that caused him to die, I cannot truly identify with him. This is an uncomfortable truth, but I believe it is a very real truth. I suspect that Sherry Wolf would say that this way of thinking, taken in such an explicitly political direction, reduces us to categories of oppression so divided by our differences that we are incapable of collective action and solidarity and that we can only act on ourselves as individual minds. I think that the opposite is the case. I think that if we do not have this kind of understanding, if we think of difference as merely a tool of the ruling class and not as something that creates real and significant power dynamics in the relations of all people, then we fail to understand the true nature and extent of the system of racism that is at work. And if we do not understand it, we can't effectively act to change it.

When a white activists wears an "I Am Trayvon Martin shirt," they no doubt do so with the intention of expressing solidarity and unity. And I think that, most of the time, that solidarity is deeply felt, and not just an attempt to cover up white guilt or anything like that. But while this message may express solidarity, it also obscures difference. It states that we are all basically the same, and implies that we need only to recognize and express our essential unity in order to overcome our obstaces. But we are not all the same in this fucked up world, and we cannot create a different world merely by pretending that it already exists.

When white people suggest they are really the same as Trayvon Martin, or worse, that they could have been him, they locate the cause of Trayvon's death in the supposed irrationality and hatred of one individual (George Zimmerman) rather than in a whole system of racial division and oppression. But George Zimmerman, while no doubt a hateful racist, was just acting on thoughts and feelings that he has been conditioned to have by a massive cultural apparatus that seeks to instill all white people with the same racist ideas and behaviors and languages. It is largely successful. Most white people in the US today won't identify themselves as racists, but they still think and act and speak along predictable racist patterns, because they are taught to do so. George Zimmerman did not decide to become a racist, he was taught to be one, and so are we all.

We can fight against our socialization, of course, and to some extent we can succeed in overcoming it. But we can do so only through very hard and deliberate work, and we will never do that work if we don't understand why it needs to be done. If we don't even believe that we as white people excluded from the economic ruling class are acting out these privileges, how can we overcome them and stop acting them out?

But this goes much further than changing our attitudes and behaviors on the individual level. We also have to challenges these things on the collective level. What collective anti-racist action will look like directly depends on what kind of analysis we have of racism. If we believe that racism is a thing that exists in the minds of individual racists like George Zimmerman, and not in cultural institutions of whiteness in general, then we will seek ways to punish and prevent crimes like Zimmerman's, and not to end the institutions that created them in the first place. If we believe that racism emerges directly from capitalism, that it benefits only capitalists and that it would therefore disappear if capitalism disappeared, then we will marginalize the struggle against racism and try to subsume it within the broader struggle against capitalism.

But if we understand racism as a system that, however it may have been created originally, now exists independently of capitalism, and which affects all aspects of our lives in significant ways and creates forms of difference that privilege some of us and oppress others, then we will take it more seriously and seek more creative ways to challenge this system at the same time that we are challenging capitalism and patriarchy and heteronormativity and other interrelated systems of oppression. None of these oppressive institutions can be reduced to another, and we must understand all of them to truly end any of them.

One last point. Most leftists, including Sherry Wolf and myself, agree that racism must be ended, even if we don't exactly agree on what racism looks like in the real world. But the question remains: if white people experience real privilege, what does this mean for their involvement in anti-racist movements? I have suggested that, minimally, it means we should recognize and seek to overcome our privilege, and that it's hard to do that when we're claiming to be Trayvon Martin instead of acknowledging ourselves as white people who would never have experienced what Trayvon did. But does this recognition of difference and privilege mean that we can't act at all beyond the individual level?

Absolutely not. A few days ago I attended a vigil and march to remember Trayvon Martin and demand justice. The crowd was majority black, but white people were a significant minority. I felt very uncomfortable with the idea of wearing an "I Am Trayvon Martin" shirt, and with seeing other white people wearing those shirts, and none of the white activists I knew who were there wore the shirts. And yet we participated just the same: we held signs demanding justice and an end to racism, we marched, some of us spoke. None of these activities conflicts with an analysis of white privilege. We didn't have to claim to be Trayvon to express our solidarity with him and our outrage at the system that murdered him.

We as white people can speak out against racism, develop an analysis of the system, organize protests, march, hold signs, work within the political system and without in whatever ways we can imagine in order to fight racism. We can do all this without contradicting our analysis and recognition of privilege. What follows from an analysis of white privilege is not paralysis, but rather a careful effort to make sure we don't obscure difference, that we recognize the leadership of people of color in anti-racist struggles and don't use our privilege to assume leadership ourselves, that we correctly identify racism as a system of economic and cultural institutions that further oppression and not just as an individual psychological phenomenon. If anyone is paralyzed by white privilege, it is not white people but the people whose voices are marginalized, obscured, and ignored by white people blindly acting out the privilege that Sherry Wolf and much of the American left in general don't believe they have.


  1. Thanks for writing this. She wrote that post first on my comments page when I posted the video and then, and much more out of touch, over on her blog. I shared it with her on my page today, I hope she reads it and says she is sorry. All these people twisting words. Crazy.

  2. great stuff here. really important response.