“Well Meaning” White Progressives Must Examine Privilege

In the recent election of President-elect Trump, I felt vulnerable knowing that racist and sexist rhetoric allowed Trump to win the election. I have always felt threatened by the rhetoric of white conservatives. However, this was an even more heightened situation. I also became aware of how disappointed I was and am with white progressives, who are both my own peers in high school and in the country at large. When addressing societal issues, it is just as important for white progressive activists to reflect on how they perpetuate systems of oppression as much as they address these same systems.

In Sister Outsider, Audre Lorde famously wrote, “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” Lorde highlights that patriarchy is held in place by systems of oppressions such as racism, sexism, and homophobia, which are the master’s “tools.” All these systems of oppression are rooted in the toxic need for dominance.

While we already know that conservative white individuals perpetuate these forms of dominance, white progressives create a climate that encourages dominance over people of color when they become more concerned with correcting others than recognizing their privilege as well as lack of knowledge and direct experience with being people of color and members of other marginalized groups.

When discussing issues of race, class, gender, and sex, it is important to critique the ways in which white progressives perpetuate those systems of oppression through their privilege. In Talking Back, bell hooks writes:

When liberal whites fail to understand how they can and/or do embody white-supremacist values and beliefs even though they may not embrace racism as prejudice or domination (especially domination that involves coercive control), they cannot recognize the ways their actions support and affirm the very structure of racist domination and oppression that they profess to wish to see eradicated.

When having dialogues about privilege, those who benefit from it often feel “attacked” or “targeted” when minority groups call for white progressives to acknowledge their privilege. While white liberals may not agree with forms of oppression, they wind up enabling these forms of oppression to exist when they ignore criticism from minority groups because they believe that they themselves are not racist, sexist, classist, or xenophobic.

However, they are not aware that racism exists systemically which allows white progressive to overlook nuanced racist acts such as racially-coded language or micro-aggressions. While discussing these issues with my white peers, I often hear that they are “afraid” to engage in dialogue with my other friends of color and me in fear of “being attacked or ganged up on.” These are the words they use, “afraid,” and “attacked,” and “ganged up on.” I see these words as racially charged. 

Many white liberals view themselves and like to be perceived as good and ethical people, so they support activist movements that are justice oriented. However, sometimes these things are doing only to enhance one’s own social status. In my experience with white liberal peers in high school, they seem content with their seemingly inclusive mentality rather than examining themselves. Rather than focusing on taking action, they are more concerned about being perceived as racist, sexist, classist, or xenophobic. Their self-aggrandizement creates a climate where white people expect to be rewarded for decency.

(photo credit: Time Magazine)

In bell hooks’s “Dig Deep: Beyond Lean In,” she critiques white feminism by analyzing Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, where Sandberg addresses a corporate style feminism that is mainly addressed to white upper middle class women like herself. Like many others, Sandberg’s definition of feminism is equality constrained by the patriarchy. As a white woman, she has no urgency to challenge the patriarchy that benefits her at the expense of others. Sandberg congratulates herself for her individual success story that inspired other women. While her intentions may be genuine, she and many others internalize their own oppression and work to eradicate those systems with cobwebs over their eyes, which inadvertently builds the “master’s house.”

New York City High School Anti-Trump March (photo credit: Gothamist)

I see the same white feminist practices in my own peer group. Recently, New York City high school students organized a walk-out in protest against President-elect Trump’s victory. Rather than validating other forms of oppression, the white students who organized this event mainly focused on the sexism of the election cycle despite the very diverse turnout of high school students. While their efforts are valiant, their work as activists does not end once the protest ends. Similar to second wave feminism, the white students defined the protest within their own personal concerns rather than the concerns of all who showed up to the march. As a young Black girl, I felt ignored when I read the mission of the march. 

When President Obama was elected in 2008, my mother and I celebrated this major milestone for the Black community as we stood in solidarity with him. However, we were not naive to believe that racism is no longer an issue in the United States. Some white liberals may believe that racism is no longer an issue after Obama’s election. As a result, some white liberals tune out movements like #BlackLivesMatter because they believe that black people are being “divisive” and trying to stretch out a “dry and dead” conversation. 

By practicing colorblindness, not only do progressives divert the issues of racism, they also undermine the issue of people of color by making their claims seem minuscule or believe that people color use a “race card.” In addition, they choose to disregard black individuals’ experiences because they do not “see color.”

People may die but ideologies do not die as easily. We are dismantling systems that have been embedded in our society for over 200 years. Everyone has been conditioned to internalize these ideas, therefore there is no easy way to establish equality.

When Gloria Steinem, a major feminist icon, visited my feminism class, she told us that “people are adaptable,” meaning that if we created racism and sexism, then we can begin to unlearn these systems of oppression by decolonizing our minds and hearts. While it may be arduous to eliminate all forms of oppression, it is possible to do it as long as efforts are continuous and effective. 

In a discussion with Gloria Steinem, who visited my high school feminism class, I asked her about the white privilege of progressive liberals (photo credit: Ileana Jimenez)

Like Audre Lorde, I believe that “it is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept and celebrate those difference.” By accepting our differences, we create a culture that values diversity, which then creates room for dialogue. 

Racists and sexists use violent language against oppressed individuals, and we must also check the language used by white progressives who have white privilege and think they “mean well.” However, their use of the master’s tools to address systemic racism leads to an unsteady foundation for social change and re-enforces the master’s house. We have to find new tools in order to witness genuine progress. If we don’t we will continue to experience systemic violence that will destroy us all. 

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