White Action Matters

08/28/2017 08:49 am ET

Unfortunate? Unfortunate. But where is the misfortune? Mine? Am I, in my blackness, the sole sufferer? I suffer. And yet, somehow, above the suffering, above the shackled anger that beats the bars, above the hurt that crazes there surges in me a vast pity—pity for a people imprisoned and enthralled, hampered and made miserable for such a cause, for such a phantasy!

– W.E.B. Du Bois

Recent events in Charlottesville, Boston, Gainesville, and elsewhere serve as stark reminders that people of color alone cannot continue to bear the primary burden of anti-racism work. White action matters and always has.

While it is profoundly heartening to see thousands of white people marching with people of color, protesting and counter protesting against racism, far more engagement is needed by whites on the personal and collective levels. To be sure, engagement in the work of anti-racism is necessary by people of all races and backgrounds, but white community members can and should play a particular role in the struggle against racism.

Instead of interrogating the lack of personal investment on issues that plague our community, many individuals in higher education and elsewhere, including self-proclaimed liberals, have blamed the liberal pedagogy of the academy as the culprit for our lack of progress on social issues. For example, Lilla argues that our current liberal pedagogy is a depoliticizing force. I agree to the extent that a new paradigm for multiculturalism is required, but I disagree that identity politics necessarily leads to “less reasoned political debate” and a less engaged citizenry. In addition to paradigm shifts and pedagogical changes, we need to look more closely at ourselves as the impetus for change.

As Du Bois suggests in the above quote from his book Darkwater, many of us are “imprisoned” by our own racism. We feel a deep insecurity because we know our racism is dehumanizing to our neighbor. Yet, we cannot control our impulse; however covert, however subtle, our aggression is destructive to others – and ourselves.

As many have noted, the oppressor and those who allow the oppression of others are also dehumanized in the process, along with the oppressed. The economic injustices and systemic and institutional violence that plague our society are not simply threats to people of color. They imperil our democracy; they threaten all of us. Rinderle suggests that racism hurts white people in three ways: “it lies, it burdens and it coddles.”

For many years, I’ve helped people of color and other marginalized groups to organize and fight nonviolently for social justice. In the classroom, I taught ethnic studies and reminded students that the knowledge they gain also belongs to the community, that they have a deep obligation to seek positive transformation in the world with their knowledge.

As an administrator, I’ve sought to develop programs and services that foster an environment that empowers and raises the consciousness of students on issues of social justice and the exploration of sociocultural identity.

As a higher education executive, I am responsible for leading the creation of a more inclusive and justice-oriented learning community that ensures every student can feel a sense of belonging.

But too much of the burden of moving toward a more just society has been borne primarily on the backs of people of color, particularly the black community. While people of many races and ethnicities have supported the civil rights movements of years past and the anti-racism work of today, we all know the burden has been carried disproportionately by people of color for many reasons.

Each of us in higher education, especially as non-black allies, must consider our role in anti-racism work. As Jones’ notes: “White folks who are committed to this cause must consider: What am I willing to sacrifice in the struggle against racism and other forms of oppression?”

Let me offer four interrelated suggestions for higher education colleagues and others to consider:

1) Embrace cultural humility: Listen and learn; consider the nature of evidence in the broadest sense. As I have discussed elsewhere, while empirical evidence is important, we often privilege quantitative data over qualitative evidence informed by the lived experiences of marginalized groups. The experiences of people of color are facts. We must not deny their reality.

2) Resist white fragility: A phrase coined by Robin DiAngelo, white fragility refers to “a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves.” As members of society’s racial and cultural majority, many whites have little personal experience with race-based stress and respond to it with hostility or guilt. White allies in anti-racism work must refuse to feel threatened by difficult conversations about race and ethnicity. Accept that every member of our society has a responsibility to pursue racial justice for people of color, ourselves, our children, and our nation – and the struggle is not an easy one.

3) Avoid paternalism: White allies do not need to lead the struggle; support people of color in their leadership. White people often have access and influence unavailable to people of color due to the very nature of racism. Use that privilege to speak out, influence decisions, and impact policy; help effect positive change and move us all toward a more just society.

4) Study and learn: Related to each suggestion above, understand history to understand the world around us. Think critically and make informed decisions. For example, consider the narrative of the alt-right, which is factually incorrect and simply wrong for too many reasons to cite here. Consider the alt-right’s rejection of diversity because, they argue, whites are losing out; in fact, research confirms that diversity benefits our society on many levels, from main street to corporate America to college campuses. Also, the alt-right’s interpretation of history ignores the substantial contributions of people of color in building our great nation. The list of inaccurate “alternative facts” goes on and certainly is not limited to the alt-right.

With his city of birth very much in the news lately, my 15-year-old son recently asked me in a sarcastic tone not atypical of teens, “Why did I have to be born in Charlottesville?”

His obvious disgust with the current state of that otherwise beautiful community reassured me of his growing social consciousness. But the parent and the educator in me merged as they often do, for better or worse, and I had to ask him: “What are you going to do to make the world a better place for all people?”

That’s also an important question for every person taking on the challenges of anti-racism work – especially for those of us with a special charge as educators to help young people shape their futures and ours.

Ajay Nair, Ph.D. is Senior Vice President and Dean of Campus Life at Emory University and Director of Equity, Inclusion, and Social Justice Division of NASPA, Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education

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