Asked and Answered: Reflections on White Anti-Racism, My Work and Certain Recurring Critiques

This website isn’t particularly difficult to navigate. It’s straightforward enough so that anyone interested in finding things — whether articles addressing a particular subject, or links to other resources, or recommended readings — can pretty easily do so. Likewise, for more than a year now there has been a Frequently Asked Questions section (FAQ) and an Appreciation and Accountability Statement, clearly visible over on the right hand side of the homepage.

Yet, not every one who visits the page notices these sections, and of course many people who are exposed to my writings or speeches elsewhere (social media, YouTube, at a college, or in some other context) may never visit the page at all. As such, I guess it is not surprising that I would, from time to time, be asked the same questions, or face the same criticisms from other progressive and antiracist folks on the left, who, for various reasons, have taken it upon themselves to critique me personally, and my antiracism efforts more broadly. It comes with the territory, and in general is perfectly understandable. Whites engaged in antiracism work (just like men involved in the fight against sexism, straight and cis-gendered folks engaged in the struggle against straight and cis-supremacy, etc.) should seek to meet a very high standard of sincerity and integrity. And certainly we should be prepared for, and expecting, that others might look suspiciously at our motives, our process, and our strategies for engaging with and on these issues. After all, it is not the norm for dominant group members to challenge the systems of domination from which we benefit, in relative terms. And the fact is, it’s damned easy to screw up from time to time — even often — when you seek to undermine systems that were set up for your benefit. There are lots of possible co-optation points, lots of easy opportunities to fall back into old patterns of collaboration, and generally speaking, lots of stake in the game, which occasionally gets in the way of even the best intended efforts.

Although one would hope that those seeking to criticize others (especially when it comes to questioning motives and core integrity) would take the time to really get to know those about whom they issue various condemnations, the fact is, most people won’t. Perhaps it’s just too time-consuming, or gets in the way of the desire to draw attention to oneself by publicly slamming someone else, especially in a culture like ours, where such criticism can be seen by thousands of people at the push of a keyboard button. So be it, and have at it. There’s plenty of bandwidth to go around, and I assume that in the end, criticisms will last only to the extent they are verified by evidence, rather than contradicted by it.

So in the interest of simplification, I am excerpting a few things from the FAQ that are pertinent to the endless stream of e-mails I’ve been receiving, all of which say things like, “how do you respond to this?” and then proceed to offer the exact same critique that I’ve seen hundreds of times, the key elements of which I’ve answered in prior speeches, my memoir, and here in the FAQ and Appreciation and Accountability Statements. I have also added a few things to the existing statements, which additions appear below, and will soon appear in the FAQ section itself.

______

Q: Why do you talk about white privilege in society, but not own up to your own involvement and implication in that system? And since you benefit from white privilege, as a white person, isn’t it hypocritical for you to also speak against it?

Of course I benefit from white privilege, and male privilege, and straight privilege, and able-bodied privilege. Though I grew up without class privilege, I now also enjoy economic privilege relative to most persons. There is no doubt about any of this, and I have long discussed it — especially the white privilege part — in my writings and speeches. Indeed, that was essentially the whole focus of my first book, White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son. I didn’t call the book, White Like You: Reflections on How the Rest of Y’all are Privileged. It was a personal “outing” if you will, not only about my privileges, but about my own occasional collaboration with the system of white supremacy.

But certainly it makes no sense to think that if I receive privilege, I must therefore be a hypocrite for also criticizing the privileges and the system that bestows them. By that logic, members of dominant groups should never speak out on behalf of equity. They should just passively accept — or maybe even actively pursue — their advantages, and the maintenance of the system that bestows those advantages, so as to seem “consistent.” Or perhaps we should silently oppose the system from which we benefit, but do nothing openly to oppose it, for fear that doing so might draw attention to ourselves. But to do either of those things — passively accept or just silently oppose white supremacy — would seem like an abdication of all moral agency, not to mention strategic wisdom.

Although there may be an inherent tension between fighting white privilege and receiving it — as I do, for instance, by often being taken more seriously than people of color when they offer the same types of arguments — the alternative (to not speak out) would only further the deafening white silence on these issues, and allow other whites to believe that the only people who oppose racism and white supremacy are people of color. This belief, directly or indirectly, contributes to white ambivalence and white racism, by seeming to vest whites with a personal stake in the maintenance of the system, rather than getting them to think how we would all be better off were that system to fall. Furthermore, to remain silent so as to defer to the voices of people of color, perpetuates the imbalance whereby people of color are responsible for doing all the heavy lifting against white supremacy. How is that an example of solidarity or allyship? Certainly it cannot help the antiracist struggle to say, in effect, “No really, you do all the work, and I’ll just watch, thanks. Because, ya know, I wouldn’t want to draw attention to myself!”

Although whites who challenge racism need to be as accountable as possible to people of color in the way we do the work (see the Appreciation and Accountability Statement, here, for examples of how I try to do that, as well as the newly published Code of Ethics for Anti-Racist White Allies, which I helped develop, for additional information), the argument that somehow white folks shouldn’t engage in that work in any real way (or at least not publicly) makes very little sense ethically, and is absurd from a strategic perspective.

Q: If you really care so much about these issues, why do you charge for your speeches? Isn’t making money from fighting racism evidence that you aren’t really sincere? And doesn’t that mean that you actually profit from racism, and thus, have an interest in its perpetuation?

To say that someone who works for social justice can’t be genuine about that commitment to the extent they get paid, is no more logical than saying that a doctor who gets paid must not really care about providing health services to sick people, or that a teacher who receives a salary is, because of that salary, not really committed to the education of those they teach. Likewise, to suggest that being paid for antiracism work (as a writer, speaker, educator, activist, etc.) means that one “profits from racism,” in a way that invalidates their work, or proves that they secretly wish for racism to continue, would be like condemning physicians for “profiting from illness,” or teachers for “profiting from ignorance,” and secretly hoping that illness and ignorance remain normative conditions. In no other arena would this argument be made with a straight face. Not to mention, if being paid for antiracism efforts means that a person has an interest in seeing racism continue, that critique would apply equally well to black and brown folks engaged in the work as it would to whites. In fact, that is an argument long made by reactionary and racist forces against those in the civil rights struggle, dating back generations. Was that argument valid then? If not, why is it valid now, and only when applied to white antiracists? Would we also, by this logic, argue that advocacy groups that work against poverty should refuse to pay their staffs (or at least to only pay them a poverty level wage)? If not, why not?

Now, obviously there are valid discussions to be had regarding the proper level of compensation that anyone should receive in a just society, and in any field of work — including activist work, writing, speaking, etc. — and what a person’s obligations are when it comes to their willingness to do certain work pro bono, or to give back portions of their earnings to support the larger struggle. But that is a very different discussion than one that presumes that being paid for social justice efforts makes those efforts false by definition.

In my case, I do dozens of presentations every year for free (or a minimal stipend of a few hundred dollars), make no money from my blog or essay writing, very little money from books (as is true for most writers on these subjects), and have done several thousands of hours of consulting on discrimination lawsuits for absolutely no pay. Twenty-five percent of my speaker’s fees go to the non-profit organization (Speak Out) that books those speeches. This organization is not a traditional speaker’s bureau, but rather, an activist organization, which works with student and community groups around the nation on organizing efforts and activist campaigns concerning racism, sexism, heterosexism, militarism, and economic justice. Most recently, they have branched out into the production of progressive and radical educational materials and curricula for use in classrooms and by community groups. Although I could have chosen to book all my speeches myself, thereby keeping 100 percent of those fees (or listed with a traditional agency, many of which have approached me, and which would have taken a smaller cut), I have chosen to maintain my association with Speak Out for 18 years, so as to help support their grassroots activist and educational work. Over the years, my presentations through Speak Out, and the fundraising events I have done on their behalf, have pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into their activist, organizing and educational efforts.

Like most people who have been long involved in social justice activism, I have experienced significant periods of economic insecurity. In fact, for the first 8-9 years after beginning to do this kind of work, my income was often so low as to require me to take side jobs utterly unrelated to activist endeavors just to make ends meet. Yet the notion that my chronically low-to-moderate income in those years (several below the poverty line) meant that I was a better activist, or a more valid educator, or that my efforts were more genuine or carried some inherently greater degree of integrity than they do today, seems contentious to say the least. To think that I was more “legit” when I was only able to spend spare time fighting racism, because I was having to spend 30 hours a week stocking shelves or delivering baby formula to grocery stores is silly. Not to mention, such an argument would require that we cast off all activists and educators once they begin to gain some attention and begin to reach more people (which logically tends to bring more compensation as a result). It would be in keeping with the almost pathological tendency of those of us on the left to look suspiciously at anyone once they gain any level of prominence: it’s like saying, “If you actually gain any influence or reach you must be a sell-out because the system is so corrupt and evil that they (whomever they may be) would never let you reach an audience if you were really about anything!” This is a mentality that is illogical, rooted in mindless conspiracism, and consigns social justice efforts to guaranteed defeat, since the minute anyone on the left becomes successful or even noticed to any real extent, it means they are no longer really “down” for the cause, whatever the cause may be. This is a recipe for perpetual obscurity.

Note: The right doesn’t have this problem, which is among the reasons they are always winning. They nurture activists and writers, pay them well for their efforts, and seek to support them in their endeavors. Yet, some of us act as if the only legitimate activist is someone who works in a low-paying job they hate for 40 hours a week (because if other people have to do that, we should too), goes without health care or a home they own (because if other people don’t have those things, neither should we), is perpetually in debt and living paycheck to paycheck, only doing their activist work on the side, because it’s their passion. But the idea that there is something noble, political or radical about choosing to struggle, economically, is the kind of thing that could only be said or believed by someone who had never, themselves, lived in poverty (at least not involuntarily so). Poor people do not think their condition is cool, noble, political or revolutionary in the least. Poor people would like not to be poor. And social justice presumes that no one should live in a condition of need and struggle, not that everyone should live in that status equally. When we condemn anyone who achieves financial security, simply because they have it (and so a progressive writer is no different than a hedge fund manager or corporate executive), we reinforce the most absurd stereotypes of the left offered up by the right, and we also strategically ensure our own failure. After all, getting people to join a movement for change that requires them — in order to be taken seriously — to live in perpetual financial insecurity is not likely to prove successful.

Q: People of color have been writing and speaking about these issues for years. Why should people listen to you, rather than them, when it comes to learning about racism? In fact, doesn’t listening to you, or having your voice echo so prominently on these matters in the media, for instance, crowd out the work and voices of people of color?

They shouldn’t listen to me rather than people of color. They should read materials and listen to the words of any antiracist, white or of color, to the extent that work is helpful in understanding the way white supremacy operates, and to the extent that it may point the way towards strategies for combatting it. Fact is, most of the important scholarship about racism and white supremacy has come from people of color. And I highlight that work in my own books, my essays, on the recommended reading list of this website, and in every venue in which I operate. To do otherwise would be irresponsible. That said, there is also good scholarship on these subjects that has come from white activists, educators and academics as well.

So far as my work is concerned, I am mostly aiming my words towards other whites, who may never have been exposed to these subjects before, or who have only been exposed to a critique of racism coming from people of color, and who therefore may never have seen another white person challenge racism in any substantive way. The dangers of not speaking out as a white person are myriad: it allows whites to think racism is only a black and brown issue (rather than something that endangers us all in the long run); it allows whites to dismiss the critiques of racism offered by people of color, precisely because they can be perceived as narrowly self-interested; and it allows whites to never have to examine their own conditioning or privileges, since few members of any privileged group tend to respond constructively to criticisms of their privileges coming from marginalized group members (at least at first).

There is no doubt that whites need to take the words and work of people of color seriously. But that won’t happen just because it should. It won’t happen just because we get angry at the way whites currently often don’t do this. If those of us who are white and who are out there writing, blogging, or speaking against racism suddenly disappeared, it would not lead to a sudden white epiphany that we should begin, as whites, to really hear an antiracist critique coming from people of color. Not being exposed to a book or essay of mine would not cause those persons no longer exposed to my writing to suddenly pick up Malcolm X, or DuBois, or bell hooks. If anything, being exposed to the work of white antiracists — particularly when we prominently mention those persons of color who have influenced us — may prompt white readers or persons in our audiences to seek out those scholars for the very first time.

Which brings us to this issue of how white antiracists supposedly “crowd out” the voices of people of color.

First, although such a thing is possible, it is also just as likely that hearing the voice of a white antiracist may get other whites interested in the subject and cause them to seek out the works of people of color as a result. So while there is a “supply side” issue (in that, for instance, on a given day, typically only one speaker is going to be brought to x campus to speak, and if it’s me it’s not going to be a person of color), there is also a “demand side” issue, meaning that if the profile of antiracism and interest in antiracism is raised by the presence of a white speaker, as messed up as that is, if it results in more such presentations on those campuses by people of color, the result is more exposure not only for me, but those persons of color as well. This is, in fact, what happens at most of the schools to which I have spoken. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Likewise, if faculty and staff of color at those institutions — who are the ones who primarily arrange for my presentations there, not white administrators as mistakenly claimed by one prominent critic of mine recently — say that hearing a white ally opens up the minds of their students to hearing their own black or brown wisdom on the subjects, is that a good thing or a bad thing? Would it be better to not provide that supportive voice? To say, in effect, “Nah, y’all handle it, because, ya know, for me to open my white mouth might attract too much attention and credit, so I’m just gonna stay out of it, and let you deal with those folks on your own. Good luck!”

When it comes to campus speeches, there is simply nothing to suggest that a school bringing me in, or any of the other relative handful of white antiracists who are on the so-called lecture circuit, actually diminishes the opportunity for people of color to speak on those or other campuses. As the persons arranging for those speeches on campuses readily attest, we are not getting one of, say, three generic spots in a given year for antiracist speakers. Rather, we are filling a specific niche that year — in effect, the “white antiracist slot.” In other words, persons at these schools believe, for reasons that one has to assume are legitimate and better known to them than the rest of us, that bringing a white ally to campus will supplement the voices of people of color that are already being offered on the campus, whether in the person of guest speakers, or by existing faculty and staff. In other words, because we are filling a particular perceived need and role, to not bring me, or another white antiracist to campus, would not mean that that particular evening’s presentation slot would have gone to a person of color. There simply would have been one less antiracist event that year at that school. How anyone could conclude that that would be on-balance a better outcome is beyond the rational mind to comprehend.

There are over 4400 degree-granting colleges and universities in the United States, at least 1500 of which bring in speakers and presenters on matters of race and racism, with several hundred of these hosting 3-5 such events annually. This means that in any given year there are probably at least 2500 presentations on American college campuses regarding the subject of race and racism. In a good year, I might do 50 of those. If someone didn’t get one of the other 2,450 slots, I’m not sure how responsibility for that fact can be laid at the feet of any one person. To say that 50 cannot crowd out 2,450 seems a statement of such mathematical obviousness as to hardly require mention, but apparently, for some, it is an equation too complicated to process.

Interestingly, the complaint about how I crowd out the voices of people of color is often made by the same people who condemn the fact that I charge for my presentations, or who claim that I charge too much and “profit” from racism. Yet, there is a massive inconsistency in these arguments. The fact is, were I to offer to speak for free (or for a drastically reduced amount, relative to my current fee), I would end up with more work, and even more exposure, not less, because cutting the cost would allow me to effectively underbid other persons (including many people of color) who lecture on these issues. If it were cheaper to bring me in, even more institutions would do so. So, in that case, I would be crowding out other voices far more so than I could theoretically be doing now, precisely because I would make myself so “affordable.” If anything, by keeping my fee relatively high (though far lower than many other prominent persons on the lecture circuit), I price myself out of certain markets, thereby ensuring that speaking slots remain open for other voices, perhaps less currently prominent, but who need to be heard. If the crowding out argument has any validity then, keeping my fee structure relatively high minimizes the amount of such displacement for which I could be responsible.

As for my media profile, the simple truth is, if one were to make a list of the 10-15 individuals who have the highest media profiles on matters of race, and who are most often turned to as commentators on race matters in this country, one would find that I am either the only white person on that list, or perhaps one of two or three (a couple of others might be featured in stories about Neo-Nazi or hate group activity, for instance). So exactly, how am I crowding out people of color from positions of media prominence? Is the argument that any white antiracist presence in media is a problem? That all 15 of the most prominent media slots on this subject should be people of color? Although I think an argument could certainly be made that there are not enough Latino/as on the list, and that it is a serious problem that there are likely no Asian Americans or Pacific Islanders on the list, or indigenous persons, is it really credible to suggest that but for me, they would have that slot?

Again, however intuitive the argument might sound at first, the math doesn’t add up, nor, ultimately does the logic behind this allegation. Not to mention, over the past five years, I have had an average of four national television appearances per year. Four. Not forty. Not four hundred. Four. That this pathetically low number still places me among the 15 most commonly utilized commenters on race in the media is a reflection not on me, or even the way in which white voices are privileged in these discussions; rather, it is a commentary on how pathetic is the state of coverage of these issues generally in all major media in the nation.

Finally, and in a bigger sense, there are things on which we who are white antiracists can focus in our presentations, on which it wouldn’t make much sense for a person of color to concentrate. For instance, to discuss our own white privilege is something that a white person can do with special authority, since the privileges belong to us. Though scholars of color discuss white privilege as a phenomenon, they cannot, by definition, give the discussion the same personal connection to white listeners as someone else who is white. They can — and do — discuss the personal impact of not having that privilege, but that is quite different for the white listener than actually hearing another white person discuss their advantages and the way those advantages implicate us in the system of oppression. Even more to the point, those of us who are white and speak out against racism often discuss (and it’s a central part of my analysis) the harms of white supremacy for whites, despite white privilege. Clearly most people of color are not going to focus on that aspect of the problem, and with good reason: people of color, whose own lives immediately are impacted by white supremacy, are not likely to want to spend a lot of time worrying about what it does to us. But as whites, that aspect of the problem is precisely what we can bring to the discussion that is unique.

Q: But aren’t your ideas just borrowed or even stolen from scholars of color? What have you contributed, uniquely, to the struggle? Or to the scholarship around race and racism?

First off, all intellectual production borrows from past materials, theories and scholarship. That’s what footnotes indicate. And everyone who ever produced knowledge wants their ideas to be borrowed and mentioned by others. That’s kind of the point, actually. And every scholar of color who writes about race and racism also borrows in this way from past scholars — both of color and white — in their work. There is very little about race scholarship in the 21st century that is entirely new. However, scholars can build upon past work, and add to it in ways that are unique. Whether I have done that or not will be for others to discern, and yet those who accuse me of stealing other people’s materials have actually rarely read my work at all. They watch a video on You Tube or see one article and assume that there is nothing unique in it, and thus, that it must be stolen work (although interestingly, they never actually name the people from whom they believe I’ve stolen or even borrowed unfairly).

Of course the concept of white racial privilege was first sketched out by W.E.B. DuBois roughly a century ago, so in some sense, anyone talking about that notion could be accused of “stealing” the concept from DuBois. But of course, just because a concept originates with someone does not mean that there is nothing left to say, nothing to add, no adaptations to be made, and no more examples to offer that might help illustrate the larger point to a modern audience. White privilege, for instance, has changed and shape-shifted in terms of how it operates in 2012, relative to DuBois’s time. So if scholars refused to add to his theories today, for fear that they might be accused of “stealing,” we would be left with 1920′s argumentation in a 2012 world — hardly a recipe for moving the conversation forward. What I can offer to the scholarship is my own story, my own examples of white privilege in my life and how the concept has operated for me, so as to get other whites to explore the same for themselves. This is something that whites are not likely to do because a person of color tells them to do so, but which they might, if encouraged to do so by another white person, especially one who models the way to explore those concepts for oneself.

The key when it comes to “borrowing” the work of others, is whether or not one gives attribution where attribution and credit are due. If a white scholar, for instance, writes a book in which a certain theory is engaged, but does not attribute the pioneering work of people of color in that arena and with regard to that theory, then of course the charge that they are unfairly taking advantage of others’ work would be valid. But that is most assuredly not what I do. In my books, and speeches, I mention the work of persons of color prominently, so as to give credit where it is due. But building upon the work of others is not stealing. It is called scholarship. To invalidate the practice would invalidate the entirety of higher education, since that is what students and all scholars are trained to do.

In the end, I know this post won’t matter to those who have made up their minds, either about me personally or white antiracism generally. That’s fine. And I know to others it will seem defensive, or self-interested, which once again, is to be expected from those who don’t know me and aren’t interested in getting to know me. Indeed, I long resisted responding to the kinds of critiques at which I take aim here. But the fact is, these are questions that deserve answers, and to ignore them is to invite the charge of being aloof or unwilling to take the critique seriously. As for my tone, given how hostile is the tone with which the questions are often asked, or the challenges put, I frankly think this response is restrained.

No one — and let’s just be honest about this — likes having their integrity and motives questioned. It’s one thing to say, “Hey Tim, ya know, this thing you wrote, or this thing you said in a speech, or this strategy you recommended, really doesn’t make sense to me, or it seems to be more hurtful to the cause than helpful,” on the one hand (which is really a critique about method and tactics rather than motivation and integrity), but quite another to say, “Hey Tim, you’re just a money hungry fraud.” The latter is merely ad hominem and intended to hurt. When it comes from right-wingers, I couldn’t care less. But when it comes from political allies it deserves response. I am nothing if not open to feedback about my words, my speeches, my style and approach to doing the work. Indeed, I have often incorporated the wisdom of those critiques into my work (redoing my memoir twice, in fact, so as to respond therein to some of the issues that had been raised by progressive and antiracist critics). But to bash me, or anyone, by questioning our integrity and purpose, when you do not know us, is irresponsible, cheap, intellectually bankrupt, and opportunistic.

Bottom line: we can all do better. I can be more accountable, and should be. I bet you could be too. I can be more transparent about my operations, and should be. I bet you could be too. I can do more to promote the work of people of color and their organizations, and should (and will strive to) do so. But as someone who believes, sincerely, that white supremacy is a threat to my society, my children, and to all life on Earth (due to its connection to resource exploitation, militarism and ecological catastrophe), I most definitely will not seek permission from anyone to do the work, or to do it full-time, or to make doing so the focus of my career. In my estimation a full-time danger requires a full-time response, when possible. To the extent that I have whatever skills I possess, which allow me to reach people on these issues, it is an ethical obligation to make use of them as best I can. If the way I use them is harmful, by all means let me know and I will be open to hearing that and making appropriate changes. But if my mere presence in the work offends you, that is your problem. It is not and will never be, mine.


Comments are closed.