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White Abstraction: Why White people need to make anti-racism personal

By Darien La Beach

September 17, 2020

“Progressive White folks, y’all are not the exception. While you’re out here trying to position yourself as ‘one of the good ones’ and as an ‘ally’ while distancing yourself from ‘those White people’, don’t forget that y’all all belong to the same racial group that grants you all unearned privileges because of your Whiteness. The same oppressive privileges that come at the expense of my Blackness are the same privileges that you’re flexing when you decide you’re tired of dealing with ‘those White people’. Meanwhile, we’re stuck with dealing with your racism and theirs. Collect yourself and your people.”

— Monique Melton

When Martin Luther King Jr. wrote from Birmingham jail about the greatest stumbling block to the liberation of Black people, he was specific. He described the “White moderate” as someone “who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” It’s easy to denounce overt racism when its form is vile and ostentatious like the KKK and rebuke the individuals who engage in it. It’s even easier to deny and deflect from the reality that racism in this country is real and systemic as evidenced by the current administration’s decision to ban learnings on White privilege and Critical Race Theory–as if calling out racism was worse than racism itself.

When White people point a finger at a racist, they ignore the three pointing back at themselves. Just because you don’t casually use the N-word doesn’t mean there isn’t unlearning to be done. Just because you’re not voting for Trump doesn’t mean you don’t have work to do. Over 50% of White women voted for Donald. Let’s be specific.

This is the world of ‘White abstraction’

It’s hard to acknowledge oneself in being complicit with White Supremacy, but it’s necessary if there will be any real progress. I call this “White abstraction.” A lot of White people (liberals especially) in an effort to purport themselves as “woke” or “down” abstract themselves from their Whiteness when having conversations about race, privilege, and anti-Blackness.

And as Monique Melton described above, ultimately, it’s Black people who are stuck dealing with that racism.

The problem? Conversations focus on what White people can be doing to and for BIPOC folks — with very little mention of what White people can be doing for themselves.

At the end of the day, White people obfuscating their Whiteness frames Black people as inherent victims of an amorphous White Supremacy boogeyman in need of White saviors. There’s little to no acknowledgment of how they as White individuals are culpable.

The problem? Conversations focus on what White people can be doing to and for BIPOC folks — with very little mention of what White people can be doing for themselves.

White people want to be antiracist to be in better relationship with Black people (as you should!), but don’t see how being anti-racist additionally puts you in better relationship with yourself.

Turning allyship into action.

For White individuals reading this, remember, only talking to your BIPOC friends about race does not make you an ally. It makes you a spectator to our struggle. Talking to your White circles about BIPOC struggles without acknowledging how you are complicit is a theoretical game you play with people’s pain. Get comfortable being uncomfortable. That’s growth. And here are concrete actions that White people should take to make your understanding less abstract and protective:

1. Capitalize the ‘W’ in White when talking about White people, Whiteness and White Supremacy. Eve Ewing explains why.

2. Refer to yourself through the lens of Whiteness. “As a White woman I have experienced a, b, and c.” “Being a White man in corporate America has made me aware of x, y, and z.”

3. Educate yourself on racism before educating others.

4. Call out c/overt forms of racism at all times.

5. Elevate BIPOC voices publicly and privately.

Your future you will thank you.

Darien LaBeach, is the Director, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Strategy at Huge.