Stuff White People Say

March 13, 2009

“How does it feel to be the problem?”

Filed under: Uncategorized — jwbe @ 11:35 pm

“It’s time for white people to fully acknowledge that in the racial arena, we are the problem. We have to ask ourselves: How does it feel to be the problem?

The simple answer: Not very good.

That is the new White People’s Burden, to understand that we are the problem, come to terms with what that really means, and act based on that understanding. Our burden is to do something that doesn’t seem to come natural to people in positions of unearned power and privilege: Look in the mirror honestly and concede that we live in an unjust society and have no right to some of what we have. We should not affirm ourselves. We should negate our whiteness. Strip ourselves of the illusion that we are special because we are white. Steel ourselves so that we can walk in the world fully conscious and try to see what is usually invisible to us white people. We should learn to ask ourselves, “How does it feel to be the problem?” (Robert Jensen)

Robert Jensen’s question “how does it feel to be the problem” and the simple answer “not very good”, how do ‘white anti-racists’ or those who want to be it answer this question for themselves?
White guilt, white denial, this is not what I am talking about here, also not white paternalism or “do-gooders”. I talk about “feeling it”, something I believe Robert Jensen is doing, according his writings.

But not only the question how it feels to be a part of the problem but also how it feels to want to be a part of the solution is an important one for any white participating in anti-racist work.
Because with whites the European mindset also comes which can interfere in all what we are doing. Some or many whites use the same language to other the ‘enemy’, simple targets are produced to detect the ‘real racists’ (Neo-Nazis etc.), the feeling of “we (anti-racists) are better than you (racists), multiracial gatherings used to demonstrate how ‘diverse’ somebody is, exotism perpetrated without realizing it, listing the nationalities or skin-colors of friends or imitating other cultures to be ‘cool’. Whites who use organizing as a place to justify their desire for violence or looking down on others, white “anti-racist” organizations which are led by white males who see nothing wrong to ignore the voices of PoC and women. Organizations which fall apart because even within a small organization many whites can’t live what they want to preach: justice and equality.

Criticizing other people isn’t so difficult. Criticizing oneself and actively listening to criticism is more difficult, but the most important part for any white I think who once started the journey away from Eurocentrism or wants to. I believe that many whites who overcome their feelings of “white guilt” end up in some sort of vacuum. An empty space where there is no culture left one can identify with and a “sub-culture” has to be developed. I also think that with that a lot of frustration can follow as well as anger against mainstream society, the feeling of being stripped of a place within this society without visible alternatives left. Hardly we will find our white role-models in history books, they are mostly the invisible ones who led their lives in silence and history doesn’t talk about them. Whites who tried to remain humane or to regain their own humanity and sometimes or often probably failed.

The greater the knowledge becomes for an individual white about European history and white supremacy the less is left, the realization that there is no way to walk through life without leaving white footprints and also no real answers which way will be part of the solution and which way part of the problem.
The feeling of running into a dead-end-street or talking against walls when having discussions about race with other whites, the tedious “code-book phrases” like “I am not racist”, “others did the same”, “people will always be the same”, as well as self-reflection of who ‘I am’ within this world, this society, which approach, which style is appropriate or perhaps successful and the fine line between talking for others or talking about racism.

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8 Comments »

  1. My impression has always been that White anti-racism was/is an introspective endeavor.

    I do think, however, that most Whites will read Jensen’s essay and feel “White guilt” or the “empty space”, frustration and anger you talked about. I imagine only a few would read Jensen’s essay, think about his question and take that as a way of life/thinking change.

    Plus the force of society/socialization, even White anti-racist socialization, makes it easy for Whites to view White anti-racism as the art of not being racist and, then, being in the position to criticize those who are. You know, because those are the people who are holding us all back. So the focus, oddly, is on them instead of the anti-racist taking Jensen’s question as a personal way that one individual White person views/approaches his/her relationships with POC.

    Comment by Nquest — March 17, 2009 @ 4:16 am | Reply

  2. I do think, however, that most Whites will read Jensen’s essay and feel “White guilt” or the “empty space”, frustration and anger you talked about. I imagine only a few would read Jensen’s essay, think about his question and take that as a way of life/thinking change.

    yes.
    I think that this is also the “secret” why the Macons are successful (whites and also some PoC listen to him and think it is great what he is doing). The offer of the first layer of consciousness or how to call it and not digging deeper. The visible, obvious and rules of conduct – which things to avoid. It isn’t about a culture under scrutiny but something like a back door.
    No curiosity why Europeans are the way they are, not just towards PoC but the entire mindset, behavior, culture, religion. Without a certain knowledge about this there is no basis and without a basis there will be wrong conclusions and also no insight why such conclusions might be wrong.
    Really it doesn’t matter if you talk to whites in Europe, or I once also read on a South African msb, or white Americans – it’s like a cloned culture without further development, one can predict their reactions and this is because I believe that Eurocentrism “forces” them to think in a certain way without being able to see alternatives.
    And, also in many anti-racist work/writing, this inability to think without the alleged “other”. As if white to white behavior etc. would be perfectly fine and the “other” has just to be assimilated into ‘whiteness’.
    Does that make sense?

    Comment by jwbe — March 17, 2009 @ 6:27 pm | Reply

  3. And, also in many anti-racist work/writing, this inability to think without the alleged “other”.

    I’m saying a great deal of that is conditioning/socialization. For lack of a better way to say it, I think there is a shortage of clear White anti-racist/anti-racism role models for aspiring White anti-racist to emulate. Likewise, a clear White anti-racist paradigm that stirs clear of making their anti-racism about POC instead of about Whites who, as Jensen points out, are “the problem” and are people who have problems, themselves, caused by racism (not just POC).

    It’s clear a comment like Lorraine’s…

    “If it is true that white people suffer adverse and harmful effect from racism, and I believe it is…”

    http://restructure.wordpress.com/2009/03/16/sexist-socialization-may-hurt-mens-psychological-well-being/#comment-1418

    Represents a radical departure from the paradigm where so-called anti-racist can’t think, organize or feel anti-racist without “the other” being both the ultimate subject and object of their anti-racism as opposed to themselves and Whites in general. It goes back to the question I asked which is perhaps the kind of introspection Jensen desires:

    If combatting racism/WHITE SUPREMACY is matter of life or death for POC, what is it a matter of ____ for Whites and White anti-racist in particular? Simply, what’s in it for them?

    That, IMO, is an important question that centers the discussion for Whites pursuing anti-racism squarely on Whiteness, White Privilege, etc. and the role of Whites in the racial justice movement. People like Macon are good a mouthing the idea that Whites generally don’t like to focus on their Whiteness and, to his credit, Macon does focus on Whites/Whiteness in some respects but you and both know there was a conspicuous silence when I posed the question above (off of a statement he made, if I remember correctly) and the James Baldwin question.

    Comment by nquest2xl — March 18, 2009 @ 1:29 am | Reply

  4. >If combatting racism/WHITE SUPREMACY is matter of life or death for POC, what is it a matter of ____ for Whites and White anti-racist in particular? Simply, what’s in it for them?

    I think the difficulty is that many whites, also white anti-racists don’t know what they miss.
    Also because of this Yurugu is for me the most important book I have ever read because it makes the structures of Eurocentrism so visible, not just towards PoC but the European mindset and world-view in general. The “pure” European (without in opposition to an alleged other) and why he is somehow empty/not whole.

    This is also what I criticize with white feminism, it isn’t trying to combat white supremacy but it has been the fight to be allowed to assimilate into white men’s supremacist system, to be allowed to participate with the same power, it was and still is some sort of white men’s occupation of the females mind and in the end white women who were thinking they would fight for their rights actually fought for white supremacy and Eurocentrism to remain in power. They missed the chance to be true to themselves I think. If white women could see this they would be ‘natural allies’ to PoC.

    Comment by jwbe — March 18, 2009 @ 10:24 pm | Reply

  5. I think the difficulty is that many whites, also white anti-racists don’t know what they miss.

    Could you elaborate on this?

    If a random White person where to ask you “What have I missed?” what would you say to that?

    Comment by nquest2xl — March 19, 2009 @ 6:41 am | Reply


  6. If a random White person where to ask you “What have I missed?” what would you say to that?

    I would start with a short story somebody told me when I was quite young. I can’t remember it 100 % correct, but I can deliver the message. It goes: A man of a non-European culture is sitting on a chair. A European comes along and asks “what are you doing”. The man answers: “I am sitting”. The European asks: “And what else?” “Nothing, I just sit”. The European: “There is nothing special about it, I also can do this”.
    The man answers: “No. When you sit, you already stand, when you stand you already walk and when you walk you are already at your destination”.

    Mind and body and mind and actions aren’t in accordance, they are in depimbalance, the present time is never ‘good enough’, the quest to be perfect, in a superficial manner. The thinking in opposites: night versus day, rain versus sun, life versus death when in reality there is no shadow without light, no rain without sun, no life without death, means, all belongs together to be whole, to be in balance.
    A human is a human because of his soul/person in a body. The body is the visible, the soul the invisible, in European culture only the visible, the body, is important and how it acts in this world and how this body appears. The disconnection from ones own soul is the price I think a European mindset pays.
    Somebody who is disconnected from himself can’t truly connect with anybody else. Somebody who can’t connect with himself needs a simplyfied worldview and also needs the control of his environment.
    What somebody white (with a European mindset) misses is his/her own true being and with that the depth of life. They “must” compare themselves with others and “must” find something where they are better/think they are better because they can only define themselves by seeing what they are not/believe what they are not.

    Comment by jwbe — March 19, 2009 @ 10:00 pm | Reply

  7. What somebody white… misses is his/her own true being and with that the depth of life.

    Well, that may be true but it all sounds way too abstract and I doubt if many, if any, Whites with a “European mindset” will feel like they fit what what you described. They may very well feel they can “truly connect” and everything else you say they “miss.” So I’m still wondering what compelling reason you would give that random White person if they were to ask you “What have I missed?” — i.e. “what’s in it for me or Whites generally if we change and act the way JWBE thinks we should?”

    Really, what’s supposed to be attractive about the alternative you’re presenting?

    I’m sure most Whites confronted with statements like yours will dismiss it if for no other reason than the fact that they live a “charmed” (read: Privilege) life and they probably don’t think they have a problem being their “true” selves or problems with OTHERS, for the most part.

    What are you going to say to convince them otherwise?

    Comment by nquest2xl — March 20, 2009 @ 4:19 am | Reply

  8. >Really, what’s supposed to be attractive about the alternative you’re presenting?

    The result would be a more empathetic society where everybody could benefit.
    Yes it is some sort of abstract and I don’t know if there are compelling reasons strong enough to convince people.
    I think it is similar with environment, shortage of drinking water for example. Most people in eg Germany don’t care, because up to now we aren’t directly affected by the negative consequences of wasting water, deforestation for the mass production of meat or also bio-fuel. I personally find the protection of our only place where we can live (earth) very important, many others not. Here we live in the same denial, what’s not directly impacting us, we pretent not to see.

    Comment by jwbe — March 20, 2009 @ 10:21 am | Reply


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