What White People Fear

Robert Jensen, YES! Magazine, March 19, 2010

In the struggle for racial justice, it’s time to pay more attention to the fears of white people.

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But what fears could white people have as white people?

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Put bluntly: The United States abolished a formal apartheid system but remains a white-supremacist society. After more than a decade of writing and speaking about these issues, which has sparked lots of feedback from all political angles, here’s what I have concluded about white folks and our fears.

Aren’t We Special?

For conservative white people, the dominant fear is of someday living without the privilege that comes with whiteness. Polite conservatives defend the primacy of “Western civilization.” More reactionary whites are openly racist about the threat that non-white peoples pose to “our way of life.” Both versions defend the existing distribution of wealth and power, even though many of the working-class and poor whites who endorse such views have access to precious little wealth or power. Race is used by white elites today, just as it was in the nation’s formative years, to drive a wedge between people who would otherwise come together to challenge those elites. Divide-and-conquer strategies, it seems, never go out of style.

{snip} But what of the fears of liberals? White liberals might reject the very idea that they are afraid, citing their support for diversity and multiculturalism. But my experience suggests that while white liberals reject assertions of white supremacy, many fear the loss of white centrality. They are willing to renounce the idea that white people are superior, as long as they are allowed to live comfortably in a world where white is the norm.

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What remains obscured is the distinctly uncivilized nature that Europeans and European Americans exhibited during their barbarous conquest of much of the world. The inherently fragile sense of white self-importance that emerges from that history is at the core of white fears–at some level, we all know that the truth of the depravity of white supremacy belies claims of white superiority.

In the institutions that adopt the liberal view, diversity is just fine (as long as whites remain in control) and multiculturalism can flourish (as long as white norms remain dominant). Institutions defined by the values and practices rooted in white Europe can open up to non-white people, as long as we white people remain comfortable. {snip}

Getting Uncomfortable

This analysis of the dynamics of mixed-race settings is hardly original. Non-white people have long recognized that white liberals are happy to engage with folks who aren’t white as long as their white-centric worldview isn’t threatened, and that white groups are happy to have non-white members as long as the power dynamics don’t change.

I observe all this not from some arrogant high ground, but as someone stuck in the same dynamic, struggling to get out. I know that for all my writing and political work on racial justice, I still feel most comfortable in settings where my understanding of the world defines the interaction, no matter the racial composition of the group. Rather than pretend otherwise, I start with that reality and search for ways to move forward.

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As tricky as this Latina/Latino-white collaboration can be, we also recognize that a successful community center with progressive politics cannot leave out African Americans, the third largest racial group in Austin. That means not just casting around for some black people to add to the mix, but engaging in serious discussions with people from that part of the community to find out what kinds of collaborations are needed and possible. Austin is a white-dominated city, but that’s no guarantee that black and Latina/Latino groups will automatically come together; such alliances have to be built as carefully as any other. For us white folks in the mix, our contribution is to use the resources we have to aid in that process–not trying to control it, but also not pretending to be detached.

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I have a choice: I can be white–that is, I can refuse to challenge white supremacy or centrality–or I can be a human being. I can rest comfortably in the privileges that come with being white, or I can struggle to be fully human. But I can’t do both. Though the work is difficult, the choice for those of us who are white should be easy

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