“The first step is for the white people who believe they hold good will in their hearts to give full consideration to the needs and desires of the Black people when setting their criteria of what constitutes good race relations. That is not an easy task, for rare is the occasion when a Black person tells a white man what he really thinks, and the things he may say at a so-called race relations meeting may be far indeed from what he really thinks. But no matter how difficult, that is the task we face.” (1)
“The Wall Between,” from which this quote is taken, was written by Anne Braden in the 1950s. Recently republished, it is one of the best resources I know for those white people who have a genuine and heartfelt desire to deal with racism and build towards a truly just and equal society.
Although written over 40 years ago, at a time when Jim Crow segregation was still deeply-entrenched in the South, the issue that it deals with–the “wall between” black people (and other people of color) and white people–continues as a major problem for the progressive movement.
The fact is that, with a relative handful of exceptions, the vast majority of our organizations tend to be either overwhelmingly white or overwhelmingly people of color. W.E.B. DuBois said 100 years ago that “the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line,” and this still rings true as we begin the 21st.
What will it take for this situation to begin changing in a way and to the degree that is needed?
White activists need to take it upon themselves to engage in serious study about the history and continuing reality of racism in this country and this world. Institutionalized racism, or white supremacy, is deeply imbedded, and it is essential that a growing number of white people fully understand and appreciate that fact. This will then make it possible for personal relationships, friendships with people of color to develop, another key part of the solution to the problem.
As Braden says in her book, “Race prejudice, being an emotional thing, cannot be removed by intellectual arguments alone. There must be some real emotional experience, such as a deep friendship across the race bars.” (2) Inter-cultural friendships, regular interactions with those whose life experiences are different, who experience the discrimination, indignities, slights and hurts of white supremacy on a regular basis, are key to the development of reliable white allies.
From this base of historic and present-day knowledge, white activists must be available to people of color-led groups fighting on the issues which THEY define as most important. Oftentimes predominantly white groups will be concerned about “outreach,” because they recognize their weaknesses in composition, but the goal of the outreach is not so much to significantly change their organization by the inclusion of people of color as much as it is to “colorize” it, for the purpose of the white people feeling better about themselves because of their “diversity.”
For some whites, anti-racism can be undertaken as a form of therapy. Unconsciously, we look upon it as something to do to improve OUR, white peoples,’ lives, rather than as something to do which primarily benefits those who are most oppressed. Although it IS beneficial for white people to deal with their racism, this cannot become the main reason such work is undertaken.
At a workshop on racism I attended several months ago, there was a good bit of discussion about reparations–concrete actions to repair the damage done to black people by the slave trade, Jim Crow segregation and institutionalized white supremacy. Over the last few years this demand has mushroomed into a widely-supported movement in the African American community. Most of those in the room, who were overwhelmingly white, supported this demand. One person, however, while supporting reparations, made the point that, to paraphrase her words, “this was not the whole story,” and proceeded to use an example of personal discrimination by a relative toward a friend of hers who was Black. She was justifiably upset by the personal prejudice shown by her relative, and, without question, we need to deal with such acts of prejudice as they occur. But if this becomes the PRIMARY objective, if we do not heed Anne Braden’s counsel “to give full consideration to the needs and desires of (people of color) when setting (the) criteria of what constitutes good race relations,” in the long run very little will change.
The purpose of work against racism, at whatever level and in whatever ways it is done, must be clear: the creation of a society in which the concrete, material conditions of life for people of color are essentially the same as they are for white people, where inequality and injustice on the basis of color or culture have been eliminated. Only then will it be possible, again in Anne Braden’s words, for “we who are white and they who are of color (to) look at each other and talk to each other and trust each other as if color did not exist.” (3)
1) The Wall Between, by Anne Braden, U. of Kentucky Press, p. 301
2) Ibid, p. 51
3) Ibid, p. 298