Tuesday, December 16, 2014

I'll Side With You

This week, I was heartened by the viral #illridewithyou hashtag emerging out of Sydney. In light of the hostage crisis, white Australians took to Twitter to publicize their willingness to accompany perfect strangers--assumed to be Muslims--on public transportation in order to ease any of their feelings of self-consciousness (and fears of hate crime victimization, no doubt). In addition to the hashtag, Tweeters included their locations, schedules, identifying marks, and links to their other social media accounts. At last count, there were almost half a million instances of the hashtag. Media coverage of #illridewithyou has been overwhelmingly positive, praising the effort as a nonviolent response to terrorism and a fitting symbol of Australia's inclusiveness. Almost immediately, #illridewithyou transcended its initial purpose as a blind invitation to buspool and became a sunny PR blast for Australia as well as a way for white Australians to signal their resistance to racist profiling of the Muslim minority. As a result, the dominant meaning of #illridewithyou is that there are lots of good, well-intentioned white people in Australia.

Recently, a friend asked me what I thought about #illridewithyou, whether it was a good thing or another variation of white people recentering themselves in conversations about racism. I've never been to Australia and neither grew up around a significant Muslim population nor live among one now. But the meaning of the hashtag resonated with me, calling to mind a story that I first heard several years ago, at an antiracism training at my university. It is a story about how white supremacy and racism can manifest themselves in ways besides overt racist harassment and violence, the kind that so many Australians feared might happen on a city train or bus. One of the trainers, whom I'll call Susan, told us about a time that she had been invited to share a holiday dinner at the home of her friend, whom I'll call Helen. Susan is white, and Helen is black.

"Susan, I love you and want you to be with my family and me this holiday," Helen said. "So don't take what I'm about to say the wrong way. When you come, don't bring anything with you. Don't bring a turkey, don't bring a ham. No dessert. Don't bring any presents for the kids, and I mean that. Just bring yourself."
Susan was perplexed and probably showed it. She's from North Carolina and likes to joke about how she's had to unlearn so much of what it meant to be a correct Southern white lady. So arriving empty-handed to dinner at a friend's house, a faux pas for many of us, must have been mortifying for Susan because of her sense of propriety.
Helen continued. "The reason is that I don't want my kids to see you as the nice white lady who can provide for them in ways that I can't. They are around nice white ladies all day long at school, and I'm afraid that they are growing up with the idea that white people are nice and good and that black people are not."

This too is a story about the good intentions of white people. In part because of the media coverage of Ferguson, New York, Cleveland, and everywhere else, the notion that most white people do not have good intentions and are closet racists has pressured our national discourse on racism, giving rise to support for efforts such as #illridewithyou. When it comes to the nature of racism, the root problem has never been the intentions of white people toward people of color. The root problem has always been that those intentions have been institutionalized--within the courts, schools, mass media, church, etc.--and therefore have real-world impacts on people of color. So, when lawmakers were actively arguing that black people should be segregated from white people, their bad intentions carried weight only because they could count on police, lawyers, judges, teachers, clergy, and journalists to tell the same story and to enforce it. In 1968, James Baldwin expressed this quite brilliantly in one minute. Racism is not premised on black inferiority; it is premised on white supremacy. And a crucial problem with the dominant conception of white supremacy is its facile association with hatred and prejudice, not its association with goodness and normalcy.

Fair or not, the well-intentioned actions of white people on behalf of people of color can uphold white supremacy by reinforcing the dominant social meaning of white people as good or objective. These actions participate in the same racist system that trades upon images of white Jesus, white movie stars, and white beauty queens. This phenomenon was dramatically captured by psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark, who pioneered the study of the effect of racism on children through an experiment now referred to as the "doll test." The "doll test" asked young black children a series of questions which they would answer by choosing between a white doll and a black doll ("Show me the pretty doll.") Black children consistently associated the white doll with positive attributes. Later generations of researchers replicated the doll test--including Kiri Davis in "A Girl Like Me" and Margaret Beale Spencer for Anderson Cooper 360--and arrived at the same results. The literature of racism usually calls this phenomenon internalized racism, but I believe that internalized white supremacy is more accurate. The children aren't responding only to negative associations with black people but also to positive associations with white people. Spencer's study is noteworthy because it included white children as well, who demonstrated high levels of internalized white supremacy. Those #illridewithyou Tweeters concerned about the state of the image of white people needn't worry, not as long as social institutions continue to reflect the identity of white people, especially in the case of the five and ten year-old white children in Spencer's study. The state of the image of white people is strong.

What all the media coverage of #illridewithyou doesn't tell us is how many Australian Muslims took up a white stranger's offer to accompany them on public transportation. We have seen and heard from a prominent and grateful few. But I would ask those of us who regard the hashtag as an illustration of empathy at its best to consider how often the experience of empathy happens on the terms of the person from the advantaged group. That is, empathy might initially lead us to try to feel the shame and self-consciousness of wearing a hijab on a city bus. However, let's push ourselves a bit further by feeling what it must be like to be a person of color helped by a white person in this way (not a stretch for many of us). Do we feel what a Muslim woman in Australia feels when she has to ask a white person for help to ride a train in her hometown? I can only imagine, so I'm left with more questions. Is gratitude all she feels when she arrives at her stop, and each party goes her own way? Does she return home and feel optimistic about the future or strangely ambivalent? Did this interaction cause her to feel any kind of shame at all? Is she reluctant to express her dissonance on Twitter or to a white reporter whose story celebrates the success of #illridewithyou? Whatever feelings this woman has about this encounter must be understood as the consequences of good intentions. And no, it's not fair, not in the abstract. But that's exactly the point. Our desire for the good intentions of #illridewithyou to lead to good consequences for those afraid of hate crimes does not reflect the reality of how people of color experience racism. White people understanding this unfairness as "damned if you do, damned if you don't" are caught in what Marilyn Frye has called a double bind, and it is the everyday reality of women, people of color, and members of every other oppressed social group. This does not mean that white people should stop trying to be antiracist; it means that they should be aware of the consequences of their good intentions for people of color before deciding to fight racism in their preferred way.

I never thought that one of my favorite lessons in my antiracist curriculum would come from the now-defunct sketch comedy show, Mad TV. The sketch is called "Nice White Lady," and it parodies Hollywood films such as Dangerous Minds and Freedom Writers, parts of the "white (lady) savior" genre about a white woman who manages to motivate a class of poor students of color to succeed in traditionally academic ways. The audience laughs because they know that an institution cannot be transformed by the good intentions of an individual alone. What makes the sketch even funnier--again, this is the Mad TV demographic who gets this--is that the teacher is not fully conscious of the source of her good intentions, white supremacy, which has her asking her students to learn and to express themselves in the ways that had worked for her. ("Write it down.") When white people are not fully conscious of the source of their good intentions, the consequences of acting upon those intentions can replenish that source. To me, the most brilliant part of the sketch comes near the end, when all of the students break out into applause for their teacher. Shedding a tear, the teacher writes the words "You're Welcome" on the board. With colleagues, I sometimes share my suspicion that in education today, the dominant message received by students of color is no longer "You're inferior." It's "You're welcome." It's easy to see how the former originates from and reinforces white supremacy and not so easy to see how the latter does and can too. Had Susan arrived at Helen's house with an armful for presents for the children, how might she have acknowledged their adulation? On a Sydney bus, what might have been the first words spoken by the white woman to the grateful woman in the hijab?


  1. The thing that bothers me with all of these arguments about saving and empathy etc. is that for the most part, they are all about white women. They are only ever about white men when the "mansplaining" and "white knighting" is being done to white women. These arguments always seem to "punch up" exactly one level.

    But white women don't have all the power. They can't actually effect real change, at least not as efficiently as white men can. They have different problems in the kyriarchy/patriarchy than minorities do, but they are by no means problem-free. (Women are even killed by white men with impunity! Just usually by different white men.) The people with the power don't listen to white women any more than they listen to any other non-white/non-man.

    Yes, white women can listen, and yes they can and should take their cues from the minorities that they're trying to help, but focusing criticism on their "savior complex" while patting white men on the back for just trying to do anything...well, it's not fair. Because women (of whatever race) are already damned if they do and damned if they don't in *every single area* of their lives.

    How about a little criticism of the people who actually have the power and could actually make real changes for doing nothing?

    I don't usually like these, "let's not talk about this problem, let's talk about this other problem" but the savior complex narrative is always one-sided and it doesn't have to be. Not only is it not white women's job to save everything, they *can't*.

  2. Excellent points, and thanks for your comments. I can see how my entry seemed to point fingers at the women tweeting #illridewithyou, but I was attempting to critique the institutional response to the effort. I'd imagine that the vast majority of Australians and others around the world are not active on Twitter, so the media coverage of #illridewithyou may have been more influential than the hashtag itself. So, everyone who's a part of that institution--men and women alike--are responsible for the blast that delayed institutional response to racism for an interpersonal response. Same goes for the folks who greenlighted Freedom Writers.

    Gender matters a lot in this argument of the white supremacy spectrum between "You're inferior" and "You're welcome." I'd venture that young women experience "You're welcome" more often than young men. There's a reason why Muslim women were the face of #illridewithyou. The more "masculinized" a race is, the more their story will be "You're inferior." Not enough talk about black women being killed by police.