Tuesday, December 9, 2014

#StealingFocusWhileWhite : A Hashtag for White Allies

It seemed like a good idea. A Twitter hashtag for white people who want to expose the reality of their white privilege vis-a-vis their encounters with law enforcement and the criminal justice system. #CrimingWhileWhite was supposed to do that. En masse, white people began tweeting their pithy confessions to the world, copping to all sorts of illegal behavior ignored or purposefully overlooked by law enforcement (mostly driving fast or holding weed or holding weed after being pulled over for driving fast). It didn't take long for this well-intentioned movement to draw criticism for how it stole focus from the central issue of the court system protecting cops who kill black people. In trying to be a part of the solution, white allies managed to turn the camera back onto themselves for another selfie. Lucky for us, another hashtag began to trend, one in direct response to #CrimingWhileWhite. #AliveWhileBlack described every sort of racism that black people experience every day. I didn't have to read but a few early #CrimingWhileWhite tweets to get the point; these days, the hashtag has been largely appropriated by fun, ironic white people. In an earlier post, I theorized about how we might need a moratorium on white people talking about "white privilege," so this post is part of the praxis. What is so important about #AliveWhileBlack is that it brings the focus back from white privilege to where it should be, white supremacy.

In that spirit and at the risk of sounding hypocritical, I offer a new hashtag to white allies in the fight against white supremacy, #StealingFocusWhileWhite. This hashtag allows white allies to out their internalized white supremacy instead of their institutional white privilege. "Stealing focus" happens when white people derail a discussion or dialogue about racism by changing the subject, usually toward an issue that centers their own experiences and worldview. An egregious public example of stealing focus happened recently on Meet the Press when Rudy Giuliani shifted from the topic of the racial demographics of police forces by arguing that white police would not be in black neighborhoods if black people didn't kill other black people. Michael Eric Dyson rightly called out the "defense mechanism of white supremacy at work" in Giuliani's mind. However, Giuliani was successful in the sense that his stealing focus turned his idea of "black on black" crime into a thing that is now deployed to deflect police brutality discussions taking place on television, online, or face-to-face. But you don't have to bring up "black on black" crime in order to steal focus from the antiracist movement. It happens every day and takes on so many forms that a hashtag is not a bad way to keep track of them. What follows is my attempt to name, organize, and make sense of some of these varieties of internalized white supremacy.



Intentional or not, #AliveWhileBlack also responds to the #AllLivesMatter hashtag. The latter sprung up online and in protest marches as an alternative to #BlackLivesMatter. This appeal to colorblindness is clearly addressing black people as much as it is the institutions that kill them. The people who flip the script in this way (not all of them white, I'm sure) have some kind of problem with white people being excluded from anything, even racist oppression. This article describes what it feels like to have the somber quality of Ferguson protests interrupted and even colonized by white protesters who self-segregate and drown out black protesters' chants of "Black Power" with their own competing chants. Arthur Chu also nails it in his tweet, "Do people who change #BlackLivesMatter to #AllLivesMatter run thru a cancer fundraiser going "THERE ARE OTHER DISEASES TOO." I realize that his is a rhetorical question, but the answer is no, they do not. And here's why: they respect the situation because cancer has probably visited their own lives or the lives of friends and family with a regularity that the reality of black lives has not.

I told a black classmate that the Irish in America were discriminated against at one time too. #StealingFocusWhileWhite



This one is closely related to #1 but attempts to dodge the risk of seeming socially disengaged by bringing up poor people, women, and LGBTQ people. The "It's not race, it's class" crowd strike me as the most disingenuous because usually they have no real commitment to dismantling the class structure in our society but are simply angling at avoiding a sustained discussion of racism. White people stealing focus to talk about their oppression as women or gay men may do so to shield themselves from association with the dominant group in the system of racism. Lastly, those who want to change the subject in this way are quick to identify and name the ideologies behind classism (capitalism) and sexism (patriarchy) but are rarely outspoken about the ideology behind the system of racism: white supremacy. When we establish that we will be talking about racism--at lunch, at a workshop, in a classroom--let's commit to doing exactly that, even if that means that not everyone will have something to say.

I silenced a black woman criticizing the catcalling video because I wanted to keep talking about the oppression of women in general. #StealingFocusWhileWhite



In her article entitled "White Fragility," Robin D'Angelo tells the story of an antiracism training that upset a white woman so much that she walked away from it and, according to witnesses, began to suffer the symptoms of a heart attack. When she returned to the group, all attention had shifted off her offensive remarks and onto concern for her well-being. I've also heard this dynamic called "the crying white woman," and it can happen whether white people are upset at being challenged for their statements or whether they are upset by the reality of racism in general. I'll add that the dynamic can also account for white men, who I don't usually see crying at these trainings. Instead, you have the "sighing white man" or those who raise their voices, emotional outbursts that also compel those around them to cater to their comfort--smirking at them, making light of the situation, etc. We may not be able to control our emotions at times like these, but we can remove ourselves from situations when we become distractions. And we can control how we respond to other people being emotional. We can stay with the task at hand, and doing so does not mean that we are not compassionate but that we don't usually have the luxury of demonstrating it whenever we want to.

I missed what a black man was saying about his daughter because I wanted the woman next to me to know that I was there for her. #StealingFocusWhileWhite



With great interest, I've been following a Twitter conversation between Jeet Heer and Ta-Nehisi Coates on the demise of The New Republic. In short, Heer and Coates critique the nostalgia for this magazine as selective in lamenting the passing of liberal, progressive journalism while failing to reckon with its lack of staff diversity and its racist reportage of black people and issues, punctuated with a detached, "academic" attitude. In particular, they focus on how TNR front covered WaPo columnist Richard Cohen's hypothetical situation: "You own a jewelry store in a downtown neighborhood. Because you worry about robberies, admission is by buzzer...Someone arrives at your door. He is young. He is male. He is black. Do you buzz him in? Are you a racist if you don't?" Coates tweeted: "Thing that offends about the way they dealt with race was that it was a thought experiment for them. / It's like, 'Hmm here's an interesting ethical dilemma: Should we discriminate against blacks? / It was never, 'Shit, that could be my son. Or shit, maybe the guy calls the police and my best friend's kid gets shot.' " Heer and Coates identify the huge gap between work and life for the white people at TNR when it comes to the reality of racism. People of color have to talk about the racism in their lives so that white people can kick back and ponder its meaning for a while.

I hijacked an antiracist workshop by lecturing the trainer on how political scientists talk about race. #StealingFocusWhileWhite



Another one that is very similar to #1. However, it can easily be distinguished from it because at some time during the discussion of racism, the words "reverse racism" will be spoken. For the past several years, the College of Education at my university has invited me to give a presentation on Affirmative Action to the education students. I always mention this 2011 study, which shows how white students receive more than their share of private scholarship and institutional merit-based grant monies. This year, I got to add this tidbit about the case of Abigail Fisher, who sued my alma mater, the University of Texas, because she believed that she was rejected for being white: 47 students were provisionally admitted to UT that year with lower GPAs and SAT scores than Fisher, and 42 of them were white. What caused Fisher to zero in on those five students of color? Why didn't she question if she had equal access to the experiences and qualifications of the 42 white students? Amazing to me that "reverse racism" makes sense to otherwise smart people. As if the rationale behind diversifying a classroom and lynching black people is the same.

When my Hmong roommate told me about a racist incident, I told her that at least she didn't have to work two jobs to pay for college. #StealingFocusWhileWhite


These are only five common ways that white people can steal focus from discussions of racism. There are many more that I could have put in this entry, but that's what the hashtag is for. At the same time, I don't expect this hashtag to go viral. It's a little clunky. (Even so, it's preferable to something like #SuperiorWhileWhite, which is more open to confusion or appropriation). People may end up tweeting photos of Ann Coulter or Bill O'Reilly instead of critiquing their own experiences. But, then again, what if some white people really started to engage with the reality of racism because of it? What if they simply listened and believed what people of color said about racism? "Suppose that everything I just told you about racism were true," I sometimes say to my students. "If you like, you can always go back to believing what you did after this class is over, but just stay with me for now. Tell me, if everything I said were true, how would you have to change your life?"

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