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What White People Fear

Understanding the fears behind the racial politics of both conservative and liberal whites can help change a society in which wealth and well-being are still tied to race.

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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. In such a white-defined liberal world, “people of color”—abstracted into a single group, erasing the particularity of people—are welcome, even sought after, to prove that we have transcended white supremacy.

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.

I have a choice: I can rest comfortably in the privileges that come with being white, or I can struggle to be fully human.

A first step for me has been to question the value of the seemingly endless “race dialogues” that are popular in white liberal groups. In the pseudo-­therapeutic setting of such dialogues, with more talk about personal healing than about political change, white people are guaranteed that we won’t be forced out of a white-defined world. White-dominated institutions—corporations, nonprofits, universities, government agencies—are happy to sponsor such dialogues, diversity trainings, and multicultural events, precisely because they don’t threaten the fundamental distribution of wealth and power.

I have been involved in many of those events myself, as a facilitator or a participant, and I have learned from them (typically as much from my failures as successes). The most important lesson I take away is that race dialogues are not enough. As long as we stay confined in a safe world that doesn’t challenge power, we guarantee failure—if our goal really is to change the distribution of that power.

There’s no easy recipe for this kind of challenge, but we move in the right direction when we seek out places where we don’t feel comfortable, looking for relationships in which we can help change the dynamic. For me, that means putting myself in situations where I have to face my fear of being seen—or, more accurately, being seen-through—by non-white people. What if I step into those uncomfortable spaces and non-white people see the ways in which I hang onto some sense of my own supremacy/centrality? What if they see the ways in which I haven’t shaken off my racist cultural training?

A desire to confront that fear has led me, over the past year, to organizing efforts with the Workers Defense Project. It’s a local group that advocates for workplace justice for immigrant workers, addressing problems such as wage theft within a larger social justice framework. 

This project has forced me to cross lines around race and ethnicity, class, language, and age. The members and staff are predominantly Latina/Latino and working class. They speak Spanish and/or English, while I’m monolingual in English, and the leaders of the group include a number of people who are at least two decades younger than me.

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