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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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The collaboration between WDP and the Third Coast Activist Resource Center (a predominantly white group to which I belong) to buy and renovate a building for a progressive community center has gone forward with explicit conversations about all these differences and how they affect decision-making. The trust necessary to move forward has been built slowly over time, and I’m aware that the WDP staff and members are watching for signs that we are serious about establishing a truly egalitarian relationship.

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.

While there is a lot of dialogue necessary in this work, the dialogue is focused on a common goal: to provide office space for organizers, rehearsal space for artists, meeting space for the community, and a place for people to get to know each other. That common goal doesn’t mean we will naturally, or easily, put aside differences, but it means we all have a tangible stake in our collective success.

My interest in this project flows from moral and political principles—a belief in the dignity of all and the struggle to eliminate hierarchy in all forms. But I would be naïve or dishonest if I pretended that was my only, or even my most powerful, motive. In the end, I have committed to this project out of selfishness—I would like to claim my full humanity before I check out of this world. To do that, I have to move beyond the framework of conservative versus liberal and adopt a truly radical politics. 

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.

Robert Jensen wrote this article for America: The Remix , the Spring 2010 issue of YES! Magazine. Robert, a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin, is author of The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege and his latest, All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice . He is co-producer of the new documentary Abe Osheroff: One Foot in the Grave, the Other Still Dancing . Contact information and articles at

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