AskWhy Part I: On White Progressive Culture

I asked ‘AskWhy’ to do a guest post about the racism that she’s observed among her tribe: progressive white people. I did so because I recognized a level of truth in her voice far deeper than that of many of her kindred who have commented here previously. I’m calling out the ‘Rachel’s Taverns’, the ‘Sly Civilians’, the ‘Thinking Girls’ and any whites who take academic, pseudo-progressive stances devoid of self-reflective depth, who when confronted with their racism, intellectually ‘bob and weave’ to deflect attention away from IT and onto anything BUT them.

This is a very long post and it will be a two-three part affair. It is meant for the sincere person who, when discussing racism, include themselves as carriers of the dreaded disease. This is also meant for those people of color who get all of this on an intuitive level, yet haven’t seen an analysis like this in black and white…and from a white perspective. Read this and get beneath the binary, the superficiality and the disowning of complicity that so many wear like a gold pin.

Only the committed and the deep need apply!!! (And again, its long, but its worth it if you are seeking truth.)


Maxjulian: These are edited (for this purpose) excerpts about progressive white supremacy from a couple of chapters from my dissertation; I did the research in 1997-98 and wrote it over the next couple of years. “PROG” is a pseudonym for a self-identified progressive organization that was part of a larger movement community on the east coast, all white-dominated. I took out a lot of the interview quotes (except near the end) and some details for the sake of length.

I’ve bolded some of the non-header text that I feel as particularly interesting from where my understanding is at this point in time, but I only did that up to the part about the racism/anti-racism committee.

And, also, just FYI: the other organization I worked with/researched, the white-dominated feminist org, had a culture based in feeling much more than thought than this one — and that white feminist organization had its own patterns of white supremacy. It was this thing about feeling warm and comfortable which also served to protect the white women from discomfort related to dealing with racism in the organization.

In contrast to [the white-centered/white-dominated women’s organization I also worked with for the research], PROG’s culture revolved around thought rather than feeling, and was most visible in participants’ explicitly articulated ideas about power and social change.

The Center of PROG’s Culture: The PROG Worldview
When I arrived at PROG to begin my research, I was immediately swept into a flurry of urgent activity around a health care campaign. This campaign involved PROG taking part in a battle against a large for-profit health care company. Over time, I came to understand that the meanings participants associated with this type of fight — challenging corporate giants and/or the politicians they have bought; fighting the good fight against greed; working for the good of “ordinary people” — emerged out of PROG’s worldview. I also learned that this worldview was the central component of PROG’s organizational culture.
PROG’s worldview contained an explicit set of ideas about how power was distributed in larger society. It also contained both implicit and explicit assumptions about the organization’s own status and role within the larger struggle for social change. The foundational assumption of this worldview was a division of society into two oppositional groups: the “good guys” and the “bad guys.”

The Foundation of PROG’s Worldview: The Good Guys/Bad Guys Split
The most fundamental assumption in the PROG worldview was that the world was divided into two and only two groups. One side of the battle there were the “bad guys” — wealthy corporations, the greedy politicians they buy, and any other individuals who benefit from the status quo. Everyone else, including PROG, were the actual or potential “good guys.” There were no gray areas in this split: as another PROG board member put it, “Either you’re on the side that has power, or you’re not. Period.”
According to one staff member, the good guys/bad guys split was so fundamental that articulating it too explicitly in group settings was unnecessary. But although it may have been unnecessary to state the good guys/bad guys split in an explicit manner, other references to this binary were commonplace in PROG. Storytelling — specifically, spirited “us versus them” tales related at staff meetings and in public organizational spaces — comprised one of the most common ways in which participants articulated this theme in everyday interactions with one another. In addition to stories about past events, participants also used the good guys/bad guys split as a theoretical foundation to generate momentum for upcoming campaigns and actions. In describing upcoming campaigns, PROGers routinely cast several specific corporations, corporate lobbyists and conservative politicians as villains in the battle to come. As with the stories described above, this use of the good guys/bad guys dichotomy generated anger and excitement among both speakers and listeners, increasing the sense of commitment and camaraderie in the group.

PROG’s Worldview and The Power of “Regular People”
The PROG worldview assumed that power and resources were asymmetrically distributed in the world, with a few “bad guys” having too much and everyone else not having enough. Unlike a strictly Marxist view, PROG’s worldview did not define the working class alone as the group without power. Instead, the powerless group was composed of everyone not located in the bad guys’ camp. PROGers referred to the currently powerless group as “regular,” “normal,” “ordinary,” or “real” people, and in one case, “Joe and Jane Citizen.”
My use of the word “power” in the paragraph above is consistent with PROGers’ own language, but is nonetheless somewhat misleading. While wealth may be concentrated in the hands of the few, the PROG worldview included attention to a second type of power: people power. PROGers sought to develop people power, because they saw it as a crucial resource in the fight for social change. One staff member explained the two types of power to me by using an equation: “Money plus people equals power. If you have a lot of money, you probably don’t have a lot of people behind you, but if you don’t have a lot of money, you can make up for it in that equation by having a lot of people. The fact that people are part of the equation is too often forgotten in America. So that is really the bottom line, yes, that’s really it, money plus people equals power.”

PROG’s Role in The Struggle for Change, Part I: Ideological Labor
If ordinary people have access to the power of collective action, why haven’t these people banded together to dismantle the unfair distribution of resources once and for all? According to the PROG worldview, one answer to this question is that many potential movement participants don’t perceive the “big picture” and/or don’t understand that people power is a real resource for change. According to PROGers, this deficit of perception is not a coincidence. Instead, PROG’s worldview called for attention to an ideological battle taking place all around us. In this battle, the bad guys are deliberately promoting disempowering perspectives, and organizations such as PROG must counter those perspectives with an alternative view.
PROGers viewed themselves as ideological laborers whose job included the development and dissemination of alternative views of reality. This vision rests on a largely unstated but very important premise — it assumes that PROGers have a better understanding of how the world works than do most of the people they seek to organize. Although one of the organization’s goals was to increase the number of ordinary people who shared PROGers’ clearer perspective, PROG activists believed that at the present time, relatively few ordinary people shared their understanding of the world. According to PROG’s worldview, then, PROGers and other progressive activists remained necessary participants in the struggle for change.

PROG’s Role in The Struggle for Change, Part II: Information Source and Skills-Builder
As the above discussion suggests, however, the good guy/bad guy binary also contained an important subdivision within the “good guy” category. This category was divided into two parts: those who see the world clearly, and those who must be taught to do so. According to their worldview, PROGers and other progressive activists fell into the first category, while the majority of ordinary people fell into the second, at least for the moment.
In addition to a clearer view of the world, the knowledgeable segment of the good guys group also had access to other cognitive resources necessary to successful social change work. Information on specific issues was one of these resources. PROG’s worldview acknowledged that obfuscation was of the ways in which the bad guys often attempted to prevent change. Thus, progressive activists sought to provide ordinary people with an informational arsenal that would enable them to cut through such tactics.

The Work of Organizing: Foundational Assumptions
Together, political education, information provision and “nuts and bolts” skill training comprised the core tasks of community organizing as conceptualized by PROGers. This view of the community organizer’s role rested on three underlying assumptions within the PROG worldview. At the most basic level, as discussed earlier, PROG’s worldview assumed that PROGers possessed a very clear understanding of how society was structured and how people might make change. In addition, PROG and its organizers were assumed to be well-equipped to direct and teach others. Finally, the worldview emphasized commitment and action. If successful, PROG organizers would build and develop individuals who would actively display their commitment to PROG, the surrounding progressive community and the work of creating a more just society.
These assumptions provided the foundation for two sets of tasks that PROGers’ viewed as essential in the organizing process: building a base and developing leaders. By engaging in this work, PROGers believed that they could serve effectively in the role of essential catalysts for a movement that should eventually be led and sustained by “regular people.”

Building a Base
According to PROGers, base-building is one of the most important tasks of the organizer …[According to PROGers], a base is a is a group of people who commit to the organization’s broad mission of changing the balance of power in society, and who act on that commitment.
PROG base members also represented the organization’s ideological successes. In PROG’s worldview, members of the base were implicitly defined as those individuals with whom activists’ ideological labor had succeeded, at least in part. Specifically, base members were individuals who had accepted two of the fundamental assumptions found within the PROG worldview: the foundational good guys/bad guys split, and PROG’s role as good-guy educator and catalyst within that context. In the PROG worldview, members of the base should trust PROG implicitly because they know that as a good guy/catalyst, the organization has their best interests at heart. As one interviewee put it, “If we call for a boycott, [the base consists of the people who] will be motivated to do that because we say so, just because it’s coming from PROG and they know we have their best in mind.”
Because PROG was defined as one of the “good guys” and because it was also defined as a catalyst for change, the PROG worldview included the implicit assumption that resources mobilized for PROG (or any other core member of the progressive community) were, by definition, mobilized for the purpose of positive social change. In other words, within the PROG worldview, what was good for PROG was good for the fight against injustice, and success in that fight was good for the people.

Developing Leaders
As with base building, leadership development work required PROG activists to educate the people they wished to reach. Typically, leadership development required extended one-on-one contact between an organizer and a potential leader. The leadership development process also had a different goal than did base building efforts. Ideally, members of the base should do as activists requested. Leaders, on the other hand, should be able to take over the reins themselves. Further, while base-building was specifically intended to increase individuals’ connections with PROG itself, PROGers’ believed that leadership development had been successful if it had yielded increased commitment to any group that PROG accepted as part of the progressive community.
Although leadership development and base building were different processes, these two tasks were also closely linked — leaders generally emerged out of PROG’s existing base, and successful leaders should be able to develop their own bases.
Both the base building and leadership development concepts illustrate the role that PROG’s worldview set out for staff activists: their job was to facilitate the growth of a continually expanding mass movement of “ordinary people” whose collective efforts would be able to bring about positive social change.

Manifestations of PROG’s Worldview Inside the PROG Office
Whether attending to PROGers’ battle with the bad guys or to their base-building and leadership development efforts, PROG’s worldview focused most explicitly on interactions between professional PROG activists on one hand, and other types of people on the other. Despite this orientation, however, PROG’s worldview also strongly shaped dynamics within the organization itself. From staff development processes, to newcomers’ experiences with a progressive “in-language,” to the hurried pace of work within the office, the PROG worldview shaped the environment within which PROGers operated on a day to day basis.

Building and Developing Staff
During my time at PROG, I learned that PROG’s leadership development model was used in staff development processes as well. Senior staff members — especially supervisors — considered it part of their job to develop the political consciousness and skills of newer or “less-developed” staff members. In fact, during interviews with me, two senior staff members made explicit connections between leadership development and staff development
Within PROG, ideas about staff development were directly linked to the purpose set out for the organization by its worldview. According to this worldview, PROG’s efforts should sharpen individuals’ perceptions of power imbalances, and should increase their active commitment to social justice work. When successful, staff development efforts at PROG yielded just such outcomes.
[Successful] participants entered PROG with a willingness — even an eagerness — to learn from more experienced activists. Within the PROG worldview, all newcomers who enter the organization should position themselves as learners in this way, as the learner role facilitates their “development” into effective progressive activists. However, even those individuals who did not initially perceive themselves as learners soon found that this role was a necessary one for anyone seeking to join the progressive community. As newcomers (myself included) discovered, the PROG language was one of the first and most fundamental things that we were required to learn.

The PROG/Progressive “In-Language”
PROGers and other progressive community insiders routinely used complex political or legislative terms; told jokes that were incomprehensible to anyone who didn’t know the specific players in the progressive community’s universe, and made seemingly simple statements that were laden with significance that newcomers couldn’t understand
[Over time, I learned that] the in-language supported the PROG worldview. The PROG worldview implicitly set out a specific role for PROG in relationship to those individuals who might be “developed.” PROG insiders were teachers, while those who would be developed were learners. The in-language facilitated this dynamic. [And], newcomers who were unwilling to locate themselves in the learner role seldom stayed long in the progressive community.
The in-language was — at least theoretically — a permeable barrier, as long as newcomers were willing to learn it. However, those newcomers who were not willing to learn the language tended to continue feeling alienated, and eventually dropped out of the progressive community. In practice, then, the use of the in-language ensured that even individuals who did not initially cast themselves as learners were subtly forced to adopt that initial orientation if they wanted to be a part of the group.
In addition to facilitating the teacher-learner dynamic set out in PROG’s worldview, the in-language also supported the worldview in a more basic way.
In my early fieldnotes, I struggled to recall and record in-language information that I didn’t understand. I found it extraordinarily difficult to record such fieldnotes, because I had few if any reference points in my mind that would assist me in making sense of the data. I soon came to realize that one way to make sense of people’s in-language commentary was to figure out which names referred to PROG allies (the good guys) and which names referred to PROG’s enemies (the bad guys). Once I implemented it, this either/or sorting practice increased my ability to understand the basics of in-language conversations. Not only was this increased understanding useful in fieldnote writing, it also enabled me to respond appropriately to insiders’ comments. … The very first thing I learned in trying to understand the PROG in-language was that there was a binary split between good guys and bad guys.
It is important, of course, to keep in mind that the in-language was not the only mode of communication at PROG. I did understand quite a bit of what people said to me in informal conversations, explanations and other interactions without knowing this language. However, attention to the existence and function of the PROG in-language illuminates an otherwise rather elusive component of PROG’s culture: in the teacher/catalyst role, PROGers worked to set and control the terms of engagement with others in very basic ways, including but certainly not limited to language.

Setting the Agenda and the Teacher-Learner Dynamic
Progressive insiders’ efforts to set and control the terms of engagement were strongly supported by PROG’s worldview. In this worldview, the fight for social and economic justice required that PROGers seek to shape how people think about the world around them. In other words, PROG sought to redefine the very ideological landscape on which the battle for justice was fought.
According to PROG’s worldview, the organization was well-equipped to set an oppositional agenda, for two reasons. First. PROG was defined as an unquestioned “good guy” in the battle for positive change. Second, PROGers and other progressive insiders were assumed to have a very clear understanding of the world. Together, these two assumptions suggested that it was useful for PROG to exert control over others in certain very basic ways. Indeed, the PROG worldview defined such efforts to exert control as part of a necessary fight for justice.

The Good Guy/Bad Guy Split, Universal Versus Local, and Cultural White Supremacy
PROG’s culture assumed that white participants were not agents of racial domination. In PROG’s case, this assumption emerged out of the worldview’s good guy/bad guy split.

The Good Guys/Bad Guys Binary
Within the PROG worldview, every person who was not part of the small group of disproportionately powerful “bad guys” was shortchanged by an unfair distribution of power. This dichotomy provided the rationale for PROG’s efforts to organize a mass base of “ordinary,” “regular,” or “normal” people who would, though collective action, take back the power that was rightfully theirs. As with other binaries used by social movements, attention to power imbalances within the “good guy” group was not a part of PROG’s worldview. In fact, from the perspective of the PROG worldview, attention to such internal power imbalances might actually pose a threat to the very mass mobilization that would be necessary for power to be redistributed.
The PROG worldview melded a leftist approach with a populist one. Like explicitly Marxist formulations claiming that racialized power imbalances are merely capitalist tools that divide the working class, the PROG/progressive worldview implicitly supported the idea that sustained attention to racism within the target population would draw the focus away from this group’s shared interests. But although economics were at the heart of PROG’s worldview, the PROG binary split expanded the base of collective action beyond the Marxist focus on the working class. In PROG’s worldview, the oppressed group included anyone who was not part of the “most powerful” group. Theoretically, then, the “ordinary people” group included both white and non-white people from a variety of classes and from both genders. Given the heterogeneity of this group, what would be the basis for a sense of shared interest among its members?
On one level, the answer to the above question is simple — from the perspective of the PROG worldview, this group shared an interest in reclaiming power. As social movement theorists point out, however, connections between oppressed groups do not emerge automatically. Instead, movement participants create and sustain collective identities that highlight participants’ connections with one another.
PROG’s worldview supported the idea that ideological labor was necessary in order to draw participants together in the struggle for social and economic justice. As discussed in Chapter 4, this worldview included the assumption that many members of the oppressed “ordinary people” group needed to be “developed” in order to perceive the power imbalance and the need for collective action more clearly. Part of PROG’s task, then, was to provide development experiences that would emphasize concerns that members might share. More specifically, PROG focused on areas in which all members of the “good guys” group lacked power.
A focus on areas in which all members of the good guy group lacked power diverted attention away from racism. Since at least some members of this group — white participants — were not targeted by racism, this issue was implicitly cast as one that would not be of concern to the group as a whole. From this perspective, racism would not be an appropriate issue for an organization such as PROG to address – [it would be seen as artificially dividing a group that should be united].
A focus on whiteness as a privileged racial location reveals more about why the PROG worldview diverted attention away from racism. The quest for shared interests based on a shared lack of power disallowed attention to any structurally supported advantages that might accrue to some members of the “good guys” group. More specifically, the quest for “ordinary people’s” shared interests blocked sustained attention to whiteness as a dominant racial location occupied by some members of this group. The PROG worldview also diverted attention away from whiteness as a dominant racial location occupied by some PROG activists, as the worldview located these individuals in the “good guys” category along with the people they sought to organize.

The Invisible White Center of PROG’s Worldview
As noted above, PROG activists sought to unite an internally stratified group around shared oppression. King (1988) terms this type of approach “monistic politics.” As King and many other feminist women of color have pointed out (e.g., Crenshaw 1989), attention only to shared oppression among an internally stratified group has all too often yielded theory and practice that places the most privileged members of that group at the center of analysis. Relatedly, a focus only on oppression in such a context renders these members’ privileges invisible. In practice, this monistic approach marginalizes or ignores the perspectives of a group’s less privileged members, and falsely universalizes the perspectives of those in the most privileged social location.
… PROG’s worldview was invisibly centered on the perspectives of white, middle to upper-middle-class families and communities. Within the PROG worldview, the needs and concerns of this segment of ordinary people were synonymous with everyone’s needs and concerns. Conversely, the needs and concerns of non-white and/or poor families and communities were implicitly cast as specific to those groups alone.
In PROG’s version of monistic politics, only those economic or other patterns that white, middle-class people might experience as oppressive (e.g., managed care, utility rate hikes) were defined as universally salient issues that were appropriate for an organization such as PROG to address. In contrast, patterns that white, middle-class people would not directly experience as oppressive (e.g., racism in the educational system, welfare reform) were implicitly cast as specific to the populations oppressed by them and thus not appropriate for PROG to address. Of course, managed care and utility hikes don’t only affect white and middle-class people. However, these are not necessarily the issues that other groups would identify as most in need of activists’ attention. PROG’s worldview erased the need for the organization to seek information on these groups’ perspectives because the organization’s monistic politics provided the implicit assurance that what was most important to white, middle-class people was most important to everyone else as well.
By using a monistic approach, PROG’s worldview drew on cultural white supremacy. As the unmarked norm, a white, middle-class social location appears to yield a universal perspective from which other, “narrower” perspectives deviate (Essed 1991; Grillo and Wildman 1997; Ani 1994). Interestingly enough, white middle class women had two possible locations within PROG’s universal versus specific split. On one hand, as part of white, middle class families and communities, these women were able to be members of the “universal perspective” group. However, if they were to call for a focus on sexism, these same women would become individuals whose presumably narrow concerns did not apply to all members of the “ordinary people” group.
Unlike white class-privileged women, people of color did not have a choice of location in PROG’s universal versus specific divide. Within PROG’s worldview, the experiences and concerns of people of color were firmly located in the “narrow perspective” side of the split. … The only way that people of color could hope to enter the universal group would be to adopt a white-centered perspective — and even in such a scenario, it was likely that they would remain suspect on the basis of their race.

Broad Versus Local Issues and Universal Versus Specific Concerns: The Devaluation of Non-White Perspectives
The PROG worldview’s invisible equation of whiteness with universal perspectives, and non-whiteness with specificity converged with a second PROG equation. In this second equation, geographically specific — that is, “local” — issues were synonymous with narrow and limited concerns I discussed this topic briefly in Chapter 3. As I pointed out, many of today’s community organizing groups have modified Saul Alinsky’s “local issues” approach to organizing. Specifically, organizations such as PROG and ACORN seek to move beyond this type of “stoplight organizing” by linking local concerns with a “broader” view of large-scale power imbalances. From the perspective of PROG’s worldview (and that of many other progressive organizations), this linkage is an essential step in building a mass-based movement for change.
In the PROG worldview, whiteness and middle-class-ness were linked to universality, and universality was linked to the desired broader vision of power imbalances. Conversely, non-whiteness and/or poorness were linked to specificity, and specificity was linked to the type of local, narrow view of the world that PROGers sought to expand. With the convergence of these two equations, white people’s concerns and perspectives were privileged, while non-white people’s concerns and perspectives were devalued within PROG’s worldview.

Whiteness, Superiority, and Legitimate Authority
By drawing on hegemonic notions of whiteness as the universal perspective, and by melding this “universal” with the broad vision that PROG sought to disseminate, PROG’s worldview implicitly supported the assumption that white, class-privileged people had a better — or to paraphrase Essed (1991), a more whole and less partial — understanding of the world than did people of color of any class background. In this formulation, whiteness remained invisible while white people’s perspectives were nonetheless cast as superior to the perspectives of people of color.
The “white perspective is superior” assumption had a particular — if invisible — meaning within the PROG worldview. As discussed in Chapter 4, one of the strands of the PROG worldview was the assumption that PROGers and other progressive insiders had a clearer view of the world than did “less developed” individuals. Since PROG’s worldview also invisibly supported the assumption that white people’s vision was superior to the vision of people of color, it legitimated white people’s authority over people of color. Specifically, PROG’s worldview suggested that white people were well suited to being teachers, and that people of color needed instruction from white people in order to break out of their narrow view of the world and adopt a broader perspective.
… [Challenging white supremacy] within PROG would require white progressive insiders to relinquish a very basic form of white privilege: the privilege to define reality at a broad level, and to insist that others adopt this definition
(Essed 1991, 270-274). From within the PROG worldview itself, progressive insiders’ work to re-define reality was cast as part of the struggle for social justice. However, attention to the invisible white center of this worldview reveals that this ideological labor also reproduced racism by privileging the perspectives and concerns of white people and casting these perspectives and concerns as universal. As Grillo and Wildman point out:

White supremacy creates in whites the expectation that issues of concern to them will be central in every discourse. . . . The center stage problem occurs because dominant group members are already accustomed to being center stage. They have been treated that way by society; it feels natural, comfortable, and in the order of things . . . Because whiteness is the norm, it is easy to forget that it is not the only perspective. Thus, members of dominant groups assume that their perceptions are the pertinent ones, that their problems are the ones that need to be addressed, and that in discourse, they should be speaker rather than listener. Part of being a member of a privileged group is being the center and the subject of all inquiry in which people of color or other nonprivileged groups are the objects (1997, 46).

From this perspective, white people relinquishing the center means white people learning to relinquish control at a very basic level. In the case of PROG, the de-centering of whiteness would require a shift in the way in which white participants interacted with people of color in the organization. Rather than perceiving these individuals as objects to be developed, built and grown, white PROGers would need to perceive them as reality-definers — at the broadest possible level — in their own right. Such a shift would threaten white PROG insiders’ secure location as teachers in relationship to individuals in the organization who did not perceive reality as they did. In the absence of this role, white PROG insiders would need to adopt a more self-conscious, fluid and self-critical approach in their interactions with people of color. As I argue below, however, such an approach requires hard work.

Unquestioned “Good Guy” Status as White Privilege
In describing the first “racism committee” meeting to me, one of the people of color who had participated commented that critiques of racism were very painful and difficult for many white participants to hear because:

It’s hard for white people, to be put on the spot, to be targeted for being white. But it happens to people of color all the time. So it flips it over, white people are used to assuming they are good because they’re white, and then this is the opposite. It’s hard for [white] people . . . [but] people are going to have to let themselves be targets, and folks don’t want to be punching bags, to go to a meeting and feel like because they’re white, they will be targeted, but maybe that’s what has to happen for this process to work (emphasis mine).

As this participant’s comments suggest, when white PROGers were challenged on the basis of their location in a dominant racial category, this challenge threatened a hegemonic association between whiteness and goodness (hooks 1995). Instead of whiteness remaining invisible and white people’s goodness remaining unquestioned, the critic’s challenges to racism in PROG “flipped over” these hegemonic assumptions and white PROGers would be under intense scrutiny as potential or actual agents of domination.
In PROG, as in other self-defined liberal and progressive white environments, the hegemonic association between whiteness and goodness was not direct. Instead, ideologies within PROG and these other liberal or progressive contexts contain a seemingly non-racialized “good” category in which white people are definitively located. These categories both mediate and support the association between white people and goodness. For example, in the Netherlands, dominant ideology asserts that the Dutch are “tolerant people.” In this context, white people often respond to challenges to their racism with moral indignation because such challenges represent a threat to their self-definition as tolerant (Essed 1991). The “tolerant people” category both maintains and masks the hegemonic link between whiteness and goodness by casting white people as intrinsically good without making the overtly white supremacist argument that white people are this way specifically because they are white.
In PROG, the role that was analogous to the “tolerant people” category in the Netherlands was the “good guy/change agent” location set forth by the PROG worldview. PROGers took their own and other progressive activists’ location in this category very seriously. In interviews, for example, many PROG staff and board members defined themselves and other PROGers as people with an intrinsic concern for justice and a passionate desire to eradicate power imbalances. This understanding of PROG staff and board members as intrinsically just individuals had a particular significance in the context of efforts to address racism in the organization. Specifically, it provided white PROGers with the assurance that they were not — and indeed could not be — actual or potential recipients of white privilege or agents of racial domination.
Not surprisingly, quite a few of the white PROGers who spoke about race and racism in interviews made a point to tell me that they themselves were not racist, offering as evidence stories about befriending Black people and other people of color as youngsters, feeling empathy for people of color, and perceiving racism as injustice from an early age. Several of these white PROGers went on to make an explicit connection between PROG’s progressive and presumably non-racist worldview, and their own self-definition as natural opponents of racism. The connection between this assumed location and the good guy/change agent role was [particularly] apparent in this white interviewee’s comments about the difference between PROGers and other people:

We, the staff and board [of PROG], we, I think, in our lives operate under a different set of assumptions, we make our everyday decisions based on a different set of assumptions than most people live their lives by. [For example, unlike us], a lot of folks believe that racism is gone.

The above comments — and others like them — suggested that white PROGers saw themselves as located outside the ongoing processes, dynamics and structures that reproduce racism in the United States. While I imagine many white people in many contexts attempt to locate themselves in this way, it is important to keep in mind that PROG’s worldview strongly supported such an assumption. Specifically, PROG’s culture strongly supported white people’s “obliviousness” (McIntosh 1988, 4) about the possibility that they themselves might be privileged or act as agents of domination.
In a context such as PROG, it would seem that “oblivion” would be perceived as an undesirable state. However, obliviousness to white privilege and “self as oppressor” has its benefits, particularly for those who self-identify as agents for positive social change. When white individuals remain oblivious to our racial location, we avoid the hard work of self-conscious and critical attention to our own analyses and actions. According to Lugones (1990), a white person’s effective resistance to racism requires:

Engaged thinking that takes seriously her own participation in an ethnocentric culture in a racial state. Such thinking requires that she become and think as self-conscious practitioner of her culture, and a self-conscious and critical member of the racial state. Such thinking is possible because she is a participant in both (48).

As Lugones’ comments suggest, engaged and self-conscious thinking about one’s location in the dominant racial category is hard work. A state of oblivion — or what Lugones aptly terms “dis-engagement” — supports white people in avoiding this work. The engaged, critical self-consciousness that Lugones describes represents a particularly difficult challenge for white activists who have grown used to thinking of themselves simply as agents of positive social change. For these activists, the approach that Lugones details threatens an unquestioned self-definition — self as intrinsically moral and just — and requires instead a more complex and fluid understanding of one’s location in the struggle.
But while many white PROGers accepted their own unquestioned goodness, some of the people of color in the organization weren’t so sure.
For some of these activists, the tensions between the PROG worldview and their own concerns about racism in the organization were relatively easy to manage. These individuals tended to speak of PROG as full or partial outsiders to the organization who wanted PROG’s worldview to change. By maintaining a theoretical distance between themselves and the organization, they were able to minimize the potential damage that a more trusting stance would entail. But although this distance was useful, it was also constantly under attack, as white PROGers sought to “develop” these individuals in ways that would increase their trust in the organization.
I also spoke with people of color who felt more connected or committed to the organization. In some of these conversations, the issue of racism did not emerge or emerged only briefly, and I remain unsure about the individual’s perspective on possible tensions between the PROG worldview and racism in the organization. In one case, however, I both heard about and witnessed how painful and draining such tensions could be for people of color who sought both to enter the progressive community and to consistently challenge racism within it. I engaged in a series of formal and informal conversations with one such individual during the course of my research. In one of our first conversations about PROG’s efforts to address racism in the organization, this interviewee offered vivid commentary on the double vision s/he experienced in working with white PROGers on this issue:

I’ve worked in predominantly [non-white] organizations with some white people, but the white people there were always “bad white people” and here there are “good white people”. . . it is very different, to have this group of white people working on race, it’s just very different. . . . It’s just different, it’s like sitting at the family dinner table and looking around and saying, “This is my family? That’s my mom? Really?”

In a subsequent interview, I asked for further elaboration on this family metaphor, and s/he replied:

I’ve worked on race issues with [groups of people who share my racial location], so it’s easier because it’s clear cut, us/them, kind of deal. So it’s not clouded. Maybe I’m using the wrong thing, but it’s very clear cut. It’s like “Okay, everybody on this side of the table’s [a person of color], and we’re dealing with ‘them’ [white people].” So it’s very interesting being in this group because how I see it, we’re dealing with good white people (laughter). I hate to use that term, but, that’s the way, you know, [people] that are really working at dealing with their own — that have looked at themselves and examined themselves, and looked also at the world and have decided not to contribute to racism and all different kinds of issues. [People who] have really made a stand, and have worked hard to not perpetuate the madness.
So it’s really strange to me. Sometimes I want to be . . . almost cruel in some ways. When I said, “This is my family?” it’s like sitting at the table and everybody is so different and not what I’m used to, and I’m like, “Wait a minute, wait a minute, I’m sitting at the table with white people working on racism,” and that’s just (pause) it’s different. . . . I would even say it’s difficult. It’s difficult because when you say things, it’s about them (Question: When you say things about white people?) Right. It’s about those people. They cannot help but feel, often, I find [in PROG] . . . the defensiveness always pops up, like, “That’s not me, that’s not me.” Maybe it’s not you, but — maybe it is you (laugh), you know, maybe it is you.

What was the relationship between the “good” white PROGers and the speaker in the situation described above? On one hand, the PROG worldview suggested that white PROGers were, unquestionably, people who had “decided not to contribute to racism and all kinds of different issues.” From another angle of vision, however, these same people had been and/or could be agents of racial domination. In the first vision, white PROGers were indeed “family,” were on the same side of the table. In the second vision, however, the white members were dangerous. Given this double vision, it is not surprising that the speaker found the experience “strange.”
During our conversations about race issues in PROG, the individual quoted above negotiated the two visions described above. Over time, s/he began to move away from the vision of white PROGers as unquestionably “good.” For example, in some of our earlier conversations, this participant defined the “good white people” at PROG as in the quotation above — that is, as individuals who had engaged in self-examination and taken an active stand against racism. In a later conversation, however, this interviewee told me that s/he had since come to believe that “good” white PROGers “have turned out to be people you can say ‘white’ to and don’t flinch — but that’s about it.”

During our conversations, I was struck not only by the theoretical content of this negotiation between incompatible visions, but also by how tiring and draining it was for the participant engaged in it. The experience seemed to become more painful and draining over time, as this individual moved reluctantly toward the conclusion that white PROGers were in reality not the unquestioned “good guys” that the PROG worldview — and white individuals themselves — claimed they were.

2 Responses to “AskWhy Part I: On White Progressive Culture”

  1. The point about “legitimate authority” is particularly astute.

  2. Happy New Year, FS! Back in October you said you were taking a 3 month hiatus and, silly me, I thought that meant a 3 month hiatus. I see I have a lot of catching up to do! However, it is pushing 3 am on January 1 and I’ve had too much to think, so I’ll just go with Happy New Year. And I’m confused: is this post excerpted from your dissertation, or is it Ask Why’s response to your invitation?

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