If You Don’t Read the Conclusion of AskWhy’s Dissertation on Progressive White Culture, You Ain’t Interested In Purging Racism/White Supremacy From Your Own White Self
(The Freeslave here: “I want to thank AskWhy profusely for allowing me to post her most valuable dissertation on progressive white racism and culture. As I’ve stated, progressive white folks’ ‘shit don’t stink’ – to them; therefore any racially based criticism of them is WRONG from the git; they are “right/experts/smarter” than any black person on the planet. Their actions demonstrate this, regardless of what the mouthpiece plays. Thus, black folks are misguided, overly emotional children (or beasts), ironically, the kind of assumptions that laid the foundation of R/WS in the ‘old days.’
To know that there are white people who ‘get it’ on a level far beyond the norm of drawbridge-raising evasiveness engenders just a little bit of hope. Right On, AskWhy, and keep on keepin’ it realz!!!
The PROG Racism (and/or Anti-Racism) Committee
During my time with the organization, much of the talk and action about race in PROG emerged during a long-term strategic planning process. Several months before I arrived at PROG, PROGers had, in the context of this planning process, created a committee to address racism and race-related issues in the organization. According to PROG’s strategic planning documents, strategic planning consultants had introduced racism as a topic for discussion around the same time people of color challenged the organization to address its own racism. Specifically, strategic planners had included racism in a list of “dominant themes” in larger society that PROG and organizations like it should seek to eradicate through the development and dissemination of alternative perspectives. In this way, strategic planning materials both highlighted the salience of racism as an important issue for progressive organizations and positioned “good guy” PROG as its natural opponent.
In this context, the assertion that PROG should be concerned with racism resonated with PROG’s worldview — after all, as a progressive organization and a disseminator of alternative themes, it would certainly make sense for PROG to actively oppose racialized power imbalances as part of its social change efforts. Change agents in PROG were able to draw on this ideological resource in their insistence that PROG address racism as part of its strategic planning process.
At the same time, however, the worldview’s assumption that PROG was a “good guy” in the fight for justice constrained efforts to address racism within the organization itself. Indeed, attention to structural or other forms of white dominance threatened to disrupt PROG’s worldview by challenging the organization’s “good guy” status. If, as a good guy, PROG was a natural opponent of societal power imbalances, and if racism was one such imbalance, than PROG by definition could not reproduce this unjust pattern in its own structures and processes. If it did so, it would be colluding with the very forces that the organization was fighting to eradicate.
Any suggestion that anti-racism differed from PROG’s interests carried serious risks in the context of the organizational culture. It appeared that other group members were well aware of this point; these individuals argued for the more “diplomatic” approach of oppositional adherence. According to one of these participants, a person of color, a diplomatic approach was necessary because otherwise there was the possibility that:
My relationship with my colleagues would change, that I would be considered this rabble rouser who didn’t understand that racism doesn’t exist at PROG. I was thinking of things that could potentially happen, arguments [that might potentially occur] whether they were true or not (emphasis mine).
This comment suggests that the speaker was well aware that blunt efforts to challenge racism in PROG would be perceived as a deep-seated threat to the organization. Further, the speaker was also aware that individuals who pointed too directly to the power dynamics of racism in PROG risked encountering a common PROG response — the assertion that anyone speaking from outside the organization’s worldview simply did not understand how the world (or in this case, the organization) actually worked.
As with [the white feminist organization], PROG’s organizational culture contained unspoken “rules of resistance” that constrained members’ efforts to eradicate racism in the organization. In general, these rules mandated that resistance efforts should not threaten PROG’s worldview. More specifically, these rules required that critics not challenge the “good guy” status of PROG and its activists. Further, as discussed below, the organization’s rules of resistance also mandated that resistance efforts should not challenge the assumption that PROG insiders had a clearer understanding of the world than did anyone else. Both of these rules were broken during the first racism committee meeting, with explosive results.
The First PROG Racism Committee Meeting: An “Outsider” Breaks the Rules of Resistance
“Emotional.” “Tinderbox.” “Ugly situation.” These were some of the descriptive words participants used to describe the racism committee’s first meeting. This meeting occurred before I began fieldwork in PROG. Nonetheless, I learned a great deal about what happened from the vivid accounts offered by four different individuals who attended the meeting — two people of color, and two white people. I also heard a fifth account from a white person who did not attend the meeting, but heard about it from several participants.
There was a great deal of factual consistency between individuals’ accounts of the meeting. There was also, however, an interpretive split. According to two people of color and one of the white participants — a self-defined outsider to the organization — the eruption that occurred part of the way through the meeting was an outcome of existing individual and organizational racism. For the fourth participant, a white individual who was more of a PROG insider, the meeting erupted because PROG was falsely accused of being a racist organization.
According to all four of the eye-witness participants interviewed, the meeting exploded when a Black PROG board member and her niece — a former PROG canvasser who had not remained connected to the organization — offered blunt critiques of racism within PROG. Several white PROGers reacted very strongly to these critiques. As one Black participant described the scene, after the ex-canvasser offered her critiques:
[One of the white committee members said], “I’m so mad at you! . . . I’m so mad that you came in and tried to tell — I think everybody had good intentions and you came in and called us all racist and, oooh!” I [replied] “Well (pause) yeah, you are! I can only call it when I see it. Now are you saying you want to really understand what that means? It’s not like I’m calling you a pervert!” People take it like I’m calling you the most dirtiest thing on earth if [I] call somebody a racist.
The response described above — white participants’ anger at PROG being called “racist” — was strongly supported by PROG’s worldview. Within this worldview, PROG was positioned on the good guy side of a binary split, with racism located as the bad guys’ tool. To suggest — as the two critics at the meeting did — that PROG and the progressive community were racist was outright heresy within an organization that claimed to be on the side of positive social change. The first of PROGs rules of resistance had been broken.
In addition to challenging PROG and white PROGers’ good guy status, the two women who critiqued the organization also challenged the assumption that PROG insiders had the clearest understanding of any given situation. According to one account — offered by a white self-defined outsider — some of the other white participants reacted particularly strongly when the ex-canvasser told them that they simply did not understand her position:
[She was saying] “Don’t say that you understand what my position is when you don’t understand my position.” And I think that seemed to be one of the things that was the most hurtful to people. . . . [Some of the white participants] replied, “No, what are you talking about, I understand, we’ve worked on this issue!”. . . [They were] very defensive. The same sort of thing that I would expect to get if I said that to certain people [about areas in my own life where I am oppressed and different from most PROGers] — “Well, what do you mean we don’t understand your issues? We’ve done all this stuff for you, we know more about your problems than you do.” Baloney! (laugh) They really think they do! . . . And sometimes people can become — they think they’re such experts, they really think that they do know more than the person who’s living it. Or it can come across with that attitude somehow or other. That’s very maddening from my own point of view. “So you think you know more about me than I do, huh?” (laugh)
This account suggests that the ex-canvasser had challenged not one, but two tenets of PROG’s worldview. Not only had she challenged PROG’s status as a “good guy,” she had also challenged the assumption that PROGers had a clearer understanding of the world than did outsiders to the progressive community. In response to this violation, some of the white meeting participants attempted to correct the damage by re-asserting their role as the most knowledgeable participants in the room. These PROGers argued that, as social justice experts, they fully understood the critic’s position. They then attempted to put the critic in the less-knowledgeable “learner” position by arguing that she was an outsider who didn’t know enough about PROG. According to one participant:
They did not know [she had] worked for PROG, they wanted to discount what her opinions are. [They said] “You don’t know us! You don’t know anything about our organization!” Automatically, [they] look at a Black woman [and say], “You don’t know us! You know nothing about this organization!” [She] was like, “No, you wrong! All of you! How dare you?”
Another participant also commented on this event, but did so from the perspective of a white PROG insider. According to this interviewee, the ex-canvasser was clearly an “outsider” to the organization who didn’t know how to listen:
She said that we didn’t know how to listen, and then when people would talk, she would interrupt, so it was like, “You say WE can’t listen?” And it was almost like she planned out what she was going to do, because at first she sat quietly, and then started making wild accusations about us being racist, and she didn’t even know us (emphasis mine).
For some of the white members of the committee — the interviewee above included — the ex-canvasser’s remarks were not substantive challenges to racism, but rather “wild accusations” based on a lack of understanding. Such a response is not uncommon in many contexts. In her study of “everyday racism,” Essed (1991) points out that it is not unusual for dominant group members to evade the message by suggesting that the messenger is biased. As Essed argues:
In dominant thinking, Blacks [and I would add, other people of color as well] are unreliable as a source of information about race relations in society. Their suggestions to improve race relations are not accepted, which is rationalized with the argument that Blacks are ‘partial’ [as opposed to impartial]. Of course Blacks are partial when they oppose racism. However, this argument obscures the fact that, while they question the integrity of Blacks, Whites legitimize their own ideologically saturated definitions of reality. . . the dominant group feels their version of reality is superior and non biased and least of all biased in favor of Whites (273).
As Essed points out, white people might dismiss Black people’s insights about race relations by asserting that they are biased because they are Black. This strategy draws heavily on hegemonic discourse about both Blackness and whiteness, suggesting not only that Black people are “partial,” but also that white people are impartial. However, the white PROGer quoted earlier did not explicitly link the ex-canvasser’s lack of understanding to her Blackness. Instead, this participant drew on seemingly [but not actually] non-racialized cultural tools available within the PROG worldview to argue that the critic’s bias stemmed from her lack of knowledge of the organization itself. Within the PROG worldview, there was only one way for outsiders to be able to speak knowledgeably about organizational (or other) issues — they must first accept progressive insiders as teachers who would “develop” them. In other words, from the perspective of the PROG worldview, the critic’s bias could only be eradicated if she agreed to locate herself as a learner in relationship to more knowledgeable PROG teachers.
In the traditional teacher-learner interaction, the teacher speaks, and the learner listens; from this perspective, it is quite understandable that one of the white participants would critically mention the ex-canvasser’s unwillingness to listen to PROG insiders. Even the most traditional teachers do more than speak — they also ask questions and listen to students’ responses. There is a difference, however, between teachers’ questions and many other types of questions — traditionally, teachers ask questions not to gather information, but rather to evaluate whether or not the student knows the correct answer. One interviewee’s account suggested that this dynamic also came into play in the meeting. According to this participant, the ex-canvasser’s critique was nothing more than her honest answer to a question asked by the white participants themselves:
[She was saying] “You [white] people don’t realize, you people don’t do this” . . . and she was kind of pushing it, but she was asked! You know, “What are the problems [in PROG]?” And [after she answered, people were like], “You were supposed to say there aren’t any problems.” But that’s not what she said! She said, “You people don’t really understand what it’s like!” And one of the white folks really got mad [and said], “How dare you! We try, we do blah blah blah.” And it really got, really fast, the tension was so thick you could cut it with a knife. . . . Nobody was coming to blows, but it was coming fairly close. I mean, really, there was a lot of hostility there, a lot of it! . . . [But as I see it], don’t ask a question that you know what answer is to, and when you don’t get that answer, get mad! It’s like, “Well, you asked me to be open and honest about what the problems were, now that I’ve said what they are, you get mad at me!” This is very confusing . . . either you want to know or you don’t!
Although it is understandable that this speaker found white PROGers’ hostile responses confusing, attention to the teacher-learner roles within PROG’s worldview reveals that in fact, this response was quite consistent with the teacher role assigned to insiders. From this perspective, the question, “What are the problems with PROG?” was not necessarily designed to gather information on the ex-canvasser’s experiences and opinions. Instead, it was likely that — for some participants, at least — this question had a right answer that the critic did not offer.
Beyond giving an “incorrect” answer to committee members’ question, this outsider flatly refused to accept PROG insiders’ authority as teachers. After all, she challenged the basis of that authority — that is, PROG insiders’ superior knowledge and clearer understanding of the world — when she asserted that some committee members did not understand what she was talking about. Given these threats to PROG’s worldview, it is not surprising that the first racism committee meeting was a “tinderbox.”
The PROG Racism Committee’s Interview Project
To my knowledge, the rule-breaking ex-canvasser did not return to any subsequent racism committee meetings. Indeed, although I was unable to confirm this event with other participants, one of the individuals who had been present at the first meeting told me that the fight described above was “resolved” when one of the white committee members ordered the critic to leave, and she did.
Despite its tinderbox quality — and regardless of how the argument actually ended — the first committee meeting revealed the relative ease with which an outsider’s critique of racism in PROG could be aggressively rebuffed by those who chose to do so. PROG’s organizational culture provided legitimate and seemingly non-racialized grounds upon which some white PROGers were able to dismiss the ex-canvasser’s critiques of the organization by arguing that she was an outsider who did not truly know the organization.
Although it was effective in devaluing the ex-canvassers’ critiques, this argument left a crucial question unresolved among committee participants: What was the truth about racism within PROG — was the organization deeply racist or wasn’t it? Committee members with opposing answers to this question joined together in support of an interview project on the subject. If the critic’s assessment could be dismissed as biased based on her “lack of knowledge” of PROG, the obvious next step for the group was to seek out “non biased” information from individuals with stronger connections to the organization. Beyond this point of agreement, however, two different agendas emerged.
On one hand, some supporters of the interview project viewed the ex-canvasser’s critiques as invalid — or as one member quoted above put it, “wild accusations” with no basis in fact. For these participants, the interview project most likely represented an opportunity to gather the “correct” answers about racism and PROG — that is, answers that were not offered at the first committee meeting. From this perspective, the project was an outgrowth of PROG’s teacher-learner dynamic.
Along these lines, I noticed that a near-final-draft of the committee’s interview guide had a distinctly exam-like tone. The document included questions such as “Define racism”; “What are some barriers to more people of color choosing to participate in PROG?”; “What are some institutional barriers which perpetuate racism?” and “Please give examples of people of different races working successfully together. What were the key reasons for their success?” Indeed, one of the people of color on the committee — an individual who had not been involved when the questions were crafted — commented at a committee meeting that “if someone said to me, ‘Define racism,’ I’d feel like I was in school and needed to give the right answer!” In short, the tone of a number of the questions seemed to locate respondents in the role of student. The inclusion of such questions on a near-final draft of the committee’s interview guide suggests that, in some ways and for some participants, the interview project provided a way to test people of color, rather than to seek their insights.
The perspective described above had the full force of PROG’s worldview behind it. In contrast to this view, a second interview project agenda, held by at least one member of the committee, sought information that would challenge PROG’s worldview by revealing specific manifestations of racism within the organization. According to this participant, any other outcome would indicate a flaw in the design or implementation of the interview project itself:
If [in] all the interviews, if I, being a [person of color], if I didn’t hear things coming up, [if when asked] “How is PROG on race?,” [people replied], “Oh, fine!” I would be really pissed off. I’d think, “Well, there’s something going on here and — how are you guys doing these interviews? I’m mad!” You know, I’d really be upset! [I’d want to ask interviewees] “Do you think you were given a full opportunity to go as far as you needed, do you feel like you understood the language, was the language very different?” All these different things that should be coming up in these interviews.
For this participant, support of the interview project was designed to yield direct critiques that other PROGers could not dismiss based on the critic’s presumed outsider status. But what would happen if direct critiques of racism from individuals currently involved in the organization did emerge from the interviews? Would the non-outsider status of interviewees mean that their critiques would be taken seriously by white PROGers? One Black interviewee argued that white people in PROG — particularly those in powerful positions in the organization — would not take such interview data seriously enough to make changes in the organization:
Well, I think people are going to be very reluctant to give [examples], even if they saw something, because there’s that fear of being wrong. [Others would respond], “Oh, no, that wasn’t racist!” . . . Say, if they were to do this, I would have got that [interview] questionnaire and I would have wrote down [answers to a question like] “Give me examples of racist policies and procedures you had, that are in this organization?” [Say] I took time to fill it out, very detailed — dates, times, “these are all these racist things that have been happening inside these organizations and these are the people who have been doing it” . . . And I’ve listed all these people, and nothing changes. Why am I gonna fill out that form, what was the point? Now, I’m even aggravated because I told you what the problem was and I told you the people, so they didn’t do anything to those people. Or they say, “Oh, no, no, no. That wasn’t racist” . . . Well, why’d you ask me?
The PROG Racism/Anti-Racism Committee After the First Meeting
As accounts of the first committee meeting revealed, several committee members themselves reacted with hostility when an assumed outsider offered direct critiques of the organization. This event suggests that, as a body, this committee was as likely to enforce the PROG’s “rules of resistance” as to break them. Since these rules functioned to constrain or prevent attention white structural dominance and other manifestations of racism within PROG, this situation threatened to severely limit the group’s ability to challenge racism in PROG.
According to one committee member, a person of color, the ex-canvasser’s presence at the first meeting was valuable because this individual broke the rules: “She wasn’t an insider and she wasn’t being safe, and it actually worked to benefit us . . . it brought up things we would have pitter pattered around — she threw us in the middle of it.” However, when I asked how this event had benefited the ongoing practice of the committee, this participant replied that it had not:
No one wants to feel that again — we want to be factual, do work, it’s what we know how to do, so we have a list of tasks to be done . . . we’re not really dealing with the issue because we don’t know how to. We’re looking for answers. I want [that] to change, I want people to feel about this group.
I agree with the above assessment of “post-eruption” committee meetings. As noted earlier, neither the ex-canvasser nor her aunt attended the meetings I did, and I did not observe any other participants offering rule-breaking challenges to racism.
I did, however, observe one of the people of color on the committee engaging in oppositional adherence. This participant’s strategy emerged out of his/her desire to facilitate change in an effective manner within PROG. During a series of formal and informal interviews and conversations with this individual, s/he expressed conflicting opinions about how best to resist racism within the committee and within PROG itself. On one hand, this participant strongly believed that white PROGers needed to grapple with their own and the organization’s racism and white privilege in order for change to occur. On the other hand, s/he remembered the way in which some white committee members had reacted at the first committee meeting, and wondered if a more “gentle” approach might be more effective on a variety of levels.
In a particularly vivid comment on why a gentle approach might be useful, from one of our very first conversations, this participant explained to me why s/he wanted to keep the names of involved individuals out of a description of the first committee meeting:
I feel like, I just want to protect the innocent (laugh). . . . I really want things to work. (Question: What’s the connection [between “protecting the innocent” and the committee working]?) I really don’t want to throw out names because my interpretation is . . . my interpretation, it’s not everyone’s interpretation of what happened. So I don’t mind at all you asking me these tough questions, if you don’t mind me not using specific names and trying to keep people pretty anonymous. Because I really, everybody on that committee is so valuable to me and so important, because there’s so many people that are here that don’t even think this work is important. So, there’s no way I’d want anybody in that committee to leave or not to be doing the hard work that they’re doing, Even though I think some need more.
Other comments — not quoted above — from this individual revealed that s/he was quite aware of the irony involved in a person of color protecting “innocent” white people from charges of racism. Nonetheless, s/he felt some responsibility to provide such protection. Unlike the ex-canvasser, then, this participant did not practice open non-adherence to the rules of resistance. Instead, s/he took some care not to challenge PROG’s worldview in efforts to facilitate change.
This strategy did not meet with the eruption that emerged at the first meeting. Instead, several white members calmly (and nearly invisibly) obstructed what this individual said in various ways — including re-focusing the group on various concrete tasks to be completed, and shifting the group’s attention to the racism of those outside PROG. It is thus no surprise that this participant later told me that the experience was like, “Diligently banging my head against a wall . . . and I do mean DILIGENTLY!”