The Challenge for White Liberals

It’s relatively easy for liberals to recognize and call out the racism of conservatives. But the interaction between #BlackLivesMatter activists and Bernie Sanders has given us an opportunity to examine our own unique brand.

I’m not here to judge or support the manner in which these activists confronted Sanders. I’ll simply note that many of the people criticizing them are the ones who have celebrated the same tactics when used in other situations: Exhibit A.

As so often happens when these opportunities present themselves, I am reminded of something “Zuky” wrote way back in 2007 about the “white liberal conundrum.” I’d like to take a moment to review what he said because it captures many of the interactions I’m reading on social media lately.

First of all, let’s define what we’re talking about:

Anti-racism is a rewarding but grueling journey which must be consciously undertaken and intrepidly pursued (both inwardly and outwardly) if one hopes to make serious progress along its twisting passageways and steep inclines. There’s no static end-condition at which an anti-racist can arrive and definitively declare, “Hallelujah! I am Not A Racist!” Rather, it’s a lifelong process of historical education, vigilant self-interrogation, personal growth, and socio-political agitation.

Now, let’s look at the difference between conservative and liberal racism.

Some might be surprised to learn that when people of color talk about racism amongst ourselves, white liberals often receive a far harsher skewering than white conservatives or overt racists. Many of my POC friends would actually prefer to hang out with an Archie Bunker-type who spits flagrantly offensive opinions, rather than a colorblind liberal whose insidious paternalism, dehumanizing tokenism, and cognitive indoctrination ooze out between superficially progressive words. At least the former gives you something to work with, something above-board to engage and argue against; the latter tacitly insists on imposing and maintaining an illusion of non-racist moral purity which provides little to no room for genuine self-examination or racial dialogue.

Ouch! If that one didn’t sting a bit, you’re probably not paying attention.

What usually happens when we’re confronted about this?

Countless blogospheric discussions on racism amply demonstrate the manner in which many white liberals start acting victimized and angry if anyone attempts to burst their racism-free bubble, oftentimes inexplicably bringing up non-white friends, lovers, adopted children, relatives, ancestors; dismissing, belittling, or obtusely misreading substantive historically-informed analysis of white supremacism as “divisive”, “angry”, “irrational”; downplaying racism as an interpersonal social stigma and bad PR, rather than an overarching system of power under which we all live and which has socialized us all; and threatening to walk away from discussion if persons of color do not conform to a narrow white-centered comfort zone. Such people aren’t necessarily racists in the hate-crime sense of the word, but they are usually acting out social dynamics created by racism and replicating the racist social relationships they were conditioned since birth to replicate.

Any of that sound familiar? Zuky goes on from there with a description that sounds an awful lot like what happened both at Netroots Nation and in the aftermath.

From what I can see, though, a solid majority of white liberals maintain a fairly hostile posture toward anti-racist discourse and critique, while of course adamantly denying this hostility. Many white liberals consider themselves rather enlightened for their ability to retroactively support the Civil Rights movement and to quote safely dead anti-racist icons, even though their present-day physical, intellectual, and political orbits remain mostly segregated…Armed with “diversity” soundbites and melanin-inclusive photo-ops, they seek electoral, financial, and public relations support from people of color. Yet the consistent outcome of their institution-building agendas is to deprioritize and marginalize our voices, perspectives, experiences, concerns, cultures, and initiatives.

Why is it so hard for white liberals to confront this bias? Because doing so will likely cost us…perhaps a lot.

For those white liberals and progressives who become serious about extracting racism from their worlds and their lives, who wish to participate in the dismantling of white supremacism, the white liberal conundrum usually culminates in some sort of series of crossroads and reckonings. They’re often forced to make tough decisions about which of their previous alliances and networks — newly illuminated and often unfavorably recontextualized by anti-racist analysis — are worth trying to maintain, which are too invested in the distortions of the white lens to salvage, and which new directions and networks to pursue.

On a personal note, I read this article by Zuky back when he first posted it in 2007 and I can tell you that putting his advice into practice is difficult and still mostly aspirational for me. But in the process of working on it, I’ve learned more about myself and the world we live in than I could possibly capture in a blog post. Zuky is absolutely right, doing so has meant that I have left some old alliances behind and found “new directions and networks to pursue.” In the end, I have no regrets.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60 .