The Nazi and white supremacist violence in Charlottesville is horrific. But white progressives cannot allow this violence to be yet another moment when we pat ourselves on the back and point our fingers at other white people as the “real” racists while we ignore our complicity.
The Netroots Nation conference, the largest annual meeting of progressives, finished yesterday, and I keep seeing the same pattern, both at the conference and across the nation. White progressives get very defensive when faced with their complicity in white supremacy, and this defensiveness manifests itself in many ways, from wanting to dominate the Q&A in a session run by people of color to hesitation if not refusal to put racial justice at the heart of our political platform.
One of the most public displays of white defensiveness came Saturday morning at the plenary, where black conference participants who supported black lives matter engaged in an action that interrupted white female Georgian gubernatorial candidate Stacey Evans. White conference attendees in the audience responded in person and on twitter demanding the candidate be allowed to speak and essentially told the black activists to sit down and be quiet. Stacey Evans appeared to have learned nothing from Bernie Sanders’ response to black lives matter activists at this very conference two years ago. She just plowed through her speech, clearly frustrated and defensive. Netroots leadership didn’t seem to learn enough from Bernie’s experience two years ago either. Neither did white Netroots participants whose response imagines that there is a level playing field and that the reasonable thing is to just give multiple candidates for the same position a chance to speak. But this response entirely ignores the history and persistence of white supremacy. Black female Georgian gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams had just been a plenary speaker the day before, and there was significant enthusiasm and excitement for her speech. She was very impressive and spoke about her lifetime of work organizing her community. She would be the first black female governor in US history. After Netroots leadership did a great job of lifting up her candidacy, it was a slap in the face to Stacey Abrams, and everyone who supports her, for a white candidate for the same political office to receive such a prominent speaking slot the next day. Some white female conference participants said that the white female candidate should speak because white women face oppression. Yes, white women face gender oppression, but as white people, we are also complicit in white supremacy. Why can’t we learn that when we center the most marginalized people, we all win? Why can’t we trust local black activists who raised serious concerns about Evans’ candidacy? Why can’t we trust black women to lead?
One of the points that I tried to make in the training I gave Saturday, “Never Woke Enough: Talking to White People about White Supremacy” was that white people, all white people in the US, breathe the air of white supremacy and have been manipulated by the ideology of white supremacy and anti-blackness. This was an invention by the white wealthy elite that dates back to colonial America, and we have been manipulated for centuries to believe false racial ideologies that divide and conquer, protect patriarchy and capitalism, and dehumanize black people. We are not taught this history, and we need to start learning it if we are to confront what I call the “Racism Machine.” My Powerpoint slides are available here if you’re interested: Netroots Powerpoint Gaffney 2017 This manipulation is exactly what leads white people to be unaware that whiteness itself is an invention, created to maintain power and control for a tiny elite. Even when white people learn this history, it can be a huge challenge to figure out how that history impacts the actions we take and decisions we make every day. For example, white progressives can become very defensive and uncomfortable when asked if they pay reparations to people of color. How many white people are showing up to vigils and marches but not even thinking about reparations? When Ta-Nehisi Coates’s article “The Case for Reparations” appeared in 2014, white progressives bent over backwards to share it, but how many really engage in serious discussion about what reparations could look like in our daily lives?
While I thought it was important that Netroots participated in a solidarity rally Saturday night, and while I participated too, we can’t let marches be our only action. It’s even more important that we interrogate our complicity in white supremacy. For example, we marched through the streets of Atlanta shouting “This is what democracy looks like” at the same time as we passed by homeless people along the way, mostly black men. Homelessness and black poverty are not what democracy looks like. We must figure out how to make reparations, especially when faced with that level of hypocrisy in our own words. Reparations can at least start with paying black workshop leaders who provide labor to teach white people about racism. Paying Netroots trainers like Ashleigh Shackelford is a start. Supporting projects like the Safety Pin Box, whose black female leaders were at this conference, is another example. We also need to provide financial support to black lives matter chapters in our own states.
Finally, one of the things that concerns me the most that I saw at Netroots and that I continue to see in the media responding to Charlottesville is that white progressives are not learning from periods of crisis. Even though white progressives expressed and continue to express alarm at Trump’s election and his entire presidency, we are still not putting racial justice at the heart of our platform. We are so busy trying to show how much less racist we are than Steve Bannon or the KKK in Charlottesville that we are unable to recognize that white supremacy lives within us, too. Real racial justice requires us to actively confront our complicity in white supremacy. That means asking ourselves on a daily basis: How do our daily choices and actions in our community, in our homes, and at our workplaces uphold white supremacy? How are we complicit in anti-blackness in our daily choices about the media we consume, the places we choose to live, how we spend our money, what we say at work and what we don’t say, and how we interact or don’t interact with black people? If non-profit social justice organizations, the environmental movement, the Democratic party, and other entities say they care about racial justice, then why aren’t they upholding the leadership and liberation of those who are most marginalized? Why isn’t racial justice at the heart of their platform? Why aren’t they working with communities of color all of the time and not just right before an election? White progressives, we need to look ourselves in the mirror and recognize our participation in white supremacy and recognize that that process of recognition and dismantling our white supremacy is never-ending.