NJ7 Citizens for Change just published my blog “What Does White Complicity Look Like?” which I wrote after visiting the On Whiteness exhibit at the Racial Imaginary Institute hosted at The Kitchen in NYC.
As a child, I remember carrying the American flag for my Girl Scout troupe in a 4th of July parade, loving fireworks, and wanting to celebrate this country. After all, why wouldn’t I? I had all of the unearned advantages that came with my white, middle-class, suburban existence. And just like other white people, I was taught that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” were available to everyone in the US.
Now, as an adult who identifies as a white anti-racist educator, it’s clear to me that there is a significant gap between what scholars who study race take for granted and what the public, especially white people, know about race and racism.
We approach this 4th of July with daily reports of family separation, immigrant detention, pervasive racism, mass shootings, diminishing union power, cuts to reproductive rights, a travel ban, voter suppression, a racial wealth gap, lessening workers’ rights, and the specter of a far right wing Supreme Court. Many white people who are disturbed or even horrified by these problems may be wondering: What exactly does the 4th of July mean? Should I celebrate it?
These are likely questions that people of color and other marginalized people are not suddenly asking themselves for the first time. After all, Frederick Douglass asked in 1852, “What to the slave is the Fourth of July?”
Most white people in the US have been taught that the principles of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” apply to everyone, at least in the years since the civil rights movement. They have been taught a narrative that depicts their European ancestors as immigrants who became successful because of their hard work. They are not taught that their success in the land of opportunity depended on their whiteness. So, it should not be a surprise that following this narrative, many white people, when confronted with examples of people of color not being economically successful, attribute it to laziness. “Just work hard,” like they did, and they’d be successful. Undocumented immigrants should just “get in line” like their ancestors did, and they’d be successful.
The narrative of the 4th of July is that we should be patriotic, that America is a place of freedom and opportunity. Believing all of that is reassuring. It feels good. It doesn’t disrupt. However, believing that continues to maintain the false narrative that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” were and are meant for everyone when in fact these principles only apply to those seen as fully human. Through the invention of race, whiteness was created as a racial category and as the only one that was fully human. This racial ideology established a racial hierarchy that positioned white people at the top as superior, black people at the bottom as inferior and less than human, and indigenous peoples, Latinx people, and Asian Americans in various intermediary spots depending on the historical moment.
Many white people who were upset about Trump’s election and who have resisted his rhetoric and policies ever since support a narrative that our current administration is an aberration and that we just need to get back to the way things are supposed to be, believing that prior to Trump’s administration, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” were generally available to everyone. We hear the phrase “This is not normal,” as if what came before was “normal.” In other words, what came before was ok. I would urge people to reconsider this mindset and think about how “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” were never meant for everyone: injustice is the norm.
Our nation was founded on European imperial conquest for land, wealth, and resources, and that was made possible through land theft, genocide, and slavery. These are not a stain that can be washed away, leaving behind something pure and just. These oppressive actions and ideologies are built into our institutions, built into our very nationhood. (Please see my blog page “Resources on Race and Racism” for numerous examples.)
White people have a hard enough time reconciling the state of America today with what they imagine it to be in their mind. But to reconcile that America has never been what they imagine it to be is the real challenge. The Trump administration might seem different than what came before, and of course there are differences, but it is just an extreme example of an oppressive status quo we’ve always had.
Like many of you, I recently attended a Families Belong Together rally and march on June 30. That day and on many other days in recent weeks, I’ve heard white people say something like, “This is not the America that I know.” This is not the America that most white people know, but it is the America that people of color and other marginalized people have always known. That disconnect demands our attention. When we say, “This is not the America that I know,” it erases a history of African slavery, indigenous genocide, Chinese Exclusion, Jim Crow segregation, lynching, deportation of American citizens of Mexican descent, internment of Japanese Americans, and so much more.
So on the 4th of July, when we are asked to celebrate America, what if we finally start recognizing that the only way “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are available to everyone is if they are actually available to everyone? We will never get there if we remain indoctrinated to the myths we are so often taught, myths that might provide us with some privileges but are ultimately meant to control us by keeping us at the mercy of a system of white supremacy, capitalism, and patriarchy. (My book Dismantling the Racism Machine: A Manual and Toolbox explains these false ideologies that perpetuate racism through a divide-and-conquer strategy.)
To unquestionably celebrate the 4th of July means to perpetuate the lie, the myth that maintains the status quo of white supremacy. Confronting what America has always been does not mean I recommend leaving the US. My bags are not packed for Canada. I want to stay here and work for justice. To me, that means confronting the false ideologies we’ve been indoctrinated into, educating others, including white children, having difficult conversations with other white people, and taking action to support leadership from marginalized communities. I strongly believe that it is only when the most marginalized are free that we are all free.
Karen Gaffney, PhD is an English Professor at Raritan Valley Community College in NJ. Her recent book, Dismantling the Racism Machine: A Manual and Toolbox (Routledge, 2018), is an accessible introduction to race and racism with tools for action. Follow her blog with resources “Divided No Longer” (available at https://dividednolonger.com).
I just returned from the Working-Class Studies Association conference held at Stony Brook University filled with inspiration. This conference is such an important opportunity to do what we don’t do enough, both inside and outside of academia: critique and resist the destructive forces of capitalism, listen to people in poverty, support working-class academics, and appreciate the work being done in the field of working-class studies. Unlike many other academic conferences, this conference, co-hosted this year by the Center for the Study of Inequalities, Social Justice, and Policy, provides a supportive and encouraging environment for graduate students and senior faculty alike to exchange ideas about teaching, scholarship, and the world around us. I’d like to identify a few ideas and questions that I’m still thinking about and then recognize the work that caught my attention:
- Children in wealthy families, which are predominantly white, receive access to various resources that have a significant impact on their financial security, yet this dynamic is often invisible and obscured by the rhetoric of “just work hard and you’ll be successful.” Furthermore, the concentration of wealth at the top has been increasing, not decreasing, while the narrative of the American dream persists.
- Have we become more materialistic and consumer-driven during the past few decades?
- How does the narrative and ideology of individualism affect us and intersect with class, race, gender, and more?
- As more women become graduate students and faculty members, academia is becoming increasingly precarious.
- What are all of the ways that neo-liberalism is affecting us?
- What responsibility do fulltime, tenured faculty have to change the culture of higher education in order to improve the working conditions for adjunct faculty, change the publish or perish culture, and help graduate students complete rather than make it harder?
- How can we center the activism and inspiring work of new generations of activists through the movements of the Dreamers, Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and the March for Our Lives?
- What do college students in poverty want their faculty to know and do?
- How can poverty be at the center of discussions (and conferences) about class?
- Why are the middle class white men and women who voted for Trump ignored when talking about Trump voters, as if the only people who voted for him were working class whites and as if all working class whites voted for him?
While there were many impressive presentations, roundtables, and other discussions, I was especially inspired by the following:
- Rhonda Y. Williams’ brilliant presentation/performance about division
- Tamara Draut of Demos described their work on addressing racial and economic justice together
- Journalists from the Nation (Michelle Chen, Bryce Covert, and John Washington) described their powerful and much-needed investigative reporting
- Jack Metzgar’s analysis of voter trends
- A moving poem about Eric Garner by Ross Gay was shared by a participant – “A Small Needful Fact”
- A reflection on the 25th anniversary of Working-Class Women in the Academy: Laborers in the Knowledge Factory (Thanks to Michelle Tokarczyk, one of the original editors, for sharing her thoughts.)
- Strategizing about activism through public writing and public engagement with John Russo, Scott Henkel, Dwight Lang, Sherry Linkon and more (Check out the blogs Working-Class Perspectives and Classism Exposed at Class Action)
- Jessi Straub’s analysis of luck and Jeremy Posadas’s analysis of disposability and intersectionality
It was exciting to participate in discussions about the forthcoming book The Routledge International Handbook of Working-Class Studies, edited by Michele Fazio, Christie Launius, and Tim Strangleman. I’m working on an essay for the chapter on activism, and this discussion and the conference overall helped me think through my ideas and pushed me to work on making a greater contribution, with the idea of the endless possibilities that can arise when we center the experiences of the community college when we talk about higher education. How can we teach activism in the classroom, and why should we? How can we, as faculty, take our work outside of the classroom into the public as a form of activism, and why should we?
Finally, I was honored to present a workshop on “‘Dismantling the Racism Machine’: What White People Are Not Taught about White Supremacy.” I always learn from the discussion, and I appreciated the engagement. There is a Facebook livestream video of the first portion of my workshop here. The Powerpoint is available here: Powerpoint Gaffney WCSA June 7 2018
Thanks again to the Working-Class Studies Association, especially organizers Michele Fazio, Terry Easton, Colby King, Cherie Rankin, Ken Estey, Christopher Sellers, and many more.
I just wrote this guest blog for NJ 7 Citizens for Change in response to a sign that appeared in nearby Flemington, NJ.
I created this blog in 2014 when my book project was still a jumble of ideas without a clear shape. Now, I am so grateful for all of the support and feedback and inspiration I received to get to the point of publication. Dismantling the Racism Machine: A Manual and Toolbox is an accessible introduction to race and racism with tools for action. My goal is to contribute to the never-ending and much-needed process of raising awareness about the myths we have been taught about race and racism. White people in particular have been taught a set of false beliefs that maintain the status quo, that perpetuate structural racism. Unlearning these myths is one step toward ending white supremacy. I would love your help getting the word out about my book. There’s a tab on this blog devoted to the book, with blurbs and updated publicity. Furthermore, all of the resources on this blog website are dedicated to supporting the work of this book, of resisting myths that support white supremacy in order to dismantle racism.
Can you spread the word about this book by writing a book review? An Amazon review? Promoting it on social media? Assigning it to your students? Urging your friends, colleagues, and family to read it? Recommending it as professional development for teachers, social workers, health care professionals, and more?
These days, it’s easy to focus all of our anti-racist attention on condemning the latest racist language from the President. However, we won’t make any progress if we focus all of our energy there. After all, that language only reflects a pattern of systemic racism that has persisted in this country since colonial America. We must focus our energy on tackling systems of oppression that allow racism, xenophobia, sexism, and other oppressions to continue. I humbly offer my book as one strategy for such work.
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.
Soon I’ll be headed to Netroots Nation in Atlanta, where I’ll be giving a training workshop called “Never Woke Enough: Talking to White People about White Supremacy.” Thanks so much to the Hunterdon County (NJ) Anti-Racism Coalition for letting me test-run it and get feedback last month. I am sharing my Powerpoint slides here: Netroots Powerpoint Gaffney 2017. I created my title “Never Woke Enough” in response to hearing self-identified white progressives say they are “already woke” and already know everything they should know about racism. I don’t believe that white people can ever be done learning about white supremacy; it is a never-ending process. I also don’t think that the white political left, the Democratic Party, and/or white self-identified liberals and progressives have yet learned that racial justice needs to be a primary part of a political platform, not something secondary. I continue to hear that we should just focus on economic justice, and that will address racial justice. No. That approach just does not work, and it shuts out people of color whose leadership needs to be front and center. The conservative backlash against civil rights has been using divide and conquer strategies for fifty years through demonizing myths and stereotypes (War on Drugs, Welfare Queen, Voter Fraud, etc.), through rhetoric that criminalizes people of color (“illegal,” “terrorist,” etc.), and even through supposedly positive stereotypes like the “model minority” stereotype of Asian Americans. We need to put racial justice at the forefront of our political agenda if we ever want to dismantle white supremacy. I address some of these concepts in my upcoming book Dismantling the Racism Machine: A Manual and Toolbox (from Routledge).