In America, white people are too often complacent, even as allies. Will white America realise that in order for society to change they must be prepared to shoulder the social hardship of people of colour?
April 12, 1963, 55 years ago today, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested by Alabama authorities for descending — with over 1,000 black demonstrators — upon the business district of, by King’s formulation, “the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States.”
In the days following, King would compose his now famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail, responding to local clergymen’s presumably well-meaning criticisms of his campaign of civil disobedience. In so doing, King levels what amounts to a #ThoughtsAndPrayers critique of white allies’ exhortations to stay his activism, to accept postponement of social justice after America’s 80-plus years under Jim Crow.
Today, more than a half century later, this “stumbling block,” as King calls it, of white Americans’ complacency and rote empathy toward the struggle for racial equality remains basically unchanged.
To be sure, white America’s political activism, on both ends of the ideological spectrum, has ratcheted up in recent years, particularly since President Donald J. Trump’s electoral college victory, on a scale the nation largely hasn’t seen since the ’60s. And while causes promoted by and for people of color have benefitted from greater levels of white advocacy, a corresponding trend toward white progressives’ co-opting these movements betrays a persistent unwillingness on the part of white allies to productively engage with issues of racial difference.
Fundamentally, white progressives failed to recognise in King’s time, as they largely do now, the requisites of alliances with regard to black and brown Americans’ pursuit of social justice.
While listening, maintaining personal accountability, and recognising and owning one’s privilege are indeed important steps, to be truly effective allies white progressives must be willing to set aside their ultimate birthright: comfort.
It is only through the creation of and acting upon a generative discomfort, inconvenience, and sacrifice, as was effected by King in his time, that progressive change is achieved.
It is still the case that narratives surrounding US social justice movements are appropriated for the purpose of centering and accommodating white voices, experiences, and, most important, comfort.
In the age of “All Lives Matter” and the wake of the Women’s March, billed by organisers as an inclusive, intersectional event, we saw some participants retreat to familiar, exclusionary habits of white feminism.
The cover of TIME magazine’s Silence Breakers issue, devoted to the “Me Too” Movement, excludes Tarana Burke, the movement’s black female founder.
And it is still white progressives, or as King refers to them in his letter, “white moderates,” who espouse and practice a circular brand of inclusivity. The rhetoric aims to bring “all voices to the table” for “dialogue across difference,” then begins and ends with investigating myriad ways in which equality might be striven for while safely ensconced in a bubble of white privilege.
The Make-American-Great-Again crowd, for their part, understands and acknowledges the discomfort social justice advocates seek to animate in American society, routinely giving voice to the disorientation they experience.
Consider the words of one FOX News executive in reference to the US’ 2018 Winter Olympics team, to encountering a “Darker, Gayer, Different” America.
Moreover, political correctness, Trump supporters’ “Exhibit A” in their ceaseless litigation of a perceived, pervasive anti-white racism in the US, is framed as a byproduct of a “snowflake generation” of progressives intolerant of ideological views incompatible with their own.
Certainly, there is a valid critique to be made of, for instance, recent college students’ outcry to disinvite conservative speakers from their campuses and, more generally, of liberals’ bulwarking themselves in communities wherein conservative viewpoints are targets for derision rather than subjects for serious consideration.
In the final analysis, however, white progressive and conservative intolerance for social and epistemological discomfort share a common root: white privilege.
It is, after all, the case that vocal white outrage is largely reserved not for incident after incident of officer-involved shootings of unarmed black men in the US but instead for the rare instance in which a white woman is shot and killed by a defensive officer of color.
And while protests barely register among the white populace when black women and girls are accosted by the authorities, violently slammed into a sidewalk, the asphalt, or a classroom floor, treating these subjects’ white counterparts in a similar fashion would be, it would seem, unconscionable.
White privilege consists, therefore, of an implied right to silence, inaction, and avoidance of discomfort around issues of racial inequality, even among those who might consider themselves “progressive,” “moderate,” or “allies.”
In this sense, people of colour in America are always—and always have been—writing, performing, and telling our stories from inside the walls of a Birmingham jail, so to speak, cheeks pressed to the seemingly impenetrable bars of an inert white comfort, speaking if only to hear our own voices, if only to break the oppressive silence.
It’s time for comfortable white progressives to speak up, as well.
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