Race, Radicalism, and White Participation


My good friend recently criticized me for being bitten by the “post-racial” bug. I suggested that race, as a socially-constructed concept unrelated to genetics, affects everyone and that human connection can transcend (perceived) racial differences. I would never be so naïve to argue that race no longer matters; in fact, I think that it matters more than ever, affecting even white people. We, as human beings of all races, need to start having more honest and inclusive conversations on the subject.

Race does not need to directly affect me, a white man who grew up in moderately affluent suburbs, to the same extent or in the same way that it affects an urban black resident or a Mexican immigrant for me to speak on or combat it. I, too, have been alienated from family, potential friends, and even society by both real and perceived white racism. I, too, see it as a virus that must be eradicated.

I always fear that my family won't accept a non-white partner I bring home. My mother, in part due to my consciousness-raising efforts, has no qualms with any woman of any color who loves me and treats me right. However, past comments from certain extended family members have made my blood boil with anti-racist rage. Equally enraging was my ex-girlfriend’s insistence on playing the victim role, as well as making me feel guilty for being more privileged because of my race. She used the “race card” to get her way; this could not occur in a society that wasn't already saturated with power and privilege asserted through racial hierarchy. No matter how sincere, committed, or accountable the individual, trust is very difficult to build across racial lines. I learned this the hard way through my relationships. 

Nonetheless, I am fortunate that in my struggle as a white man for racial justice, society does not place crosshairs on my back — but there was a time when it did. I think it’s important for us to recognize the courageous contributions of whites to the abolition of slavery, the empowerment of blacks during Reconstruction, and the anti-segregation battles of the 1960s. This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides. How many realize that white men were among the victims of racist, proto-fascist brutality in the South for daring to share a bus seat with their black brothers?

Knowing this history, I was a bit surprised when I was told in private by a respected professor and radio personality that I should not be teaching at a youth detention center whose population is 100 percent black and Latino. The only reason they gave me was that my “own community” needed me. As someone who taught Carter G. Woodson’s The Mis-Education of the Negro in that very detention center, I know that Woodson himself would not agree. Although Woodson, the founder of Black History Month, was a strong proponent of empowering blacks by teaching them their history through a non-Eurocentric lens, he was not opposed to equally-minded whites teaching blacks.

I don't have a problem with those who take a more nationalist or separatist approach to race relations. I only ask that they don't speak for all blacks, Latinos, Asians, indigenous peoples, or whites when making their arguments. It is not as if all citizens of any race view separatism and alienation as synonymous with empowerment. Moreover, I don't think it is even possible to convert an obstinate racist without introducing that same racist to the very people he or she hates/fears.

We are all in this struggle together. A racially harmonious society is ultimately in everyone’s best interests; it is even in the best interests of those who eschew fairness and long-term prosperity for short-term profit and power. The principle of “unity through diversity” is crucial because the point is not to ignore or deny racial differences, but to transcend and collectively resolve them. There is no way to accomplish any of this without the participation of whites.

Photo CreditElizabeth Heidrich