Fun fact: white people’s feelings are magic. They can bring any conversation, meeting or movement to a halt. In a debate, they can outweigh even the most credible, concrete evidence. They can threaten someone’s job. They can even kill. White people’s feelings are one of this country’s most abundant natural resources and important exports.
Because of all this, any conversation about social justice, power, or history is going to naturally settle into orbit around white people’s feelings. And I get it: if we want to really do something about racism in this country, it’s white people who need to change the most, and it’s white people who often have the longest political/spiritual/emotional journey to undertake.
But when social justice education and/or media focuses solely on understanding racism through a white privilege framework, that can recreate the same oppressive structures we’re trying to destroy. When the conversation has such a laser focus around educating white people and carrying their emotional baggage, what potential voices, perspectives or frameworks are missing? We may be moving forward, but how are we defining “we?”
As someone who is both a social justice educator and who identifies as at least somewhat white myself, I’d like to explore some other options. How else can we engage in anti-racist work without having everything be about white people’s feelings? A few possibilities:
This kind of work is already happening, but I think it’s worth noting: we can continue to develop programming that is specifically for white people (alongside programming that is specifically for any identity group) rather than relying on the “catch-all” approach that alienates, bores or infuriates so many students (specifically students of color). In these spaces, we can talk about white people’s feelings without having that conversation derail the other work that’s happening. “Caucusing” can sometimes be controversial, but it can also be effective.
Maybe that’s a strong word, but in social justice education spaces, we can acknowledge that some material is going to make white people (or men, or straight people, or any other privileged group) sad. Or angry. Or guilty, confused, defensive, etc. And we can acknowledge that, and then we can just keep moving. As a facilitator, it’s not your job to “save” anyone. As an educator, you want to get your point across and cultivate understanding, but when all of the energy in the room goes into making a handful of defensive white students feel better, that’s not healthy or productive for the larger group.
Sometimes, Education Isn’t the Answer
Sometimes, the personal/cultural change happens after the institution has already moved on. There may be times when the funding, time and energy poured into “diversity education” initiatives could perhaps be better spent changing the fundamental structure of the institution. We can teach an all-white board of directors about the importance of racially-inclusive language, for example, or we can fight to get people of color on the board of directors. Education is always going to be part of the larger movement toward racial justice, but that doesn’t mean that it is the absolute answer in every scenario. Clearly, education and organizing are not mutually exclusive (just the opposite), but as the saying goes, “the work is not the workshop.”
White People: Do Your Homework
Most of the points on this list are for educators and organizers who work in these spaces. But those of us who are white can do more, proactively, even outside these spaces. Read books. Listen. Suppress the urge to always get defensive about everything. Never rely on someone else to do the emotional dirty work for you, or hold your hand while you do it. Related to this point, one of the most powerful things I read this year was Mia McKenzie’s “No More Allies” piece here.
Brave Spaces vs. Safe Spaces
I’m not sure who came up with this framework, but I think it’s very important. In any social justice education space, it’s worth acknowledging that it’s good to be challenged and to be uncomfortable. Of course, we need to take care of ourselves, but “taking care of yourself” should never mean “sticking your head in the sand to avoid all criticism and/or difficult conversations.”
A common thread in all of these points is that change isn’t predicated on anyone’s feelings; change is the product of collaborative, intentional work. Education matters—and even feelings matter—but only as much as they make that work easier or harder. When all of the energy in an educational campaign or organization is poured into making sure the people who already carry the most privilege aren’t getting their feelings hurt, that hurts movements. We can do better.
Nothing I’m saying here is new; these are ongoing conversations that will continue to shift, evolve and come to new conclusions. I also, clearly, have my own baggage and biases around this topic. Feel free to add to this list, post relevant links, etc.