How White Liberal Culture Perpetuates Racism
Or, why shaming people into taking down the confederate flag won’t work
I was sitting around with a group of fellow white liberals the other day for a feel-good bitch session about ignorant conservatives and their unwillingness to take down the confederate flag. It was basically a conversation that consisted of exploring the many different ways we could find to say “Can you believe they they’re still flying the confederate flag in the wake of Charleston? Some people are just so hateful.” One question that never came up was “Why do some people still want to fly the confederate flag?” Generally, if you’re trying to convince a person or group of people to change their behavior, it’s a pretty solid plan to understand why they’re acting the way that is upsetting you. However, actually convincing anyone to change their behavior was clearly not a high priority of ours because we were deep in the belly of the liberal beast; I would be surprised if there had been a confederate flag supporter within 100 miles.
What was really going on in this conversation, I think, was in-group out-group signaling. It was well understood that this group of people was liberal as fuck, and so vocalizing a bunch of facebook-approved liberal views was a way of signaling to the people around you “hey, I’m super liberal too! Accept me!”
I often do this, with varying degrees of consciousness. Once my good friend Lina, who is a trans woman and also kind of a bitch, came over to my apartment and saw this pamphlet to help you learn how to correctly pronoun people (spoiler: it involves naming your toaster.)
“Wow, I saw that in the store, and wondered what type of excessively liberal douche would buy such a thing.”
“I’m having trouble with trans masculine and gender neutral pronouns!” I protested.
“Well, I guess it’s good you’re working on it. Wasn’t it like, $20 though?”
“Yeah, but you know, good cause, all that.”
“So, you hanging out with a lot of gender neutral people lately?”
“Well, no. Not really.”
At the time, I wasn’t really hanging out with anyone who was trans masculine or gender neutral, but I was hanging out with people dating trans masculine and gender neutral people. I wasn’t worried about hurting anyone by incorrectly pronouning them, I was more concerned that I would signal to the people I was hanging out with that I wasn’t really part of the community. While I could defend my actions with “I’m just trying being a good trans-ally. Do I need to check my cis-privilege further?” deep down I didn’t actually care about creating a safe environment for trans folk. I cared about reinforcing my own image and identity. Lina saw right through me.
So, when I see all this highly vocal “WE MUST NOT BE RACIST” stuff on the internet, I get it. I really do, because no one out douche-liberals me. But, like, let’s call a spade a spade. We do it because we want to look good, right? Yes I’m sure on some level people “really care” and all that, but like, not that much.
Black Girl Dangerous refers to it as cookie-seeking, where people basically act like allies to get social status (aka cookies) but aren’t willing to do helpful behaviors that they won’t get any recognition for. There’s even been a study on slacktivism which suggests people are very willing to perform low-cost “activist” actions (say, fb posting) as a way of increasing their social status, but are very unlikely to do any actually difficult follow up activism. At the heart of it, real change isn’t really the point of these types of actions. Social acceptance is.
This slactivist cookie seeking may just seem like liberal white noise, but wait! It’s worse!
Let’s magic-schoolbus back to when a bunch of rich land owners were trying to pass slavery. They had to secure the votes of poor white people, who would actually be severely economically disadvantaged by the institution of slavery. Without slavery, rich white people would have to pay poor white people to perform the tasks that slaves would be forced to do for free. How could the rich white guys convince the poor white guys to support a system against their economic best interests? With racism!
The decision to elevate poor and landless Europeans above blacks and indigenous peoples was a conscious one, made so as to vouchsafe the position of the elite relative to the masses, which position was threatened by the possibility of cross-racial, class-based rebellion.
This is a very important point, so pay attention! Racism is not just a way we oppress people of color in the US, but ALSO a way we oppress poor white people. I’m not saying they have it worse, I’m saying their oppression is a crucial cog in the entire racist system.
It’s a little un-PC to say, but poor white people are often more overtly racist than rich white people. I don’t mean that as a judgement, because it is actually a reflection of the oppression they face. Basically, no one wants to be the most disrespected member of society, and those at risk will oppose changes that might move them into that position.
People care about (i.e. have an “interest” in) where they shake out in the hierarchy of society. Poor whites don’t want to be in last place, and pro-white social structures ensure that they aren’t.
If people of color achieve true racial equality, poor people of all races will soon become society’s most degraded segment. White poor people can see they will be included in that grouping, and so it is within their social best interests to perpetuate racism, because at least under the current system they come out ahead of black people.
This ties in with liberal cookie-seeking in a particularly noxious way. In recent years, it’s become clear that those in power are, or soon will be, the educated socially-liberal elite (think people who run Microsoft, Facebook, Google, etc.) I’ve heard many people express amazement at the speed of social progress (wow, gay marriage passed! We’ve come such a long way in 10 years.) I am skeptical of deep social progress. What I think really happened was that there was a shift in the balance of power with the computer revolution so that people with more liberal views began to occupy a more prestigious position in society. This led to other people adopting similarly liberal views, not out of any sort of real conviction, but basically to get on the “winning team.”
Part of the way you can indicate you are on the “winning team” is by publicly shitting all over the other team. But, if you really care about actually improving racism in America, this is one of the worst things you can do. White people who hold racist attitudes do so because their social position is insecure. They are holding to racism because it is one of the few ways they have of maintaining their dignity in a country that is trying to shred it. If you become part of the forces that degrade them, you are giving them more incentive to cling tighter to their racist attitudes.
When you shame racist white people, you are perpetuating the larger mechanism of racism in the US.
What steps can someone actually make to improve racism in the US? This is a very difficult question, but I’d suggest it starts at trying to actually understand people. How does a a 43 year old black woman feel when she walks by the confederate flag? How does a 17 year old male white-supremacist feel? How has her lived experienced differed from his, and how do these emotions play out on the larger scale?
And, most importantly, how can we create a culture with enough dignity that we don’t need to fight each other for it anymore?