When white women practice the politics of polite, the violence of nice
We must admit that, when we’re moderate, we’re complicit.
“I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is…the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”
~Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., 16 April 1963, Letter from Birmingham Jail
Fellow white women, we need to talk about our devotion to the inoffensive. Our culturally-ingrained pull towards all things moderate. Our desire to be Switzerland. The United Nations of “the benefit of the doubt,” and the gatekeepers of respectability. So accustomed are we to negotiating and moderating our way through life’s more unpleasant moments, we’ve taken these familiar, rusty tools and barreled headlong into anti-racist work, firmly believing that the uniform spreading of benevolence across the land will cure all that ails us.
It turns out, not so much. Our extreme discomfort with discord and our inability to sustain even the mildest of stress fractures when our tools fail us, is why we are not moving the needle on the meaningful dismantling of systems and institutions that intentionally uphold white supremacy. We recoil from the concepts of subversion and disruption like vampires from the hot sun. Because subversion is not polite and disruption is not nice. We need to embrace the discomfort, the edges and the messiness of overturning that which has kept us in the number two slot of the power and privilege pyramid for over 500 years.
We need to embrace the righteous anger of those we have oppressed and abused, and walk willingly into that fire. White supremacy is a free, readily available and potently addictive drug, and we’ve been overdosed and high for centuries. Only as we detox and sober up, can we cast aside the twin enablers of niceness and negotiation we have relied upon to manipulate a system that feeds our habit, while it destroys people of color.
We will be in white supremacy rehab for the rest of our lives. Let’s start there. There is no graduation ceremony, and there is no treatment except constant self-examination. As we work on that, as diligently and as authentically as we can, we must also acquire and learn to use new tools. Are we willing to spend our social capital on behalf of people of color? Are we prepared to challenge each other, and white men, to disrupt the status quo at work, at our children’s schools, in our valued circles of family and friends, in institutions of higher learning? Are we willing to leverage our white privilege as a protective shield for people of color against law enforcement, ICE, the TSA?
Taking direct action in any one of these scenarios will require the antithesis of white woman nice. Strategic subversion and an utter disgust for our own collective lack of humanity; humility of thought and deed; an egoless decision-making process that puts people of color FIRST, not as props in our ‘I’m a good white person,’ vignette; educating ourselves without defensiveness or fragility on the brutal realities of systemic racism in America — these are just some of the new tools we need to learn to wield effectively, if we are to achieve anything resembling justice and equality in our lifetimes.
Black blogger and activist Sassy Latte says this about power: “as people in marginalized communities gain access to power, the effect is that people who have power are going to have to give some of it up.” White women, did you feel those ‘nice’ nerves tingling and twitching as you read that sentence? Did your brain default to, ‘but, but, we can do this in a calm and orderly fashion! There’s no need to be radical!’ If it did, you’re not alone. We are wired to reach for compromise. We crave the illusion of order, and we truly believe in civility, laws, systems and RULES. Why? Because all of them were created to protect US. Our niceness is simply tacit complicity in the injustices and inequalities that keep people of color systemically and generationally oppressed.
So, what concrete steps can we take as we throw off the self-locking restraints of self-serving niceness? A partial and by no means comprehensive list includes;
‘Concerned Citizen’ Cop Watch: Traffic stops can be lethal for black (and brown) folks, we need no further proof or discussion on this. The next time you witness one, pull over. Stay behind the police vehicle, and maintain a reasonable distance. Record the entire interaction on your phone, without interfering (you cannot be arrested or ticketed under these circumstances). If you are approached by the cop, and you probably will be, inform them that you are a concerned citizen, and that you will leave once the person of color has safely driven away.
You can apply this technique to any interaction you witness between a person of color and a member of law enforcement, the officer cannot legally stop you. The ACLU Mobile Justice app is now available in 18 states, and is a secure way to record police interactions without risk of video deletion from your phone (www.aclu.org/issues/criminal-law-reform/reforming-police-practices/aclu-apps-record-police-conduct).
Human Resources Disruption: Take a good hard look at your place of employment. Is it the typically structured, majority white space, with a few tokenized faces of color? Change it. Highlight and elevate the applications and resumes of people of color. Recommend them for promotion and advancement. Use your privilege to fight for representation at every level of the organization. Take it upon yourself to educate your white colleagues and bosses on the exponential value of diversity. Learn and understand why whiteness is so very often a deficit in many roles, and not the default benefit it is always assumed to be.
Show Me Your Friends, and I’ll Tell You Who You Are: If you are not prepared to challenge the carefully cultivated truces and ever-present deafening silences that invariably occur during conversations about race with your loved ones, then this is an occasional hobby for you, not a commitment. Calling out microaggressions in our own homes and social gatherings is not only essential, it gives us the opportunity to strengthen our resiliency muscles, and forego niceness in the service of justice.
Teach Your Children Well: What do you know about anti-racist education at your nearby schools? Is the curriculum an accurate and truthful reflection of the history and reality of racism? How are teachers approaching colonialism, native peoples genocide, chattel slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, segregation, the criminal justice system, immigration, the ‘War on Drugs,’ the school to prison pipeline, reparations, and institutionalized racism and bigotry? Take a deep, conscious dive into the whitewashed narratives embedded in our education system, and push back — hard. Ask tough questions, promote the hiring of people of color into educator and leadership roles at your district schools. Flex your white privilege to ensure that both the past and the present are not rewritten by the oppressors, but instead retold accurately by the voices of the oppressed.
Dry Those Tears: We have to stop reacting as though someone has kidnapped our first-born any time we are challenged, or held accountable for our words or actions. Weaponized white woman tears are toxic. Black and brown men and women have been beaten and murdered to appease our insatiable need to be coddled and protected by whiteness. Stop. Crying. Being called a racist is not worse than actually being one. Being called a racist is not worse than actually being the victim of one. Bite your tongue, take a breath, and move through it — clear-headed and dry-eyed.
Black Spaces, White Faces: Support PoC-owned businesses, online, and in your local community. As you do, be aware of your whiteness. Subversion and disruption isn’t always loud. Sometimes, it takes the form of quiet respect, and a willingness to shrink. We white women are so used to being white everywhere, it doesn’t naturally occur to us to behave like a guest in someone else’s house when we enter majority black or brown spaces. Make it a point to visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture, The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, and the National Civil Rights Museum, and when you do, honor the pain and the pride. Be humble. Be reverent. Be quiet.
Vote Like You Mean It: Campaign for people of color. Financially support candidates of color. VOTE for people of color. This one should not be remotely difficult in terms of disruption and subversion, yet it seems that we white women just cannot stop voting for atrocious white men.
Money Talks: Adjust your budget to include regular and meaningful contributions to groups who directly support people of color, from crisis intervention, to long-term planning. Badger your elected officials regarding the critical moral imperative of reparations. If they ignore you, harass them even more. You are a white woman — eventually, they’ll respond.
Believe People of Color: Finally, and perhaps most urgently; when a person of color tells you they have been a victim of racism, or that something is racist — Believe. Them. This action is the simplest of them all, yet is the one we trip over the most frequently.
The group of white women who contributed to this article privately processed the key moments at which they rejected white niceness in the service of justice, then shared with the rest of us. Our answers were surprisingly similar, and they did not include macro history overviews, problematic institutions, organizations, or laws. Our answers were about people: Emmett Till, Philando Castile, Rosa Parks, Sandra Bland, Martin Luther King Jr., Trayvon Martin, Freddie Grey, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Malcolm X, Walter Scott, Laquan McDonald, Botham Shem Jean, Stephon Clark…
Find your humanity, and allow the toxic niceness to slip away. Only then are you truly in this fight.