Woke or Faux-ke?: How so-called ‘virtue signaling’ and our delicate white feelings can end the conversation
I know what you’re thinking. Why the hell is she using some bullshit Ann Coulter expression to write an article on racism? But, despite the source, I find “virtue signaling" to be an excellent description of the trap some people (myself included) can find themselves in when it comes to facing their own ingrained racism.
I’ve been reading a lot lately, especially things that make me uncomfortable about myself, and the theme I’ve seen a lot in frank narratives about racism in this country is that white liberals do not understand their own racism, or participation — however tacit — in white supremacy. This was hard for me to wrap my head around this past year as I (quite slowly) awakened to the level to which racism still powers our society. I didn’t want to hold shame, or guilt. I didn’t want to embody white fragility. It’s still difficult for me to navigate on anything more than an impersonal broad sense. But I had to come to grips with the fact that I had these feelings — these delicate white feelings that I needed to confront.
I don’t write these pieces as a way to revel in throwing shade on my own group, or to shout down from a pedestal of righteousness. I feel the need to write these things to myself, so I will remember to keep asking myself the questions. I don’t want to ask myself the questions — everything in my body tells me to run, let my shame paralyze me, return to my blissfully ignorant existence and binge-watch must-see-TV until my retinas burn with sweet, sweet escapism.
But I can’t, for so many reasons. Even though this may reveal me in a way I am not comfortable with, here they are: my delicate white feelings (henceforth known as “DWF”), evanescent but still there nonetheless:
Me, racist?! I don’t have a racist bone in my body!
Um, bitch please. There are over two hundred bones in the human body. You want to tell me not one of them, not even that tiny-ass middle ear bone, has made a joke you didn’t know was racially charged? Not one phelange has been racially insensitive, however unintentionally? Not one schaphoid has smugly thought “I am a better person than others because I don’t judge others based on race?”
You may have very few racist bones in your body, or far less than most, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there. Even in the best scenario (for me, growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area), if you are white you were still raised in a society that is inherently racist. I’m not daft enough to say that I don’t see color, but I do have smug, self-congratulatory thoughts about myself sometimes. About how evolved I am because I am not intimidated by black men on the street, I don’t irritably wonder why someone doesn’t speak English, or how I point out the constant whitewashing in Hollywood.
But guess what, self? That is a form of racism. If you shoplift a tube of lipstick, do you go around obsessively telling yourself “Wow, it’s so impressive that I’m not stabbing people!” No, so quit it. You have flaws, and if you're white this is likely one of them.
But I believe in a society without racism! Hashtag coexist; hashtag black lives matter!
Look, I get what you’re trying to do. But it’s not that easy. One share, or indignant post doesn’t make us suddenly on “the right side.” Much like many people surely did during the civil rights movement, we’re merely sliding over to the side we think must be right based on how guilty we feel.
There are many times that I let myself sound the horn without asking myself the questions. There are times that I simply share the latest horrible act of police brutality, “build a wall” chant, or hate crime with emojis reflecting my indignant, liberal white tears.
Can you believe this?!
This needs to stop!
It’s nice and everything, but sometimes when I do it I feel so very empty. Do I even know what I am saying? Am I wearing this “Black Lives Matter” shirt because it’s true or because I want people to know I’m on the right side? Why am I pretending I don’t have a voice that will be heard when I do?
This is a big one. By our casual slide to the space that people of color occupy, we are claiming we are one of the oppressed and the ones who must fight to make our voices heard. We can ask questions about why young black men are getting killed and not worry about getting arrested. We can go beyond a single officer who perhaps was an overt racist, but also could just be a cop who got scared, and ask the damn questions. Why was that officer scared? What training do they have for police officers that deals with racial sensitivity? How could it be improved? These are questions we can ask, because we have a lot of power. When we fail to use that power so that we can look like we’re on the right side, what service does that really do to marginalized communities?
I can’t handle white people right now! I’m unfriending all my friends and relatives who might have voted for Trump!
Uh, okay. But what good does that really do? If you’ve spent the last thirty years avoiding talking about politics but this is where you draw the line, you haven’t been paying attention, and you haven’t been using the opportunities you did have.
Many of my friends disagree, but I believe that minds can be changed. While a lot of folks in the last 50 years have merely been pretending, some truly did realize that how they thought about people of color was wrong. It can happen. Even George Wallace, one of the most despicable, racist individuals in the last century of American politics, begged for forgiveness from the black community before he died. I’m not saying the man was cured, but people can change their minds and admit they were wrong.
I had a lot of conversations with people online about whether or not to cut off friends and relatives who had voted for Drumpf. I get the impulse, and a part of me likes that solution, but again — why are we doing it? To stop indulging racist assholes, or to make us look better? Deciding to cut off people who voted for Drumpf is kind of the epitome of privilege, isn’t it? We get to turn our backs and ignore the “true” racists because we are white, and the worst thing that happens to us is that we get an off-color Christmas card from a Great Aunt who circles a snowflake next to the manger with the word “YOU” pointing to it. We don’t have to worry that our “truth” will silence us, deport us, or even be the cause of our death.
But I had cancer and I have a toddler and I have really bad anxiety and besides I’m really, really busy!!
What’s this? Ohhh, it’s a really tiny violin! Should I play it for you? Yes, those things suck, but they are not excuses. They may be reasons, but you also have to be willing to admit that there are things you won’t do to help stop systemic racism. On a scale of David Duke to Tim Wise, you may be closer to Tim Wise, but that doesn’t mean you’re willing to give up your pretty life to dedicate yourself fully to the cause.
You might give up your daily Starbucks for a week to post a loan on Kiva, or donate to Digital Undivided, but you need to be willing to admit that this is pretty much your limit. You may have a really emotionally powerful yard sign, and a shirt that says Black Lives Matter, but if you’ve never been to a march, or never risked your safety to stand up for a cause you believe in, admit that that is your limit and why.
In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates talks a lot about how the so-called “American Dream” can contribute to our racist society and continue to hold down POCs. In order to address our part in a racist world, we need to admit what we are not willing to do without asking for a doctor’s note.
Ahhhh! I would fix this if someone would just tell me how! Why won’t people of color tell us what we can do to make this better now?
Bad news, sweetheart. You can’t fix this now, and the black, Hispanic, Asian and Native American community aren’t, like, holed up in a bunker somewhere protecting the secret to ending racism. Is that what you think? That POC are at some kind of headquarters just saying: “You know, these white people keep asking for the answer, but damned if we’re going to give it up!”
You won’t like this, but there just isn’t an answer that works for everyone. Some people may like the white community getting involved, and some may say that their space is being invaded. And I get both points of view — I really do! In my job, I have to train volunteers to do the work that my employer won’t pay extra to give me the time to do. But, it’s never good to have volunteers, is it? You end up spending more time training them, re-training them, and redoing what they fuck up. I imagine that’s how many people of color feel about white people in their space, but fuck — I don’t know! I could be wrong, and all people of color aren’t the same, or didn’t you get the memo?
That’s another thing: you have to get used to being wrong. I don’t think of myself as racist, but there might be things I do or say that make someone else think I am. And they might be wrong about me, but — here’s the kicker — I just might be wrong about myself.
The inconvenient truth about all of this is that there isn’t a quick fix. It’s in some ways like dieting: sure there could be some promising new books with titles like 10 Quick Tips to Solve Your Acceptance of White Supremacy or Getting Rid of Your White Guilt With the Power of Self-Care and a Shitload of Weed. But, if we want to fix this, I think we have to do the work, as much as we are willing to do, every day for the rest of our lives. We have to teach our children to do the same, and hopefully a lot better than us.
And we have to keep asking ourselves the damn questions.
Note from the author: if you like, please click the heart doobly-doo and share!
Thanks for reading!