“White. Male. Cis. Straight. Rich. Citizen. Christian. Able-bodied. Educated.” The young white woman at the front of the classroom listed off the traits she claims can shield you from oppression. “If you’ve got these, you’re all good.”
“No, I’m bad,” groaned the middle-aged white man in the audience of the “White Accountability” workshop at the White Privilege Symposium. Despite my membership in the anti-racist, woke choir, I couldn’t help but wince—not for the last time that day.
I believe white privilege exists—even, to an extent, for Jews like myself—and applaud forums where folks can have the nuanced and often uncomfortable discussions so often lacking in today’s political climate. As a long-term equal rights advocate, the vast majority of my political views put me far left of liberal. However, after a decade and a half participating in (and sometimes instigating) one botched campaign after another, I have retired from activism to focus on my writing. My favorite topic? Why activist movements fail.
Given that polls have found that 54 percent of American whites simply don’t believe they have many—if any—societal advantages, it’s fair to say that those of us who want people to check their privilege have a problem. I attended the conference to investigate whether the anti-racism movement’s recent messaging and tactics might be improved upon.
Over the course of the workshop, the presenter conducted plenty of sober analysis. She reminded us that employing the concept of privilege is not about attacking anyone, but just creating “awareness about the realities of society”—a far cry from blaming people for the sins of their great-great-grandparents. She also admitted that “oppressed people can be oppressors” too, acknowledging that, no matter what our identities are, we’re all part of the problem and can be part of the solution.
But when she started throwing around the term white feelings—as if the emotions of Caucasians differed from those of other races—I got antsy. As I did when she explained that when we debate some aspects of racial injustice, we “take time away from the real issue”—an attitude which is the polar opposite of being open to dialogue. As much as I cringed at these statements, I can only imagine how the average white American would react.
Then the presenter said something that literally made me gape: “Racism is a white creation.” Not, white people birthed modern racism or even white people invented the worst kind of racism, but that they came up with the phenomenon itself.
During the Q&A segment, a second middle-aged white man raised his hand. Identifying himself as an archaeologist at a local museum, he related how pretty much every culture around the world has practiced, and continues to practice, some form of racism. He even posited that racism may have emerged as early as hundreds of thousands of years ago, when Homo sapiens oppressed Neanderthals. But soon a woman in her early forties—let’s call her Lucy—interrupted him to say, “I feel like some whitesplaining is going on.”
Since all but two of the attendees were white, the statement could technically have applied to almost anyone in the room, including the presenter and Lucy herself. However, her goal was clear: to get this man to shut up—which he instantly did. An influential local figure who obviously cared enough about racism to pay $145 to attend the conference, the archaeologist was someone we should have embraced, rather than shamed and silenced. Nevertheless, at lunch, I found him sitting alone at an otherwise empty table.
One of the most effective things a movement can do is critique itself from the inside, vetting anything that, once unleashed on the outside world, might needlessly turn people off the cause. Here was a perfect opportunity to do just that. Yet, sadly, not only is criticism from within unwelcome, it’s typically met with hostility.
Leftist activists don’t react this way because they’re bad people. On the contrary, what with the long and cruel history of racism in this country, it’s not unreasonable for well-meaning folks to feel threatened by someone who appears to be attempting to downplay its impact. Yet, if the anti-racism movement is interested in persuasion, this kind of emotional thinking and its resulting outbursts have got to go.
The day’s second workshop was entitled “Hot Buttons and Triggering Events: Increasing Our Capacity to Respond Effectively.” Much to my surprise, the presenter asked a roomful of social justice warriors why they found themselves triggered so easily and often. The fact that this workshop was so popular I had to sit on the floor proves that many anti-racism activists are open to improvement. (Lucy, however, did not attend.) The presenter had us look at “common unproductive reactions during difficult, triggering situations,” asking us to make a check mark in front of any responses we may have witnessed in others and an asterisk in front of those we’ve experienced ourselves. If Lucy had been there, would she have owned up to “dismissing or minimizing the comments of others,” “intentionally trying to embarrass others,” or “bullying others into submission” when she called out the archaeologist?
We were also invited to think back to a specific triggering event and investigate the “intrapersonal roots” of what might have made us feel that way, including illness or fatigue, the cumulative impact of similar experiences and/or past traumas. Perhaps Lucy might have been led to consider whether she was actually reacting to the archaeologist’s points, or whether he simply reminded her of someone else in her life—a former professor, say, or her father—who had the annoying habit of lecturing her.
The presenter then encouraged us to ponder any “unmet needs” or “ego-driven desires” that may have contributed to our triggering. Did a lack of recognition cause Lucy to seek attention? Was she hoping to make the archaeologist “feel the pain and hurt” she had suffered? Or did she crave control, or want to be seen as an ally?
If Lucy had made it this far, she could’ve gone on to the final step: “shift your intentions to align with your inclusion values.” Maybe in the future, instead of scolding someone like the archaeologist in front of a roomful of people, she could try to “create safety for the expression of differing viewpoints,” “build a bridge and a connection,” or simply “demonstrate compassion and empathy.”
Lucy is hardly the only person whose hair trigger harms the very causes she cares so much about. In what ways have my own turbulent emotions impacted the writing of this essay? Am I trying to force change within the movement? If so, is this due to my unmet need for fairness? My ego-driven desire to make people learn? My wish to influence other people’s views, feelings or behavior?
Perhaps the inclusion value that both Lucy and I can most benefit from is to meet the people where they are without judgment. As satisfying as it feels to attack those you disagree with—whether fellow social justice activists, Trump supporters or bona fide white nationalists—if you’re not inviting someone to join you, all you’re doing is pushing them further away.