Taco Night: A Misadventure in Multiculturalism

by Paul C. Gorski

I remember the invitations: red text on a white background, the name of the event in curly bold face surrounded by a crudely drawn piñata, a floppy sombrero, and a dancing cucaracha. A fourth grader, I gushed with enthusiasm about these sorts of cultural festivals—the different, the alien, the other—dancing around me, a dash of spice for a child of white flighters. 

Ms. Manning distributed the invitations in mid-April, providing parents ample time to plan for the event, which occurred the first week of May, on or around Cinco de Mayo.

A few weeks later my parents and I, along with a couple hundred other parents, teachers, students, and administrators, crowded into the cafeteria for Guilford Elementary School’s annual Taco Night. The occasion was festive. I stared at the colorful decorations, like the papier mache piñatas designed by every fifth-grade class, and then watched my parents try to squeeze themselves into cafeteria style tables built for eight-year-olds.

Sometimes the school hired a Mexican song and dance troupe from a neighboring town. They’d swing and sway and sing and smile and I’d watch, bouncing dutifully to the rhythm, hoping they’d play La Bamba or Oye Como Va so I could sing along, pretending to know the words. If it happened to be somebody’s birthday the music teacher would lead us in a lively performance of Cumpleaños Feliz and give the kid some Mexican treats.


Granted, not a single Mexican or Mexican-American student attended Guilford at the time. However, I do recall Ms. Manning asking a classmate whose family had immigrated from Guatemala, whether the Taco Night tacos were “authentic.” He answered with a shrug.

Granted, too, there was little educational substance to the evening; I knew nothing more about Mexico or about Mexican American people upon leaving Taco Night than I did upon arriving.

And granted, we never studied more important concerns like, say, the racism faced by Mexican Americans or the long history of U.S. imperialist intervention throughout Latin America.

Still, hidden within Taco Night and the simultaneous absence of meaningful curricular attention to Mexicans, Mexican Americans, Chicanos, and Latinos, were three critical and clarifying lessons: (1) Mexican culture is synonymous with tacos; (2) “Mexican” and “Guatemalan” are synonymous, and by extension all Latino people are the same, and by further extension all Latino people are synonymous with tacos (as well as sombreros and dancing cucarachas); and (3) white people love tacos, especially in those hard, crunchy shells, which, I learned later, nobody in Mexico eats. 

Thus began my diversity education, my introduction to a clearly identifiable “other.” And I could hardly wait until Pizza Night.

Paul C. Gorski is the Founder of EdChange and an Associate Professor of Integrative Studies at George Mason University where he teaches in the Social Justice and Human Rights programs. For more of his writing visit the EdChange.org. For free resources on educational equity visit EdChange.org/multicultural. To contact Paul directly email him at gorski@edchange.org.


White Liberalism, Violence, and the Delusion of Solidarity

by Paul C. Gorski

Violence always appears to descend in waves. In the wake of grand juries' decisions not to indict the murderers Eric Garner and Michael Brown, the violence was palpable, wave after wave. It wielded whiteness.

The worst of it, to be more precise, wielded white liberalism—the kind of whiteness in which the good white people swim, dousing ourselves carefully in the safest racial politics, worried that if we plunge too deeply we might find ourselves submerged in some uncomfortable truths. 

There are countless markers of white liberalism and they’re all laid bare whenever the white supremacy hits the fan. What they share is delusion.

By "good" I mean the self-perceived kind of good. I mean good in the sense of the good white liberal whose identity is invested in feeling some sort of solidarity with people of color, however flimsy the solidarity might be in reality. As I have written previously, experience tells me that the most dangerous, the most violent, purveyors of racism are white people whose identities are most heavily invested in the desire to be, or at least in the desire to be seen by ourselves and others as, committed to racial justice. The trouble is that, when little nudge comes to little push, those commitments are not, in the end, to racial justice at all, but rather to something rather less threatening to our power. That something is white liberalism.

White liberalism is the desire for endless dialogue without any guarantee of a commitment for action--the delusion that we can dialogue our way toward racial justice. It is the expectation to be invited peacefully into a conversation about race (not about racism, but about race) without any real commitment to hear or to act. It is white people building our own cultural capital in these conversations on the backs of marginalized people even when we have no intention of using that cultural capital to battle racism and address the marginalization.

White liberalism is being so invested in a soft anti-bias identity, to be so self-involved in my white goodness, that I am unable or unwilling to bear the rightful vitriol pointed at racism by people of color without making myself its victim. 

It is the craving for racial harmony without the commitment to racial justice--the delusion that justice is a function of harmony.

It is the presumptuousness, the gall, to tell people of color the best way to advance their liberation, often drawn from whitewashed interpretations of King and Gandhi philosophies and tactics and almost always based on a delusion of expertise. King and Gandhi were not fighting for peace. They were fighting for justice.

White liberalism is the expectation that white people should enjoy the path toward racial justice, all smiles and pats on the back, all Kumbaya and diversity festivals. It is the delusional requirement of calm and kind solidarity, of the absence of anger and honesty from people of color when we offer back nothing resembling real solidarity. Or it's solidarity on our terms, racial harmony intact, which is no solidarity at all. In critical race theory speak, that's called interest convergence.

It is the insistence that we can conflict-mediate racism away or dialogue our way to racial justice, the delusion that we can resolve the conflict without obliterating the injustice. The trouble is, resolving racial conflict without resolving racism leaves us at racism.

It is the misunderstanding that "the system" merely is broken and can be tweaked into shape--the delusion that it is not, in fact, working with racist precision. 

These are some of the waves of white liberal violence. They are threatening the progress of many racial justice movements. For those of us wedded to our our white liberal delusions and unwilling to check ourselves, better to walk away. Better not to assert ourselves. Better to reexamine where our souls are when it comes to racial justice. Because when it comes to the structural racism that results in police officers murdering people of color, then in the criminalization of victims of color, then in the refusal on the parts of some of the most powerful systems in the country to hold the murderers accountable, white liberalism with its harmony and conflict resolution and endless dialogue and delusions of democracy is the lethal enabler.

White liberalism is the anti-solidarity.

I have been involved in a wide variety of social justice movements and have grappled with my own socialization into white liberalism. I have found that the unwillingness on the parts of white liberals to disentangle ourselves from our mental and emotional suburbs--our stubborn insistence to stay tangled in our racial delusions--constitutes the biggest roadblock to progress in many struggles for racial justice. 

And it's not just coming from outside racial justice movements. Even within racial justice movements racism is an issue because many of the "good" white people try so desperately to diminish the impact of intra-movement racism. Of course, many of us do this even as we elbow our ways past people of color to the front of the room and assert ourselves as the loudest and most important voices for racial justice. 

The environmental justice movement, for example, was fomented almost entirely by people of color who were outraged by the ways their communities were both targeted (as waste sites) and ignored environmentally. In 1991 many of them gathered at a multinational People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in Washington, DC, and crafted what could be considered one of the most radical, intersectional social justice treatises ever conceived in the United States: The Principles of Environmental Justice

"WE, THE PEOPLE OF COLOR," the document's preamble explained, 
gathered...to begin to build a national and international movement of all peoples of color to fight the destruction and taking of our lands and communities do hereby re-establish our spiritual interdependence to the sacredness of our Mother Earth; to respect and celebrate each of our cultures, languages and beliefs about the natural world and our roles in healing ourselves; to ensure environmental justice; to promote economic alternatives which would contribute to the development of environmentally safe livelihoods; and, to secure our political, economic and cultural liberation that has been denied for over 500 years of colonization and oppression, resulting in the poisoning of our communities and land and the genocide of our peoples, do affirm and adopt these Principles of Environmental Justice.
White liberalism has infested few racial justice movements in the United States with the ferocity with which it has infested the environmental justice movement. Countless environmental organizations run by white liberals seeking that "good" self-identity adopted the concept of environmental justice, and then quickly drained it of its racial justice politic. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reshaped environmental justice as "fair treatment and meaningful involvement," slyly and implicitly insinuating that it was inviting people of color into a conversation it intended to control rather than joining a movement that already was underway. With a few notable exceptions, most of the people who constitute the public face of the environmental movement in the U.S. are at best skittish when it comes to naming the disproportionate toll environmental justice is having on communities of color (and low-income communities). Good old white liberalism. Nasty old-fashioned racism.

Audre Lorde often wrote and spoke about similar conditions in the feminist, queer, and racial justice movements. She was vilified by many white women in the feminist movement simply for asking why they thought so few women of color were showing up to their organizing meetings. The "good" white people then, as now, continually dismissed her concerns.

No movement for racial justice can be sustained this way, infested by white liberals bent on softening the critique and stalling the action at every turn. But that, after all, is the function of white liberalism. I can feel good about myself for being involved. I can claim the moral high ground when, in actuality, I am the violence. I can stand vigil, and stand vigil, and stand vigil, and never actually step into the fray. I can harbor the delusion that I don't actually have to make my own position of power vulnerable in order to advance the cause of racial justice.

This infestation isn't a mere inconvenience in racial justice movements. It has real implications.

A brilliant colleague, Cher Chen, and I have been studying the phenomenon of activist burnout among social justice and human rights activists. Previous studies have shown that 50 to 60% of activists experience burnout, which causes them to have to leave the most active parts of their activist work at least temporarily.

We began interviewing people who became so mentally and emotionally exhausted from living their lives knee-deep in the violence of issues like sexism, heterosexism, racism, and environmental injustice that they had to walk away from their activism.  We asked these activists about the causes of their own burnout and what they perceived to be the most insidious causes of burnout in their movements overall. Nearly every person of color we interviewed named the racism within their movements as one of the primary reasons they burned out. Real implications.

But two related findings made this reality even more troubling. First, not a single white activist interviewed for the study named within-movement racism as a general cause for burnout among their fellow activists. Secondly, a few of the activists of color who had experienced racism in their activism experienced that racism from white people within racial justice organizations. In other words, even within racial justice movements, the behaviors of white activists contribute to the burnout of activists of color. According to our interviewees of color, this intra-movement racism contributes at least as much to their activist burnout as dealing with people who perpetuate racism more explicitly.

Often the intra-movement racism came in the form of resistance, in claims-of-expertise mantras like: Change takes time. Change takes time. Change takes time. 

White liberalism is not recognizing that it's one thing to do racial justice work, and it's something altogether different to do racial justice work while simultaneously experiencing the violence of racism. With this ignorance it manages to upend urgency, somehow transforming it into a slowing rather than a hastening of movement.

When it comes to movements for racial justice I struggle to imagine a violence worse than that.

Paul C. Gorski is the Founder of EdChange and an Associate Professor of Integrative Studies at George Mason University where he teaches in the Social Justice and Human Rights programs. For more of his writing visit the EdChange.org. For free resources on educational equity visit EdChange.org/multicultural. To contact Paul directly email him at gorski@edchange.org.


The Conversation White People Aren't Having About Ferguson and Racism

by Paul C. Gorski

An old friend of mine--somebody I like and respect a lot--posted something on Facebook yesterday about feeling targeted as a white person by hateful posts about white people, particularly related to the racism in Ferguson. Here is my response to him:

I've been posting thoughts about my "white friends on Facebook" who are responding to Ferguson. My life is embedded in these issues completely--my entire life, every ounce of energy is spent fighting for the rights of people who are less privileged than me. So let me explain a bit about my view and my interpretation of some of the dynamics of the larger conversation.

First of all, obviously I'm white, as are my mother, sister, father, and closest friend. My grandmother--the biggest inspiration in my life--is white and Appalachian. So I distinguish between talking about whiteness and structural racism and talking about individual white people. 

Nobody I know who commits her or his life to racial justice work or other kinds of justice work sees the world the way you describe: as everything being the fault of individual white oppressors. Nobody. Hell--if it was as simple as all these working class and middle class white people being bigoted, I'm fairly certain we could solve racism fairly quickly. It's much more complex than that. Much scarier and much more insidious. 

What we see--what I see--is a society in which white people on average gain substantial benefits from their whiteness. Actually, this is not just what I see. This is very well documented and based on that documentation (rather than on ignoring entire systems of oppression when trying to understand what's happening in our society) it is irrefutable. Every system and structure in the US--law enforcement, criminal justice, education, every single one--protects and benefits white people at the expense of people of color. Irrefutable. 

African Americans are 15% of drug users overall in the US, but 60% of people in prison for drug offenses. Irrefutable. The War on Drugs was developed strategically in part to target communities of color, and especially low-income urban communities of color, even though white people are more likely to use illicit drugs than people of color. Irrefutable. The education system in the US is increasingly re-segregating and disproportionately people of color are sent to the most dilapidated, most under-funded schools. Irrefutable. 

Justifications for this--maybe that parents of color don't care as much about their children's education or that African Americans commit more crime than white people are factually false. Factually false. That's right--white people commit proportionately just as many crimes as African Americans, but are less likely to be arrested, less likely to be convicted, and less likely to be sentenced to prison, even if you look across the same types of crimes and people with the same records. These are systems that were designed by wealthy white people and continue to be controlled by wealthy white people to the benefit of white people and wealthy people. 

That is not the same thing as saying that every white person working in those systems is purposefully being a racist or even that interpersonally they're bigoted. But the frustration in my work (as a white person doing racial and economic justice stuff) is that because they benefit from these systems to more or less of an extent--depending on other factors such as their economic situation, their sexual orientation, and the like--most white people don't see these conditions, or at least not their sum implications. And those who do see them can easily ignore or justify them, and in fact pretty much have to do so to fit into mainstream ideologies. 

We're socialized often implicitly to think that a level playing field exists already, and it doesn't. Not by a long shot. That's not your fault or the fault of any individual white person, at least initially, in the sense that we're all socialized to see everything as equal because that allows us to blame marginalized communities for not "achieving" to the same extent as white people in school or for being in prison at greater rates than white people. I've probably seen a hundred posts on Facebook this week about how African Americans are in prison more than white people and experience disproportionate police brutality because they commit more crimes. A lie has become common sense. 

That's a product of the socialization, and it's not an accident. It allows us or trains us to always point our scorn down the power continuum and denigrate the most marginalized people in society rather than looking up the power continuum and asking ourselves whether the world we think we see is real and who benefits from the actual reality. 

Complicating matters even further, low-income, working class, and even middle class white people also are largely screwed by these systems and structures, but they're screwed to a lesser degree than people of color--particularly people of color in their own economic bracket or in lower economic brackets. (And again, all this is additionally complicated when you bring in issues like gender, sexual orientation, disability, and other factors.) Working class and poor white people also aren't safe from police brutality or from systems that also have been set up to protect wealthier people at the expense of lower-income people, like the criminal justice and legal systems. But that they are protected to a greater extent than people of color is like a carrot leading them to support the systems that don't even give them a fair shake. 

My experience with how a lot of white people are responding to Ferguson is that they're falling back on their socializations, on the easy analysis that protects us as white people from any sort of reflection on how we're complicit in sustaining an undeniably racist society--not just interpersonally, but structurally. Many of the kindest souls among us are complying with that process of always looking down rather than up the power continuum when we're attempting to understand what's happening around us. 

So, returning to my statement that the existing structures of racism are not your fault or my fault "initially," at some point we do have access to the information that would allow us to see things with more complexity and we make a choice about whether we will engage in this conversation in ways that include us within the circle of oppression or that allow us to hide outside the circle of oppression. We decide what we do or don't want to acknowledge. (Same thing about rape--as men we eventually decide whether we want to keep blaming raped women in an implicit effort to dodge our own complicity in a society where, even if we don't as individuals rape women, we might not be doing a whole lot to address the sexism underlying rape culture, which means we're complicit.) 

Here's the eternal challenge: when things get hot, what do we decide, knowing that "hot" for us might mean feeling temporarily targeted with scorn or rebuked and that "hot" for us will never mean experiencing a lifetime of racial oppression and racial violence while we're being sold "equal opportunity"? What does it mean when we invest more of our emotional energies in protesting the anger than on the conditions that have made the anger?

About the scorn and rebukes: As somebody who is deeply embedded in racially diverse communities of people doing racial justice work, I can say that in those communities, it's never, ever, ever about hate. It's not about hating white people--that would mean I'd have to hate myself when the truth is that I love myself enough to extend my arms as far as I can in order to try to fully embrace the truth, or something closer to it than I've been provided by formal schooling and other socializing processes. It's not about hate. 

It is a luxury for us as white people to experience justified angriness and honest analysis among people of color, some of whom have, in fact, been targets of racism their entire lives, as "the problem" while pretending the racism doesn't exist. Or to minimize less peaceful protest as purely about anger rather than an orchestrated statement. Or to ignore media reports about how, exactly, small bits of peaceful protests have become violent. Or to not be astounded by how a vast majority of people of color and other oppressed people remain peaceful even in the face of the most violent forms of oppression.

This, to me, is related to a willingness among many white people to embrace an illusion of racial harmony even as we have been unwilling to fight for racial justice, which is the only real path to racial harmony. It harkens to Martin Luther King, Jr.'s, notion that the biggest stumbling block when it comes to eliminating racism is not the KKKer, but the white moderate who, in the end, is more invested in the existing social order than in justice. As long as we as white people can have a conversation about race that is framed in ways to protect the feelings of white people, a lot more white people tend to engage, which helps explain the viral nature of that recent photograph of the African American child hugging the police officer. This may be why, in my experience, the hardest places to do racial justice work are those places most heavily populated by white liberals whose identities often seem to be invested in their contributions to racial harmony, who often seem to believe in the delusion that racial harmony leads to racial justice. It doesn't. There's no way around dealing forthrightly with racism when the goal is racial justice.

For these and other reasons, the conversation about Ferguson is not and cannot become about the protection of white people's feelings. No conversation about justice can become that, and the fact that many white people have made it about their feelings, their sense of being targeted individually, is a reflection of the bigger issues that underlie Ferguson and that ensure the conversation goes nowhere. That's part of the way that kind, gentle, caring white people get sucked into the complicity with racism, even when we don't want to be complicit. 

As a white person, it's my responsibility to find a way to stay engaged in the conversation, to sustain my sense of responsibility, even when--especially when--it gets uncomfortable and I feel targeted. Because in the end it's not about me, except to the extent that I'm willing to be in a difficult conversation I have no right to control and the extent to which I'm willing to make myself actively vulnerable to a cause that threatens my own privilege or, more rightly, that replaces my material privilege with the much more gratifying privilege of living in a world that I helped make more just.


Paul C. Gorski is the Founder of EdChange and an Associate Professor of Integrative Studies at George Mason University where he teaches in the Social Justice and Human Rights programs. For more of his writing visit the EdChange.org. For free resources on educational equity visit EdChange.org/multicultural. To contact Paul directly email him at gorski@edchange.org.