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.

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