The problems with white allies and white privilege – Al Jazeera English

This article has been showing up a lot on my social media feeds today:

The problems with white allies and white privilege – Al Jazeera English.

I certainly agree with the basic premise of this article, that racism is a structural an issue and should be fought on a structural level. In general I am averse to perceived solutions for social issues that focus on individual action rather than structural change.

However the piece appears to claim that we should focus on the structural causes of racism without acknowledging how individuals interact with and propagate those structural causes. Each time a police officer chooses to arrest a person of colour for a misdemeanor offence while letting a white person go, they are participating in a structural oppression via an individual action. Structural oppression does not exist in a void, it exists because individually and collectively, people are invested in the continuation of structures that actively disadvantage certain types of people. However this investment may not always be conscious or intentional. How then can we dismantle the racist structures of oppression without calling to task those who intentionally or unintentionally propagate these structures?

Golash-Boza makes the claim that racism is an ideology and a set of practices. I find this framing of racism to be far too simplistic to be useful. Racism is much more than an ideology and a set of practices, not everyone who perpetuates racism subscribes to a racist ideology or applies a set of racist practices. Racism is embedded into the very fabric of how society is structured. Consider that the economic might of the USA was built upon slavery, a system that literally used and abused people of colour in order to benefit whiteness. Slavery was able to exist in no small part, because of narratives that positioned people of colour as inferior to white people, intellectually,socially, and culturally. In other parts of the world colonisation has had a similar affect. These narratives helped to spread the inherent ‘rightness’ of the subjugation of people of colour. These narratives have not dissapeared, they have just taken on more digestible formats. Golash-Boza uses the example of the over incarceration of men of colour as a structural oppression, however this is a symptom of a structural oppression and made possible by narratives that position men of colour as innately violent and threatening.

Racist narratives are so insidious, pervasive and saturating, that they are also internalised by people of colour. Racisim is not simply something that is inflicted upon people of colour by whiteness, It is something everyone in society is steeped in, from the minute we are born racist narratives begin to affect our lives. Furthermore they are so normalised and commonly accepted, that it is hard not to believe they are not true. As a young girl of Indian origin,  growing up in a white majority country, the inherent superiority of whiteness, on a subtle level was something I never even questioned until I began to learn about social justice. That is, I did not believe that overt displays of racism such as slurs and violence were acceptable. Rather I simply accepted the cultural and social superiority of whiteness over my own Indian culture and socialisation as fact. In some ways it is these more subtle components of racism that are more damaging because they are not seen as being inherently racist, just part of the way the world is, and this makes it all the more difficult to subvert.

Golash-Boza makes the claim that benefitting from white privilege is not a privilege to her, and what is seen as white privilege should be seen as the way the world should be for everyone.

“It is true that a white woman in the same situation as Jonathan Ferrell would almost certainly not have been shot at by the police. Is that white privilege? Perhaps. But, another way to look at is it not a privilege to not fear police. That is how things should be. No one should be shot when seeking help from the police. That is not something that should be considered a privilege.”

I don’t really understand the distinction she is trying to make here. We would all like to live in a world where the colour of your skin did not determine whether or not you would be shot by police. Whether something should not be considered a privilege does not change the fact that it IS a privilege. It seems disingenuous,  as a white woman, she actively benefits from white privilege, a point that she makes earlier in her article whether she wants to or not.  It appears that Golash-Boza wishes to decouple the experience of having privilege, from analysing it and actively trying to subvert it. The notion of white privilege is not based on an individualistic conception of racism.While individuals experience privilege and benefit from it, the concept of white privilege acts as a lens through which we can view the structural nature of racist oppression.  Privilege as an analytical tool allows us to see how institutions, social structures, culture, attitudes, tropes and representation all benefit whiteness.

Anti-racist advocacy is not a zero sum gain. We do not use up our supply of anti-racism by using it to call out individual bigotry, in fact calling out racism when we see it, particularly the less obvious more subtle forms of racism, is a necessary component of destablising the narratives which allow for the perpetuation of structural racism.

2 thoughts on “The problems with white allies and white privilege – Al Jazeera English

  1. Pingback: ‘Acting white’ – Bounty and coconuts | Media Diversity UK

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