It seems to me that the "white anti-racist activist" role seems to focus very strongly on changing other white people's awareness. I notice that white anti-racists often promote the perspective that individual white people's inside awareness needs to change before anyone can prevent violence from us. This may be functioning as a white-collective trap.

The White Collective (a blinding glimpse of the obvious)

by Barbara Karens

I. White Individuals versus White Collective

“Anti-racist” white people often implicitly locate ourselves and other white people as individuals. We do not locate ourselves as part of a collective entity whose purpose is to perpetuate the survival of white supremacy and the European-white cultural/structural/spiritual system. But the truth is that we are part of this white collective. The individual focus functions to mask that reality.

When a person of color points out how a white person’s actions support white supremacy, the white individual response often is to try to defend her/his “good white individual” honor. When white anti- racists speak about how important it is for us to be aware of our own racism, we may really be talking about racism at the individual level rather than how we actually function as part of a white collective that includes *all* white people — from the white vigilantes patrolling the U.S.-Mexico border, to “colorblind” white people, to the white people who believe we can individually opt out from the collective while it still exists, to the white people getting paid to speak and write and teach from an anti-racist perspective, and everywhere in between.

We get focused on our individual intentions or understandings, rather than what is really going on. But in truth, the only purpose to “white” is a collective entity that perpetuates the culture/behavior system that Marimba Ani so accurately describes in _Yurugu: An African-Centered Critique of European Cultural Thought and Behavior_ (Africa World Press, Inc. 1994). We white “individuals” are not individuals at all at this level. We are part of the white collective.

Here’s an example that has helped me get clear: I have been reflecting on a conversation I had some time ago with a white anti- racist activist. He explained to me why he felt that it was right for him to get paid to be a white anti-racist speaker and writer. He said that if he did a conventional full-time job, one where he wasn’t getting paid to fight white supremacy, he would be perpetuating the system through that job and would only get to do anti-racist work on the side. He said that the people who have read his writings and heard him speak wouldn’t have had access to what he has put out into the world.

And then he got to the issue of resources. He said that yes, it would be best if resources for fighting white supremacy went to people of color. But, he said, it is clear that the institutions that pay him to do anti-racist work would not pay people of color to do it. He said that his work paves the way for people of color to go into those spaces afterward to do anti-racist work. He said if he didn’t go in initially, these institutions would not have any events or other similar attention to white supremacy.

Looking at this through a white individual lens, his reasoning makes some sense, I guess. He is analyzing the situation in terms of what he, a supposed individual, is doing. As an individual, he can position himself primarily in opposition to white supremacy. He can position himself as someone who is fighting white supremacy, a change agent in relation to these white-dominated institutions, and an ally to people of color.

But if he looked at this through the lens of being part of a white collective, the first question would have to be: “How are my actions serving the white collective strategy to support the survival of the Euro-white system?”

For me, shifting to this lens into the white collective view makes things clearer. For example: White people are not going to pay other white people to fight white supremacy. But this anti-racist white person is getting paid to do *something.* What is he really getting paid to do and how does it support the white collective strategy?

When I started to do an analysis from this perspective in a conversation, I noticed how quickly I moved from the white collective view to a view in which I was trying to address how his individual work might fight white supremacy. It was as if I could only stay focused on the white collective for a short period of time, maybe one issue or question, and then I was right back to the illusory lens.

I noticed what I was doing because the white collective view feels like truth to me, and I love that feeling of resonating truth; for its own sake, I love it. So, when I moved from that clear view into the dissonant/blurry individual view, I started to not feel great. But I did it anyway, did it before I caught myself on it, did it as if I was following some sort of programming. I moved from resonance (feels good to me) into dissonance (feels sickening to me) of my own volition. That is how strong this particular illusion is.

II. White Anti-Racist Focus on Individual White Awareness   

It seems to me that the “white anti-racist activist” role seems to focus very strongly on changing other white people’s awareness. I notice that white anti-racists often promote the perspective that individual white people’s inside awareness needs to change before anyone can prevent violence from us. This may be functioning as a white-collective trap.

The white cultural ability to disconnect word and action is extreme. As members of the white collective, we can “be aware” of many things but not change our actions to fit our claimed awareness. Collectively, we function to mask that truth.

White people’s need to feel comfortable and good though self-image management, deception and make-believe goes really really deep. I mean, deep like we are plugged into this inhumane European-white cultural system at the level of land and spirit. Deep like we have a learned terror of what lies beyond the make-believe deception. Deep like we perceive violence as comfort. Deep like damn-near- unshakable loyalty of spirit to a defective and violent cultural system.

I’m thinking: we white anti-racists will fight to feel and present like “good white people” as if we are fighting for our very lives. Because culturally, we are. Violence with a smile. We will give this up if and only if this inhumane Euro-white cultural/structural/spiritual system dies or gets destroyed. And in the meantime, there’s a lot of necessary work and struggle.

A white anti-racist primary focus on changing individual white awareness may be functioning as part of the white collective strategy — functioning to drain resources, divert attention and deceptively promote the appearance but not the reality of change.

III. Truth and Threat 

I wrote the pieces that became this article in my personal online journal. A Colours of Resistance member asked me to post it to the listserve/website.

In the discussion on my journal, two people (one white woman writing from a space of white-self-defense, and one woman of color raising a crucial question directly) raised concerns about whether some of these perspectives would, even if true, prevent white people from acting against white supremacy.

This is where I don’t understand the situation. I don’t understand why clarity about the landscape we move in would prevent principled action. And by “I don’t understand” I mean really truly, I don’t understand. I lack inner comprehension of the dynamics here. But I can see this as a real strategic concern.

I speculate that maybe white people are making a threat of withdrawal from anti-white-supremacy struggles unless we all agree to keep hidden certain aspects of the landscape. I speculate that such a threat functions as a white control mechanism.

But underneath the speculation, I feel more than a little bit lost because there is something I deeply don’t understand. Perceiving myself as part of the white collective has not frightened me, depressed me, or undermined my political and action commitments. So at some level, I have difficulty simply understanding why withdrawal due to too-much-seeing would be a credible or acceptable threat from white people.

IV. White Anti-Racist Writing and the White Collective 

I am seriously uneasy about the white anti-racist practice of taking up space as “white anti-racist” cultural workers, including through this kind of public writing.

Writing publicly like this about white supremacy feels to me like participating in a cultural ritual I don’t entirely cognitively understand. But I do feel that I am participating in a specific white-collective cultural practice. It seems to be — well, not what it appears or tries to present on the surface. I feel it as a very sophisticated mode of white supremacy.

An underlying energy of this practice is the central Euro-white cultural mode in which words and projected images precede us into the room. This energy supports members of the white collective in locating our actual actions as less relevant than what we say “about”
our actions.

At the white-collective level, white-anti-racist-writing likely functions as a mode of deception in which we subtly demonstrate our supposed expertise and supposed proof of our individual specialness/advancedness under the guise of fighting white supremacy. This is a shaky and dangerous practice, whatever we might intend.

I feel some very strong dissonance between the lack of solid ground in this white-person-writing practice, and the spirit of the local work I am involved in. In this writing, my words precede me into the room. In my local work, I am represented more by what I do over time than by my words “about” the work. The “what I do” mode offers me less control in the white image-management game. And in that mode, I feel that I am better able to listen and to follow.

~Barbara Karens, March 2006
Author contact: barbara.karens at earthlink dot net

This entry was posted in Anti-racist Organizing and tagged , , , .