Professional Development

White Anti-Racism: Living the Legacy

What does "white anti-racist" mean? How can guilt get in the way? And what's all this talk about being "colorblind"? Learning for Justice, then Teaching Tolerance, asked community activists to share their thoughts on these questions, and others. Their answers shine light on the concepts of comfort, power, privilege and identity.


This Q & A delves into the "finer lines" of white anti-racism and should be used with older students and adults.

The Participants:

  • Diane Flinn, a white woman and managing partner of Diversity Matters.
  • Georgette Norman, an African American woman and director of the Rosa Parks Library and Museum
  • Sejal Patel, a South Asian American woman and community organizer in South Asian immigrant communities
  • Yvette Robles, a Chicana and Community Relations Manager in Los Angeles

What does "white anti-racist" mean to you?

Diane: I associate this terminology with action and behavior more than an identity or subject position. Anti-racist, for me, is more indicative of a process of coming to a healthy and functioning sense of a white racial identity.

One of the functions and privileges of racism is that white people don't, as a whole, carry race as an identity -- you get to be individual, you get to be "yourself," you get to be the norm, you get to be whole and not partial or hyphenated. You do not have to make "adjustments" or "modifications" to know or name yourself.

I also think my discomfort [with the term anti-racist] is fueled by it being based on what I am not. It is the proverbial "I'm not a racist" disclaimer used by whites to separate themselves from the realities of racism and race-based privilege.

What are common mistakes white activists make when trying to be allies to people of color?

Yvette: Not acknowledging that they have power and privilege by the mere fact that they are white. That is not to say that other parts of their identity can't lead them to feel powerless, for example, being white and gay, or being white and working class. Another mistake I see is when white activists try to emulate a different culture by changing how they act, their speech or style of dress. It's one thing to appreciate someone else's culture; it's quite another to adopt it.

Georgette: The most common mistakes white activists make are 1) setting an agenda with the illusion of inclusion, and 2) having to have a franchise on comfort. God forbid a person of color says or does anything to make white activists feel uncomfortable. That means there can be no discussion of race and no challenge to their privilege, which means no challenge to their power.

Sejal: White anti-racists make a mistake when they shut out the poor and uneducated and keep in those "in the know" to decide what's good for people of color. No movement can work where there is divisiveness.

Also, if people of color want to have their own space and place in certain aspects of society -- say for a weekend or a month -- they shouldn't have to feel like they are being exclusive for doing this. White activists need to understand that society is their space and place every single day, and they shouldn't feel threatened or left out.

When attempting to be allies to people of color, is there a point when white people "get it" (and what does "getting it" mean)?

Sejal: "Getting it" is the biggest point, I feel. Getting it means many things: the ability for white activists to understand that they have a space and place of privilege. It really is up to white people to give up their privilege and be okay with that. Giving it up will make white people truly sensitive to the issues of racism, classism, sexism and homophobia.

White activists need to understand that they can't completely understand or "get" the experience of a person of color. They should trust that their allies, people of color, are not being too sensitive or complaining. Everyone, especially U.S. citizens, has some sort of privilege in their lives, and, as a person of color, I make sure that people have space to express themselves in a way they feel is right. I need to trust that my white allies will do the same for me when I need it.

Diane: I believe that white allies can "get it" if we define "getting it" as becoming attuned to the subtle effects of racial bias in everyday interactions and environments. We can "get it" if we recognize the systemic presence of racism and how race-based oppression is allowed to continue. If we identify and own racial privilege and, as white people, have our own experiences of exclusion so we can authentically empathize, then we are "getting it." We "get it" when we value equity, human rights and social justice.

How would you describe the stages of becoming a white anti-racist/ally?

Sejal: 1) Realize the meanings behind privilege, racism and whiteness. 2) Look within before you look outward. How do you relate to the definitions? Pinpoint the ways in which you experience privilege as a white person. 3) Look outward, find out the historical, global and social patterns of the effects of racism and other forms of oppression. 4) Act. Realize that you want to do something about this system, and come at it with a sensitivity and understanding that you come from a privileged background whether you like it or not.

How does guilt affect white anti-racism?

Diane: Guilt allows white people to maintain the status quo. Guilt creates paralysis. Guilt transfers the responsibility to people of color. Guilt continues the aspect of racism wherein white people put people of color in a situation of taking care of us.

By saying, "I feel so guilty, so bad," it puts the other person in a position of comforting. The other person is then silenced, must reposition or restate their truth. Or worse -- maintain their truth and risk being viewed as mean, insensitive and angry.

Guilt is where most white people get stuck. Guilt is the ultimate obstacle in the personal journey to being a white ally.

How can white privilege get in the way?

Georgette: Privilege and power perpetuate and maintain the hierarchy in our society. It defines 'being' by virtue of skin color. It also defines the kind of relationship you have or are allowed to have and with whom. While many white activists won't admit it, a black person would only have to call them on any issue, and they will promptly remind you of your place and your guest status at the table.

The question, then, becomes how does one get knowledge and access to that power? How does one rise above powerlessness and dependency? Self-determination is one component, but equally important is for white people to yield access to power.

Diane: It is challenging to recognize how my way of doing things and the rules of conduct that I understand are informed by privilege.

Privilege, by its very nature, will "get in the way" as white people move toward and work as allies.

Unfortunately, the more a white person works through his or her whiteness and toward being an ally, the more difficult it becomes to self-identify privilege. You usually can't see it when you are in it; in other words, do fish know they're wet?

What do you think of the concept of being "colorblind"?

Yvette: I hate it. While I think I get the "intention" behind the comment, the reality, when applied, is that a whole segment of the community -- people of color -- are disregarded. When I hear that we should strive for a colorblind society, I hear that we should all adopt to one norm, which may be the most familiar or comfortable for American culture. American culture in the U.S., in my opinion, translates directly to white mainstream culture.

There is no room for diversity in that statement. As a person of color, a Latina, a woman, it means that I need to let go of all that makes me who I am in order to blend into what is acceptable. A colorblind society reminds me of the melting pot theory. I would rather be a part of a "tossed salad," where all different types of people can coexist and live together while maintaining their own personal identities.

Diane: To be "colorblind" implies the invisibility of race, something we all know to not be invisible. My experience of the world is informed by being white; other people experience and interact with me informed by my whiteness so, for me, colorblindness feels like an erasure. To be colorblind is to not see my family, where we come from, our history, and our ways of being. "Colorblind" avoids difference rather than recognizing and valuing it. I do not see how a white activist can be an ally from a position of colorblindness. I understand that many people use this term to challenge racial stereotyping, to not see people "as" their color and the associated racial stereotypes, but it functions as assimilation. If we become "colorblind," than to which worlds and ways of being are we being blinded? What are we not "seeing?" And in which "hue" will we be operating?

Georgette: I personally find it offensive. The largest organ I have is skin, which happens to be brown and rather than accept it, some who call themselves allies want to be blind to it.

Sejal: Of course we have differences and its okay. Let's be realistic -- as much as it would be nice to have a colorblind society, that's not the way it is given our historical landscape. That's not the way we are socialized to think.

Discussion Questions

Diane says: "Anti-racist, for me, is more indicative of a process of coming to a healthy and functioning sense of a white racial identity." Why is the word "functioning" important?

Sejal says: "If people of color want to have their own space and place in certain aspects of society -- say for a weekend or a month -- they shouldn't have to feel like they are being exclusive for doing this." Why might people of color sometimes want their "own" spaces? Are there ever instances when white people should do anti-racist work in isolation? Why?

Guilt and white privilege, these activists say, can sometimes get in the way of white people being effective allies in the struggle against racism. What qualities or actions can help white people be effective allies?

The activists all reject the idea of "colorblindness." Many people contribute the "goal" of colorblindness to a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: "I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." Was Dr. King advocating that people ignore color? Ignore racism? Why?

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