There is very little difference between the White liberal and the White conservative. I came to fully understand that fact after attending a “progressive” college in New York City that prided itself on its diverse student body and open intellectual environment. I made the decision to attend that particular institution after spending nearly two decades trapped in some of America’s most racially segregated neighborhoods and schools, I craved an environment that would welcome me as a Black woman of intelligence; allow me freedom of expression, the right to be, a space to belong. Such aspirations remained unrealized. Instead, I walked away from my college experience with a degree, list of contacts in the writing/publishing world and a renewed sense of dread and discontentment, because the racially inclusive and intellectually tolerant America I sought simply did not exist.
Such statements may seem quite harsh to some. However, it is only with such honest deliverance that I, a 26-year-old Black woman, can convey the disappointment seeded in my experiences with White liberalism. Experiences that taught me plain and simply that my opinions, history, passions and personhood were unwelcome, misaligned, even deplorable. My white peers and professors had no problem delivering that message with ease. Therefore, neither do I.
During my senior year at the school, I wrote for the school newspaper at my university that also functioned as a for-credit class. I managed to get an interview with Junot Diaz for the paper, after meeting him at one of the school’s events. It cannot be denied that I beamed with pride and joy when I made the announcement to the classroom and professor that I somehow managed to procure the interview. Everyone was most certainly impressed.
“Charles you can come up with some interview questions,” the professor, who also served as editor-in-chief, advised. I had no intentions of accepting anyone’s assistance. I didn’t need any help. I already knew exactly what I wanted to ask. I drew up a list of inquiries, mostly related to the author’s experiences with racism in the education system, the then popular “Dream Act” and Obama’s presidency and sent it to the editors above me. Within moments, I received an email in my inbox with a list of alternate questions that would be more suitable. The first jumped off the screen right at me.
“What was it like growing up without a father in your life?”
I was not at all surprised by the insensitivity and plain ridiculous nature of the initial question. Obviously, it was far more tragic and interesting for White people to read about the hardships of a fatherless minority man, than those of a man of color entrenched in a battle against White supremacy. One narrative is most certainly more acceptable and digestible: the one of the culturally pathological minority, of course.
I exited the email, made the call, and went ahead with my own lines of inquiry to which the author responded with poignancy; an unadulterated honesty and frankness that left me slightly bewildered, but also relieved. I was not alone in my experiences: the problem was not me. America had a huge race problem and all people of color– including this successful individual– had to fight it in order to survive and thrive.
My class of White peers and the professor were unsurprisingly less receptive. When I handed in the first draft of the assignment, he sat across from me and peered at the sheets of paper upon which the interview was printed. I could feel the discomfort wallowing in the pits of his stomach, his mind churning with the unresolved emotions of White guilt and privilege. He stretched his arms far away from his body, as if attempting to get the pieces of parchment as far away from his person as possible. After a long pause, he rest the pages on his lap, looked me square in the eyes and said,
“These pages are not paginated. No editor would accept this work like this.”
My heart sank. The feelings of excitement and accomplishment disappeared. After another moment, the professor continued,
“The way he answered these questions, the entire thing just flowed,” he said. Never mind the fact that I wrote the questions, specifically with the intentions of providing the reader with a succinct experience. After that response, I put minimal effort into finishing or editing the piece and handed in a final draft. I wanted it to all be over. Sadly, this brand of White racism, dismissal, denial and exclusion was to become a part of my everyday life experiences.
It stalked me like a dark, relentless phantom as I matriculated through the institution– shunned and castigated for every speech on Black female hypersexualization by the media and income inequality– and followed me into my adult life and the beginnings of my writing career.
I entered the writing world riding the vicious wave of racial discourse sparked by nationally headlined stories of injustice and racially motivated murder. Trayvon Martin’s death forced me to speak about my decision to escape the internal and external turmoil brought on by a continuous fight to merely exist as a person of color in a White-dominated world.
Many of my white friends and mentors from that very same liberal institution shunned and ignored my pleas for conversation about America’s race problem.
“Stop living in the past,” they told me.
“But, Barack Obama is the president,” they noted.
“Stop pulling the race card,” they insisted.
Commenters of the White liberal variety flocked to the pieces I wrote, detailing the insidious nature of America’s structural racism, to decry my bigotry and deflect to my anger. White feminists called me divisive for pointing to the continued marginalization of minority female voices in the wider feminist movement, displayed by Patricia Arquette’s call for solidarity from POC and WOC to rally against gender wage inequality, despite the biggest wage gaps being unmistakably race-based. Self-help obsessed White liberals insisted that it was I that needed changing– my self-defeating perspectives and irresponsible “preoccupation” with racism. Class-obsessed White liberals pointed to class, not race as the problem, despite the intricate relationship between the two after generations of Black cyclical discrimination, disadvantage and inequality that makes class ascension a dream for most African-Americans. Hippie, “free thinking” whites preached love and acceptance, but grew silent when faced with facts regarding racial inequality. The rarefied air of White condescension was oftentimes stifling for me, a woman of color, frequently out of breath from constant explanation that falls on deaf ears. Activists of the group implored me to acknowledge their participation in marches, programs directed to help in mates learn to read, initiatives to give homeless POC food, etc.
“Liberalism” allows Whites to maintain a sense of self-righteousness; to claim higher moral ground and standing, which breeds arrogance and enables ignorance and inaction against deeper issues. When juxtaposed with a conservative, gun-toting, “nigger” hating, religiously-obsessed, White populous, it is easy to understand why White liberalism seems so miraculously progressive. However, both ideologies often merely exist on a spectrum of White political and ideological supremacy. A supremacy infrequently fought against or even acknowledged by most Whites, despite their “political alignment.”
After all, even the most liberally-minded Whites dispense euro-centric materials, curriculums, histories and reading lists. Argue that White musical appropriation is ok because “music is universal.” Pen pieces in national news outlets that brand Black men “thugs,” “savages’ and “possessed.” Diminish the accomplishments of Black women because, supposedly they are “angry” or not “classically beautiful”. Exist in mostly White, segregated environments. Have very few to no friends of color. Constantly entertain theories of Black and minority cultural pathology in academia. Gentrify once diversely populated neighborhoods. Continue to propagate myths of meritocracy and hard work, despite cushioned inheritances that make for easy investment and studies that have proven just how difficult it is for impoverished individuals to better their economic predicament.
Most Whites are implicated in the continued participation in the perpetuation of White supremacy, except the White liberal can scapegoat conservatives to avoid culpability for its own shortcomings. And as a person of color, that, in my opinion, is more dreadful and painful than being faced with the overt, clear-cut racism of the right.
In truth, I much prefer to be immediately rejected, than accepted under the pretense that I am welcomed only to later be ridiculed and dismissed. I prefer to know exactly where I stand with While people; the lines clearly drawn and left uncross, than to constantly cross over into a world that turns on me and attacks me a the slightest sense of provocation. I do not have the emotional strength to continuously battle the guilt-ridden, aggressive, spiteful subconscious of the White liberal that intellectually is well-intentioned, but psychologically fragile, fragmented and frustrated.
White liberalism must be cured of its own cultural/psycho-social Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde pathology. And the first step to the alleviation of any problem is acceptance. Strangely enough, the similarity that can be drawn between people of color and White liberals is that their problem continues to be White supremacy.
For that reason, I urge all White liberals to return their focus, as a collective to the eradication of that pathology. Though privileges must be checked, programs should teach inmates to read and food, clothes and educational material must be brought to starving African children, White investment into those issues will not end White supremacy. White people must be educated to the vastness of racial inequality. Wealth must be redistributed. Policies must be enacted to promote equality in education. Honest discussions about the future of the Black community that has been further destroyed by the War on Drugs and America’s for-profit incarceration system must be broached. Histories must be acknowledged. Racial discourse better contextualized. America’s “liberalism” desperately needs to reinvent itself.
That reinvention must finally be inclusive of and account for the opinions and needs of people of color.