Rethinking White Privilege and Altruism

Hi Friends,

Last time I wrote about the role of capitalism and class in systems of oppression. I’d like to connect our conversation to a more complex understanding of White privilege.

I had an awakening experience of what I have lost to white supremacy during a racially diverse discussion group earlier this year. We divided into self-identified White or BIPOC groups for breakout sessions to discuss what we like about our racial identity. In my White group, we expressed and experienced deep shame, guilt, and sadness about our racial identities. When the BIPOC group shared with the group about their discussion, they expressed joy, strength, and pride in their racial identities.

The difference in our racial identity perspective is not because BIPOC experience more oppression and hardship than White people (even though they do). The difference is that in general, BIPOC choose to create, maintain, and directly identify with deeply rooted cultural traditions and practices, whereas White people often do not, associating our “culture” with oppression, hatred, and violence against others. Our rich ancestral cultural traditions and pride and joy in that culture are part of what we have lost.

White supremacy and a capitalist economy have blinded us to what we have lost, have lured us away from solidarity with each other for human rights. White privilege has given White people the human rights that everyone deserves and has given additional advantages that no one deserves.

This approach to privilege is explained as the “Two Faces of Privilege” by David Kaib.

  • The first face “would include food, housing, clean water and air, the ability to move about the world freely, and health care.”
  • The second face “includes things that I would argue no one should ever have — the ability to rape, to sexually harass, or to shoot ‘suspicious’ people of color; the ability to dominate conversations, to pressure subordinates, or to demean or demand favors from employees, tenants, or students.”

I learned about this perspective on privilege in Jesse A. Myerson’s “White Anti-Racism Must Be Based in Solidarity, Not Altruism.” I have written before about my concerns about “society’s dependence upon charity and volunteers to meet the baseline needs of our community members who are hungry and/or without shelter” and that my “hope is for systemic change that addresses the root causes of suffering so that the charitable and volunteer work is no longer relied upon for survival.”

Myerson’s article made me think completely differently about anti-racist work because he identified that “The dominant liberal conception of white anti-racism emphasizes altruism. In this mode, white people must set aside our own self-interest in order to extend kindness to those less fortunate.”

Through my anti-racist work, I had internalized that “White people are encouraged to defer, shrink, and assist. It is not our fight, the white-altruism mode says, so we must strive to decenter ourselves and support black people’s ‘advancement’ as peripheral allies, doing what kindnesses we can to compensate them for the privileges we enjoy.”

In this way, much of our anti-racist work is tied up in White saviorism. “Without being anchored to a goal of redistributing power, altruism is often carried along by the prevailing currents of racist capitalism.” Our intent does not matter — our impact matters.

This leads us to solidarity. Myerson says “Time and again, white people acting as allies in other people’s ‘progress’ have not just failed to address racist power relations; they have entrenched white dominance. Altruism cannot be the basis for white anti-racist action. There’s only one thing that can: solidarity.” Further, “Only when white people come to see that our own liberation is bound up in the liberation of others can we achieve solidarity and have a basis for white anti-racism that does not produce the colonial outcomes generated by altruism.”

I will write more about solidarity and a baseline of human rights in my next update.

In the meantime, if you’re interested in finding ways to contribute to fundraising and philanthropy in an anti-racist way, check out Community Centric Fundraising (CCF). Their Slack channel is open to anyone, their newsletters are thought-provoking, and their “10 Principles” can be adapted to many kinds of organizations, even when fundraising is not your main focus. I would love to see these ideas applied to PTAs, for example (a girl can dream!).


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The Intersection of Race and Class

Hi Friends,

I have been exploring some new topics in my anti-racism self-work and one of them is how “White people” became White. My creative writing piece in my last update touched on this somewhat. The reframe, after understanding the origins of whiteness, is to see the connection with economics, with class. I had left class out of most of my work so far because much of the content I had found in anti-racist work pushed race as the single-most oppressive factor for marginalized people, so I focused on race. My mistake was in neglecting the connection between race and class, a situation I’ll be rectifying from here forward. I have not been serving you as well as I would like, so I’m here now to correct my perspective and approach. There is always more to learn!

I want to share some key takeaways from some readings from White Awake’s “Roots Deeper Than Whiteness” online course, which I cannot recommend highly enough. As you will see in the next few of my updates, it has been life-altering and significantly perception-shifting, especially about the role of capitalism in oppressive systems in our country:

The first one I want to highlight is Chris Crass’s article “Anti-Black Racism, the Minstrel Show, and the Making of Whiteness” (we read pages 22–25, but the whole thing is worth a read):

“White supremacy in the United States is primarily about organizing the economy and the political system to serve the interests of elites at the expense of the vast majority of people. White supremacy is a divide-and-rule strategy to maintain structural inequality and the logic and culture of supremacy systems that normalize and rationalize inequality.” (p.23)
“…white racist rage and white resistance to Black equality is rooted in white anger and pain for not achieving the American Dream.” (p.23)

The creation of whiteness has its roots in the desperate migration of displaced and impoverished European people who traveled or were sent (under indenture) to the American colonies. This process required assimilation, abandonment of traditional cultural practices, in the name of survival (sound familiar?).

When landed, wealthy people of European descent encountered solidarity among poor people from many different cultures, they adopted a divide and conquer solution, one that is still in operation today, to prevent the majority from rising up against the minority. They created whiteness to bestow slightly better conditions and opportunities on people of European descent and removed resources and opportunities from everyone else, creating a hierarchy of human value. This persists today.

Did you know that many southern, non-slaveholding White men resisted the Confederacy and hid from or fled the Confederate Army with enslaved and free blacks in the Deep South swamps of Georgia? (see Keri Leigh Merritt’s “War Happens in Dark Places, Too”) Connect this to the way history is taught in our country and why this narrative and others of solidarity among working people are not the stories we share with our children.

White people have been and are still morally and materially harmed by white supremacy. We all are.

This is why anti-racist activists talk about collective liberation and what they mean when they quote Fannie Lou Hamer’s “nobody’s free until everybody’s free.” Much of the antiracism narrative talks about white privilege, implying strongly that White people have something to lose by engaging in anti-racist work. It turns out that it’s more complicated than that. More on this next time.

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Hope Not Cynicism

Hi Friends,

This message is for all of us (from SURJ), and maybe especially for all of my friends and former community members in Virginia. Please internalize the message below. Please find ways to work in solidarity with people, all people, to further this work. Please stay in this, even when things are discouraging or you’re feeling a lack of hope.

As Azza Altiraifi said in her keynote during the recent Service Never Sleeps Allyship Summit, “We cannot afford to be cynical.” She went on to say that the significant investment by those in power to convince us that things are hopeless and nothing will change is proof that hope is powerful.

You are not alone. Keep taking steps forward and find some friends to bring along. More soon.

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