An Open Letter to White Progressives
Dear White Progressives,
When I began my life’s work as a racial justice activist I tried to prepare myself for the obstacles I could face in Alabama. I imagined the backlash of far right conservatives, harassment from white supremacists and the social isolation that comes with disrupting the status quo. Many of my fears were founded and I faced them head on. In 2017 I delivered a public speech with the Klu Klux Klan dressed in full regalia heckling me in the crowd, in 2018 I received hate mail, this year I weathered social media smears from a local white nationalist organization Sons of Confederate Veterans. What I was not prepared for was white supremacy within progressive circles.
I am a hopeless idealist and visionary I watched the 2010 documentary “Freedom Riders” for the first time almost a decade ago, and I could see my purpose clearly. With tears streaming down my face I watched the peaceful warriors train in the discipline of nonviolence and move in solidarity with a mission to desegregate the Deep South. The Freedom Riders were revolutionary, Diane Nash a black WOMAN lead Nashville students as they demonstrated at lunch counters in Alabama. The Freedom Riders understood the importance of a diverse coalition, they worked and trained with white activists and together they put their lives on the line in the name of racial justice.
When I founded Project Say Something in 2014, I held the vision of the Freedom Riders close to my heart, rolled up my sleeves, and worked tirelessly with our team, (a team that included white activists) to create space for racial reconciliation in North Alabama. I was prepared for the challenges of living in a conservative state as a racial justice activist, I was not prepared for the painful process of working with liberal and “well meaning” white people and the inevitability of racism within the movement.
Sociologist and Author Robin DiAngelo helps us understand why:
“I think white progressives can be the most challenging because we tend to be so certain that it isn’t us. And that certitude is problematic. It doesn’t allow for humility, and, to be direct, it’s quite arrogant. So we don’t tend to be receptive at all. … I think the worst fear of a well-intended white person is that we would accidentally say something racist. But then how do we respond when someone lets us know, “Hey, you just accidentally said something racist”? We respond with, “How dare you. No, I didn’t!”
If white supremacist behaviors like white fragility creep in while working in solidarity with white people on racial reconciliation, why bother? I am often asked some version of this question and at times I am asking myself versions of this question. My stock answer and affirmation: black people did not create anti-black racism therefore black liberation is a diverse movement, together we have the power to shift the consciousness of white supremacy in Alabama.
Healing begins with defenseless listening. In the spirit of reconciliation and agape love, I offer the following tips to white people committed to doing the work:
1. White fragility is exhausting. - When you feel defensive, angry, guilty or victimized by black expression, activism or self advocacy, work it out with other allies or through self reflection don’t project your fragility onto us, it hurts.
2. White saviorism is toxic - always move from a place of empowerment, white saviorism is disempowerment. Self righteous behaviors and God complexes will cause harm. Remember you are playing a supporting role not taking center stage.
3. Black self advocacy doesn’t need white consent - We do not need your permission. You may disagree with our strategy, may not share our sense of urgency, and may struggle with our tone. When this happens, fall back, it’s not about you.
4. You can’t “study” your way into expertise - Books, films and articles that explore the nuances of race and class are valuable tools for transformation but can never surpass the real life experience. Understanding the work is understanding you will never know as much as people of color about the effects of racism.
5. Be humble - you will fall on your face, you will offend, you will feel the clap back, your ego will taunt you, you will give in to your ego and your privilege at times. Above all else, you will grow. Accepting the role of allyship is accepting the way of humility.
Camille Goldston Bennett