This past Friday, April 24th, Pacific Lutheran University hosted DarkMatter, a South Asian trans queer duo of social justice advocates, on their #ItGetsBitter tour.
Their presentations and workshops were inspiring, but afterward I heard something that made me think. A few of my friends were discussing how they felt like they were being attacked by DarkMatter’s angry discussion of racism, because these friends of mine were white themselves.
These friends that i overheard discussed how they felt as if DarkMatter, in their anger, were doing exactly what they blamed white people for. Exclusion. Microaggressions. Us-them thinking. Discrimination. They felt uncomfortable, and even worse, they felt adversarial as a result.
I was surprised at hearing this. Sure, no one likes to be uncomfortable, no one wants to feel like they’re at fault. This is especially true because no one alive today was responsible for enslaving Africans, conquering India for the British Empire, or annexing Texas from Mexico.
So why the anger directed at people who themselves haven’t done anything wrong?
One reason for this anger is that the problem is still going on. There is a huge controversy over black children and unarmed adults being shot and killed by white police officers. Latin@ people are often scrutinized by how well they’ve assimilated, accused of being illegal immigrants. Native Americans continually critique the government or not upholding treaty obligations. People of Asian descent are often fetishized as exotic, or held to impossible standards as a model minority. America has a race problem. In fact, America has many race problems.
But how is that the fault of the average white person? Well, as outlined in the magnificent essay “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” the average white person benefits from white privilege. Being held up as the norm and not subject to constant scrutiny based on race gives immeasurable benefits to white people, and those benefits play out materially as well.
It goes beyond just privilege, though. By participating in everyday activities such as shopping at companies that do not hire racial minorities employees at proportionate rates, watching shows that tokenize or exoticize race, and voting for politicians who do not make racial justice a priority, all people help to support racist systems in society. These systems often time have effects far beyond the United States, too, because of globalization and interconnectedness. Everyone is implicated.
All of these create a constant barrage. A natural reaction, then, is anger. And anger is appropriate, given the depth and scope of the injustice committed. Anger can be divisive, but it can also be a rallying call for solidarity and unification. It can empower people to take what is rightfully theirs, rather than relying on others to do it for them.
Feelings will get hurt, inevitably. But, that said, there’s no way to compare white feelings of hurt to the injustices against people of color. Discrimination against white people does not have the same institutional support and legacy as discrimination against people of color does. And even if there were, racial justice movements need to empower minorities, rather than relying on white people to save them.