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Progression: the Role of White Friendship

2016.September.22

I’m going to share two links with a bridge of text between them. I’m not going to modify anything, but I think they’ll offer a nice point-counterpoint on a topic I’ve been trying to articulate for years now. The first link is from a blogger I don’t know (haven’t been active on Tumblr in a long while), but was shared on Facebook by a white friend, leading to my comment (which remains unanswered there). The last link is a different take on the same subject by another friend (who has a complicated ethnic background but benefits from white privilege), with whom these thoughts have been percolating for some time.

If nothing else, skip to the last link — I share their conclusions, but they said it way better than I could.

Link 1: White dudes have this thing where they believe your best friend in the world can have opposing political ideas…

This is powerful and important, and it may even explain the growing distance between myself and the very friends with whom I used to debate in just such a manner… but I have a slightly different conclusion.

People who have some privilege (especially people who are/appear white) also have more sway with those same friends precisely because of our privilege. Every time a person of color gets tired of answering an “innocent” question, or a woman gets mansplained, that is an opportunity for someone with privilege who also gets it to step up and reinforce those unheard voices. If we’re looking for our stake in the life-or-death struggles that don’t actually threaten our lives (and I’m speaking as a white guy), it is answering those stupid questions or standing up to the microaggressions in ways that others cannot/shouldn’t have to. It doesn’t have to mean speaking for someone else’s experience, but it can mean referring to relevant texts and saying what we learned from them, it can mean re-humanizing when someone is being othered, it can mean starting conversations rather than waiting until someone is raw/guarded/upset.

In short, sometimes, we need to keep those friends (albeit at arm’s length), we need to spend time with offensive family members, we need to use the access that our privilege grants to raise questions in the very spaces we wish to dismantle.

I’m not saying every person with privilege should have all hard conversations at all times — a lot of times the privilege stems in part from the fact or impression that we constitute a majority (or should), so a little should go a long way. I’m not saying we’re going to change a lot of minds right away — the culture of hostility our peers have created built up over generations with lots of skewed anecdotes, incomplete narratives, and no small amount of pseudoscience along the way.

I’m not saying which individuals should or should not bring bottled water to protests or question the diversity of their workplaces or work on taking up less space in activist spaces. We each have to find our strengths and our allies. But I am saying that when our privilege allows us to relax — and here it is important to note the difference between what offends you vs. what actually threatens your life — that’s when our work begins. If we dismiss those instances, those people, we repeat the mistake of generations of “sympathetic” people before us, who, under pressure, would eventually chose to cast out the obvious examples of racism and sexism and homophobia and transphobia rather than unpacking its origins, looking it in the eye, and being the friend who says, “You’re better than this.”

Link 2: Dear “Woke White Folk”

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