White Anti-Racist is an Oxymoron
Letter to "White Anti-Racists"
By Kil Ja Kim
an annoying e-mail about white people and their struggle to do
anti-racist work. I
keep reading and hearing white people talk about their struggle
to do anti-racist organizing, and frankly it gets on my nerves.
So I am writing this open letter to white people who
engage in any activist work that involves or affects non-whites.
Given that the US social structure is founded on white
supremacy, and that there is a global order in which white
supremacy and European domination are at large, I would
challenge any white person to figure out what movement or action
they can get involved in that will not involve or affect
I want to begin with what has become a realization for me
through the help of different politically conscious friends.
There is NO SUCH THING AS A WHITE ANTI-RACIST.
The term itself, “white anti-racist” is an oxymoron.
In the following, I will explain why.
Then, I will begin to detail how this impacts non-white
people in organizing work specifically, along with how it
affects non-white people generally.
must realize that whiteness is a structure of domination.
As such, there is nothing redeemable or reformed about
scholars and activists, especially those who are non-white, have
drawn our attention to this for years.
For example, people such as Malcolm X, W.E.B.
Marcus Garvey, Barbara Smith, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Ida
B. Wells, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Frank Wilderson,
Kwame Ture and Charles V. Hamilton, and many, many others who
are perhaps less famous, have articulated the relationship
between whiteness and domination.
early on people such as Douglass and DuBois began to outline how
whiteness is a social and political construct that emphasizes
the domination, authority, and perceived humanity of those who
are racialized as white. They,
along with many other non-white writers and orators, have
pointed to the fact that it was the bodies who were able to be
racialized as “white” were viewed as rational,
authoritative, and deserving.
Additionally, and believe me, this is no small thing,
white people are viewed as human.
What this means is that when white people suffer, as some
who are poor/female/queer do, they nevertheless are able to have
some measure of sympathy for their plight simply because they
are white and their marginalization is considered an emergency,
crisis or an issue to be concerned about.
even when white people have been oppressed by various dimensions
of classism, homophobia and heterosexism, they have been able to
opt for what DuBois, in his monograph Black Reconstruction
brilliantly called “the psychological wage of whiteness.”
That is, whites who are marginalized could find comfort,
even if psychological, in the fact that they were not non-white.
They could revel in the fact that they could be taken as
white in opposition to non-white groups. The desire for this
wage of whiteness was also what drove many white people, albeit
marginalized, to engage in organized violence against
legal cases such as the
Dred Scott Decision along with many
different naturalization cases involving Asian individuals, has
helped to encode a state-sanctioned definition of whiteness.
But there are other ways in which white people are
racialized as white by the state.
They are not stopped while driving as much as non-white
people. Their homes
and businesses are not raided and searched as much by police
officers, INS or License and Inspections (L&I).
White people's bodies are not tracked and locked up in
prisons, detention centers, juvenile systems, detention halls in
classrooms, and “special education” classes as much as those
of non-white people. White
people’s bodies are generally not the site of fear, repulsion,
violent desire, or hatred.
might point out to me that white people are followed, tracked
and harassed by the police.
This is true. White women experience state-sanctioned discrimination.
Queer whites are the subject of homophobia, whether by
individuals or by the state through laws and police violence.
Some activist whites are harassed by the police.
White people who play rap music and wear gear are stopped
by cops. Poor
whites can be criminalized by the state, especially around
welfare issues. What
I want to point out is that, while I do not condone police
violence and harassment, there is a way in which white people
will not be viewed as inherently criminal or suspect unless they
are perceived as doing something that breaks particular norms.
Further, the breaking of particular class and sexuality
“norms” is highly racialized, meaning that it is generally
when white people engage in acts that appear to the state not
appropriately “white” that they are subject to state
violence. In other
words, white people experience state violence when their bodies
engage in acts normally considered deviant and inherent in
racial groups, particularly Blacks and Native Americans, are
considered inherently criminal no matter what they do, what
their sexual identity is or what they wear.
Further, it has always struck me as interesting that
there are white people who will attempt to wear what will
signify “Blackness,” whether it is dreadlocks (which, in my
opinion, should be cut off from every white person’s head),
“gear,” or Black masks at rallies.
There is a sick way in which white people want to emulate
that which is considered “badass” about a certain
existential position of Blackness at the same time they do not
want the burden of living as a non-white person. Further, it
really strikes me as fucked up the way in which white people
will go to rallies and taunt the police with Black masks in
order to bring on police pressure.
What does it mean when whites strategically use Blackness
to bring on police violence?
Now I know that somewhere there is a dreadlocked, smelly
white anarchist who is reading this message and who is angry at
me for not understanding the logic of the Black masks and its
roots in anarchism. But
I would challenge these people to consider how they are
reproducing violence towards Blackness in their attempts to
taunt and challenge the police in their efforts.
to my point that white anti-racism is an oxymoron.
Whiteness is a social and political construct rooted in
white supremacy. Drawing
from the work of Frank Wilderson, I understand white supremacy
as a structure and system of beliefs rooted in European and US
imperialism in which certain racialized bodies (non-white) are
selected for premature negation whether through cultural,
physical, psychological genocide, containment or other forms of
social death. White
supremacy is at the heart of the US social system and civil
society. In short, white supremacy is not just a series of practices
or privilege, but a larger social structure and system of
domination that overly-values and rewards those who are
racialized as white. The
rest of us are constructed as undeserving to be considered
human, although there is significant variation within non-white
populations of how our bodies are encoded, treated and (de)valued.
one to claim whiteness, one also is invested in white supremacy. Whiteness itself is a political term that emerged among
European white ethnics in the US.
Some who used the term white were those who were part of
the dominant social structure, such as the slave owning class,
which included many of the US “founding fathers.”
Others were European ethnics, many of them reviled, who
chose to cast their lot with whiteness rather than that with
those who had been determined as non-white. In
short, anyone who claims to be white, even a white anti-racist,
is identifying with a history of European imperialism and racism
transported and further developed into the US.
this does not mean that white people who go around saying dumb
things such as “I am not white!
I am a human being!” or, “I left whiteness and joined
the human race,” or my favorite, “I hate white people!
They're stupid!” are not structurally white.
Remember, whiteness is a structure of domination embedded
in our social relations, institutions, discourses, and
tell me you're not white but then when we go out in the street
and the police don’t bother you or people don’t ask you if
you’re a prostitute, or people don’t follow you and touch
you at will, act like that does not make a difference in our
you can’t talk, merely “unlearn” or think through
whiteness, as all of these annoying trainings for white people
to “unlearn” racism will have you think.
white people need to be willing to have their very social
position, their very relationship of domination, their very
authority, their very being...let go, perhaps even destroyed.
I know this might sound scary, but that is really not my
concern. I am not
interested in making white people, even those so-called
good-hearted anti-racist whites, comfortable about their
position in struggles that shape my life in ways that it will
never shape theirs.
white people could take another lesson from DuBois.
I recently finished the biography of John Brown written
by DuBois. The
biography was less of a biography and more of an interpretation
by DuBois about the now-legendary white abolitionist.
Now while John Brown's practice was problematic in many
ways—he still had to be in control and he had fucked-up views
that Blacks were still enslaved because they were too
“servile” (a white supremacist sentiment)—what I took from
Brown’s life was that he realized that moral persuasion alone
would not solve racial problems.
That is, whites cannot talk or just think through
whiteness and structures of white supremacy. They must be committed to either picking up arms for other
people (and only firing when the people tell them so), dying for
other people, or just getting out of the way.
In short, they must be willing to do what the people most
affected and marginalized by a situation tell them to do.
Now I am
sure that right now there are some white people saying that
non-white people cannot understand what is going on, that we do
not have the critical analysis to figure stuff out, or that we
have fucked up ideas. This
is just white supremacist bullshit because it is rooted in the
idea that non-white people have not interpreted our experiences
and cannot run things ourselves.
It is also highly elitist because it assumes that only
those who have adequate access to institutional and educational
resources (whites) are able to understand reality.
It also assumes that there are not internal conversations
within and between our communities—which I do not think white
people need to be privy to or participate in—in which
non-white people struggle over these contradictions, debate
about our own visions for society and how to go about achieving
them. In short,
this perspective by whites that non-white people cannot be in
control of our own destinies is rooted in a paternally-racist
approach to non-white people.
it is also rooted in the idea that white people are not racist
or do not benefit from racism.
Rather, white people at meetings will often discuss how
they feel “silenced” by non-whites, or that they are being
“put in their place.” Let
me make one thing clear: it is impossible for a non-white person
to put a white person in her place.
This is not to say that non-white people cannot have a
sexist or homophobic attitude towards a white person.
But to say, or even hint at that as a “WHITE” person
someone is being put in one’s place--whoever says this just
needs to shut the fuck up because that is some bull.
It is impossible for whiteness to be put in one’s
place, because that is a part of whiteness, the ability to take
up space and feel a prerogative to do so.
addition, the idea that white people are being put into their
place relies on the neo-conservative view of reverse racism that
has characterized the backlash against non-whites, especially
Blacks, in the post-civil rights era. So when you say these types of things you are actually
helping to reproduce a neo-conservative racial rhetoric that
relies on the myth of the “threatened” and “displaced”
white activism, especially white anti-racism, is predicated on
an economy of gratitude. We
non-whites are supposed to be grateful that a white person is
willing to work with non-white people.
We are supposed to be grateful that you actually want to
work with us and that you give us your resources.
I would like to know why you have those resources and
others do not? And
don’t assume that just because I have to ask you for resources
that it does not hurt me, pain me even.
Don’t assume that when you come into the space, that
doesn’t bother me. Don’t assume that when you talk first, talk the most, and
talk the most often, that this doesn’t hurt me.
Don’t assume that when I see you get the attention and
accolades and the book deals and the speaking engagements that
this does not hurt me (because you profit off of pain).
And don’t assume that when I see how grateful non-white
people are to you for being there, for being a “good white”
person that this doesn’t hurt me. And don’t assume that when non-white people chastise me
because I think your presence is unnecessary that it does not
hurt me. And
don’t assume that when I see you attach yourself to the
“sensible” non-white person who condones your behavior that
this does not infuriate me.
Because all of these things remind me of how powerless
non-white people are in relation to white people.
All of these gestures that you do reminds me of how
grateful we are supposed to be towards you because you actually
(or supposedly) care about what is happening to us.
I am a bit resentful of economies of gratitude.
this structure of white supremacy known as white anti-racism
also impacts the larger social world because it still makes
white people the most valued people.
Non-white people are forced to feel dependent and
grateful to white people who will actually interact with us.
We are made to feel that we are inferior, incapable, and
that we really do need white people. And the sad thing is, that given all of the resources that
whiteness has and that white people get and control through
white supremacy, there is an element of material truth in all of
this, I am afraid. But
white people need to think of how their activism reproduces the
actual structure of white supremacy some—not all whites
activists—profess to be about challenging.
This structure of white supremacy is not just in activist
spaces, it actually touches upon and impinges on the lives of
non-white people who may not be activists (in your sense) or who
do not interact with you in activist worlds.
consider what your presence means in a community that you decide
to set up your community garden in, or your bookstore in, or
your meeting space in, or have your march in.
What does it mean when you decide that you want to be
“with” the oppressed and you end up displacing them?
Just because you walk around with your dreadlocks, or
decide that you will not wear expensive clothes, or that you
want to march in someone’s neighborhood does not mean that
your whiteness doesn’t displace people in the spaces you
decide to put yourself in.
How do you help to bring more forms of authority and
control in a neighborhood, whether through increased rent and
housing costs, more policing, or just the ways in which your
white bodies can make people feel, as Wilderson brilliantly
asks, “squatters in somebody else's project?”
does this mean for the future of white anti-racists?
This might mean to figure out ways in which whiteness
needs to die as a social structure and as an identity in which
you organize your anti-racist work.
What this looks like in practice may not be so clear but
I will attempt to give some suggestions here.
First, don’t call us, we’ll call you. If we need your
resources, we will contact you. But don’t show up, flaunt your power in our faces and then
get angry when we resent the fact that you have so many
resources we don’t and that we are not grateful for this
don’t get mad because you can’t make decisions in the
process. Why do you
need to? Second,
stop speaking for us. We
can talk for ourselves. Third,
stop trying to point out internal contradictions in our
communities, we know what they are, we are struggling around
them, and I really don’t know how white people can be helpful
to non-whites to clear these up.
Fourth, don’t ever say some shit to me about how you
feel silenced, marginalized, discriminated against, or put in
your place as a white person.
stop calling me sister. I
will tell you when you are family.
Finally, start thinking of what it would mean, in terms
of actual structured social arrangements, for whiteness and
white identity—even the white antiracist kind (because there
really is no redeemable or reformed white identity)—to be
conclusion, I want to say to anyone who thinks that this is too
academic or abstract, I write as a non-white person, meaning
that from my body, my person, I experience white supremacy.
I draw from the analyses of non-white people, many who
were or are engaged in various struggles of activism, but most
importantly who tried/are trying to speak out and stay alive.
They did not or do not get accolades from many for
speaking out but instead experience(d) constant threats to their
lives for just existing and doing the work that they did or do.
Finally, I want to know when a discussion of whiteness,
white supremacy and domination became seen as abstract and not
rooted in the everyday concrete reality that we experience?
2003 February 24, 2003 (email@example.com)
Kil Ja Kim is a
writer, educator and activist currently living and working in
Philadelphia. Her intellectual and political interests are
Asian American politics, immigrant politics, and Black-Asian
American relations. Kil Ja is currently working on
working on a research project that examines the role of global racial politics
in shaping the disproportionate presence of Korean immigrant
business owners in Black neighborhoods in the US.
* * * *
Invention of the White Race Theodore
Allen begins Volume 1 by reviewing the many
histories of American racism written in the 20th
century. Dividing the arguments into the
psycho-cultural school and the socio-economic school
of thought, he teases out the strengths and flaws of
their scholarship. Allen then posits racial
oppression as a deliberate ruling-class decision
(constantly undergoing renewal) to prevent
property-less European Americans from allying
themselves with enslaved and free African Americans
by offering the European Americans privileges based
on white skin. His solution is to study "racism"
rather than "race" because studies of race always
devolve onto discussions of the body--onto those who
are perceived to possess race--and thus avoids the
real issue. . . . It is a strong, well researched,
tightly argued work. He proves that the "white race"
can be "gotten on a technicality" because it was and
is indeed an invented rather than a natural
category. Amazon Reviewer
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mass incarceration of people of color through the War on
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By Robert Jensen
and perhaps most crucial, fear is that of facing the fact
that some of what we white people have is unearned. It's a
truism that we don't really make it on our own; we all have
plenty of help to achieve whatever we achieve. That means
that some of what we have is the product of the work of
others, distributed unevenly across society, over which we
may have little or no control individually. No matter how
hard we work or how smart we are, we all know — when we are
honest with ourselves — that we did not get where we are by
merit alone. And many white people are afraid of that fact.
A second fear is crasser: White people's fear of losing what
we have — literally the fear of losing things we own if at
some point the economic, political, and social systems in
which we live become more just and equitable.—Robert
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1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus
By Charles C. Mann
a big fan of Charles Mann’s previous
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Columbus, in which he
provides a sweeping and provocative
examination of North and South America
prior to the arrival of Christopher
Columbus. It’s exhaustively researched
but so wonderfully written that it’s
anything but exhausting to read. With
1493, Mann has taken it to a
new, truly global level. Building on the
groundbreaking work of Alfred Crosby
The Columbian Exchange and, I’m
proud to say, a fellow Nantucketer),
Mann has written nothing less than the
story of our world: how a planet of what
were once several autonomous continents
is quickly becoming a single,
Mann not only talked to countless
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the places he writes about, and as a
consequence, the book has a marvelously
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follow Mann from one far-flung corner of
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Chinese cultures collided in the
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takes us to the island of Mindoro whose
“southern coast consists of a number of
small bays, one next to another like
tooth marks in an apple.” We learn how
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planet and will continue to do so until
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Whether or not the human instigators of
all this remarkable change will survive
the process they helped to initiate more
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Mann suggests in this monumental and
revelatory book, an open question.
* * *
The White Masters of the
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By W. E. B. Du Bois
W. E. B. Du Bois’
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Ancient African Nations
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update 25 November 2011