A word on mutual interest
On June 26th, The New York Times featured an article by Nikita Stewart exploring a super valid question: “Black Activists Wonder: Is Protesting Just Trendy for White People?”
As headlines in mainstream news begin to shift from street protests for Black lives, I have been waking up with a familiar sick feeling in my stomach, asking this same question.
As a white person who has joined the struggle for racial justice for some years now, I have noticed what Black people know for so much longer than I have: that white people’s attention for Black suffering and cries for justice can be devestatingly fickle. There are upswells in attention, in which many white people will tweet and post in solidarity, attend protests, and beyond – and then a new Netflix series comes along, or the main hot news item shifts, or people just go back to being absorbed by events of their individual lives often within worlds of social self-segregation – graduation parties, new pets and babies and jobs, the best things we’ve cooked recently.
What’s behind this?
Is it the much commented-on “compassion fatigue?” Compassion fatigue is a pretty word for indifference and a switch-off of our humanity, and lack of strategies of resistance and resilience that enable us to face into injustice with active hope. But, you can only have compassion fatigue if you think what is happening doesn’t also affect you, and this delusion speaks to the fundamental problem with most approaches we take to racial justice as white people.
If I believe that ultimately, my future and fate does not depend on yours, then I can tire of your cause, stop paying attention, and turn to my own life.
But this is a compartmentalization built on the false premise that white life and souls are disconnected from Black life. This in fact is the entire lie of white supremacy we and our ancestors were asked to believe in the first place.
After Trump was elected, when I was in seminary in Nashville, Tennessee, I started holding meetings for white people of faith through our local chapter of SURJ, which organizes white people for racial justice. At every meeting, I introduced people to SURJ’s value of mutual interest: the idea that racial justice isn’t something we help people of color with. The system of white supremacy harms all of us — including white people, though in very different ways than people of color.
Mutual interest resonated from things I had learned from Black writers like W.EB. DuBois, who writes about the “wages of whiteness” in Black Reconstruction, or James Baldwin, who wrote vehemently about the intertwining of fates of Black and white people in The Fire Next Time:
As I shared about mutual interest in my meetings with white people of faith, and asked folks to name their mutual interest in fighting against racism, many people looked puzzled, minds drawing a blank. But many more would look like a lightbulb had gone off in their brains, just like it had for mine when reading Baldwin or in trainings on race led by Black leaders like Rev Alvin Herring and Rev Michael Ray-Matthews of Faith in Action, the faith based organizing network I had been shaped by.
I would write on a flipchart paper three kinds of mutual interest that I believe we must identify as white people showing up for racial justice:
Mutual spiritual interest speaks to the fact that in order to “become” white, we as white people have had to give up parts of our souls. There are many Black people who have written and spoken about this, revealing to us the impact of whiteness often far more articulately than white writers. Black southern freedom struggle elder “Mama” Ruby Sales talks about how slavery consisted of “soul murder” for those who were enslaved and those who enslaved alike. You simply cannot train children to be slavemasters or otherwise enforcers of segregation and racist violence without murdering parts of your own humanity. To become fully alive, spiritually, is to get back our humanity through active involvement in racial justice, for our whole lives, not just when it’s trending.
Cultural interest has to do with the fact that in the process of being socialized into whiteness, our ancestors gave up or lost access to their long traditions of particular ancestral heritages that contained wisdom for how to live well. Whiteness is a relatively new concept in history, constructed in the context of the transatlantic slave trade and colonization. To cast people with European origins as more human than African people and indigenous people of the Americas was a central strategy through which elites could justify and profit from plantation capitalism and land grabs. The boundaries of whiteness have changed and morphed over time, as people like my own Scottish, Irish, English, German, and French ancestors, all of whom used to fight each other vigorously, gained the benefits of white identity while erasing their histories along with the past differences between their homelands and leaving behind the trauma of Europe. You can look at the work of Tada Hozumi on the impact of this, Resmaa Menakem, and Eileen Enns to name a few. With such transformation came the loss of memories of where we came form, and the songs and rhythms that kept our own ancestors sane. In their place, white “culture” came to be defined as that which was over and against people of color, often appropriating and domesticating the resilient cultural practices created by Black people, and otherwise dulling our imaginations with flaccid entertainment that is distraction, not culture. As we fight for racial justice as white people, we can and should reclaim cultures of resistance – stories of white people fighting alongside people of color for multiracial democracy, the songs and culture that sustained them, and learn about the histories of our people underneath whiteness that we must better understand in order to live with integrity.
Mutual material interest is what organizers on the Left are most often the clearest about: that is the fact that our current capitalist economy is built such that hating on people of color consistently distracts us from white elites and trans-national corporations that are the real looters. This is a highly effective strategy for ensuring that resources will consistently flow upwards, which Rev. William Barber traces the recent history of in his book The Third Reconstruction. (Dogwhistle Politics by Ian Haney López discusses this phenomenan in the post-civil rights era). When we blame immigrants for joblessness or buy into tropes of Black welfare queens that were ingrained in our imagination in the Reagan administration, our imaginations are colluded as we demonize people of color rather than learn about the people and companies who profit off of our collective pain and dispossession, from the wrecking of the commons and dismantling of social programs that would benefit us all and our children.
Getting more and more clear on my mutual interest as a white person on all fronts – spiritually, culturally, materially – in abolishing white supremacy has enabled me to realize why I must continue to pay attention to and participate in the fight against racism regardless of what is happening in my newsfeed. Because it’s about me, too. I say this not to center myself – but to appropriately locate my own personal yearnings alongside my compassion for Black and Brown people in my life and my desire to live in a world that values them.
So if you have recently begun to notice the brutality of racism this spring and summer, or are paying attention again after it having faded from your radar, my invitation to you is to ask yourself exactly what I asked of people at meetings in 2016.
What’s in it for you?
This may feel uncomfortable, or counter-intuitve, if you’re learning now to pay more attention to Black pain. But you must answer it, in this time that your heart is awakened. If you cannot answer, keep asking yourself until you have an answer that feels right in your bones.
We can’t sustain struggle for the long-term on guilt, nor on merely the desire to keep up with what’s trending. Both can be assuaged too easily.
When naming your mutual interest, be specific. Learn your family’s history, the benefits they gained from whiteness, and also the losses and the tradeoffs that came with it. I had to to look at my family’s history and present realities from different angles to realize how, for example, on the one hand my grandparents had gained access to college and home loans through white privilege, but also how the gutting of social services had meant that members of my family that weren’t as economically secure couldn’t access housing, healthcare, and services they needed to thrive. Sometimes this was because it wasn’t available due to the dismantling of the welfare state through the demonization of people of color, and sometimes because of personal choices due to the shame and stigma they associated with public services based on deep racist narratives.
What’s in it for you?
Love has teeth, as I was reminded this morning when I saw these words on a print by Nicole DeBarber shared on Facebook by a dear friend (you can buy the poster for $10, by the way, and your money will go to justice for Breonna Taylor, bail, and to rebuilding the Minneapolis Native American youth organization MIGIZI).
Corporations will change and say #BlackLivesMatter based on changing public opinion — but we as real, flesh and blood human beings have the benefit of the choice to be grounded in something bigger than public opinion and trends. We are flimsy, untrustworthy co-conspirators if our solidarity comes from the desire to look good, or to not be racist. In our recognition of mutual interest, and our acting from it, let us grow love that has teeth. Because adrienne maree brown once wrote, “what we imprison, imprisons us.”
Do not be confused: There is a distinctly different kind of imprisonment we suffer from as white folks within this system, and a different kind of freedom we are invited into. But we are imprisoned nonetheless.
Anne Braden, a tireless, White Southern organizer and race traitor, said to other white people in her time: “We need to become involved as if our lives depended on it, because in truth, they do.”
Let’s get clear about why we’re here.
And let’s get free.