“White liberals who interject themselves into spaces for and by Black people and center themselves in our conversations, fail to hold themselves accountable when it comes to to being active listeners, and fail to recognize that their perspectives comes from a place of privilege, instead of understanding the significance of doing no matter what it takes to act upon their claim that they practice anti-racism.” – Stephanie Younger
By Stephanie Younger •
Each time I have been invited to work with white liberals, and as time passed, I realized that I was experiencing tokenism, that I was consistently being spoken over and stereotyped as a young Black female organizer. So, I wrote this article based on my experiences with white liberals who don’t understand that white privilege gives them the benefit of viewing their favorite racist politicians as the “lesser of two evils.” I also wrote this about my experiences with white liberals pick and choose when to call themselves “allies” as long as it’s beneficial, while getting defensive, and protecting systems of white supremacy. I wrote this about my experiences with white liberals who show up how and when they want to, and speak over Black women, instead of standing with us. I wrote this from my experiences as a Black girl (from a womanist lens) with white liberals, who say claim to be “anti-racist,” but avoid and fail to act upon those words. However, my pain isn’t for the consumption of white liberals who read this.
1. White liberal’s apathy to the privilege of disagreeing with someone else’s political views without being marginalized because of their race.
In 2015, Son of Baldwin, also known as Robert Jones. Jr., “We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.” Jones’ quote applies to the way white liberals often gloss over another white person’s racism to gaslight Black women. To put this in perspective, white liberals have attempted to force me into the same space as an alt-right white supremacist in a so-called “social justice advocacy group.” In that group, white liberals who claimed to have been feminists questioned why I would be uncomfortable, and entertained the idea of me having to defend my existence to that white supremacist. They were complacent, as long as they were unaffected, and therefore as long as that white supremacist was misogynistic and anti-Black against me; but not sexist against them. Black women are patronized into believing that “we can’t always get what we want,” smeared as “divisive,” and blamed for the political tension in the world, over our valid critiques of white liberal politicians as well. This erases our front line work in the fight towards liberation for all oppressed people. Similarly, I wrote an article about the 2020 Presidential Election, in response to those who degrade Black women who say that we are not afforded the privilege of viewing racist white liberal politicians as, “the lesser of two evils.”
“When I say that I’m not supporting a problematic candidate, I also shouldn’t have to be met with white moderates who ask me, “Well, who are you voting for then? What’s your solution? If you’re not supporting them, you’re being divisive and helping Trump.”…94% of Black women who voted in the 2016 election didn’t choose Trump. Despite the Clintons’ complicity in heavy policing of Black communities, Black women stood with Hillary Clinton in November 2016. Despite the atrocious display of white feminism of the Women’s March in January of 2017, Black women still marched in solidarity in January 2017, and advocated on the front lines of many other fights for gender justice since then. Will we ever get that same solidarity in return?”Why I Am Not “Voting Blue No Matter Who”
It obviously was not 52% of Black women voters who “helped Trump” in the 2016 Presidential Election. Instead of listening to Black women’s legitimate critiques of politicians who have a vested interest in white supremacy, white liberals fail to hold 52% of white women (including their friends) who most likely did so. They are apathetic to the fact that Black women are not afforded the same conveniences of being oblivious to the “lesser evil” what happens in our everyday lives.
2. White liberal’s apathy to the privilege of being called out for enforcing anti-Black racism than actually experiencing it.
From my experiences of being the token Black woman in an “advocacy group” mainly comprised of white liberals, they often acted a certain way, but behaved a different way when I wasn’t looking (as if I wouldn’t notice). After a while, the white liberals got too comfortable, and begin to behave the way they likely have behind behaving my back. For instance, I have been in spaces with white liberals who often made light of the struggles of the most oppressed people in the Black community, who they claimed to to advocate for—without expecting criticism from me. In these same spaces, white liberals also were anti-Black, to the extent of which they were protecting their “overtly racist” white friends or family members from me—fearing the possibility I might come after them, or in their words, “do something to them.” This stems from the perception that Black women are “angry,” “combative,” “predatory,” or which is rooted in the “sapphire” stereotype. By accusing us of attacking them and being “out to get them,” white liberals enforce these stereotypes rooted in misogynoir. gaslight Black women’s legitimate grievances by accusing us of “attacking” them. In 2018, Rachel Elizabeth Cargle, an academic, writer, and lecturer, wrote about white liberal feminists who gaslight Black women’s legitimate grievances by accusing us of “attacking them.” In her Harper’s Bazaar article from 2018, “When Feminism is White Supremacy in Heels” Cargle wrote,
“…It is made painfully obvious that many white women believe that the worst thing that can happen to them is to be called a racist…Seeing your child gunned down in the street by the police unjustly is much worse, being turned away for medical care due to race and underlying biases by medical staff, resulting in death, is much worse, being harassed by authorities only to be charged yourself instead is much worse.”– Rachel Elizabeth Cargle for Harper’s Bazaar, “When Feminism Is White Supremacy in Heels.”
For example, although I do experience anti-Black racism and misogyny, I have never faced colorism for being light-skinned, transphobia for being cis, classism for middle-class, etc., That being said, I should never accuse someone of attacking me when I need to actively fight colorism, transphobia, classism, and elitism. That being said, it is a very privileged position for a white liberal to accuse a Black person of “attacking” them, in the sense that they are not part of a community that is accustomed to being attacked. When it comes to anti-Black racism, white liberals often see themselves as “exceptions” and not beneficiaries. As long as they are not actively challenging their privileges, they are complicit in anti-Black racism. Instead of listening to the Black woman (me) who calls them out, white liberals often said to me, “I’m really sorry you feel that way.” Instead of stating how they will do better in future reference and following through with those actions, white liberals white-splainined to me about what is racist and what isn’t, and policed how I should respond to the harm that they caused. Ultimately, white liberals see more significance in their intentions, comfort and feelings, instead of their negative impact on Black lives.
3. White liberals who view tokenism as synonymous with anti-racism.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. introduced the concept of “tokenism.” Notably, in his 1962 essay, “A Bold Design for a New South,” he wrote, “Tokenism was the inevitable outgrowth of the Administration’s design for dealing with discrimination.” I have found myself in situations where white liberals have asked me to work with them, and the first thing that was said to me in one group was, “we’re so excited to make things more diverse around here!” Tokenism occurs when a group of white liberals says “that’s enough activism for today” after allowing a Black woman to join them. The moment I, the only Black woman in the group, opened my mouth and started talking about race, spoke of the idea of doing anti-racist activism, or even include other Black people, was the moment I was met with winces of doubt and disapproval. The white liberals began to zone out, until they saw my ideas as self-serving and convenient opportunities to use Black women as their “teachable moments,” in order to meet their end goal of appearing “more diverse.” It is insincere of white liberals who are unwilling to do the work of ensuring that Black women are seen, heard and accepted at all times, to call themselves anti-racist when it came to their convenience.
4. White liberals who only show up when they are affected.
Just to name a few examples, I know white liberals who wore pink hats to the Women’s March in light of the outcome of the 2016 election, but were nowhere to be seen when it was time to show up for Black lives. I also knew white liberals who passionately rallied against gun violence in predominantly white schools, but opted out of taking a stand against everyday policing and gun violence against Black communities at the hands of the police state. White liberals often fail to see the importance of giving Black lives the same energy they gave to movements, like the Women’s March, and why it is a good start when it comes to fighting for intersectionality. Last year, Brittany Packnett, an activist, educator and writer, entitled her Teen Vogue column, “We Can’t Just Show Up For Social Justice Issues When It Impacts Our Own Lives.” She wrote, “If you possess privilege of any kind, it is your responsibility to spend that privilege. Put it up at risk to protect the very people who are suffering most. Be willing to say the hard thing. Be willing to stand up in protest. Be willing to ask the difficult questions of those in authority.” Packnett’s words emphasize that this solidarity should extend beyond one’s potential to get media attention, and waving signs at rallies for a photo op, and reposting hashtags on social media. Throughout elementary school, middle school and high school, I repeatedly learned the lesson, that it is often white liberals, in addition to “overtly racist” white people, who will not stand with me as a Black woman, or whose “activism” stops at showing up when they’re affected. It was Dr. Martin Luther King, who wrote in his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” (1963), that he is “gravely disappointed with the white moderate.” It was Angela Davis, who said, “in a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist.” White liberals who are silent as they watch Black women being stereotyped, profiled, or criminalized, embody the white moderate MLK warned us about. Instead of recognizing that white liberals are in a privileged position where practicing anti-racism doesn’t cost nearly the price Black women have to pay in a misogynoiristic world, white liberals often do what they think is best for us, and fail to listen to how they can stand with Black women and act upon that.
5. White liberals who speak for Black women instead of standing with Black women.
White liberals who don’t do or say anything to hold themselves and other white people accountable for their anti-Blackness are complicit. That being said, it is also problematic to intentionally, or unintentionally speak for people who are more marginalized. Realizing this is something I struggled with as a light-skinned, cis, middle-class Black girl, who benefits from the colorist, cisheteronormative, and classist systems. I have been called out for speaking for communities I’m not a part of, instead of standing with them. However, in my mind, I knew exactly how I would feel if someone who is more privileged than I am, did the same to me. I learned that people who know what it’s like not to be listened to should not do the same to another person. This is why the phrase, “voice for the voiceless” doesn’t sit well with me at all, in the sense that it implies that Black women and other oppressed communities are “voiceless.” It is especially harmful for white liberals to speak for Black people instead of standing with us, especially when use us Black people as talking points at opportunities they take from Black women they have silenced in their own spaces, such as using us as talking points at panel discussions about police violence against Black people, or co-opting Black spaces to center their opinion.
6. White liberals who claim to stand with Black women when it’s convenient.
Each time I offered ways white liberals can accomplice themselves with Black liberation, they jokingly and “politely” turned me down with the certainty that “we’ve already addressed that.” When they asked, I offered books authored by Black women, that were unread by some, and invited them to multiple causes, many of which were passed up others. One time, I was often immediately cut off when I proceeded to discuss the first, and abruptly, the only thing I listed, which was amplifying work organized by Black people on social media. They winced, said “no, not like that,” and attempted to eliminate my idea to replace it with an idea that they find more digestible, and that won’t interfere with their privileged lives. By “more digestible,” I am referring to work that isn’t “too specific,” and therefore doesn’t center Black people, or subjects that include abolishing the prison system, and stopping police violence. “Less digestible” may include public community discussions about anti-racism, and direct action, in which many white liberals view as “violence.” Ironically, those same white liberals have presented themselves as “allies,” by co-opting the concept of anti-racist activism for their own benefit. White liberals don’t realize that Black women don’t live in a world where we get to think about racism when we want to. White liberals who center themselves spaces for and by Black people and center themselves in our conversations, fail to hold themselves accountable when it comes to to being an active listener, and fail to recognize that their perspectives comes from a place of privilege, instead of understanding the significance of doing no matter what it takes to act upon their claim that they practice anti-racism.
Stephanie Younger is a 17-year-old student activist and writer who advocates for womanism and the abolition of youth prisons.