Give White People Something to Do
by Ash Sarkar
3 February 2021
When Black Lives Matter protests kicked off around the world last June following the police murder of George Floyd, there was no shortage of articles directing white people in how to manifest their support for the cause.
For the most part, these pieces concerned themselves with how white people ought to conduct themselves interpersonally, and how to behave at protests. These do’s and don’ts included not showing up to the march wearing a dashiki, challenging racist friends or family members and generally avoiding being a big jar when interacting with Black people. Such articles can be understood as helping otherwise well-intentioned white people identify and mitigate against perpetuating microaggressions in a social context; but less charitably, perhaps there’s a case to argue that these are just etiquette guides masquerading as political education.
As I’ve written elsewhere, the events of the past few years — Brexit, BLM, the elections of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson — have politicised a new cohort of young, socially conscious white people. A combination of social media and a somewhat diversified publishing landscape has rapidly familiarised them with ideas like intersectionality, anti-Blackness and white privilege. Certainly, some of the ways this has manifested (posting a black square on Instagram, declaring oneself an ‘ally’ on Twitter) are performative, gauche and just a bit grating. But such are the pains of consciousness-raising: for every meaningful act of solidarity, there’ll be an annoying and historically reductive TikTok.
Perhaps the more instructive question is how should politically sympathetic white people support Black and brown people in antiracist struggle? Don’t be a prick is one, attend the protests and open your wallet are others. These are all important and tangible asks, but perhaps inadequate on their own. Attempts to expand beyond the immediate and the interpersonal have often lacked solid, real-life grounding. Saying that white people should try “giving up your privilege” in order to combat structural racism sounds good, but what does it actually mean in practice? How does a white person who’s never been stopped and searched, or never had trouble going through an airport, or never been passed over for a job because of their name give up the privilege they enjoy? Imploring white people to hire Black and brown staff is useful if you’re addressing the person in charge; less so if you’re a temp working in data entry.
Indeed, even the more specific prescriptions regarding individual conduct can pull in different directions. Contradictory signals have emerged from the extremely-online idpol industrial complex. The imperative to ‘stay in your lane’ sits uneasily next to the demand that white people use their platforms to call out racism where they find it; the encouragement to listen and learn from people of colour undercut by the retort of ‘I’m not here to educate you.’ Of course, demonstrating racial literacy in one’s everyday life — avoiding microaggressions, showing empathy, not calling anyone a “funny tinge” — involves discernment and taking personal responsibility. But the insistence that solidarity from white people boils down to self-policing according to conflicting slogans and maxims, points to gaps and limitations within the contemporary understanding of how to conceptualise, and organise around, identity politics.
As Asad Haider argues in Mistaken Identity, what we understand as identity politics today is the result of decades of drifting away from its radical and anti-capitalist origins. The Combahee River Collective, who first coined the term in 1977, considered identity politics a revolutionary project, of working directly to address that which oppresses you. This isn’t a separatist strategy. Rather, the task is to address interlocking systems of oppression (race, class, gender, sexuality), from a practice that springs from the tenet that identity creates collective positions of vulnerability. Over time, however, this explicitly revolutionary and anticapitalist politic has turned into what Haider calls a “wounded attachment”, where being marginalised is itself considered a source of identity.
identity politics by several centuries. The political theory and practice of identity politics has been most useful for building coalitions with people of various identities who are committed to working together to eradicate these systems and not for creating enemies lists.
— Barbara Smith (@TheBarbaraSmith) January 6, 2018
The point of a wounded attachment isn’t to seek out a shared terrain of struggle, where emancipation is possible, but to insist that suffering is immutable, unchanging and that all you can ask is that others recognise it. Over the intervening four-and-a-bit decades, identity politics has become more individualised, increasingly concerned with the experience of trauma rather than liberation from it. There’s a tension between what we’ve seen over the past few years — a collective reckoning across the global north with police violence and anti-black discrimination — and a vision of idpol which presents identity-driven struggles as atomised, intersecting only at the level of the individual. It’s not surprising that there are few compelling and propositional visions for how white people can participate in antiracist struggle. If political action springs from your identity, which is itself a fixed point, then white people demonstrating ‘allyship’ becomes a matter of how they’re seen to behave as white people, rather than participation in shared organising spaces.
So, what would that shared organising look like? Like Haider, I find it instructive to look back on the history and politics of the Black Panther Party. The self-organisation and leadership of the Black Panthers on matters of race did not presuppose the passivity of white and non-black allies. In June 1969, the Chicago Black Panthers announced the formation of the Rainbow Coalition with the Puerto Rican Young Lords (a former street gang which transformed into a movement for neighbourhood empowerment and national self-determination), and the Appalachian Young Patriots (a group of working-class Southern white youths transplanted to Chicago). The Rainbow Coalition became a national model, taken up by Black Panther chapters in New York and Oakland, with an explicit commitment to anticapitalism linking organisations across the divide of race. As one New York-based Black Panther leader put it: “We believe that racism comes out of a class struggle […] When we provide free breakfasts for poor kids, we provide them for poor whites and poor blacks.”
“…this is another reason why Hoover feared the Panthers so much, because they were bringing together all sorts of different radical and revolutionary groups, groups against the War in Vietnam.”
— Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò (@OlufemiOTaiwo) February 2, 2021
But it wasn’t just oppression on the basis of class that the Black Panthers used to build coalitions. Huey Newton, who co-founded the Black Panther Party along with Bobby Seale, was sympathetic to the aims of the white New Left (even though the sense that white middle class revolutionaries had of oppression was, in his words, “somewhat abstract”). The politics of anti-imperialism, brought into sharp focus by the Vietnam War and the progress of decolonisation across the world, provided a shared terrain for the Black Panthers and the New Left. As Newton observed in an interview with the Movement newspaper, conducted while he was in prison:
“There are many young white revolutionaries who are sincere in attempting to realign themselves with mankind, and to make a reality out of the high moral standards that their fathers and forefathers only expressed […] The young white revolutionaries raised the cry for Vietnam, hands off Latin America, withdraw from the Dominican Republic and also to withdraw from the black community or the black colony. So you have a situation in which the young white revolutionaries are attempting to identify with the oppressed people of the colonies and the exploiter.”
Of course, none of this is to say that today’s antiracist movement would be better off simply mimicking the aesthetics, rhetoric and political positioning of the Black Panther Party. The political communities which sustained the BPP have, in the intervening years, fragmented through co-option, repression, and atomisation. However, the Panthers’ approach to coalition-building suggests that the response from white people to Black and brown self-organisation needn’t be limited to ‘go to the protest and don’t be a prick,’ nor remain bogged down in the nebulous and never-ending business of forswearing your own privilege: it’s a reciprocal and allied effort to organise on the basis of class and anti-imperialism. The politicisation of white people over the past five years has so far been confined to changing how people think. Now, it’s time to change what they do.
Ash Sarkar is a contributing editor at Novara Media.