Black Frats, Asian-American Student Unions, etc.April 15, 2010
This article mostly focuses on arguments regarding the formation of race-based organizations. However, you can easily substitute references to "white" and "minority races" with any number of "dominant majority groups" and "minority groups" and retain the same flow and relevance. It all applies.
By no means am I the first person to ever write on this subject. I’m probably not even the thousandth. But it’s something that I – as a teacher and person of color – am confronted with pretty regularly, and I feel that it’s time that I address it, personally. Hopefully, if I do this right, I can use it in the future with my kids and staff that I work with.
Here we go.
There are a million ways this comes up, but I’m just going to jump to it – at some point, when talking about racial inequality, white people will bring up the fact that BET, black fraternities and sororities, Asian-American and other “ethnic” clubs and the like are all “okay,” but similar “white-only” organizations, channels, etc. would be deemed “racist.” They ask – how’s that fair?
And it’s a good question. It really is. Because, if that’s how you see the world and how race plays out (which is the position the questioners are in – whether they be kids or adults), then it really doesn’t seem to add up. It seems like that good old “reverse-racism” people like to talk about.
Until you broaden the focus. (*1)
So my response to this question has two levels to it: the first addresses only the more surface level of physical characteristics and race alone; the second involving oppression and inequality in general.
Let’s get to it.
Level 1 – Race
If we’re talking only about race, which is usually how this question is addressed and perceived, we must examine the purpose(s) behind the formation of these organizations, as well as how the creation of these organizations affect other groups. (*2) I emphasize that this section is about race, and race alone. Any other factors/considerations are put aside until the second section, so please keep that focus throughout your reading of this part.
So why are these race-focused organizations formed? Put simply, they are places where members of the specified races can come together and form a majority, in order to create a comfort-zone, of sorts. These are places where members of the racial group can be surrounded (in the case of the media, it’s a virtual “surrounding”) by people that represent them, racially. From there, members of that group can talk about issues that pertain to them directly, amongst their peers, and perhaps advocate for change from within that framework.
These organizations are formed in places where white is the majority (media being no exception, of course). Places where every space is dominated by white faces. Classrooms will be a white majority. Tv shows and channels will display a majority of white faces. Non-white students will not have any unintentionally-formed spaces in which their skin-tone dominates.
But everybody deserves the right to have the feeling of not standing out in a crowd, racially – white people included. However, over the vast majority of the U.S., white people do not have to consciously create these spaces. Almost everywhere a white person chooses to go in this country (virtually or in the flesh) will be a space in which their color is the majority. And so you do not have to go out of your way to make that happen. That discomfort you feel when visiting an all-PoC space? That’s just everyday life for a person of color.
So these organizations are built to try to get a taste of that comfort that white people are lucky to get all the time – they’re a racial “home-base.” Probably the one place where participants do not have to be racial minorities. And so these organizations often help members increase their own pride, self-esteem, and sense of safety simply by existing. The same way white folks will feel more comfortable and safe when they’re the majority. A space to relax, recoup, and not feel racial identity as a weight.
Sounds pretty positive, right? But how do these organizations affect other groups? Do they take away other groups’ rights?
The fact is, these organizations do not tend to affect other groups directly. When these groups do so, it is usually in the form of protests or other attempts to bring attention to issues that affect the organizations’ racial group. Direct actions are meant to bring more justice and equality to the racial groups’ cause. An attempt to achieve "black power," for example, is simply an attempt to bring the power-base of black folks up to the same level as the power-base of white folks. Therefore, any minority race’s call for "more power" is in relative terms – as their "more power" is still going to be less than white folks’ power, on a whole. (*3)
Of course, in that situation, white folks as a group still stand to be directly affected (“negatively”) by this rise towards equality. Because you have to admit that white people mostly control this country. White people have most of the power. Therefore, if Latino people – for example – get larger representation, it’s most likely going to be white people that then give some of it up. True equality brings the bottom up – but it also entails having the top give up a little bit.
And that’s scary. Threatening, even. But it is not a situation in which giving up some power then gives another group power over white people – because the white racial group will still hold the advantage. And we need to keep that in mind, if we’re speaking in terms of justice, equality, and "fairness." It’s not taking away rights. It’s just taking away a little bit of privilege. And that’s a very important distinction that will come into play more fully in the second section (one that white readers will be happily surprised by, I believe). An increase in non-white races’ power makes things just a little bit "more equal" even if that feels (understandably) uncomfortable for white people.
On the flip side – what would a “white-only” organization be trying to obtain? It is not a necessary construct to form a “comfort-zone” for white folks because – as we’re still talking about race alone – that comfort-zone is just everyday life for a white person. Building an entire organization isn’t necessary for white folks to taste being a majority. (*4) There is no need for the existence of a “white-only” organization for white folks to get to put down the weight of race. It also doesn’t make sense as a fight for “white-rights,” because (again – we’re talking race alone) white people are the “standard” in this country. “Equality” in legislation means “getting to be equal with white people.” That’s just how it is. So any attempts for a white-dominated organization to increase "white power" is an attempt to further cripple other races – making things "less equal." And that’s unconstitutional.
So – if this is the case, then a “white-only” organization would most likely be formed as a response to other racially-focused organizations. (*5) Not for the same reasons as them, however, but as a counter-point. Basically an “in-your-face” statement, as well as an attempt to bring folks together to consider the “threat” that these other race-based organizations present. But, again, if the “threat” presented is simple equality, then a group formed to counter-act that is, in its core, built to take away other people’s rights in order to protect their own privilege– which is, of course, not okay.
At this point, however, you are probably asking – but what about me? Just because I’m white, I can’t form an organization where I can be surrounded by people like me? What about my roots? Great – white people are the majority, a lot of higher-ups and rich people are white – but that doesn’t apply to me. I grew up in a worse neighborhood, with less money, more problems, etc. than these middle-to-upper-class Asian-American kids who have their club. So who has the real privilege?
My response? Welcome to Level 2 – Oppression and Inequality, in general
If you’re in a position to make the above argument, or anything similar – you’re absolutely right. Totally. Your “white privilege” hasn’t really seemed so helpful, and the people at the top certainly don’t represent you or where you came from. So where’s your organization?
All over the place, actually. There are tons of them. You just may not realize it because you’re focusing on race here, and race isn’t your problem. Race isn’t why you’re underrepresented, or have less power, or money, or opportunities. Your whiteness has nothing to do with that. Whiteness, in this country, is the one bone that got thrown your way – but that’s little consolation when all sorts of other forms of oppression are working against you. Wearing a nice warm cap in the winter when other people don’t have one is great – but it doesn’t feel so "special" when you’re barefoot in the snow and other people have boots. (*6)
So, your issue might actually be socioeconomic class. Or religion. Or gender. Or disability. Or sexuality. Or size. Or any other of a thousand possible sources of inequality and minority status. It’s probably more than one.
So you don’t need a group by race – because a random group of white people aren’t all going to share the same source of oppression (unlike a group of a minority race – who all share that particular oppressed connection). What you need is a group that builds a space for your particular minority status. You need an organization for people that came from poverty. Or for your particular religion. Or a women’s group. Etc. That’s the safe-space and comfort zone you need and deserve. One where you’re focused on being surrounded by people with a different form of shared oppressive, minority experience (finally – people like you).
Because, in this case, a racially-focused group just wouldn’t cut it for you. It wouldn’t give you the same home-base, on the same level that minority race-based organizations are trying to provide for their members. It would also help your particular set of oppressors win. Because I promise you that “they” would be more than happy for you to form a counter-point “white-only” organization and spend your time and resources on that; instead of directly addressing what really holds you back.
You’re in the same situation as racial minorities building up their specific power-base and sense of security through these organizations – just with a different focus. Race is just one dot on the spectrum of oppression. Race-based organizations may just trigger you because race is the one area in which you hold the privilege. And these groups are built to challenge that privilege. That discomfort is perfectly reasonable – because it feels like you’re being blamed for something that you may have had no direct part of. However, if the focus is re-directed to class, and you come from poverty – you’re going to have no problem challenging rich people’s privilege, yourself. White women should have no issue with organizations that challenge male privilege. And so on.
Ultimately, any organization built to reduce another group’s dominance and/or privilege should be seen to you as a positive. That’s how justice is achieved in a democracy. On the other hand, any group that reduces another group’s rights (as in the right to be amongst a majority of peers, or the right to have equal power with other groups) is unconstitutional and a detriment to every minority group – whether it seems to be directly aimed at you, or not.
A fight against oppression and inequality is a fight against oppression and inequality. Period. If you find yourself threatened by a particular version of that fight, then it’s probably because it affects your personal privilege. And I’m not just talking about race. When that happens, then we all need to broaden our scope and focus – away from the one specific example that triggers us, personally – back to "a fight against oppression." And when you view it as a piece of a whole like that – it’s hard not to understand why it’s a good thing.
We all need organizations like this; we all need to have a home-base where we can be comfortably surrounded by "people like us," so that we can rest, stay sane, and re-enter the world. Slowly and surely, every one of these groups helps us in our particular fight against oppression. But to fully get those benefits, we have to be willing to acknowledge our own little areas of privilege, and be willing to give up some of that in the name of justice. And in doing that, we change ourselves from potential oppressors to allies – and this world needs allies.
So – if you happen to be a white person or a member of any dominant group that is uncomfortable with minority-focused organizations and you read all the way through this, you just took the first step towards becoming an ally. I’m sure it was uncomfortable to read. Probably triggered you a little bit. But you made it, and I hope it made sense. If you’re still unclear, or don’t fully buy it, please feel free to comment or – if you don’t want to make your questions/comments "public" – feel free to hit me up personally at "choptensils AT gmail DOT com."
As for everyone else – any comments/suggestions you have to better present this would be much appreciated, as well.
(*1) Incidentally, in responding to this, I am going to directly address the white folks that have this question. When I say “you,” I am referring to a white reader, unless otherwise specified.
(*2) From here on out, I will use different organizations as examples, but the basic principles apply to all of them in each scenario.
(*3) And yes – some of this is all a numbers game: white people are the numerical majority in this country, so – in theory – other races could "go back to where they came from" to achieve numerical dominance, and thus – power dominance. Of course, that ignores the fact that this nation is not where white people "come from," either, and the reason white people have achieved numerical superiority is because of their direct limiting of other race’s presence within U.S. borders (from outright killing of indigenous people to immigration laws focused more heavily on non-white peoples). So – until indigenous Americans are the statistical majority in this land, the "go back to where you came from" argument is invalid.
(*4) There are exceptions, of course, where white people are a racial minority. Generally, this will be in specific neighborhoods and schools where a different race dominates. In these cases, white folks creating a "comfort-zone" space for themselves is perfectly okay – and, perhaps, necessary. Just keeping in mind that another race’s majority status in one specific area does not change power dynamics in this country.
(*5) When we’re talking about "cultural groups," it’s a little different for white folks. There is nothing wrong or "unjust" about the formation of organizations for various "white" ethnic groups (i.e. an "Irish-American" club). Hell – "Italian" and "Irish" only recently became synonymous with "white." An organization for sharing culture . . . nothing wrong with that. As for other "white-only" organizations – if there was a group for white folks to just examine their commonalities and culture (and, possibly, privilege) without working to increase forms of white power or privilege – all good, as well.
(*6) I should state here that I am officially boycotting the "Oppression Olympics." Meaning, just because race isn’t your problem, that doesn’t invalidate the importance of race for other people. Just as the importance of race then doesn’t invalidate the importance of religion, or sexuality, or size, etc. It’s not either/or, forms of oppression are not mutually exclusive – it’s all valid, and each piece affects every other piece in different ways.