Rev. Thandeka on Whiteness and Anti-Racism
Rev. Thandeka on Whiteness and Anti-Racism
By Will Shetterly and Thandeka /

From The Whiting of Euro-Americans: A Divide and Conquer Strategy:

...we must not forget that white racism was from the start a vehicle for classism; its primary goal was not to elevate a race but to denigrate a class. White racism was thus a means to an end, and the end was the defense of Virginia’s class structure and the further subjugation of the poor of all "racial" colors."


The white southern elite also established the "extraordinary rule" of allowing slave owners to exercise the vote of all or at least three-fifths of their black slaves. This concentration of political power not only degraded, in theory, the personhood of people with African ancestry by counting many such persons as only three-fifths human, but it effectively disenfranchised virtually all white southerners except for the biggest slaveholders.

Six points from Why Anti-Racism Will Fail:

1. Absence of oppression is not privilege.

Imagine that business and government leaders decreed that all left-handed people must have their left hand amputated. Special police forces and armies are established to find such persons and oversee the procedure. University professors and theologians begin to write tracts to justify this new policy. Soon right-handed persons begin to think of themselves as having right-hand privilege. The actual content of this privilege, of course, is negative: it's the privilege of not having one's left hand cut off. The privilege, in short, is the avoidance of being tortured by the ruling elite. To speak of such a privilege -- if we must call it that -- is not to speak of power but rather of powerlessness in the midst of a pervasive system of abuse -- and to admit that the best we can do in the face of injustice is duck and thus avoid being a target.

2. Privilege comes from wealth.

80 percent of the wealth in this country is owned by 20 percent of the population. The top 1 percent owns 47% of this wealth. These facts describe an American oligarchy that rules not as a right of race but as a right of class.

3. Anti-racism misinterprets actions resulting from feelings of shame and powerlessness.

One day, over lunch, Dan recounted an experience that helped shape his racial identity as a white. In college during the late 1950s, Dan joined a fraternity. With his prompting, his chapter pledged a black student.

When the chapter's national headquarters learned of this first step toward integration in its ranks, headquarters threatened to rescind the local chapter's charter unless the black student was expelled. The local chapter caved in to the pressure and Dan was elected to tell the black student member he would have to leave. Dan did it. "I felt so ashamed of what I did," he told me, and he began to cry. "I have carried this burden for forty years," he said. "I will carry it to my grave."

The couple at the next table tried not to notice Dan's breakdown. The waiter avoided our table. As Dan regained his composure, I retained mine. I could see his pain. I felt empathy for his suffering but was troubled by his lack of courage. Dan's tears revealed the depth of the compromise he had made with himself rather than risk venturing beyond the socially mandated strictures of whiteness.

I realized that being white for Dan was not a matter of racist conviction but a matter of survival, not a privilege but a penalty: the pound of flesh exacted for the right to be excluded from the excluded. Dan's tears revealed the emotional price of his ongoing membership in the "white" race.

Although he is not a racist, Dan might make a confession of racism to a UUA anti-racism trainer because this would be the only way to mollify the trainer and also because racism is the only category he would have to express a far deeper loss and regret: his stifled feelings and blunted desires for a more inclusive community. But Dan did not cry during our lunch together in the restaurant because he was a racist. He cried because his impulses to moral action had been slain by his own fear of racial exile.

The anti-racist charge of white racism gives persons like Dan a way of addressing their moral failure of nerve without having to face a harder truth that they acted in racist ways not because they were racist but because they were afraid of being rejected. The charge of racism does not heal this condition or even describe it. It simply punishes a person for being broken.

4. Anti-racist rhetoric divides people.

...the silent majority...know that the anti-racist rhetoric ... runs counter to the economic realities of this country and their own lives. I believe that these persons simply dismiss the rhetoric as insulting to their intelligence and walk away. ... This is the way in which our community is broken. One withdrawal at a time.

5. Anti-racism does not offer solutions.

When it comes to specifics, [anti-racists] call for no other action on the part of the white sinner except confession.

6. The true solutions are to talk about class and race, to empathize, and to organize.

First, read. Start reading groups in your local congregations that will help you figure out how to talk sensibly about the link between race and class in America. Learn how the creation of the so-called white in this country was a means to exploit this person’s labor. Discover what white Americans have in common with other people of color and work on a language that takes into account the fact that the racial socialization process in this country makes all of us racial victims.
Second, empathize. Learn to replace moral judgment with loving compassion. All of us have made decisions and acted in ways that compromise our moral integrity. Use our collective power as religious movements to help each of us heal our crippled ability to relate with the full integrity of our humanity. Create new rituals in your Sunday services that allow persons to feel the healing power of a beloved community.
Third, Organize. Build coalitions using your new vocabulary and your new commitment to empathize and work with other UU congregations and other liberal religious groups who are also tired of race-talk separated from talk about class issues. I believe that we have the power to transform America because of who we are: We are Middle-America. Transform this group and you transform the country because we are the majority. All we need is the moral courage to practice what we preach. And we will generate this moral courage through love.

Rev. Dr. Thandeka is the author of Learning to be White.

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Rev. Thandeka on Whiteness and Anti-Racism