whiteness, racist ethnocentrism, and “progressive” action

Posted on April 14, 2008


Is whiteness looking outward for the answer to the world’s problems- rather than looking inward and examining our own role, our own complicity, our own oppressive ways? Unless we address our own white privilege as white people, as a racial group, a cultural group, an ethnic group, we will not be useful or instrumental in addressing and fighting against racism. Unless white “progressives” and “liberals” own our whiteness- which means going beyond acknowledging it, but working hard to stop ourselves from often unknowingly oppressing via (white) dominant/normative/hegemonic cultural methods (for greater depth on this look at Maria Lugones’s discussion of racist ethnocentrism in her essay “Hablano cara a cara/Speaking Face to Face: An Exploration of Ethnocentric Racism” published in 1990 in Gloria Anzaldua’s Making Face, Making Soul/Haciendo Caras). As part of the dominant oppressive group who benefit from unearned white priviledge (see Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”), whites struggling against oppression (many of whom perhaps wouldn’t choose to be a part of this group if there was a choice) critical self/inner reflection is a necessary component of anti-racist struggle, as well as fighting oppression alongside those who are directly experiencing it.

When whites see the struggle as global and don’t connect it to the local, we neglect the very real issues of racism and racial inequality in our own communities. Silence and inaction is complicity to racism, and this is the most common way in which racism is dealt with by white friends in my experience. My white friends often justify their inaction and apathy to themselves and those around them because if they “aren’t racist”, why should they have to do anything about it. Being white is experiencing a disconnect between cause and effect, in terms of history and how it affects our institutional structures as well as individual attitudes (passed on through culture, norms, and socialization) today. But as whites, we are taught to see ourselves as the norm. We are taught that we are all individuals (especially within (white) American culture), and many are taught that racism and oppression is wrong, yet a thing of the past. Hence, if we have good values, and think we are good people, we believe we aren’t racist and that as long as we aren’t racist individually, we are then off the hook. Why should we spend all of our time angry and upset, with our nose in books, looking at old historical documents? Why can’t we just move on, “get over it”? What is our role as whites in all of this? And for those whites who are committed to anti-racist struggle, there are still many oppressive ways that we act without perhaps realizing and/or addressing them. For example, inclusivity within many progressives circles leave many people out who aren’t “radical” enough, and often those left out at the decision making table are people of color. Look at Pedro Azcarate-Ferbel’s discussion of the green movement in Oregon (below), for example and the utter lack of the voices of people of color at the decision-making table. Think for a moment about who comprises groups of environmental activists, in which communities they live (and who used to live there), as well as for whom are their sustainability efforts benefiting?

(from Pedro’s site- http://blackstudieswhitestudies.blog.com/- from post on Focus the Nation Day, Monday, January 28, 2008)

In Oregon and U.S. , green groups are mostly white

Ethnicity – Environmental leadership across the nation has little diversity, which two Portlanders work to change
Sunday, January 27, 2008
The Oregonian Staff
In the mainstream green movement, being any color but white can be a little lonely.
Take it from Marcelo Bonta, who’s half Filipino. He got a job with the Portland office of a wildlife nonprofit, then began going to national environmental conferences.
“I’d see only one or two or three people of color out of 100 to 200 people in the room,” he says. “I felt like I’d stepped back a few decades, if not more, in terms of race and ethnicity
Despite decades of hand-wringing by the typically liberal organizations, more than one-third of mainstream green groups and one-fifth of green government agencies in the United States don’t have a single nonwhite person on their staff, according to a 2004-06 University of Michigan survey.
And about 90 percent of the staff and board members for groups belonging to the Natural Resources Council of America are white, according to a 2002 survey for the group.
Oregon is no exception. The 115 staff members for the Oregon League of Conservation Voters, Oregon Environmental Council, Ecotrust, Oregon Wild and the Audubon Society of Portland include two Latinos, two Asian Americans, one Native American and no African Americans, their leaders say.
Ecotrust has two Native Americans on its board. Of the 56 board members for the four other groups, 55 are white and one is Asian American.
Bonta, 34, now a Portland-based green consultant, is teaming with Charles Jordan, 70, a former Portland city commissioner and parks director, to help mainstream green groups walk their progressive talk.
The two co-wrote the keystone chapter for a just-released Yale School of Forestry book on diversifying the green movement. Bonta advises environmental groups on how to diversify, and he started a center for diversity and a group for young environmental professionals of color in Portland . Jordan, the first African American board chairman of a national group, The Conservation Fund, has emphasized the importance of green diversity for years.
The clubbiness of mainstream environmental groups threatens to leave out the fastest-growing portion of the population. That limits outreach to nonwhites and contributes to a segregated green movement, with more minorities heading to grass-roots environmental justice groups

Posted by pedro at 11:43 | Permanent Link | Comments (2) |



1 – I would like other people’s take on a program I used to work with.
The problem with the Forest Service being a strong majority white is an issue. I once worked for the Forest Service as a Youth Corps Supervisor. The program was made to try and encourage hispanic children to join the forest service when they get older.
I had 8 kids, all low income and hispanic. From what I saw it was a great program. It allowed the children to make some extra money to help their families. The job offered them experiance and opportunities that may have otherwise been available.
I liked the program.
What I wonder is, does it work?
Perhaps the children gain experiance and opportunities, perhaps they gain interest in working for the forest service, however, I do not think it is a matter of these things, but a matter of hiring practice. No matter how experianced some one is, if people not hired because they are a minority, what good are these programs?
(Comment this)
Written by: Syrill at 2008/02/04 – 13:03:34
2 – Hey Syrill

You pose an intersting and difficult question. On one hand, people groups that normallly don’t get opportunities or exposure in the area of forest service getting it is a good thing. Of course on the other hand, if they are being looked over in the hiring process it’s all to no avail. I think the bigger question is whether or not these students would be allowed to be themselves and still be hired. What I mean is, many times, if marginalized groups don’t display a form of whiteness on interview day, mainstream English, “dress code”, gestures, etc…, then they won’t get the job. To most whites, these cultural things are like second nature, they’re seen as “normal”. To people of color, doing these things takes additional work and isn’t normative behavior but a part of our survival. People unfortunately look at different as deficient. So Latino kids coming in to an interview process aren’t viewed as unique and a benefit to the workforce diversity, but deficient and a challenge. This is very complex.

I’m glad that the Forest Service made this effort, but it’s sad that it many times is contingent on people assimilating or acculturating (words to do homework on). Instead of people of color having to leave their culture at the door, (and become “white” upon arrival) both people of color and those from the dominant culture should meet halfway–both groups able to be themselves–we should be equally accommodating to each other.

Thanks for placing this question! Will you provide comments and questions on my blog?matthewross.blog.com
I’d like to comment on yours as well! (Comment this)

Written by: Don Mateo A.K.A. Matt Ross at 2008/02/08 – 01:00:42

Thus, unless we as white people (especially those committed to anti-racist struggle) struggle with our own role in oppression (white privilege, racist ethnocentrism), the struggle against racism will fall upon the backs of people of color, and if the work of white people excludes people of color from the decision-making table the work that whites are doing to benefit us all will only benefit a few (whites).