The Failings of White Liberalism

by | Jul 1, 2021 | 0 comments

I would like to start with a definition and a disclaimer. I am using the definition of “whiteness” to mean any political ideology that enforces the will of a white majority group and treats non-white folks as a monolith capable of feeling freedom, justice, and fairness only in one flavor across the board. I use “white liberalism,” “the white liberal/s” and “white liberal movement” interchangeably. The disclaimer is that I am not a conservative. I’m a socialist. I come from a country whose Preamble of the Constitution clearly states that besides being a Sovereign, Secular, Democratic Republic, we are Socialists. I feel it is pertinent to give a disclaimer because the first issue I find with white liberalism is that if you are criticizing it, people assume that you must be from the other side of the political aisle. This idea centers white opinions by default. It dictates that whiteness knows more about the oppression enforced on people of color than people of color do. White liberalism criticizes whiteness with words and sometimes even actions that are too often not informed by historical analysis or the lived experience of the oppressed. While this criticism may come from a place of benevolence, it does not necessarily come from a place of understanding the oppression itself. White liberals, however, are vastly unaware of this. There are times when they would verbalize it, but practicing it is rare. Again, their inability to practice does not necessarily come from a place of malevolence; however this behavior does have long-lasting effects on leftist movements and progress.

Recently, the Madison Police Department body-worn camera report was released, and I saw an immediate pushback by some activists against its adoption by the city. There are several prominent activists who do not necessarily disagree with its adoption but understand where the people against its adoption are coming from. However, I have seen in many online spaces, especially Facebook, that folks opposing the adoption of the body-worn camera report have a tendency to demonize those who are either neutral or in favor of the report. This demonization comes in the form of assumptions that those not in line with their position must be Conservatives or Republicans and even racists. I firmly believe that this is not only a counter-productive tactic, but it is an example of the “my way or the highway” attitude of white liberalism.

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If you look at the political scene on national, state, or even county and city level, we see very little representation of Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color (BIPOC Folks). Lack of BIPOC representation and influence regarding what liberation looks like leads to a lack of BIPOC perspectives in decision making and political environments that impact the liberatory movement. White liberals that dominate these spaces think that Liberation for Black people is the same as Liberation for Indigenous people and that Liberation for Indigenous people is the same as Liberation for other people of color collectively, and this broad application of Liberation automatically means Liberation for all of us who are non-citizens. The white liberal fails to understand that since our oppression has been different, our Liberation must be different, and it will look and feel different to each of us. 

Our lack of representation in these spaces also leads white liberals to think that BIPOC folks are a monolith. White liberals think that if the majority of BIPOC folks they know agree on a certain thing, it must mean that the rest of us do, too. This is a fallacy. This only goes further in maintaining a different kind of homogeneous status quo that works for those of us who have had the “privilege” to be in proximity of these white liberals or have access to political and social systems governed by whiteness. For example if we look around us, we find that most of the left-leaning organizations are white majority. While they truly believe in equality, they somehow fail to understand that equality itself means different things to different people and that true liberation cannot be achieved unless we are able to craft a movement that encompasses these different expectations out of a model system that governs us.

This is because white liberalism has shown an inability to apply the concept of intersectionality that was first defined by Kimberle Crenshaw to BIPOC political or social leaders as “a lens through which you can see where power comes and collides, where it interlocks and intersects. It’s not simply that there’s a race problem here, a gender problem here, and a class or LBGTQ problem there. Many times that framework erases what happens to people who are subject to all of these things.”

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White liberals often fail to understand that being in a leadership position while being non-white means having to face a different set of hurdles in order to achieve what is just and fair than a white leader. They fail to understand that the hurdles that a non-citizen leader of color faces are very different from the hurdles a citizen leader of color faces. This is also true with the distinct hurdles Black leaders face or the ones Indigenous leaders face. White liberals think that since the system places all of us on the same footing by giving us the same title within the system we work in (for example nonprofit founders, senators, alders, etc.) we must have access to the same power structure. 

As a non-citizen, brown, immigrant, queer, non-binary woman, public representative, and an activist, it has become amply clear to me over the years that I need to mould my expectations from the system according to the expectations the system has of me and expectations that the white majority liberal organizations have of me. I feel trapped because I cannot expect more than the system is willing to give me, and I cannot hope or want anything different from what the white liberal movement expects I should hope and want. 

When Kamala Harris got elected as the first woman Vice President of the United States of America, as an Indian woman I was overjoyed as I had never seen such a successful and beautiful representation of who I am in such a positive, historical way. While I posted gleeful Facebook statuses and Snapchat stories about how Indian women are so amazing, I saw so many white liberals all over the country posting on Facebook that Kamala Harris’s representation should not be celebrated because she did not vote or act in a way that was acceptable to most of the left-leaning activists, including BIPOC folks. I have disagreed with Kamala Harris multiple times in the past and if I could have voted, I wouldn’t have voted for her in the primaries. But the fact that I could not even be happy for a little while, without being made to feel like it was somehow prohibited, only goes to show the point that white liberalism cannot understand the importance of representation from BIPOC folks. The moral of the story for me was that I am only allowed to be happy when the white liberalism allows me to be, and that representation should not matter to me as much as perfectionism, aka white supremacy.

It is, therefore, my firm belief that most left-leaning politics are dominated by whiteness. Movements like Black Lives Matter are the exception, whose struggles and advocacy have transcended beyond the veils of whiteness and whose presence has pushed white liberalism in the direction of progress. However, a lot more needs to be done, and I want to put that burden on white folks in close consultation with BIPOC folks. White liberals have access to the kind of institutional power BIPOC folks don’t, and remediation and reparation are essential to our liberation. However, I do earnestly hope that the white liberals will keep the points made above in mind. Always. Otherwise, the white majority liberalism is doomed to make the same mistake over and over again, making all of us suffer the consequences of its failure. —Ankita Bharadwaj

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This is an indictment of the status quo of white liberalism and a call to white Madison leadership to do better. Many white Madison leaders call themselves progressive but their actions, impact, and response to criticism are contrary to the ideals they claim to hold. 

This is a repetitive issue that has led to Madison being one of the worst cities for Black folks in the entire United States. The damage done by well-meaning liberal white leaders has been documented for decades. Folks keep saying that they’ll do better. They run campaigns filled with promises of diversity, equity, inclusion, and progress. But actions speak much louder than words, and once in office the drive to change is lost due to pressure and self-preservation at the expense of marginalized people.

In February, The Cap Times published an article featuring a conversation with Rev. Alex Gee centered on how white Madison leadership points to incremental progress as proof that progress has been made, while ignoring the vast social and economic divides that continue to disproportionately impact the Black community. His article speaks to the assumptions that white liberals make about the Black community, assumptions that uphold and center white supremacy. And while the author acknowledges that he agrees with Rev. Alex Gee, he is also aware that there are Black folks in Madison who disagree with Rev. Gee’s analysis, and he does so in a way that doesn’t demonize or alienate Black folks who have different ideological views. 

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It is essential for white liberals, and any white person in general, to understand that the definitions of “progress” and “liberation” mean different things to different people, especially with regard to anti-oppression activism and organizing, and that being involved in movements that center marginalized identities requires humility and compassion from those who are not directly impacted by systemic oppression—or even by the same kind of systemic oppression. It is possible to unite for a common cause and not share the exact same political or social ideology. And whiteness often shows us this to be true, especially when whiteness loses political or social power and privilege; when whiteness loses control. 

The worst part is, none of this is new. The most well-intentioned white liberals with power have a steady track record of making decisions on behalf of oppressed people instead of listening to and elevating the agency and autonomy of the people they claim to be supporting. And the answer continues to remain the same, white folks—and folks with privilege in general—need to be willing to use their privilege to support those most impacted by systemic oppression. Meaningful and impactful support, not just support for personal, political, or ideological gain. 

This means not centering yourself, white liberal Madison. And if you don’t know what that means, I suggest taking time to ask why you are doing the work. Deep, meaningful, intentional, and consistent self-reflection is essential to collective liberation, as is creating networks of trust and accountability. True accountability means listening when someone says you have caused harm, acknowledging the harm, and working through the harm you’ve caused within your community. It is essential that all leaders be comfortable with the discomfort of their own fallibility, and especially those who do not experience the discomfort of oppression. 

If you’ve never read/heard Audre Lorde’s “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” it’s time. —Jill Nagler

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