“On being white…and other lies”

Posted February 10, 2008

*Title taken from James Baldwin essay by that title (1984)

By the time I graduated high school, I saw that the rural area of Pennsylvania I grew up as the epitome of racism…and homophobia. Not much room for liberal “we-love-diversity”. I left there hating the whole area: it was dead, backward, close-minded, bigoted and all that. Arriving in New York for college, I thought I was in heaven, a far as “lets-all-get-along” diversity goes. That lasted about one subway ride, and I soon realized that New York is at least as harsh on people of color as my high school was, but in different ways and with lot more power to beat people down. By the end of college I was thoroughly disgusted with the white people of gentrified New York that didn’t have much in common with the working-class and poor rural white folks I grew up around. I moved to Harlem and, like my parents did back home, started getting involved in some of the community groups.

The more I get involved in the fight against racism here as an ally, the more I have to re-evaluate why I’m doing it. I don’t mean ‘Why am I trying to fight racism,’ but why am I trying to do it here, in Harlem with no solidly working-class white neighborhoods in sight. Is it a strategic decision about revolutionary organizing? Is it that these folks here in Harlem need a hand—and my hand in particular? To what extent is it also about me continuing to distance myself—my identity, my social life, my culture—from the out-and-out bigotry that I saw growing up? Moving away after high school was very much about that distancing, as if by leaving I was absolving myself of being “that kind of white person.” But after getting to know the punishing oppression that New York is for so many of its residents, my flight from rural PA is hardly justified on those terms. Now I’m just part of gentrification, like it or not.

As for strategy, one white SNCC veteran said to me recently that when they were excluded from the organization, it was less of a “you aren’t needed here” as “you are needed somewhere else—your own community”; it was articulating the need for white activists to turn to their own communities and organize around racism there. As Chip Smith notes in his recent book, The Cost of Privilege. “where the system of racial privilege divides workers the most, the average wage level for both white workers and workers of color tends to be lowest”. The historical creation of whiteness in America, the subject of James Baldwin’s essay noted above, serves a purpose and serves it well—the privilege of white workers gives them something to hold on to in their competition with other workers, especially as all wages are falling so quickly (note the partial repeal of affirmative action in Michigan). As for my area of PA, it is a major transportation hub and home to many over the road truckers. What might organizing there lead to? What is the potential for it to be directed against the racism oppression in that context?

Now, there’re all kinds of reasons why urban areas could be prioritized for revolutionary social movement organizing over rural areas (where some communities are literally dying off and young folks move out as fast as they can), but that’s not really the point of this little piece. The point is, what are the relationships between our political logic and our personal choices? If we say what we’re doing politically is based on some serious analysis, its got to be a critical analysis of ourselves and our personal decisions as well as the political situation. Why is it better for me—not just any activist, but me personally—to be here, working and organizing here in New York, and in Harlem in particular? What opportunities for building struggle am I missing at home? If I don’t have good answers, should I be packing my bags and heading on home? I don’t have the answers, and I’m not sure if I’ll ever find my way back to PA (though I think about it a lot more lately). In any case, I can’t pretend that I’m following a handbook for revolution, and got to be honest with myself if I’m every to be useful in our struggles.