Last Sunday: What to Do With/About White Folks?

By Robert Jensen

Published in Dissident Voice · January, 2007

Remarks to the third “Last Sunday” community gathering in Austin, TX, January 28, 2007.

After the initial “Last Sunday” gathering in November, many people made the observation that it was a mostly white audience, and then asked the question, “How can we attract more people of color to the event?”

The observation about the complexion of the group was important to acknowledge, but I think it was diversionary to move right away to that question. Instead of asking how to diversify the event, it’s crucial that we white folks be able to ask: (1) “Why are there so few non-white people here?” and (2) “What is our motivation in wanting more non-white people here?” I think only after we have dealt with those questions can we start to work to transform Last Sunday — and other predominantly white events, groups, and movements — in ways that challenge white supremacy rather than reinforce white privilege.

Put more bluntly: The goal shouldn’t be just diversity but the end of white supremacy, a much more ambitious goal but one that can be the basis for real hope.

These questions of language are not arcane; it’s crucial that we pay attention to the terms we use to deal with the question of race. Do we speak of diversity and multiculturalism, or do we acknowledge that we live in a white-supremacist society and confront unearned white privilege? The difference is important. While most people — even many conservatives — accept that we live in a diverse multicultural society, fewer are willing to name the contemporary United States as a white-supremacist society and acknowledge that white people have unearned privilege.

Naming the United States as white supremacist doesn’t mean all white people run around in white sheets or join neo-Nazi militias. Instead, it marks the fact that racialized disparities in wealth and well-being endure — and in some cases have deepened — even 40 years after the major gains of the civil-rights movement. It marks the fact that many white people — maybe the majority? a significant majority? — still believe that what has come out of Europe is inherently superior. Maybe even many white liberals who celebrate diversity still secretly believe that the art, music, politics, and philosophy that come from white parts of the world are more sophisticated, more important, simply better. So, we live in a world where we (1) speak of our commitment to racial justice yet accept a white-supremacist distribution of resources and (2) speak of our commitment to valuing all traditions yet go to schools that reflect a white-supremacist ideology.

And, just to drive home the point: Some white people go to churches that still have pictures of a white Jesus. Remember that Jesus was a Jew from Palestine. He wasn’t European, wasn’t white. But he’s white in pictures that still hang on the walls of some churches, which means those churches and the culture in which they thrive are white-suprem…

So, acknowledging and celebrating that we are a multiracial and multiethnic society is a good thing. Multiculturalism is a value. Working to eliminate all-white spaces is a good thing. Diversity is important. But that’s not enough.

So, let’s go back to the questions I think we should be asking.

(1) “Why are there so few non-white people here?”

One thing to ponder: Maybe non-white people don’t like being around us white folks? Why might that be? Could it be because we haven’t done enough to transcend the white-supremacist culture in which we live, and non-white people recognize that, and they have better things to do with their time than hang out with us? I don’t know the answer to that, and there’s certainly not one answer for all non-white people. But it’s something worth considering.

Another related thing to consider: Maybe non-white people don’t trust us white people, especially when we gather in large groups. After all, large groups of white people traditionally have not been safe spaces for non-white people. Much violence against non-white people has come when lots of white people have gotten together.

And one more thing worth thinking about: Last Sunday is an event specifically designed to create a sense of community for many of us who lack that in our everyday lives. What if people in non-white communities already have a sense of community, rooted in their common experience of dealing with white supremacy? If that’s the case, what’s the great attraction of this event to them?

I am not claiming to know the answer to the question #1. But it seems like something we should ponder. But even harder to face is question is #2.

(2) “What is our motivation in wanting more non-white people here?”

One person offering suggestions about how to diversify Last Sunday wrote, “I do not believe that Austin is so segregated that progressive white people do not know progressive people of color.” Certainly there are white people in Austin who know non-white people in Austin, either as friends or political allies or both. But does that comment reveal what we don’t like to admit: We are not a truly integrated society. What if, in fact, Austin is that segregated? We may not want to believe it, but maybe it is. And if it is, is our quest for an integrated Last Sunday the desire to avoid that reality?

A dozen years ago, a Chicana friend of mine at the University of Texas told me that her first question of white people was, “Do you have a real friend who isn’t white?” She meant someone you trusted, that you could ask most anything of and vice versa. When she said that, I swallowed hard. She was my first real non-white friend. I was 36 years old. If any of us were to list our non-white friends today — real friends, people whom I trust and who trust me — how long would that list be?

Most of us live in overwhelmingly segregated worlds, and that fact makes us many of us uncomfortable. But here’s the hard question: Are we uncomfortable with it because we really wish we didn’t live in segregated worlds, or are we uncomfortable with it because we don’t like having to face that we live rather comfortably day-to-day in segregated worlds? In one of our ordinary days, how much are we really bothered by that segregation?

So, the question: Do we want Last Sunday — or any other event, group, or movement to which we white folks belong — to be more multiracial so we don’t have to face these facts? Again, I don’t know, and I don’t want to suggest there’s one answer for all white people. But it’s a question we should ask. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t think about how this event might become a place where racial divides could potentially be bridged. Things have to start somewhere, and this is as good a place as any. I’m simply suggesting that we have to proceed on that project honestly. And, in my experience, we white folks aren’t so good at being honest. There’s a reason for that, I think. We’re afraid.

White Fears

Talking about the racial fears of white people in a white-supremacist society may seem silly. What do we white people really have to be afraid of? The easy answer is that we are afraid of ourselves.

Yes, it’s true that some of us still harbor certain fears of non-white people. For example, I was socialized to be reflexively afraid of black men in public, and I still sometimes struggle with that in certain situations. And some white people fear that when non-white people gain political and economic power they may take some of “our” goodies away and then we might have to become a more just society in the distribution of resources. That would mean that we have less.

But I think the more troubling struggle for many of us white folks is the fear of being seen, and seen-through, by non-white people. If most of us white people carry some level of racism in our minds and hearts and bodies — if we know that even when we’ve “worked on our racism” there are at least remnants of white supremacy in us — we must know that it could come out at any time, maybe in ways we can’t control, maybe in ways so subtle we can’t even recognize it. And what if non-white people look at us and can see it? What if they can see through us? What if they can look past our carefully crafted anti-racist vocabulary and sense that we still don’t really know how to treat them as equals? What if they know about us what we don’t dare know about ourselves?

Maybe it is self-indulgent to talk about white people’s fears, given the real threats that non-white people face in a white-supremacist society. But we have to talk about it because that fear often keeps us white people from stepping out and stepping up. Because we are privileged, we can back away from difficult situations, avoiding the risk of being seen more honestly by someone else, someone who isn’t white. I know that in my life I have sometimes held back out of that fear. I have a feeling I’m not alone in that.

When We Think We “Get It”

I don’t think any of this means we should give up, that we white people can never make any progress on racism, that it’s all hopeless. Instead, it’s like all the other struggles for social justice that force us to contend with oppressions that are deeply embedded not only into the institutions and systems in which we live but also in our bodies: We struggle, we make progress, we feel good about that, and then — if we are paying attention — we realize we have further to go. Here’s an example of that process, one in which I play the fool.

Last year I was stopped by a police officer for running what he thought was a red light (I contended it was yellow, of course). It was late at night, I had been at work all day, and I was cranky. I was dressed in a ratty T-shirt and shorts. At the time I was driving a beat-up old Volkswagen Beetle. In other words, I looked like something less than one of Austin’s leading citizens. When I saw the red lights flashing, I pulled off the busy street onto an unlit side street to get out of traffic. When the officer asked me for my registration and insurance, I opened the glove compartment and out popped a small knife, folded up, that I carry for emergencies. The officer, who was white, politely asked if I would mind if he held that knife while we talked. I handed it to him, he wrote me my ticket, returned the knife to me, and off I drove.

During a lecture on racial justice a few months later, I told that story as an illustration of white privilege. I made the obvious point that if I had been black when that knife popped out, the officer might not have been so calm. Maybe I would have ended up outside the car, face down on the pavement. Maybe worse. There’s no way to know, of course, but that’s the point of the concept of “driving while black (or brown)” — it’s not that every time you are stopped you are going to experience police violence, but that you can never be sure.

So, I’m telling this story, pointing out that when the knife popped out and the cop didn’t treat me like a threat, didn’t pull me out of the car with gun drawn, that I was benefiting from white privilege. A black man in the audience agreed with that, but then brought me up short. “You’re right about all that, but what you don’t understand is that your white privilege kicked in before the cop stopped you,” he said. He went on to explain that he would have never pulled onto the unlit side street. “I would have pulled over to the side of the busy street, in plain view,” he said. “You didn’t even think about that, did you?”

No, I hadn’t thought about that. I hadn’t thought that if a cop wanted to mess with me it would be easier on an unlit street than on a busy street. I hadn’t thought about it, because I didn’t stop to think the cop might mess with me. I knew that the worse-case scenario would be that he would write me a ticket.

That black man was kind enough to point out to me that I didn’t know as much as I thought I knew. He was kind in his critique, but he didn’t hold back. For that I was grateful. I learned something that night. It’s a good thing to learn.

The Basis for Real Hope

The unifying theme of Last Sunday is coming together to confront honestly the depth of the problems — political, cultural, economic, ecological — that we face. Earlier I made the claim that this kind of blunt talk is the basis of real hope, which may seem counterintuitive. Who wants to think things are this difficult? I certainly don’t want to, but I see no other path.

The reason I think we have to get beyond “diversity talk” is that it doesn’t answer people’s needs. Non-white people recognize that multiculturalism doesn’t ask much of white people. When we are honest with ourselves, white people understand it doesn’t ask enough of us.

To echo remarks I’ve made at other Last Sundays, maybe this race thing has no solution. I don’t mean that no white person can ever transcend white supremacy to have an authentic relationship with a non-white person. I don’t mean that we must remain stuck in an overtly racist framework. But maybe 500 years of modern racism — rooted in Europe’s and the United States’ brutal project of grabbing a disproportionate share of the world’s resources, rationalized by a white-supremacist ideology — simply can’t be overcome in the time we have available to us. If that’s the case, well, so be it. Let’s go forward to make the best we can make of it.

Let’s heal where we can.

Let’s pass on less of this insanity to our children.

Let’s organize to support projects that can get us a bit closer to real justice.

And let’s tell as much of the truth as we can bear.

Here’s the truth that I see: So far, we — those of us who make up white America, including me and others here tonight — have largely failed at this project. It’s a big project with many obstacles. Maybe we will continue to fail. Since we know a bit about our past failures, let’s at least commit to failing in new ways. Maybe we’ll be surprised by where that failure leads us.