What White People Fear

By Robert Jensen

Published in YES! magazine · March, 2010

In the struggle for racial justice, it’s time to pay more attention to the fears of white people.

In a white-dominated world, that may seem counterintuitive. In the racial arena, what do we white people have to be afraid of?

There are lots of things to fear in this world, of course; race is not the only aspect of life in which people face injustice and inequality. A majority of people of all colors (including working-class and poor whites) struggles economically in a predatory corporate capitalist system, and all women, regardless of race, cope with gender discrimination and the threat of sexual violence in a male-dominated world.

But what fears could white people have as white people?

While white liberals reject assertions of white supremacy, many fear the loss of white centrality.

Understanding the fears behind the racial politics of both conservative and liberal whites can help guide strategy for changing a society in which wealth and well-being are still tied to race. And make no mistake, there is still a racialized gap between white and non-white America on measures of wealth and well-being—income, home ownership, graduation rates, access to health care, infant mortality, etc. In fact, the gap between white and black America on some of these measures is greater today than in the immediate aftermath of the major legislative achievements of the civil rights movement, and on some measures the rate of improvement is so glacial that it will be decades, if not centuries, before we reach equality. The legislative achievements that ended legal apartheid in America were a great victory, but the economic apartheid that remains is a reminder of our failures.

Put bluntly: The United States abolished a formal apartheid system but remains a white-supremacist society. After more than a decade of writing and speaking about these issues, which has sparked lots of feedback from all political angles, here’s what I have concluded about white folks and our fears.

Aren’t We Special?

For conservative white people, the dominant fear is of someday living without the privilege that comes with whiteness. Polite conservatives defend the primacy of “Western civilization.” More reactionary whites are openly racist about the threat that non-white peoples pose to “our way of life.” Both versions defend the existing distribution of wealth and power, even though many of the working-class and poor whites who endorse such views have access to precious little wealth or power. Race is used by white elites today, just as it was in the nation’s formative years, to drive a wedge between people who would otherwise come together to challenge those elites. Divide-and-conquer strategies, it seems, never go out of style.

Liberals are quick to denounce both the thinly veiled and the openly reactionary conservative racism. But what of the fears of liberals? White liberals might reject the very idea that they are afraid, citing their support for diversity and multiculturalism. But my experience suggests that while white liberals reject assertions of white supremacy, many fear the loss of white centrality. They are willing to renounce the idea that white people are superior, as long as they are allowed to live comfortably in a world where white is the norm.

In short, both the conservative and liberal positions are based on the same underlying assertion: “I’m white, and I’m special.” Conservatives are more likely to say it openly, while liberals tend to offer platitudes about racial justice while avoiding the risks required to make good on anti-racist principles.

What remains obscured is the distinctly uncivilized nature that Europeans and European Americans exhibited during their barbarous conquest of much of the world. The inherently fragile sense of white self-importance that emerges from that history is at the core of white fears—at some level, we all know that the truth of the depravity of white supremacy belies claims of white superiority.

In the institutions that adopt the liberal view, diversity is just fine (as long as whites remain in control) and multiculturalism can flourish (as long as white norms remain dominant). Institutions defined by the values and practices rooted in white Europe can open up to non-white people, as long as we white people remain comfortable. In such a white-defined liberal world, “people of color”—abstracted into a single group, erasing the particularity of people—are welcome, even sought after, to prove that we have transcended white supremacy.

Getting Uncomfortable

This analysis of the dynamics of mixed-race settings is hardly original. Non-white people have long recognized that white liberals are happy to engage with folks who aren’t white as long as their white-centric worldview isn’t threatened, and that white groups are happy to have non-white members as long as the power dynamics don’t change.

I observe all this not from some arrogant high ground, but as someone stuck in the same dynamic, struggling to get out. I know that for all my writing and political work on racial justice, I still feel most comfortable in settings where my understanding of the world defines the interaction, no matter the racial composition of the group. Rather than pretend otherwise, I start with that reality and search for ways to move forward.

Race dialogues are not enough. As long as we stay confined in a safe world that doesn’t challenge power, we guarantee failure.

A first step for me has been to question the value of the seemingly endless “race dialogues” that are popular in white liberal groups. In the pseudo-­therapeutic setting of such dialogues, with more talk about personal healing than about political change, white people are guaranteed that we won’t be forced out of a white-defined world. White-dominated institutions—corporations, nonprofits, universities, government agencies—are happy to sponsor such dialogues, diversity trainings, and multicultural events, precisely because they don’t threaten the fundamental distribution of wealth and power.

I have been involved in many of those events myself, as a facilitator or a participant, and I have learned from them (typically as much from my failures as successes). The most important lesson I take away is that race dialogues are not enough. As long as we stay confined in a safe world that doesn’t challenge power, we guarantee failure—if our goal really is to change the distribution of that power.

There’s no easy recipe for this kind of challenge, but we move in the right direction when we seek out places where we don’t feel comfortable, looking for relationships in which we can help change the dynamic. For me, that means putting myself in situations where I have to face my fear of being seen—or, more accurately, being seen-through—by non-white people. What if I step into those uncomfortable spaces and non-white people see the ways in which I hang onto some sense of my own supremacy/centrality? What if they see the ways in which I haven’t shaken off my racist cultural training?

A desire to confront that fear has led me, over the past year, to organizing efforts with the Workers Defense Project. It’s a local group that advocates for workplace justice for immigrant workers, addressing problems such as wage theft within a larger social justice framework.

This project has forced me to cross lines around race and ethnicity, class, language, and age. The members and staff are predominantly Latina/Latino and working class. They speak Spanish and/or English, while I’m monolingual in English, and the leaders of the group include a number of people who are at least two decades younger than me.

The collaboration between WDP and the Third Coast Activist Resource Center (a predominantly white group to which I belong) to buy and renovate a building for a progressive community center has gone forward with explicit conversations about all these differences and how they affect decision-making. The trust necessary to move forward has been built slowly over time, and I’m aware that the WDP staff and members are watching for signs that we are serious about establishing a truly egalitarian relationship.

As tricky as this Latina/Latino-white collaboration can be, we also recognize that a successful community center with progressive politics cannot leave out African Americans, the third largest racial group in Austin. That means not just casting around for some black people to add to the mix, but engaging in serious discussions with people from that part of the community to find out what kinds of collaborations are needed and possible. Austin is a white-dominated city, but that’s no guarantee that black and Latina/Latino groups will automatically come together; such alliances have to be built as carefully as any other. For us white folks in the mix, our contribution is to use the resources we have to aid in that process—not trying to control it, but also not pretending to be detached.

I have a choice: I can rest comfortably in the privileges that come with being white, or I can struggle to be fully human.

While there is a lot of dialogue necessary in this work, the dialogue is focused on a common goal: to provide office space for organizers, rehearsal space for artists, meeting space for the community, and a place for people to get to know each other. That common goal doesn’t mean we will naturally, or easily, put aside differences, but it means we all have a tangible stake in our collective success.

My interest in this project flows from moral and political principles—a belief in the dignity of all and the struggle to eliminate hierarchy in all forms. But I would be naïve or dishonest if I pretended that was my only, or even my most powerful, motive. In the end, I have committed to this project out of selfishness—I would like to claim my full humanity before I check out of this world. To do that, I have to move beyond the framework of conservative versus liberal and adopt a truly radical politics.

I have a choice: I can be white—that is, I can refuse to challenge white supremacy or centrality—or I can be a human being. I can rest comfortably in the privileges that come with being white, or I can struggle to be fully human. But I can’t do both. Though the work is difficult, the choice for those of us who are white should be easy.