In the wake of the Charleston shootings, the anniversary of Michael Brown’s death, and Black Lives Matters activists’ disruption of political candidates (Bernie Sanders, for instance), more and more people are discussing the role of recognizing white privilege and the lack of empathy on the part of white individuals due, in part, to unconscious or implicit biases held by a majority population that has not experienced racism first hand. This lack of experience with racism has led many whites to not evoke empathy and/or outrage towards implicit and explicit acts of racism.
But, even more pernicious I think, is the ‘bandwagon effect,’ especially by those that only recognize racial injustices when they are captured by the media and brought to the public’s attention. I would consider Bernie Sanders’ addition of racial injustice in his platform, Hillary Clinton’s meeting with Black Lives Matter, James Franco’s endorsement of Ta-nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, and yes, even white allies after Charleston as all symptoms of the ‘bandwagon effect.’ These are all efforts that I would deem to be ‘on the right side of history,’ but are largely reactionary to the current times. Rather than be proactive in advocating for radical change and racial justice, these efforts by many white allies are unfortunately reactionary and, as Kim Zolciak would put it, “tardy for the party”.
The ‘bandwagon effect’ is, in fact, a psychological term that originated in American politics. According to Wikipedia (my all-time favorite go-to source for spontaneous intellectualism), the ‘bandwagon effect’ originated in the mid-19th century and continued well into the 20th century. The original use of the term connoted political supporters who jumped on the proverbial bandwagon of surging party candidates without really knowing why they were in favor of said party candidate. My use of the term, however, slightly differs in that the ‘bandwagon effect’ for me at least connotes a reactionary response to present events. This reaction is an affective response that is both emotional and cognitive. The ‘bandwagon effect’ seems to be most effective in times of crisis and chaos, especially in the contemporary moment where racialized flashpoints permeate our everyday lives. Thus, the emotional state of current white allies largely surfaces during these racialized flashpoints; the cognitive impact of these events are, however, delayed and reactionary. Simply put, the affective component of the ‘bandwagon effect’ is important to consider for theorizing the ways in which emotion and delayed cognition are important dimensions for this discussion.
These moments lead me to wonder what exactly are the limits of white privilege and the recognition of white allies that whiteness is both a political and historical construct that carries unearned privilege? Does the recognition of a white ally’s privilege in and of itself become a portal to understanding? In his article “Dear White Allies After Charleston,” D. Watkins writing for Salon.com explains that these types of discussions on white privilege and implicit/unconscious bias make whites especially “uneasy—probably because no one wants to feel like they have an unfair advantage over another person solely based on skin color.” He goes on to argue, “…if you are white in America, you have an unfair advantage solely based on skin color.” In order for whites to become allies of racial injustices, they must acknowledge their own privilege, “…understanding the gifts that privilege afford them in this country, and making their white friends aware. There are millions of white people African-Americans don’t have access to and we need white allies who get it to make those connections with whites who fail to comprehend” (emphases added).
The simple acknowledgment of one’s racial privilege cannot stop at the threshold of recognition. I would argue that this is one of the limits of white privilege—that simply recognizing one’s privilege does not, in and of itself, become a portal to ‘getting it’. By ‘getting it’ I mean the social, economic, political, and historical genealogies that have led to our current moment where racism exists on both implicit and explicit levels. This notion of “getting it” is not new; in fact, in her novel Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speaks to this exact issue. Ifemelu, the novel’s protagonist, writes a blog post entitled, “Understanding America for the Non-American Black: Thoughts on the Special White Friend.” Here’s the excerpt from Chapter 40:
One great gift for the Zipped-Up Negro is The White Friend Who Gets It. Sadly, this is not as common as one would wish, but some are lucky to have that white friend who you don’t need to explain shit to. By all means, put this friend to work. Such friends not only get it, but also have great bullshit-detectors and so they totally understand that they can say stuff that you can’t. So there is, in much of America, a stealthy little notion lying in the hearts of many: that white people earned their place at jobs and schools while black people got in because they were black. But in fact, since the beginning of America, white people have been getting jobs because they were white. Many whites with the same qualifications but Negro skin would not have the jobs they have. But don’t ever say this publicly. Let your white friend say it. If you make the mistake of saying this, you will be accused of a curiosity called “playing the race card.” Nobody quite knows what this means.
When my father was in school in my NAB [non-American Black] country [Nigeria], many American Blacks could not vote or go to good schools. The reason? Their skin color. Skin color alone was the problem. Today, many Americans say that skin color cannot be part of the solution. Otherwise it is referred to as a curiosity called ‘reverse racism.’ Have your white friend point out how the American Black deal is kind of like you’ve been unjustly imprisoned for many years, then all of a sudden you’re set free, but you get no bus fare. And, by the way, you and the guy who imprisoned you are now automatically equal. If the ‘slavery was so long ago’ thing comes up, have your white friend say that lots of white folks are still inheriting money that their families made a hundred years ago. So if that legacy lives, why not the legacy of slavery? And have your white friend say how funny it is, that American pollsters ask white and black people if racism is over. White people in general say it is over and black people in general say it is not. Funny indeed. More suggestions for what you should have your white friend say? Please post away. And here’s to all the white friends who get it. (Americanh 2013, 360-61)
In this blog post, Adichie’s character Ifemelu illustrates both emotion and cognition as imperative components to ‘getting it.’ In order to ‘get it,’ one has to rethink racism in its entirety. To rethink racism means to rethink the institutionalization of an –ism that is dynamic and shifts and transforms over time. In his article “Rethinking Racism,” Eduardo Bonilla-Silva makes this argument well when he asserts that racism needs to be reconsidered from the point of a view of a racialized social system. For him, racialized social systems combine political, economic, social, and ideological components that crystallize into structural racism. To think of racism as structural means to move away from individual accounts of racism and towards collective accounts of racism. This means understanding how U.S. history, culture, society, and economy are all shaped from the standpoint of white hegemony. White allies, in order to ‘get it,’ must understand the political economy of racism.
What Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and so many white allies fail to see is that policy changes do not necessarily lead to changes of the heart or mind. I would argue that changes at the level of society must occur before policy changes can even be effective in combating structural racism. “Trick down justice,” as Van Jones puts it, cannot come through policy changes alone. Only from a power from below (to note Foucault) can social justice be realized. Personally, I didn't need a moment or a movement to 'get it.’ But white liberals apparently do, in fact, need to have that moment or movement to understand the material effects of Racism 2.0.
So, what does this mean for critical pedagogy and the classroom? To begin, the politics of affective disruptions can be easily translated to the ways in which counter-narratives in literature also project strategies of disruption. For instance, in Literature and Social Justice: Protest Novels, Cognitive Politics, and Schema Criticism, Mark Bracher argues that protest novels are effective for getting students to rethink their common assumptions about social injustices, such as racism. As a tool, protest novels disrupt the grand narrative of race and racism and intervene in the post-Civil Rights/post-racial moment. Protest novels counter this grand narrative; thus, as counter-narratives, protest novels illustrate tactics of disruption that “teach the conflicts” (Graff, Beyond the Culture Wars), conflicts that cause uncomfortable emotions.
Protest novels and the politics of discomfort are not unlike the political strategies of Black Lives Matter. Granted, the strategies of protest by Black Lives Matter might not be appropriate politics of respectability; but their strategies of protest effectively disrupt white liberals through direct confrontation. The strategies implemented by BLM are necessary and, I would add, affective in that they do not play respectable politics. To my knowledge, respectable politics in the public sphere isn’t winning broad support. Perhaps this is what white liberals need in order to ‘get it’ and move beyond the assumption that the metropole (such as Seattle) is beyond racism. BLM countered Seattle’s tale of enlightened liberalism (the reaction of the crowd is case in point). To silence such protests that cause discomfort and "inconvenience" is to also implicitly support the historical policing of non-white bodies and the silencing of non-whites who dissent. Therefore, the power to dissent is largely invested in a white population that, regardless of the cause, seeks to police the speech and actions of those they do not agree. This discussion and discussion of such conflicts as protests (both novels and activism) might allow us to move beyond the limits of white privilege and simple recognition and acknowledgement of the problem of racism as a solution in and of itself.
- Conor Friedersdorf, "A Conversation about Black Lives Matter and Bernie Sanders" (Aug 2015): http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/08/a-dialogue-about-black-lives-matter-and-bernie-sanders/401960/
- NPR’s OnPoint, “Race in America, From Watts to Ferguson and Beyond” https://onpoint.wbur.org/2015/08/10/american-race-ferguson-watts-michael-brown
- Chimamanda Adichie, Americanah (2013)
- MusingAndrea, “Everyone Should Have A Special White Friend? Musings on Chimamanda Adichie’s ‘Americanah’ Part 2” http://superselected.com/everyone-should-have-a-special-white-friend-musings-on-chimamanda-adichies-americanah-part-2-by-musingandrea/
- Jamelle Bouie, “Black Lives Matter Protests Matter” http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/politics/2015/08/black_lives_matter_and_bernie_sanders_why_the_protesters_are_so_hard_on.html
- Dan Mercia, “Black Lives Matter videos, Clinton campaign reveal details of meeting” http://www.cnn.com/2015/08/18/politics/hillary-clinton-black-lives-matter-meeting/index.html
- D. Watkins, “Dear White Allies after Charleston” http://www.salon.com/2015/06/22/dear_white_allies_after_charleston_please_understand_this_about_your_privilege/
- James Franco’s endorsement of Ta-nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me https://twitter.com/JamesFrancoTV/status/632610571360292864
- Wikipedia page for the “bandwagon effect”: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bandwagon_effect
- Van Jones, “Disrupting Bernie Sanders and the Democrats” (Aug. 2015): http://www.cnn.com/2015/08/12/opinions/van-jones-bernie-sanders-disrupted/