The politics of race are tricky. If you’re white, your opinion doesn’t matter; if you’re a person of color, you’re whining; if you dare to comment on any of these issues, you run the risk of alienating half of the general populace. Race is, in a word, polarizing. You’re all smart; I don’t need to tell you this. But one thing that is worth saying is that efforts to further divide the already inseparably split sides on these topics are simply counterproductive. In these trying times for our campus’ and nation’s collective consciences, we must examine which of our efforts to mend racial relations are effective, and which only serve to widen this terrible chasm.
I’ve recently received a number of emails from a campus group called “Disrupting Whiteness.” Now, on principle, I probably agree with much of what the group is trying to express. This nation does have systemic injustices that skew the scales of social mobility squarely in favor of some more advantaged groups. My problem, then, is not the content of Disrupting Whiteness’ message (and that of similar groups), but rather, its way of expressing it.
The opening line on the group’s Facebook page states:
“I challenge you, white people. I challenge you to use that whiteness that you weaponize so well for your own ends … for good. Not for getting your kids into a better school, getting a better table at a restaurant or getting preferential treatment at work. When are you going to use your whiteness to fight for marginalized people?”
It must be acknowledged that their message certainly has its merits. The fundamental issues that Disrupting Whiteness brings up may be controversial, but they are indicative of a larger societal problem. Unfortunately, however, the group’s integrity is compromised by the wording of their argument. Trying to claim that I and all other white students, “weaponize (our race) so well for our own ends” is an unfortunately naïve claim.
The problem with characterizing whiteness as a commodity that can be weaponized is that this phrasing is a direct escalation of emotions in our increasingly contentious political spectrum. Per Merriam Webster, a weapon is “something (as a club, knife, or gun) used to injure, defeat or destroy.” At its essence, categorizing race as a weapon is making the claim that whites are intentionally and knowingly using the color of their skin to deliberately “injure” or “destroy” those who don’t look like them.
Although whites have committed many sins against their fellow humans, it’s unfair and simply ridiculous to believe that a non-negligible amount of white people are trying to “defeat” the other races. This phrasing therefore serves to do little other than further anger the people it seeks to address.
I’ll put it to you this way. When has attacking people for things they didn’t choose ever helped to convince them of something? Groups like Disrupting Whiteness, which use these direct affronts to further their own means, are little better than the blatant racists who also seek to group and discriminate in a more traditional sense.
The vast (read: 99.9 percent) majority of white people don’t wake up every morning and ask themselves “how can I wield my whiteness to oppress people today?” Saying anything to the contrary is a legitimate insult, and is really no different than the sweeping generalizations that the social justice warrior crowd seeks to end.
Whites in America do yield an unmerited advantage over many other people in this country. But to group a poor white guy from West Virginia and a wealthy Caucasian banker from Connecticut into a single bucket, and to then claim that everyone in that bucket “weaponizes” their skin color is a gross oversimplification that fails to acknowledge the socioeconomic subtleties that permeate every race in America and beyond.
There are, in fact, better ways to express these sentiments. Take, for example, Black Lives Matter. Now, all politics aside, “BLM” is a beautiful statement. It is simple, yet telling. It doesn’t seek to attack or exclude, but only to affirm the livelihoods of black Americans. It’s a stark contrast from “I challenge you to use that whiteness that you weaponize so well for your own ends … ” This latter phrase implies that whites have some sort of collective agenda – one that includes every person with a certain melanin threshold and that seeks to oppress everyone that doesn’t. This is both childish and a dangerous game to play in these most polarizing times.
I genuinely do believe that the intentions of these groups are good ones. They want to make change that our world does truly need, but they are using the wrong tools to do so. When a group’s identity is so tied to provocative language and indignant sentiments, the only logical result is further polarization and misunderstanding. No path to a better America can be built upon such a contentious foundation.
Contact Harrison Hohman at hhohman ‘at’ stanford.edu.