Under the Rock with White Liberal Racism
“Negative Stereotyping of People of Color: In U.S. society today, white progressives “know” not to engage in negative stereotyping in “front-stage interactions” — settings that include white strangers or people of color. Instead whites “know” to engage in negative stereotyping only in “back-stage” settings — settings that are all-white and where participants can assume that no serious objection will be raised to the performance. In back-stage settings, the expression of the white racial frame and the lack of objection to that expression provide a ‘social glue’ that creates a sense of shared identity for the white group.” Joe Feagin, The White Racial Frame, (127–128)
I came across this passage in a re-read of this book, which has been revised, and it reminded me of my experiences ‘passing’ as white, since these often allow me a ‘pass’ to the ‘back-stage’ settings described by Dr. Feagin.
About a year ago, a friend invited me to the opening of a yoga studio in the suburbs and was called away to an emergency. During the opening, S., an Indian-American woman, objected to a large sign at the front of the studio which depicted only white women doing yoga. She stated that this distorts the fact that yoga originates in India and feels like cultural appropriation. Despite the fact that this was an open meeting to discuss the yoga studio’s presence in the area, this statement provoked an awkward silence in the group of mostly liberal white people. The owner, a white woman, finally broke the silence and announced that she would certainly consider it. This statement was followed by a few awkward giggles and some whispered assent, none of which was loud enough to ‘implicate’ any of them as individuals in actual agreement with S.. I was considering my response when the owner announced that the meeting was over.
The group headed for an informal meet ‘n greet and happy hour in an adjoining room. I knew, based on the awkward silence that followed the words ‘cultural appropriation,’ that I was in for a back-stage treat, since I had just gotten my hair keratinized straight. Today, I was ‘passing.’ I plucked a few hors d’oeuvres off the table while keeping my ears peeled for the inevitable, which I’ve heard in some permutation many times.
A: “I’m sure she didn’t mean to sound so aggressive.”
B: “I know. I agree. She seems really nice. Indians are usually so…peaceable. I wonder if she’s Hindu.”
C: “Still. I wonder if she really meant it?”
A: “Wasn’t that sign expensive?”
C: “Yes. I just…maybe I should have….”
B: “How could you know? Your sign reflects most of the people in the area. Your potential clientele. No one could blame you for making a sign that reflects the people coming here.”
C: “You know, I haven’t seen her around here. Maybe it would have been nice for her to mingle a little before…”
A: “…opening the conversation with a complaint? Yes. I agree. Maybe she’s new to the area. I’ve never seen her before.”
After several minutes more of this drivel, which usually falls under the rubric of ‘white ignorance,’ I did offer my opinion and left. Each time I ‘pass’ in these settings, I always leave feeling as if I’ve participated in what is actually a massive ‘fail.’ White supremacy. This is not to say that a particular shade of skin is a ‘fail’ but to note that a great deal of value has been placed on one relative to the other, thus creating inequity out of what is difference only for the purposes of domination. That this is classified as ‘ignorance’ is beginning to seem less and less plausible.
Here is what I inferred from the conversation: an Indian woman who mentions her culture is ‘aggressive:’ a form of subtle bullying that implies her only non-aggressive option is to subordinate (shut up); brown/black women are ‘aggressive’ implying they should be passive AND that white women are situated at a favorable comparison point; the stereotyped notion that Indian women should be ‘peaceful,’ which places pressure on her to act this way AND sets her baseline, as a brown woman, at ‘obsequious;’ the clientele are white and this is normative, which implies S. ultimately doesn’t belong there except as an outsider; excusing each other from dealing directly with the issue at hand AND simultaneously implying that white clientele are the true natives of the general area; stating S. is a complainer: more subtle bullying (“you’re whiny; shut up;”); and finally, implying she is the one who is unfriendly when the circumstances have been presented as overtly homogeneous: white.
This conversation is typical of this sort of setting, and by no means my first encounter with a situation of this nature. This context exists and involves a long list of people of color in which the final WL goal seems to be the same: appear to be liberal and open-minded but ultimately confirm white supremacy in what is hopefully a covert enough manner that one will still be perceived as ‘nice’ regardless of the final impact on any of a range of people of color.
Frankly, I am shocked that these sorts of comments are allowed their own free pass — yes, it’s yet another — as ignorance. This is simply a lack of humanity in its willingness to ‘other’ another, to push an ‘other’ out of the space. Claiming ignorance as a substitute for moral decision-making is starting to seem like a bad excuse.
In the final analysis, this attitude conveys that these suburban whites ‘own’ the predominant space and belong everywhere, but that others are outsiders, even in contexts of cultural appropriation. Eventually, this profound systemic hypocrisy will have to be negotiated. The system of white supremacy in all its incarnations is one giant, protracted failure and cannot simply be excused by claims of ‘ignorance’ as long as those claims help sustain white supremacy.