Remarks on Tactics for White People Joining the Protests Against White Supremacy

This post requires a few remarks to frame it and in some sense to disempower it. First, while I have been involved with different coalitions and have participated in protests every year during my adult life, I do not claim to be anything more than just another body on the street standing with other people. I am not an organizer, I am not a leader, and though I think about things a great deal, I don’t know that my theoretical work has ever been of much use to anyone who is organizing and leading these coalitions. I know where my strengths lie (teaching, academia) and I do my best to affect the community I am a part of (the department and university I teach in and the discipline I work within). All of this means that I invite people, especially Black theorists, Black activists, and other theorists/activists of color to push back against what I say, to share wisdom, and, if they feel it worth their time, to add their voice to the conversation (if one starts).

Secondly, while this is a post directed at a certain white reaction to protests, I do not think these protests should be about the white reaction to them. I have written this post simply because it would seem strange to write about the Black community or what the appropriate Black response should be, when I am not embedded within that community nor a major dialogue partner there. It seems to me that, while I would hope for a future in which ideas can be shared without some unconscious or unintended white centering, today is not that day. So, it is not my intention in writing this that it be about white people as such. If I could summarize what I write below it would simply be: “white people who want to show solidarity, stop worrying about purity and just show up, keep quiet, and listen.” It’s a message not to the tone deaf white folk of the intelligentsia or the brocialists itching for another photo op where they look badass screaming at a cop, while making other folks who aren’t ready for that confrontation unsafe. It’s a message instead for those who feel a bit paralyzed by the recognition of their privilege and an attempt to help them see that such paralysis is still caught up in that structure, still a form of narcissism.

So, with that said, here are some thoughts that strike me as sound for white folks who are engaged in a certain amount of handwringing about how to participate in protests and other actions regarding the recent reaffirmation of America’s structural racism. Some may feel that their presence is not wanted at these protests. That may be true to some extent, but there is a kind of way of being absent even in your presence and some of the tactics outlined here may be a form of becoming-imperceptible in terms of one’s whiteness and the effects it may have on the coalition of protesters. For one thing seems very clear: coalitions are needed in these protests and these coalitions should be led by Black people. And lucky for you, whatever city you are in it is likely that leaders and activists from the Black community have stood up. So you should go. You should do what they ask. And when you do go and you do what they ask, simply don’t make it about you. Don’t be concerned about your feelings. Whether those are feelings that get hurt if you hear “mean things” being said about white people or it is your own anger which drives you to try and confront the cops if and when the Black leaders have called for non-confrontation. If such confrontation happens, it gets messy, and if you can put yourself between activists of color and the police, you should do that. And if Black activists tell you not to do something, then don’t do it.

Simply put, our individual white guilt doesn’t help shit. But, maybe your body being there can. So put your body there, but mostly stay quiet. Recognize that this is not an exact science and that you might screw up. It also strikes me for white people who are committed to listening that you are going to find there are a lot of views on the ground that don’t match exactly what is said on your Facebook or Twitter. For example, some Black participants at the recent Philly protests said that we were bothering the folks in the neighborhood and so they weren’t going to march. Others started chanting “all lives matter”. In each case it was a very small group, but regardless in each instance it was not my place to challenge their ideological correctness. Whereas I would have and you should if that happens with white participants. Don’t put that responsibility on the Black activists to do all the work, but do your best to educate these white participants and encourage certain practices foremost amongst them to just shut the fuck up and listen while they’re on this march.

At bottom, to get past this handwringing, you need to trust. Just trust your Black comrades. It’s the whitey in your head that makes you worried. Whether it’s worry over if you should be there or worry that someone isn’t going to say or do the thing you think they should. Know that there is a lot of noise right now. A lot of click bait, a lot of rhetoric, a lot of people working out their power best they can through the mediums available to them. But to know what to do, talk to the activists who organized. Ask what they want. And then follow. That’s the tactic for now. If you don’t like the overarching strategy you have to form a relationship, and go to meetings, and be open to disagreement while inhabiting a disempowered place that will make you feel uncomfortable. But taking up that space at meetings is going to be far fraught. More fraught with the haunting spectre of  reinscribing white supremacy and white centeredness than going to a protest. And the only way to deal with that, to disempower that whiteness, is make yourself available.

3 Responses to “Remarks on Tactics for White People Joining the Protests Against White Supremacy”

  1. E. Lim Says:

    This has really helped me sort out what I should do in Chicago’s demonstrations. I joined the march up Lake Shore Drive on the night of Darren Wilson’s non-indictment verdict (and I’d never seen so many Shimer College graduates out together, not drinking), but I’ve since kept away, partly because I didn’t know how I fit in and because I was afraid of making mistakes. But what’s bound up in that anxiety is the wrongheaded conviction that how I participate should be entirely my own affair, not that of a rally’s Black organizers. How I participate isn’t my own affair first, it’s theirs. I can stand by as an empathetic body until I’m felt useful.

    By the way, I’m Korean: your advice, without a lot of tweaking, is for anybody who isn’t Black but wants to join the protests against white supremacy. Am I right?

  2. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    E. Lim, It seems to me that it is right, but you’re in a better position to test and evaluate those claims, so I’ll take your lead on it.

  3. joelchristopherpeters Says:

    If I am reading you right, I think you are also pointing towards a solidarity that is neither passive nor aggressive but an active engagement: “Becoming-imperceptible.” And I think that a lot of the paralysis that you name so well also stems from a lack of education on the part of the participant. The refrain I hear over and over in activist circles led by POC is “It’s not my job to educate you. Doe your homework” One gets very tired, emotionally, physically and mentally trying to correct or educate a white person because these sessions often turn the discussion, as you say, into issues about white guilt. All of this is to say that one should do their homework (as much as possible) before attending these protests: find out what the Black activists want before you arrive so that you can be in an even better position to listen, speak and act, as well as educate other white people.


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