“The perverse thing about our current racial structure is that it has always fallen on the shoulders of those at the bottom to change it. Yet racism is a white problem. It reveals the anxieties, hypocrisies and double standards of whiteness. It is a problem in the psyche of whiteness that white people must take responsibility to solve.”
—Reni Eddo-Lodge, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race
I’m a British, white, middle-class, cisgender man. My life has been shaped by racial and class privileges: financial security, elite education and access to well-paid tech jobs. It’s almost as if I’ve won the privilege lottery. (Almost because I’m Jewish, which I’ve written about elsewhere.) So how can I lead a retreat about racism? Won’t my multiple privileges prevent me from understanding the lived realities of oppressed people? What’s to stop this becoming another opportunity for white people to feel good about ourselves while maintaining the very systems we claim to oppose?
I’ve heard various versions of an argument that says that to dismantle racism we need to listen to people of colour. I agree this far. But they go on to say that to act in this field you must either be an oppressed person or become an ally by seeking their guidance. Several white people have warned me that if I want to run an event about racism, it should be led by a person of colour. While this sounds reasonable, a closer inspection reveals a form of concern trolling that obscures white denial.
First, these arguments suggest the racist idea that people of colour have a singular viewpoint, as if we can just ask a monolithic “black community” what to do about racism. I also hear echoes of the racist trope of the “noble savage” in the demand that people of colour are present during discussions about racism. Is their role here to use their magical powers to guide white people towards redemption? It’s as if we can’t do anything about racism without people of colour there to lead, support and absolve us.
Second, insisting that people of colour take the lead puts the burden of dismantling racism onto the very people oppressed by it. But as Reni Eddo-Lodge says, racism is a white problem. If white people won’t address racism without people of colour in the room, we’re both denying that it’s our problem and all but guaranteeing that it won’t change. How can a minority oppressed group be held responsible for leading the privileged majority towards change? Not to mention that people of colour have other things to do with their lives than helping white people to face up to our complicity in racism.
If those of us who benefit from oppressive power structures are serious about dismantling them—instead of posing as antiracists to absolve ourselves of responsibility—we need to use our power to lead change. That means learning from the perspectives of oppressed people without expecting them to take responsibility for what happens next. There are many ways to do this. For example, we can read the large and diverse body of scholarship on race written by people of colour. We can learn from groups like the Movement for Black Lives. And of course we can attend events organised by people of colour.
But when white people warn me against leading events about racism, I sense white solidarity policing. Stay in your lane, they appear to say, or you risk making the situation worse. I’m not saying that I won’t mess things up or that my efforts will necessarily make a positive contribution. But isn’t that the point? Real leadership means taking responsibility for the consequences of my actions, for the messes that I cause alongside any benefits. It means breaking with white solidarity by speaking the truth about the harm caused by white denial. Because that’s what this concern trolling conceals: a denial that racism is a white problem, a denial of the ways in which white people benefit from it, and a denial of our power to resist it.