Thursday, April 18, 2013

White role in Black Freedom Movement

What is the role of whites in the black freedom movement? Is there and should there be one? What should the role look like?

The role of white people in the black freedom movement between the 1950’s and 1970’s and even now is one that I honestly ponder on. As a white person, I wonder what is the role for me. To what extent should I lend my voice and hand to the movement? I certainly do not by any means desire to degrade people of color, rather I desire to foster an environment that allows for them to be seen and treated as fully equal with any other human being. At the same time, I understand that the black freedom movement is a black one. The rhetoric and actions in the black freedom movement can certainly influence, aspire, and strengthen other movements, but in the end, one must not forget its uniqueness and goals.

In Alice Walker’s Meridian, the character, Lynne Rabinowitz, interested me the most because I gained some insight to the role of whites in the 1960’s black freedom movement (although I by no means view Lynne as acting the sole representative as to how whites acted in the movement). One passage from the book stuck with me [Trueman’s thought after Tommy shuts him up for mentioning Lynne’s name]:
            By being white, Lynne was guilty of whiteness. He could not reduce the logic any further, in that direction. Then the question was, is it possible to be guilty of a color? Of course black people for years were “guilty” of being black. Slavery was punishment for their “crime.” But even if he abandoned this search for Lynne’s guilt, because it ended, logically enough, in racism, he was forced to search through other levels for it. For bad or worse, and regardless of what this said about himself as a person, he could not –after his friend’s words –keep from thinking Lynne was, in fact, guilty. The thing was to find out how. (Walker 140)

The questions raised by Trueman are valuable ones in my opinion. It’s slightly dismal for me to think about though. By being white, am I automatically going to be racist on some level of interactions with people of color, even in my best interest to not be racist?


  1. This is certainly a difficult question to answer Maria, and I don't think that I can be of much help to you. I often wonder myself in class why some people detach themselves from their own whiteness in order to seem neutral or not to seem racist, using words like "they" when referring to white people even in a more current context. I think the role of white people in Black freedom movements is difficult to define because a white person would have to be conscious of race in a way that acknowledges and ignores it simultaneously. (I know that doesn't make any sense) But I think the most important part of the role, especially today, is to not be too progressive in the sense that you're completely oblivious to the history of the race because of their ability to overcome centuries of discrimination and seemingly reach a leveled playing field. In other words, don;t pretend to live in a post-racist society because Black people aren't there yet.

  2. Good questions, Maria. And nice response, Dayna. This is something I think a great deal about. My ongoing method of grappling with the issue is to strive to be cognizant of my privilege whenever engaging in anti-racist struggles. I've got to make it clear that I am not claiming any racial injury when I fight against structural and cultural racism, lest I reify some of the most problematic aspects of paternalistic white advocacy on the part of disenfranchised people. I think it's important to remain in dialogue about this with people around me, always acknowledging that I have more to learn and that I am always-already part of the problem despite my best efforts to be part of a solution.

  3. I think this brings up a very interesting debate that we perhaps could have covered in class. I am guilty of referring to the oppressive white society as "they" when in actual fact I am a product of it and have lived within in it my entire life. I have found this problematic in my studying of freedom movements as it is nearly impossible for me to understand the struggles of minorities in society when I am part of the majority.

    I found some of these issues problematic when it came to my paper. I discuss how historical interpretation regarding the role of women civil rights movement has changed over the years. However most of the historians are white and many of them are men. Neither category faced the dual oppression of race and gender that they people they are writing about felt, so can they really offer an opinion? Or should these factors be taken into account when studying history?


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