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The Abolitionist Echoes of Ferguson: White Privilege as Moral Duty

What are the responsibilities of those enjoying white privilege in a white supremacist society? The abolitionists offer inspiration in the fight against racism and structural injustice.

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What are the responsibilities of those enjoying white privilege in a white supremacist society? The abolitionists offer inspiration in the fight against racism and structural injustice.

As I sit here watching Ferguson unfold, I continue to be viscerally struck by the realities of living in a white supremacist society. In thinking about social justice and inequality, it is of primary importance to fully understand and address the position of the subjugated and subordinated. However, the matrix of domination in any system of inequality includes axes of both oppression and privilege. What does this mean for those who are dominant group members, members of the privileged group? How do we confront our own privileged social and political locations if we are personally committed to equality and justice? As a white woman, how do I confront the white supremacy that drives the racist oppression unfolding in Ferguson?

In any unequal society, the dominant group receives intense ideological targeting. Thus, as a dominant group member, an urgent goal must be to resist the intoxicating ideologies – and material perks – that are so blinding, and to face the discomfort of being caught up in structural inequality. We have to see and own our privileged positions. Since these positions are defined structurally, we cannot simply wish them away because we don’t agree with them or we don’t want to be involved, or decide that we are not racist. Just as black people cannot wish away racism because they don’t like it, neither can white people. One of the lessons of structural inequality that is often crystal clear to oppressed groups is that this structural position has nothing to do with whether you are personally invested in them or identify with them. A black man cannot simply tell the police officer standing over him with a billy club, “I don’t see color” or “I don’t participate in racism.” Many individual white people, myself included, abhor racism and do not want to participate in reinforcing the oppression of others. And yet, like it or not, our position in the matrix of domination is such that we benefit from the system, at the expense of others, regardless of how nice we are or how much critical race theory we read.

We have to see and own our privileged positions.

In addition to facing and understanding our privileged positions as white people in a white supremacist society, we must also make sure that this awareness of our structural privilege position is translated into action and activism. Otherwise this process can turn into a paralyzing exercise in white guilt that helps no one. Worse still, it ironically turns racism into a problem of how white people feel, leaving white people’s needs and issues as the central focus of dealing with racism. The goal is not to see and then bemoan racism, but to actively fight against it. We have to face the bitter truths of our position and then ask ourselves, given where we stand in the matrix, how we can leverage that position to work to dismantle the system of structural inequality that we simultaneously occupy and abhor. Thus, how to fight and which actions to take must become the focus of white antiracism. Given that these structural inequalities are both longstanding and deep, the actions required to dismantle them will also need to be longstanding and far-reaching. There are multiple ways to take action, but what is essential is to be in service of dismantling the structural systems of inequality, including the unequal distribution of economic and political power and the structures of control from the legal to the ideological that are wielded to enforce them.

As part of my own intellectual and political work, I have spent a lot of time thinking about this question of how to be actively antiracist as a white woman. In looking for answers, I have often been reminded of the history of white women’s abolitionism during the time of slavery as a compelling location to look for examples of navigating privilege and struggle. White women abolitionists argued fighting slavery was their moral duty. White women’s abolitionism is of course not perfect, and it is fraught with problematic replications of racism and white privilege. Their arguments were too often grounded in racist distortions of Christianity that reinforced white women’s moral superiority and their activisms contradicted by their ongoing use of black domestics and slave labor. Nonetheless, some aspects of their legacy of activism against slavery offer instructive lessons on what to do in a moment when your own people are engaging in intolerable inequity. While I do not draw on the same Christian foundations, I share this sense of moral outrage and obligation. In any system of inequality, the problem does not belong singly to the oppressed but more so to the oppressors. If I am benefitting from this system, and those like me are the ones implementing it, I believe that I and other people in my position have a moral duty to fight that system. Thus I would argue that white people in white supremacy have an obligation to play an active role in changing that system, and they have the disproportionate resources at their disposal to do so.

However, since even our attempts to honor those obligations are embedded within unequal positions of power, it is essential that dominant group members be as accountable to their privileged positions as possible in their engagement of action and struggle. It is essential to avoid replicating and reinforcing white privilege inside of often sincere and well-intentioned efforts to resist. The history of white activism around race has been plagued by such distortions wherein the privileged white messiah figure – purportedly innocent of all connections to the racism they rail against – saves the voiceless, downtrodden and seemingly, by contrast, incapable, black and brown masses. White antiracist activism must challenge privilege and decenter whiteness rather than flexing privilege and (re)centering a supposedly sanitized whiteness in the name of always being at the helm. The goal is to join with, not take over, racial justice movements. White allies must find ways to join in dialogue and solidarity with people of color in multiracial efforts to dismantle hierarchy, both in our structures and institutions and in our interpersonal and community relationships.

Watching Ferguson unfolding – and seeing in it the stark realities of white supremacy and the ongoing legacy of lynching and Jim Crow – tells us that the long struggle of abolitionism is still sorely needed. I will end with this sentiment, as expressed in 1837 in “An Appeal to the Women of the Nominally Free States,” by the famous white abolitionist feminist Angelina Grimke:

Opportunities frequently occur in travelling, and in other public situations, when your countenance, your influence, and your hand, might shield a sister from contempt and insult, and procure for her comfortable accommodations . . . Multitudes of instances will continually occur in which you will have the opportunity of identifying yourselves with this injured class of our fellow beings; embrace these opportunities at all times and in all places . . . In this way, and in this way alone, will you be enabled to subdue that deep-rooted prejudice which is doing the work of oppression in the Free States to a most dreadful extent.”

So here again is another tragic situation in which we must work to subdue these deep-rooted prejudices that are in front of our eyes, doing the work of oppression in Ferguson to a most dreadful extent.

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