Recently, a white woman taking part in the increasingly violent demonstrations by progressives in Portland, OR, screamed something like “I’m a single mom and you’ve forced me to leave my child and come stand with these demonstrators.” The “you” in her statement, of course, are the federal troops sent to Portland by the president to quell violence. This single mom seems to me to be establishing herself as a special ally to victims of racial injustice. So her remark is patently about her and not the people of color who live under the yoke of that injustice every day. Her loud assertion also announces that she is “special” and so should be honored and appreciated for all she is giving up to “stand with” individuals whose lives are in constant danger. She and those like her who see themselves as saviors rather than allies may well qualify as a special spin-off of Robin Diangelo’s “fragile” white people.
On some college/university campuses lately, progressive students who adhere to a “cancel culture” approach to people who disagree with their politics or who argue for having thoughtful conversations among people of differing persuasions often assert that such remarks “threaten my safety.” When I read this, I flashed to the white supremacy card cops play when under investigation for killing yet another black person: “I felt my life was in danger.” Juries seem to collapse once they hear this, abandoning any serious attempts to determine guilt or innocence. Surely the progressives who feel their safety “threatened” by words others utter about their views mimic the defense hauled out by the very police they putatively despise and protest against.
When Women’s Studies was just beginning to become part of college and university curricula (the 1960s and ’70s), I attended national conferences of feminist faculty, overwhelmingly white at the time, and listened to colleagues who were intent on creating what they called “safe classrooms” for their students, especially students of color. This seemed like a romantic dream that smacked of arrogance and “saviorhood,” and once again to be about the white faculty person rather than a student who might feel hyper visible because of subject matter that mirrored their lives. Sometimes I offered my skepticism at our being able to do that, since such students had no reason to “trust” me just because I declared on opening day that I was building a protective bubble for the 50 minutes of our class. Those remarks were not received positively; I was seen as a pessimist, as someone unwilling to embrace the new aura created by feminist pedagogy.
It is very hard to resist feeling “special” if I, as a white person who could make an “A” on lots of tests intended to measure racist attitudes and behaviors. I want to step in, take over, recommend, get credit, stand apart from the “real” racists currently emboldened by a mean-spirited egomaniac with lots of power. What many black thinkers and activists say I need to do is keep my mouth shut and listen or read what life is like trying to survive and flourish in America if your skin color isn’t “white.” When I do that, my specialness evaporates because I understand that I still harbor and sometimes express or act on deeply embedded attitudes and beliefs taught me from infancy. I am anything but singular–at best, I’m just one more white person trying to lay aside those embedded attitudes and beliefs so that I am able to ACT in new ways that might one day allow me to say I am anti-racist today, anti-racist tomorrow, anti-racist forever.