written by Kamala Avila-Salmon
It was an idea so obvious that I couldn’t believe I hadn’t articulated it explicitly before: the presumed neutrality of Whiteness. What I mean is the assumption that White people have no identity or set of experiences that influence how they see the world. People of color obviously do- that’s why we’re so often accused of “playing the race card” and why it’s so hard to believe us when we say that racism is actually a problem. We have skin in the game, we would benefit from a society that admits that there is racism, we will use it to “get stuff”. At least that’s how the argument goes. But so many don’t consider how clearly White people also have skin in the game, how they benefit from a society that pretends there is no racism, how they use it to “keep stuff”. But this is clearly, obviously, gallingly the case. To be White has never meant to be neutral.
I started re-reading Dr Beverly Tatum-Daniel’s book “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” and near the start, she establishes her definition of “racism” as “a system of advantage based on race” and talks about how people, often White people and almost always non-Black people, push back immediately. “That’s not what the dictionary says.” She responds, “Who wrote the dictionary?” It may be the most expertly administered academic clapback ever because ISN’T THIS EXACTLY THE POINT. We don’t have any neutral institutions or authorities in American society. We have by and large, White ones, and to assume they are neutral is to buy into a presumed neutrality of Whiteness that can’t possibly be real. Everything in a racist society, including Webster’s Dictionary, is an expression of systemic racism. Period.
The term came to me in the midst of a discussion I was having with a good friend who is White and for whom I can list a long record of active allyship. Her character or commitment to antiracism is not in question. This is important because she said something that made me realize she had bought into a narrative of White neutrality that she likely never realized. We were talking about a controversial decision that was made which most Black people would say had harmed them and I was saying that there should have been at least one Black subject-matter expert in the room when it happened. Her first point of pushback was “just because they weren’t in the room doesn’t meant they didn’t weigh in.” Which: maybe. But they still convened a room so why not have that person there? Then she said “that’s an awful lot of pressure to put on that one person” which it is but the answer to that is to have MORE than one, not to have zero. Finally we came to it, “We can’t necessarily have every group affected by a certain decision in the room. That’s why we have rules.” Because presumably, those people would be biased towards their own group’s interests and wouldn’t be able to administer the rules. This is when I saw it. She was operating on a very standard line of reasoning that the White people in the room were dispassionately interpreting and applying objective principle but non-White people cannot do that. Also that it was not relevant that White people happened to write the rules being administered. Moreover, it assumes the White people in the room are themselves neutral and belong to no group that has interests of its own. This is the result of for too long, assigning race and therefore racial interests to only people of color. White people have no race, no group, no interests. They are neutral and objective. Society has just randomly given them a disproportionate hold on power, wealth, privilege, etc. Who can say why? It’s a mystery.
The last few sentences are my own inferences obviously. My friend didn’t say that. She never would have articulated that logical conclusion of her initial thoughts. We actually talked about the presumed neutrality piece a bit in the moment and unpacked it more. But it was a big enough a-ha moment for me that I wanted to share it. The presumed neutrality of Whiteness is why the term “identity politics” is used only in reference to people of color and other diverse groups while no group has ever practiced a more effective, consistent, and enduring form of identity politics than White people in this country. Entire voting, housing, criminal justice, education, and employment policies have been designed to explicitly and implicitly center and elevate Whiteness. “Those immigrants are taking your jobs and are murderers and rapists” is identity politics. Black people as “super predators” and “complainers who don’t want to work hard” is identity politics.
Presumed neutrality is why we use the term “affirmative action” to describe a very modest set of policies that was meant to recognize centuries of outright exclusion of people of color from opportunity (though its clearest beneficiaries are White women) but we don’t recognize that America has in fact only ever truly engaged in affirmative action in favor of White people, assigning everything from freedom to citizenship to access to property to education and more to people simply because they were White. Since the day they first showed up on land that was already occupied, White people murdered the people on it, took over, enslaved human beings to develop it, and engineered everything from the Homestead Act to redlining and more to ensure that wealth would flow to and remain in White hands BECAUSE they were White.
Presumed neutrality of Whiteness is also at play when we seek out people of color for their perspectives as such — e.g. engaging Black people to work on racial justice work now or Latinx people for Hispanic Heritage Month work, which YOU NEED TO DO by the way- but fail to realize that in all your other workstreams, when you only had White people in the room, you were actually not getting a neutral perspective. You were getting a White one. And that is different.
Friends, we need to really interrogate the presumed neutrality of Whiteness, and its inverse the presumed biased-ness of BIPOC people and therefore the unreliability of the stories they tell. It is a WHOLE ENTIRE THING and it shows up everywhere. Many White people who are aspire to be allies don’t realize how much they have bought into their own presumed neutrality. This is why I have been pushing the REFLECTION portion of my allyship journey. Without some deep reflection, you cannot recognize the ways in which seeing yourself as a “not racist person” has made you actually the perfect accomplice of systemic racism. I want you to think about why it makes you uncomfortable when a person of color advocates for themselves. Why you think what they’re saying can’t possibly be true. Or is probably not fully true. Or is in some way biased. Yet you probably feel fine advocating for your current position, your current standing in the world or in your organization, your set of beliefs, even though they were likely not fully fairly or objectively achieved and don’t recognize that holding on to it means not making room for people of color, for BLACK PEOPLE, to rise up alongside you, maybe even above you is actually you not being ready to be actively anti-racist in all the ways that your Facebook and Instagram posts would lead one to believe.
This work is hard. Un-centering yourself is very difficult. But please stay with it. Because I sincerely hope that this wave of multiracial advocacy that #BlackLivesMatter doesn’t end when the time for sacrifice to make them matter comes along. Also that time is now. #TalkAboutRace#AndYourPlaceInIt #NeutralityInAFightForEqualityIsNotReal
Article originally posted on Medium.com