This is a guest post by Marika Rose.
If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.
If such persons really knew oppression – knew it existentially in their guts – they would not be confused or disturbed at black rebellion. but would join black people in their fight for freedom and dignity. It is interesting that most people do understand why Jews can hate Germans. Why can they not also understand why black people, who have been deliberately and systematically murdered by the structure of this society, hate white people? The general failure of Americans to make this connection suggests that the primary difficulty is their inability to see black men as men.
– James Cone
The pedagogy of the oppressed cannot be developed or practiced by the oppressors.
– Paolo Freire
There’s a reason why Marx didn’t worry about how the proletariat could get the bourgeoisie on side, why feminists need men like fish need bicycles, and why Malcolm X didn’t spend his time trying to win over white people. But we don’t get to be neutral in the fight for liberation: there is no Switzerland of the class struggle. So what happens when we find ourselves on the wrong side of the quest for justice?
To be white, cis, heterosexual or able bodied (and so on, and so on) is to be in a position of privilege and of power. The world is on our side; the system exists for our benefit and, whether we like it or not, we are complicit in the violence it has done and will continue to do in order to ensure that we continue to benefit. It’s complicated, obviously: intersectionality doesn’t just mean that multiple forms of oppression converge on individual people but also that not very many of us are holding all of the winning cards. But we don’t get to be neutral. If we are white in a racist society, we are, by default, on the side of the oppressors. We benefit from the history of slavery and colonialism; we benefit because we are not subject to the constant undermining and aggression, the conscious and unconscious prejudice and hatred, the structural features which perpetuate racism.
We grow up in a world where most of the people we’re supposed to look up to look, well, like us. We don’t have to worry about what people will think about us if we carry a rucksack on public transport. People don’t constantly expect us to speak on behalf of all white people, and when we talk about race we can probably do so without everybody assuming that we are angry. We benefit in so many ways from our whiteness, and so whether we want those benefits or not, we don’t get to be innocent.
“Not being racist” isn’t a default state that we get to lay claim to as long as we don’t say the wrong things. It’s something to aspire to, and it entails the constant work of unpicking all of the ways in which our very identity is formed by racism. The repeated shame of realising that, for all our best intentions, we will keep getting it wrong, and the painful work of admitting what has happened when we screw it up.
Most difficult of all, I think, it is about the constant struggle to let go of the belief that the way to fix racism is for us to fix it, that the way for the oppressed to be liberated is for us to be the their liberators.
To be privileged is to have power over people that we have no right to. If that bothers us, then we need to work out what it means to let go of that power and to seek to live in solidarity with the people we are oppressing. I don’t know entirely what that looks like, but I am pretty sure that it starts with us listening: to hear from the people we are complicit in oppressing what their experience of the world is, what liberation looks like for them, and how we learn what it means to fight alongside them.
– It means that we allow them to stand in judgement on us: to recognise that we are not the excluded and the marginalised but the excluders and the marginalisers.
– It means that we need to recognise that when Jesus says “Woe to you who are rich” he is talking to us; that when Mary praises the God who casts down the mighty from their seats of power it is we who need to be unseated.
– To recognise that the hope of the gospel is also the hope that justice will be done, that what is wrong in the world will be righted; and to recognise that for us that hope ought to be terrifying because we are what is wrong with the world.
– It is to recognise that if it is dirt which is holy, we have to stop washing our hands.
Marika Rose is a PhD student at Durham University and is writing her
thesis on Žižek and apophatic theology. You can follow her