Edit desk: @Activists, stop alienating white people

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Musa Jamshed

Musa Jamshed

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been scrolling on Facebook or Twitter and have come across a post that leads with “@white people” or “@my white friends.”

These posts often include passages aimed to educate white people on how to not be racist, or more recently, on why white people are racist — or at least OK with racism  — for being the driving demographic behind Donald Trump’s victory.

The tone of such posts varies. Some give a calculated commentary on the normalization of discriminatory behaviors, while others accuse white people of being ignorant, selfish or too privileged to understand the struggles of others.

Coming from a diverse community in New York City, I have heard my share of “liberal” opinions, especially because my social media feeds are filled with them. And I tend to agree with most of these assessments.

I do believe in the idea of white privilege. I do believe racism is alive and well in America. I do believe that when this election season came around, there were not enough white Americans who put their other opinions aside and realized that Trump’s comments toward Mexicans, Muslims and others set a dangerous example for the country.

But like every activist, each “@white people” poster should ask themselves a simple question: Are my actions helping?

The answer is no.

I’ll break it down into three categories of white people — or any segment of people, for that matter: blatant racists, active allies and those in between. Blatant racists and active allies are most likely going to remain unchanged. Racists will not look inward when called racist, and allies will simply feel validated.

It’s the people in between who are most crucial to a movement against discrimination, and there are a lot of them. In 2015 it was estimated by the United States Census Bureau that 61.6 percent of the U.S. population consisted of non-Hispanic or Latino whites. I think it’s fair to assume that a significant portion of that percentage falls in the middle of the spectrum of racism.

And just like a political campaign that tries to appeal to voters in swing states, activists need to know their audience and target a strategy toward those who may be considered “swingable.” Candidates don’t waste their time attempting to aggressively campaign in clearly red or blue states, so why do online activists continuously post polarizing messages on social media?

It is a difficult concept to grapple with because social media was never meant to be a primary outlet for activism. It is a place of expression. It cannot be ignored, however, that it has also evolved into an echo chamber with each side’s most outspoken supporters sticking firmly to their beliefs. President Barack Obama called it.

And the reason why it’s so important to avoid these echo chambers has nothing to do with the polarized sides that are arguing — it has much more to do with the aforementioned “swingable” onlookers.

Looking at it from the perspective of that group, it makes perfect sense to turn against those who are constantly telling you that you are an evil racist. It is completely fair for white people to feel like they are being dismissed and stereotyped. It may not come from a history of discrimination, but being treated a certain way based on your skin color is not something whites are inclined to just ignore.

It is not so easy for them to internalize the subtleties of privilege and the responsibilities of an ally when often, without prior knowledge on the topic, they are insulted.

For example, according to a February 2016 survey by Pew Research Center, 47 percent of white Americans do not personally know a Muslim. Telling white people that they are, and will always be racist for absorbing stereotypes about Muslims they see on the news, when almost half of them don’t even know one, is jumping over some very key steps.

If you were trying to teach someone algebra who had barely heard of simple arithmetic, would it be reasonable to call them stupid and closed-minded? No, their understanding needs to be built.

Let us not decide to give up our fight against discrimination just because social media rants are detrimental and divisive. I am not trying to encourage those with strong beliefs to tone down their motivations. I think we need to be more purposeful and work harder to educate rather than scare away the “swingable” whites that feel violated by activists.

So I’d like to challenge you all with a post of my own: @Activists, stop alienating white people!

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Musa Jamshed, ’19, is the sports editor for The Brown and White. He can be reached at msj219@lehigh.edu.

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3 Comments

  1. Dear Musa Jamshed,

    Perhaps the purpose of these posts on social media isn’t really about education. Perhaps it’s people of color looking for solidarity and support from others like them, while venting their frustrations with white folks who are generally ignorant about the function of white privilege and white supremacy. Perhaps we should direct our criticism at whites who cannot understand or accept that it is difficult and emotionally exhausting living in a white supremacist system when you’re not white.

    Sincerely,
    Chad Kautzer
    Associate Professor of Philosophy
    Lehigh University

  2. Amy Charles '89 on

    Meh. I’m a white lady, Musa, and it’s fine by me, because my default world is white. Much whiter, in fact, than the world around me, because I’m also middle-aged and the world in my head is the world I grew up with, and things have changed. And even I forget that that’s the case. The hostility is not unreasonable. I’m not inviting hatefulness, but the reminders aren’t a bad thing.

    And the reality is that this “white people suffer too” thing is a little undifferentiated. I’m a single mom; I’ve spent a lot of time being poor. I was ill for a long time, too, and there’ve been plenty of tribulations along the way. But do I get social prezzies for being a white, polite, collegiate-looking lady? You better believe it.

    You’re not going to help your case with selfpitying, defensive white people by tiptoeing around them. You just aren’t. So say what you have to say, and say it often. Don’t go at people with a machete, but say it. That’s how it sinks in.

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