There’s a troubling YouTube video, “I AM NOT TRAYVON MARTIN,” making the rounds on Facebook that was posted by a young white woman attacking white antiracists who wear “I am Trayvon Martin” t-shirts. Because the 3-minute video expresses so much of what’s paralyzing and wrong-headed about the “white privilege” argument popular among some left activists, it’s worth a comment.
Essentially, her argument amounts to this: 1) social-justice minded white people (all described as middle class) should not and cannot identify with victims of racism like Trayvon; 2) white people, including antiracists, can only identify with homicidal racist maniacs like George Zimmerman; 3) people of color are multifaceted individuals capable of independent thought and action; white people are an undifferentiated mass of privileged racists who must constantly resist the urge to oppress racial minorities — no matter what they do, say or think they think, all whites are racists and benefit from racism.
This is a rather bleak picture of race and class in America. It is also a completely inaccurate description of and response to a rising tide of multiracial unity in the face of Trayvon Martin’s killing, and Troy Davis’s execution before it.
I haven’t the time here to flesh out all my disagreements, but here are my big three.
One, wearing an “I am Trayvon Martin” t-shirt, or chanting it, is an act of solidarity with victims of racism, not an assertion that everyone faces the same oppression. Trayvon’s own mother has called for multiracial crowds of protesters to identify with Trayvon and the fact that thousands have done so is a testament to a growing disgust with racist police, courts and actions.
Wearing these t-shirts and chanting that you are anybody other than who you actually are is a collective means of expressing outrage at the system, sympathy with victims of injustice and unity with others who feel the same way. It’s why it became so popular among abolitionists to wear “I am Troy Davis” t-shirts in the run-up to that innocent Black man’s execution in September 2011, and why his sister Martina Correia insisted everyone wear one. Visual solidarity is powerful.
The video woman argues that white people wearing these t’s must think that they are making Trayvon into a white, middle class person — presumably like themselves — in order to render him sympathetic in the eyes of racists.
Isn’t it possible, even likely, that people protesting racism wearing these t-shirts actually oppose racism and don’t seek to justify it? If not, then everything we do is called into question as possibly its opposite; nothing we do matters, nothing we say or argue has any validity, but must be suspect as meaning its complete opposite. This is possible, I suppose, but it’s a also a recipe for doing nothing, saying nothing, challenging nothing — paralysis.
Two, arguing, as the video woman does, that white people could only wear “I am George Zimmerman” t-shirts exposes the essentially reactionary core of this argument. Like Zimmerman, who is Latino, white people have been indoctrinated in racism and though video woman, according to her account, has managed to escape the worst of its clutches through great parenting, education and critical thinking, she along with all other whites are condemned to only identify with oppressors, never the oppressed. In fact, to identify with the oppressed, she argues, is an act of immaturity. Au contraire!
Racism, according to this thinking, is not the result of a ruling class’s need to structure oppression in order to gain profits and spread crappy ideas that divide the working class majority from itself. The social construction of racism by those in power centuries ago in order to justify slavery is absent in this analysis.
Instead, racism is conceived as a sort of ideological cancer of no clear origin that metastasizes in all white people, regardless of what they do, think or say. And like a dystopic nightmare, there’s no way out.
Third, according to her “white privilege” argument, there are no distinctions between whites in positions of power and the majority without. In fact, there’s no accounting for how a Black president could preside over a racist system in which a Latino man has killed a Black man and was let off by a mostly white police force led by a Black police chief.
She refers to “the system,” but has no class outlook in which to analyze how the system works and in whose interests. Because if all white people benefit— which includes the majority of people on food stamps, on unemployment and living in poverty in the United States — then these benefits are rather illusory, aren’t they?
Of course, on nearly every economic and social gauge, white people on average in this society have it better than Blacks on average. But to assert, as this argument does, that all white people benefit from racism because they don’t experience the same kind of oppression is false and actually lets the real architects and beneficiaries of racism off the hook.
Employers, politicians, landlords, mortgage lenders and others in positions of power have set up these structures and keep them alive to benefit themselves and their class. Most working class people have no say in these matters and the persistence of a racial divide in the U.S. continues to be one of the greatest obstacles to unified resistance to austerity and joblessness to this day. The fact that many whites accept racist ideas is hardly a privilege or to their own advantage.
The Black historian and NAACP founder WEB DuBois captured this dynamic perfectly:
The race element was emphasized in order that property-holders could get the support of the majority of white laborers and make it more possible to exploit Negro labor. But the race philosophy came as a new and terrible thing to make labor unity or labor class-consciousness impossible. So long as the Southern white laborers could be induced to prefer poverty to equality with the Negro, just so long was a labor movement in the South made impossible.
The video ends with an argument for whites — again, all conceived of as middle class in the midst of the worst depression since the worst depression — to jettison racist ideas and use their “privilege” to fight the system. While I certainly agree with challenging racism, the video ideologically disarms any antiracist white person from actually joining the struggle — whites better not show up to Trayvon marches wearing “I am George Zimmerman” t-shirts!
This video reflects a politically confused way of talking about race as if it were simply about bad ideas in people’s heads and not conscious structures of oppression kept in place by the 1% in the interests of the 1%.
Worse, it’s often counter-productive because by reducing racism to bad ideas and telling all whites they’re beneficiaries, the privilege argument demands ordinary white people relinquish privileges that they do not have, rather than unite to win what’s been stolen from all of us.
Perhaps the most telling thing about this “white privilege” argument is that many radicals have had their sights for justice set so low that it has come to be thought of as a privilege not to be gunned down in the night on a snack errand while wearing a hoodie because of the color of your skin. Isn’t that simply a human right?