Anita Garcia Morales and I met a detractor at a workshop we led on race and class at the 2016 Conference on Ending Homelessness.
Some of the stuff you guys are saying about class is true,” he said, “but I disagree with 90 percent of what you are saying about race. It might have been true in the 1870s, but it isn’t true today.”
This guy was conveying an opinion that an alarming number of Americans share. It’s an assertion steeped in the invisibility of White privilege.
It dismisses the suffering of newly freed Blacks after abolition, the cruel segregation of the Jim Crow Era, and the current racist system of mass incarceration. His comment was completely ignorant of how racism is baked into our educational, judicial, financial, employment and other institutions, and how that renders people of color vulnerable to poverty and homelessness.
But it wasn’t even the content of this man’s comments that were most offensive, but how he expressed them. Or, more specifically, to whom he expressed them. Anita told me after the workshop that he’d approached her, out of my earshot, at the break and then again at the end of the session.
Both times his purpose was to make it quite clear that he thought the content of the workshop about race was “wrong.” I told Anita that he had approached me at the break too, but his questions to me were literally: “Where in New York did you grow up?” and “What high school did you go to?”
It was actually me who led the section of the workshop that illuminated institutional racism, and yet the unhappy participant approached my partner, a woman of color, to school her on how our content was outdated. I was his White, privileged, male bro, with whom he instead chose to compare notes on the high schools we attended.
I am not suggesting that this man felt intimidated to confront me, but rather that he acted on this unspoken bond that reinforces and upholds class, gender and racial privilege and power.
It is born out of a sense of internalized superiority, an often-unconscious process by which middle- and upper-class White men see themselves as the center of the universe.
I checked in with Anita about this a week later. She said, “It is a daily occurrence — of dismissal, of being put in our place, of being seen and not seen at the same time. One of the things we ask White people to do when we share an experience of that nature is to just believe that it is true. Something so simple and yet so hard for the vast majority of Whites to do. Instead they want to rationalize, correct our perception and whitesplain it away.”
Though I didn’t directly witness this man “whitesplaining” Anita, that’s exactly what he was doing. And if I were silent about it, I would be complicit.
I didn’t see him again at the conference, but wrote him recently to share my observations and see if he’d have a dialogue with me. He’s pretty entrenched in his point of view and I don’t expect him to change his perspective, but maybe he’ll at least stop for a moment and reflect on the impact of his behavior.
The workshop that we offered at the conference was specific to how race and class play out in the realm of homelessness. We are doing a broader version of this workshop on race and class intersections for the general public on June 17.
If you want to delve deeply into understanding the history of White supremacy in this country and how it plays out in the development of our individual identities and in our institutions, please come join us.
To register for the workshop please go to classism.org/events or contact me with questions at email@example.com.