History Writes Us: An Interview with Anti-Racist Writer Kendall Clark
By Ernesto Aguilar
Kendall Clark is a writer living in Dallas, Texas. He is the founder and editor of Monkeyfist.com, a journal of progressive politics, technology, and culture. He is reachable at email@example.com.
Can you give a little history behind your article, “The Global Privileges of Whiteness,” and whiteprivilege.com?
Whiteprivilege.com came out of Monkeyfist, the “virtual collective” I’m a member of. The collective’s primary effort is publishing Monkeyfist.com, an independent, non-doctrinal, leftist news and commentary site; we focus on politics and technology and culture.
Most of the members of the collective are either working or hobbyist computer programmers or technologists of some sort. Our backgrounds and the Internet allow us to work together closely, despite the geographic obstacles.
One of the goals of Monkeyfist.com is to fuse our sense of non-doctrinal leftist politics and what are called, in the university, the politics of identity, especially race and gender.
Out of this general concern and specific conversations we were having at the end of 2000, we realized that the domain “whiteprivilege” was available. So at the very end of 2000, I registered it with the initial idea simply of safeguarding it. We didn’t know at that time what to do with it, but we didn’t want such a good domain to be taken by some white supremacist group.
Finally, we decided that we should develop the domain into a public resource for antiracist education and activism, and that’s what we’ve been doing for the past few months.
As for that essay, I have been trying for the past 18 months or so to focus my political writing on a few issues, one of which is antiracism. I became very interested in the World Conference Against Racism (WCAR) as soon as I heard about it. I wanted to attend WCAR in Durban, but without the backing of the kind of media outlet the WCAR organizers would recognize, I knew I probably couldn’t get press credentials, and I wasn’t sure I could go in any other way, since I’m not affiliated with an NGO.
The origin of the essay was an accident actually; I received over the course of probably three days, several email messages which suggested a piece about the American and British (along with other European “ex”-colonial states) efforts to subvert the WCAR agenda. At the same time I had been reading the work of several African American analytic philosophers who work on race and racism — Bernard Boxill, Charles Mills, Lucius T. Outlaw — as well as an earlier tradition of important black thinkers — Du Bois and Fanon and CLR James. So I was trying to apply good theoretical work on race and racism to a concrete political situation. The piece came together in a way that made me think it was worth showing to other people.
What were the most important lessons you learned from those writers you just mentioned, as they relate to your piece?
The most important lesson I learned is that racism and Empire (and I specifically mean empires of the West, of Europe and America; I don’t know enough about the rest of the world to know if the same kind of relation existed there) are closely linked; that, one might say, they are manifestations of the same political-economic impulse. This is an idea that I find, in different ways, in the work of Du Bois, of Fanon, and of James. As I say in the piece, I had grown accustomed to the — perhaps standard progressive — view that racism, as a problem of the domestic social structure of the U.S., and racist foreign policy were more or less independent social phenomena. I now think of that view as simply wrong. One of the things that changed my mind was seeing how the US and UK attacked the WCAR — seeing the specific arguments which were used.
I think you raised an excellent point here in that the standard progressive view you’re talking about misses the boat in several respects. There tends to be a tendency to look at extremist elements like the Ku Klux Klan and white-power movements as the hardcore side of racial politics and the overt and covert actions of politicians here and abroad as the soft side of that. If you look at it historically, I tend to believe it could well be the other way around. Could you speak on that, and maybe break down a bit more where you’re coming from, specifically how the arguments used at WCAR relate historically to Empire?
I’ve tried to incorporate an argument of Bernard Boxill’s, a very important African American philosopher at the University of North Carolina, into my antiracist politics. In his “Introduction” to a collection of essays he edited called *Race and Racism*, Boxill considers the origin of the idea of race, which is important because without the biological idea of race you don’t, historically, get the European practice of racism or the ideology of racial supremacy (i.e., what we call today an ideology of White supremacy), or, at least, it would have been very different in ways that are hard to guess at; and, in our time, when biological racisms are in some sense waning, cultural racisms are growing, and the idea of race is changing too.
As Boxill says, of those who think the idea of race is a relatively recent creation, everyone agrees that it came from Europe. The chief question is whether the idea of race — and hence an ideology of European supremacy and practices of racism — was developed as a justification for practices of slavery, upon which colonial Empire was totally dependent, or whether the idea of race existed antecedently and only came to be used to justify Empire after, as it were, the fact. Boxill, by a very interesting argument, concludes that Europeans needed the idea of race to explain the physical differences they observed when they met Africans, for example, which took place before the widespread practice of slavery and before that practice needed some, however flimsy, justification.
Why is this important now? After all, Boxill may in fact be wrong, as this is a very complex question. It’s important because Boxill’s argument shows that the idea of biological race was a more or less morally neutral and yet corrupting idea. Following Rousseau, Boxill argues in effect that some ideas — private property is another one — are not themselves morally suspect, but that they can be morally corrupting. The idea of biological race is one such idea.
I say all of this to say that the historical connections between Empire and race are complicated, they may be a mixture of necessary and contingent factors, but that Empire has always already used the (once morally neutral) idea of biological race to justify its exploitations, its depredations. As an antiracist, what this puts me in mind of more than anything else is to be on guard for morally neutral yet corrupting ideas that are floating around in *our* heads today, particularly as the mode of the dominant racism changes from biological to cultural.
Foreign and domestic exploitation, upon which Empire depends, are justified by the same supremacist ideology; they are created, maintained, and extended by the same racist practice. I tried to give some examples of this linkage in the essay you’ve referred to; briefly let me reiterate: all of the examples, colonial and domestic, of racism and supremacist ideology I point to are displays which are intended to justify or extend or strengthen some aspect of White privilege, that is, material and cultural and political privilege. Whether protecting global hegemony, corporate profits at home or abroad, or reinforcing White people’s sense of entitlement about victimhood, and thus denying their responsibility for repairing historical harms, both domestic and colonial (I aritifically separate these two, “domestic” from “colonial”, but the point right through here is that the way Empire regards people of color on the periphery, at its margins, and the way it regards them at the center is a function of the same systematic oppression; that for people of color there is no margin, no periphery, of Empire because *as* people of color there is no systematic difference in their status throughout Empire, even if the ways in which systematic oppression is expressed locally always map onto what is locally possible or impossible), White privilege defends and protects and reinforces and, where it can, extends itself.
To take one fitting example: on the day that I write this — 4 December — in 1969, Chicago police forces (under the direction of the Cook County States Attorney) assassinated Black Panther Party members Fred Hampton and Mark Clark as they slept in their beds. That the State would so brazenly assassinate citizens is inextricably tied to their having been *black* citizens; that the State would murder domestic opposition as easily as it would murder opposition “in the colonies” is inextricably tied to ideology and racist practice. And today the US government detains several hundred Araby persons, just as it promises to subject them to the same State apparatus, the secret military tribunal, as it will subject foreign non-citizens.
The more race and racism change, the more White privilege stays the same.
Do you think the lessons of Empire as they’re passed down to its subjects — or, more accurately, the distortion of history — plays a role in how people view or do not view white privilege in society?
If I understand your question properly, I can only say that as historical creatures all the way down, history always matters to and in and for us. We write history and history writes us.
One of the points I have repeated in my works is that while oppressive social systems are often able to crush people utterly, as social systems they have to obey certain law-like social regularities. One of these is that the ideal way to justify or maintain a system of oppression is to make it socially invisible, to make it unquestioned and unquestionable. If you can convince your class equals, all of whom are White, that Africans are a race of natural slaves, then you can probably convince them to acquiesce to or join your efforts to enslave Africans. If you can convince the middle and lumpen class of Whites that Africans are natural slaves, they will hate and police and enforce and rape and accuse and lynch and profit. But if you can convince the African slaves themselves that they are a race of natural slaves, they will certainly be less likely to question their state than they otherwise would be. Convincing a person that she is a natural slave is difficult, but worth the effort if it succeeds. We are never, one might say, more entrapped as by invisible bonds.
So the teaching and the writing of history — which is always already a mechanism by which State and Empire seeks to justify itself (and right through here I only take myself to be repeating what I’ve understood Howard Zinn to mean) — are highly ideological enterprises, like all teaching and writing. Even still, racism and slavery and White privilege have left an ugly scar, a trace, on history — a trace that many are all too willing to erase.
But the historical trace is not all. Oppression writes itself, as if on a text, in the living and lived experience of oppressed peoples, onto their very bodies. (So: archaeologist’s study slave quarters and encampments, and the human remains found therein, in part by noting the extreme distortions and abuses that are to be read off the bones of slaves, who were worked *literally* to death; under decades of *extreme* labor, bones do not grow properly, they splinter and torque and fracture. And the bones of the children form improperly under the twin masters of malnourishment and early labor.) And so the trace of oppression must be erased from history and the living voice of the oppressed must be silenced today.
At this point it is customary to be dismissed as a left-wing lunatic, of course. But liberals and right-wingers are very clear too that the teaching and writing of history is a site of ideological struggle. Just last week Lynn Cheney, a wizened old right-wing culture warrior, and wife of the Vice President, said: “If there were one aspect of schooling from kindergarten through college to which I would give added emphasis today, it would be American history” in order to “know the ideas and ideals on which our nation has been built.”
What Cheney says has the *form* of truth but not its substance; more American history would help people understand the world better, it would make them better citizens. I fully support schools in the U.S. teaching more about African cultures and history; American imperialism in places like Cuba, Haiti, the Philippines, and so on; the long course of White domestic terrorism; of the political (which is to say sexual and class) economy of lynching; the perpetuation of oppressively racist social structures since 1965, and so on.
How have you witnessed white privilege issues in progressive movements, as in examples of that, and how do you feel activists can best challenge those?
I’ve only been doing political activism explicitly for about three years, so I don’t have a very extensive history, and most of that work has been as a writer and publisher. I’m not really a street organizer, though that work is crucially important.
However, in a relatively short time, I’ve seen displays of White privilege repeatedly among progressives. I live in Dallas, and I was pretty heavily involved with the Green Party in Dallas and in Texas during Nader’s campaign. Starting with Nader, I was very disappointed that he didn’t run more explicitly, more visibly in solidarity with black folks; he took way too long to meet with Al Sharpton, for example.
I served on the national Green Party platform committee and as an alternate delegate to the national convention in Denver that nominated Nader. I was generally disappointed with how *White* the Green Party is nationally; I’d assumed that the Texas party was aberrant in that regard. I don’t mean so much demographically, though that’s important and the GP is overwhelmingly White in that sense. I was more surprised to find a general lack of a real, critical antiracist politics.
For example, I was dismayed to hear fellow members of the platform committee speak very ignorantly about the reparations plank in the platform. While it passed, narrowly, some of the comments from White members were stupid and ignorant. I remember getting the impression that reparations wasn’t something the GP was particularly committed. Yes, there is a reparations plank in the Green Party national platform; but I doubt in 1 in 50 Greens nationally can speak about the issue in a way that gets beyond caricature and cartoon.
Some of the most egregious displays, not merely of White privilege, but of explicit racism, however, occurred in local Green Party groups. I saw Greens choosing to ignore use of racist epithets from members. When I protested it became very clear that a radical antiracist politics simply was not possible among the Greens. I couldn’t be involved with a progressive group that isn’t antiracist, and I quit. (I do want to say that while I have heard some indication that this is a widespread problem, I don’t know that for a fact; it’s possible that Greens in other states or cities are radically antiracist. I’ve never seen any indication of that, however.)
On a broader scale, that the largest progressive media outlets show very little interest in antiracist essays, commentary, and material is very problematic. The view seems to be that antiracism is a kind of boutique, or specialty interest, item of progressive politics, and that while it might be a subject of the odd once-a-year issue, it’s not an ongoing or very deeply held concern. Antiracist, white privilege stuff is fine for Race Traitor journal, but it needs to stay in its ghetto.
I would sum my experience by saying that, despite the exceptions, many White progressives have merely a verbal commitment — they will more or less say the right words at the right time — to working with people of color seeking liberation. But that’s as far as it ever goes. In the end, I’ve heard far too often, “it’s all about class anyway”, which really just serves to dismiss explicitly racist forms of oppression. Unfortunately, too many White progressives are simply callous or woefully ignorant about these issues.
As for how activists can challenge white privilege in progressive circles, it depends on which activists you mean. I won’t presume to tell people of color how to do that work; they know better than I do. As for White activists, I can only pass on the excellent advice passed to me by Bijan Parsia, one of the members of the Monkeyfist Collective, who was echoing Malcolm X: White activists should work on White people. Speak up when you see privilege being deployed or defended or extended. Just refuse it clearly and forcefully. But be prepared to make hard decisions when you do so.
There’s also a more general point to be made: when a White person tries to challenge racism and White privilege, there’s always the possibility that she will get it wrong. As James Baldwin says in *The Fire Next Time*, White racism distorts White people. It certainly secures for us a world of privilege and power, but it also distorts us socially. One of the privileges of being White is to be totally ignorant of your privilege and to be totally deficient in detecting displays of that privilege and of the racism which secures it.
The flip side is equally true, I think. People of color tend to be good at detecting racism and privilege, as a matter of social skill. It is in their best interests to be good at detecting it. I think it’s clear, then, that we do not come into social settings with equivalent social skills: given any particular social setting in which someone is making a claim about racism or White privilege, there are good reasons to believe that White folks are wrong and people of color are right. Of course, no one is absolutely fallible or infallible, so initial judgments must always be revisable in light of evidence and experience.
I can put this point in a different way: history matters. None of us comes to any social context having gotten totally free of our history, our racial (or gender or class…) identity, and none of us has ever fully escaped the social conditions that shape and form us. Given the way the world is, I am very mistrustful of White analyses of racism and privilege (including my own), and I tend to give priority to the claims and analyses of people of color, since they are the ones in whose best interest it is to be *very good* at understanding these issues. Mismarking racism and privilege has a social cost. But allowing racism and privilege to go unchallenged has a social cost too. The costs of the latter far outweigh the costs of the former.
White activists need to be more willing, where and when appropriate, to advance the agenda and interests of people of color and their organizations. (Of course the judgments that lie behind ‘where and when appropriate’ are one thing we Whites need to interrogate about ourselves!) One of the constant, hopeless refrains I heard repeatedly from Greens is that “we” needed to find “more people of color” to “join our party” — a sick social parasitism. Too few White progressives are willing to put themselves and their resources at the service of solidarity with people of color, which often means, as far as is possible and appropriate, adopting and working on the agendas of people of color and their organizations. This is complicated stuff, of course, and my general advice isn’t very helpful in specific cases. But the parasitism is unacceptable.
This is not uncommon within radical movements as well. Typically, what I’ve seen is a passive form of that, where organizing continues and anarchists, for example, hope that, by virtue of their activity, people of color will join up with them rather than understanding there’s a lot of exploitative and patronizing history between predominantly white movements and people of color. Or, similar to what you’ve stated, finding a few Brown or Black faces to join rather than doing the base work needed to truly be egalitarian.
Instead of using the fact that a group is all-White, which isn’t necessarily and always inappropriate, groups almost always try to protect themselves with this kind of token parasitism.
If you are White, have or are trying to acquire a radical antiracist consciousness and agenda, and you find yourself in an all-White political group, progressive or radical or even liberal, you have two options: 1) quit and find a group that isn’t all-White or 2) go to work on them! I think White people who have reached some measure of antiracist consciousness have a moral and political obligation to raise the consciousness of the White people around them. Groups that are all-White offer a chance to do just that. Turn the group into the all-White caucus of an as of yet unformed new group, toward which you are working. In other words, don’t quit until you’ve *tried* to radicalize your fellow Whites with the truth. There will either come a point where quitting (or getting thrown out) is appropriate or you may have some success.
I’d rather see an all-White group get radicalized, break up or seek out other groups to ally themselves with, than to avoid dealing with these issues by becoming parasites on a few people of color.
Would it be fair, from your experience with the Greens, to call the type of behavior you saw typical of the organization, engrained enough in people that they didn’t notice it, or something else?
I have to make a few distinctions to answer this accurately. In the *parts* of the Association of State Green Parties (which has now been renamed and is certified by the FEC as a national political party and will get federal matching funds for 2004 federal election cycle) I am most familiar with, yes, I think it’s deeply ingrained. However, there are large parts of the ASGP that I’m not as familiar with, so I don’t know about them. I can say that I didn’t see any way to pursue an antiracist politics by remaining a part of the Green Party in the US.
What are potentially unconscious displays of privilege that people usually miss? And what do you think is the key to changing those behaviors?
The biggest display of White privilege is ignorance of privilege! Not too surprising when you think about what a system of social privilege is designed to accomplish. This ignorance extends in many directions too. I’m continually amazed at how ignorant White people are of the culture and struggle and history of, for example, African Americans. Not having to deal with ugly truths is *very* privileging. Having a White suburban world view must be very comforting, especially as bombs fall daily in Afghanistan.
As for changing behavior, there are two ways: all at once or gradually. The first is the great hope of revolution. But I find I can say very little that isn’t platitudinous about revolution in the short term. As for gradual change of behavior, that is something we can very modestly accomplish by getting in the face of White people we encounter, educating and challenging their utterly inadequate view of the world.
One frustration I’ve expressed and share with others may be the futility in challenging progressive people, particularly progressive white people, around white privilege mostly because it turns into a defensive exercise no matter how it’s phrased.
Can challenging white privilege, in your opinion, do any good for the many progressive white folks — most of whom seem to not be willing to hear it or accept any responsibility for change – who may have read all sorts of texts but are blind to how issues of race and power are played out in their work? And, if it’s not completely useless, how can that best be done?
I recognize that sense of futility. I’ve had it, though of course in a different way since I, as a White man, can choose to stop being an antiracist, while people of color can’t stop being people of color. I can easily try to “pass as a White Democrat”, so to speak.
But I do recognize the frustration. It seems of a piece with a general sense of frustration among progressives in the U.S. It’s simply a fact — and one of those big historical facts that are really hard to change — that the U.S. is a White Empire. Period. It’s the way the country works, irrespective of demographics. I don’t have any idea how to change that in the short term. There’s no easy or quick or obvious way around it.
I think we should expect, then, that our attempts to change political and social structures are going to mostly fail. That, to put it bluntly, sucks. And it’s very disheartening. But I keep asking myself: what is the alternative? To quit? We can’t do that.
So we have to keep struggling, but realistically. One thing I did after leaving the Greens was to concentrate on a smaller scale. I’ve tried to stay in some kind of dialogue with a White progressive, patiently educating and explaining to them what it means to be antiracist, how to try to do this kind of work, what solidarity across racial divisions can mean, what it feels like, and so on.
Having helped a few people overcome their racial blindness, I know that it can be done. It isn’t easy, but it’s possible. I remain hopeful that such interventions can take place, though you’re right that it often fails. One thing about moral obligation: it doesn’t disappear if what it enjoins us to do is *hard*, only if it’s *impossible*. Challenging White privilege isn’t impossible, it’s just hard. But so is everything worth achieving. (Plus there’s something to be said for the value of challenging White folks per se, even if you don’t see visible changes in the short term. Sometimes changes come when we have moved out of sight.)
One thing you and I have discussed in the past is some white folks’ concerns about working-class Black and Latino neighborhoods — working in solidarity with these communities, which often entails going there; having radical/anarchist events in coordination with those communities; organizing spaces involving the communities — and the sometimes bizarre reasoning we get about ‘distance,’ ‘hard-to-find locations’ or ‘image.’ How prevalent is that sort of attitude and how does one best confront it?
Yeah, this is the White progressive version of the same kind of supremacist ideology that fueled White flight, starting in the 70s. Only there the code words were “property values” and “home equity” and “safe schools” — code for the basic segregationist impulse that runs throughout the whole history of White American culture.
I can’t really speak to the prevalence of the attitude, given my own limited experience. But if my experience is at all generalizable, and if I’m right in seeing a connection to the White flight impulse, it may well be very prevalent. The segregationist impulse that fuels White flight is nearly universal in the U.S. I am neither a geographer nor urban planner, but it seems clear that this segregationist impulse is *the* most significant demographic factor in the U.S. in the post-WWII period. The literal *shape* of every major U.S. city and population center is a reflection of this segregationist impulse; White people will do almost anything to avoid living with people of color. (By the bye, Ani DiFranco has a great song on her new album about this.)
It should come as no surprise, then, that the same kind of impulse exists among progressives and radicals. It’s not likely as vehement or virulent or widespread, but it’s there.
As for confronting it, again, it depends on who is doing the confrontation and what the setting is. One thing that can be done is to subject these coded representations of White privilege and White supremacy to the same kind of critical analysis that leftist and anti-authoritarian people know how to do when it comes to foreign policy and the like. And to do such analysis publicly. That is, one way to oppose it is to raise the social costs of its use. Make it difficult, even embarassing for Whites to rely on code words. If they have to say what they mean clearly, it’s harder for them to do so, which is good, and it generally has less appeal to others.
The other difficult aspect of this problem is when well-meaning White progressives try to organize in a working class neighborhood, only to practice Old School Activism. Whether they are people of color or working class White, it’s still obnoxious, but obnoxious in a different way, to different degrees. The Old School Activist says something like, “Hi, I’m White and radical and I’m here to organize you now.” It’s a paternalistic attitude which is unhelpful and demeaning. It’s also deeply reactionary. On the other hand, in an effort to avoid committing that sin, I’ve seen White activists go to the other extreme, putting themselves into a nasty double bind: “In order to avoid being paternalistic, I’ll just go silent and wait for them to come to me.”
Again, I’m not sure there are any principles that I can cite which solve this problem, independent of situation and context. One practical thing that seems to help is to make sure the activist organization, which wants to be in solidarity with the poor, is itself well-integrated, that is, to make sure it’s not White company, i.e., an all-White organization. Again, if you find that you are an antiracist White in an all-White organization, *resist and refuse* any effort on the group’s part to start organizing in the neighborhoods of people of color. Your group isn’t ready for that and will just make a mess.
If your group, however, is mixed, both in its formal and informal leadership and group membership, and in the range of issues and concerns it addresses, chances are better that it will be able to work with the community more productively, without being paternalistic or paralyzed by the fear of being paternalistic (which are unequal harms, of course; better to do nothing than to cause harm).
I don’t want to be totally cautionary, however; there are many healthy radical groups for which there are many opportunities. In Texas, for example, there’s a fight to be joined in seeking amnesty for undocumented workers. And nationally there are chapters of N’COBRA and the Black Radical Congress with which to work on gaining reparations for slavery, U.S. apartheid, and so on.
How do you think gender and class intersect white privilege and in what ways?
In both complicated and simple ways. Most of the problems White progressives have with racism are present with regard to sexism too, though I tend — perhaps foolishly, though — to think that in general progressives do a bit better about the issue of sexism. But that’s as much a guess as a well-grounded belief. I was involved in the protest efforts at the RNC in Philly in 2000, which led me to write about how good it was to see so many women — though, to be clear, they were mostly, but not entirely, young White women — involved in planning and engaging in the protests in very significant ways. In other words, those protests would simply have not been possible without the leadership and struggle of many women. (That’s always been true, of course. But women in Philly were making decisions and plans and making things happen, and the various kinds of jobs that needed doing were not gender-segregated.)
But of course for every story I can tell like that, someone can tell a story about sexual predation among progressive movements. And there remains a large institutional and movement gap between the American Left and radical feminist groups in America. And parts of the Left still defend porn. So it’s a mixture of good and bad.
One thing that the Monkeyfist Collective is doing to respond to this situation is publishing “Maleprivilege.com”, which we intend to do for profeminist antisexism the same thing we’re trying to do with Whiteprivilege: namely, create a public resource for profeminist, antisexist activists. This time we’re doing it in conjunction with some long-time radical feminist activists, particularly Nikki Craft, one of the important founders, along with Andrea Dworkin, Kathernine MacKinnon and others, of the antipornography movement in the US.
We’re very excited about that and the site should be public in the next few weeks.
Are there books you recommend to people on these topics or groups whose analysis is helpful in understanding this issue?
Yes, there are many. One of the goals of Whiteprivilege.com is to point out and point to these kinds of things. Anyone with Web access can visit the site and find links to good essays, sites, and the like. We have a list of about 30 or so very good books as well. Since you asked about the intersection of gender and race, I want to mention two books I’ve learned a great deal from: Marilyn Frye’s *The Politics of Reality*, which is simply a top-notch radical feminist analysis of oppression, sexism, and racism. It’s jargon free and suitable for use in reading groups. If I had to recommend just one book, that one is on the short list. The other book I’ve been reading recently is J. Sakai’s *Settlers: Mythology of the Proletariat*, a challenging book which offers a radically different view of U.S. history than is conventional. I don’t agree with all of it, but if you can find a copy, it’s worth reading.