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What About White People?

“There is a constant drain of energy which might be better used in redefining ourselves and devising realistic scenarios for altering the present and constructing the future.” —Audre Lorde

By Salma Abdelrahman and Nicholas P. Whittaker, Contributing Opinion Writers

Nicholas: For the past few years, the two of us have worked on numerous policies intended to benefit the lives of students of color at Harvard. One question we’ve been constantly forced to answer is: “What will these proposals do and mean for white students?” We’re told that we have to convince our opponents that white students will gain, rather than lose, something from these policies. While we seek to push for an act or movement that is explicitly designed to benefit students of color by alleviating white supremacy, we are forced to reassure white Harvard—who is privileged by this systematic white supremacy—that our liberation attempts are to their benefit.

Salma: In my experience, social change is, at its core, an alignment of self-interests: Those who have power remain apathetic or in opposition unless their self-interests line up with the self-interests of those who are pushing for change.

This establishes a really troubling framework for advocacy on campus. At its core, Harvard is a place where white people continue to have the most power; because of this, we’ve been forced into advocacy that centers white self-interest. We spend more time reassuring white administrators, faculty, alumni, and students that they have nothing to lose in the adoption of our initiatives than we do convincing them that our proposed policy changes will help alleviate issues that students of color face. Convincing the powers-that-be that the status quo for students of color is inherently oppressive, and that real tangible changes are necessary for us to feel like we belong—to even feel like we are human—has never been enough. White students must have something to gain in order for our proposals to become a reality.

N: I’ve written about this before; I’ve written about how empathy is structurally the same kind of move. Too often, we have convince white people to support our attempts at liberation by making them feel, understand, and be a part of our struggle and suffering. It’s not enough for us to say “We are suffering, help us.” We have to include “them” in our “we”. Advocates of marginalized communities cannot simply advocate for their suffering community. We have to subsume those who actively benefit from our oppression into our advocacy.

Is that fair work for us? Why must our self-interest be subordinated to that of our oppressors?

This moves beyond any one policy. The phenomenon of the subordination of Black and Brown liberation to white comfort is a claim on what justice is, and to whom it belongs. Justice can never, in this world, exist for Black and Brown folks. We receive no reparations, because we are owed nothing. Justice is not for us. The project moves on above our heads, and we must exist outside of it. We don’t get justice—we get scraps. To get our reparations, we have to make sure white folks get them too.

S: It’s as if the modern manifestation of the “Whites Only” sign is “Whites Also.” Both are constructed out of the same basic materials: the centering of whiteness, white prioritization, and a constant reassurance that white skin will never preclude you from entering an environment—that there will always be a space carved out for you. This is a luxury students of color have never had, especially not on Harvard’s campus.

And how can we achieve true justice when we are constantly forced, because of these power structures, to center and privilege those who are already ahead? How do we challenge oppressive institutions that center and prioritize whiteness with advocacy that, at its core, is also expected to center and prioritize whiteness? Are we getting anywhere with our fight for justice if we legitimize those power structures by appealing to them?

N: Justice isn’t about appeasing the oppressors. When the white men who founded this country declared war against their own oppressors, they did not waste time appealing to the interests of the British Empire. Their desire for freedom, a freedom they claimed to be owed by the grace of justice, was fundamentally at odds with the interests of that empire. An end to oppression is usually not compatible with the interests of the oppressor. How can it have been to the benefit of the American South to free their black slaves? It was not. It disrupted their economy. It disrupted their social hierarchy. It disrupted their politics. It disrupted their basic way of life. (Of course, this disruption was swiftly quelled, as one way of dismantling Black freedom was replaced by another—so much for justice!)

If our battle against oppression must seek the permission of our masters, then are we not simply running in circles?

S: It’s a constant negotiation. Will we work within a system that is inherently rigged against us in order to achieve social change or will we reject that system completely? Will we legitimize our oppression by agreeing to play a game in which the rules are necessarily skewed in favor of those who already hold the power?

On different days, we have different answers. What has kept me sane throughout our work fighting for students of color on campus is the recognition that white supremacy is pervasive—so pervasive, in fact, that it manifests itself in the very work required to dismantle it. My guiding light in the fight for justice is a vision for a world in which Black liberation does not have to ride on the coattails of white self-interest, a world in which the cries of Black and Brown folk are more than enough to change it.

Salma Abdelrahman ’20 is a Sociology concentrator in Leverett House. Nicholas P. Whittaker ’19 is a Philosophy concentrator in Adams House. Their column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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