“You white people” arguments are racist and unhelpful

I’ve been writing lately about an increasing nastiness in the tenor of the debate on the left.

And not necessarily vis-a-vis the right, but rather, vis-a-vis ourselves.

A lot of people seem to be in permanent attack mode, of late, and there’s a tendency to assume the worst of people we deal with. Not a week goes by that I don’t find a new community I’ve not only allegedly offended, but people that I supposedly viscerally loathe and have always despised. To date, every one has been news to me.

The groups of Americans that I apparently don’t like include women, African-Americans, transgender people, bisexuals, lesbians, minimum wage workers (that was last week, because I said we needed to pay government employees a decent wage to get the good people, so I was “obviously” suggesting that minimum wage worker were “bad” people – seriously), and pets (especially cats, because some of the fun animal videos I post in the evenings don’t genuflect sufficiently to lord-god-feline).

Now, don’t get me wrong, the right does this too, including informing me that I don’t like cancer patients (because I debunked the fake Obamacare “horror stories” on Fox), American servicemembers (because I thought a vet got inappropriately snippy on TV, and in America one does not question the political views of vets), and women (because I refuse to treat Republican women I debate on TV more gently than I treat Republican men). And being gay, I of course “hate” people of faith.

The attacks are parter of a larger “outrage” culture that I’ve written about before.

Today I want to write about one specific “outrage” attack that we’ve seen an increase in lately: making broad generalizations about how bad all white people are.

Suey Park and #CancelColbert

colbert-asian-boycott-ching-chongThe most famous recent protagonist was Suey Park, the young activist who called for Stephen Colbert’s show to be cancelled. Lost in the noise was the fact that Park likes to disparage “white people,” a lot.  And in a manner that comes across as awfully racist.

A few examples. First, during an interview with HuffPostLive’s Josh Zepps, Park informed Zepps that because of his skin color he would be unable to understand her arguments, and more:

SUEY PARK: I feel like it’s incredibly patronizing of you to paint these questions this way, especially as a white man, I don’t expect you to be able to understand what people of color are actually saying with regards to #CancelColbert.

HUFFPO’S JOSH ZEPPS: Suey, being a white man doesn’t prevent me from being able to think, and prevent me from being able to have reasoned perspectives on things. I didn’t give up my right to have an intellectual conversation when I was born.

SUEY PARK: White men definitely feel like they’re entitled to talk over me, they definitely feel like they’re entitled to kind of minimalize my experience. And they definitely feel like they are somehow exempt and so logical as compared to women who are painted as emotional, right?

All white men?  Really?

And here’s Suey Park’s views on “white gays”:


Some of the worst comments from Park came in a rambling interview she did with Salon last week:

SALON: In that case, do you think that “The Colbert Report” itself is oppressive or just that specific joke or comment was oppressive?

PARK: Neither.

SALON: Neither?

PARK: I’m talking about whiteness at large….

SALON: You’re a fan of the “Colbert Report,” and race-based humor is a common shtick that he does by adopting the right-wing persona. Do you have an opinion on his racial comedy?

PARK: …I always paint my white characters to be singular, to be ignorant, to reverse the gaze onto them instead when they are our subjects, instead of always constantly saying people of color are f*cked and a way to kind of always reinforce our subject’s location in reference to white men as some metaphor. I think it would be a more realistic socially commentary if I were able to joke about the totality of white supremacy, but I don’t think that’s going to happen on national television…

SALON: What is the best way to work with white people, to get them on our side?

PARK: I don’t want them on our side….

SALON: Would it be inflammatory to say that you think white men are sort of the enemy?

PARK: Um. I mean I think they are, and we might as well label it. Whiteness will always be the enemy.

She seems nice.

There’s a lot more in that Salon piece, and elsewhere, but I think you get the idea.

And I wouldn’t be writing this if Park were the exception. But she’s not.  She’s part of a larger movement, or at least school of thought, on the more extreme fringes of the left that finds it appropriate to declare anyone who disagrees with them to be an “ist” or an “ic” (e.g., racist, sexist, misogynist, transphobic, homophobic).  And that’s bad enough.  But it’s this larger “you’re all x, y, and z” that I’m finding particularly disturbing because it comes across as, dare I say it myself, racist.

Several recent commentaries you ought to read

Several of the more interesting think-pieces on this larger phenomenon came recently from Joslyn Stevens, Jon Lovett, Andrea James, and Michelle Goldberg.

Stevens dealt specifically with Suey Park and her history. It’s a must-read for anyone who has any lingering notions of Park’s credibility.

Lovett’s piece, while a bit long (it’s based on a speech he gave), deals with the chilling effect that always-on outrage has on speech.  Lovett touches on the Mozilla/Firefox Prop 8 controversy, and while I might in the end disagree with him on that specific issue, I too raised similar concerns, as I think any of these kind of campaigns has the potential of going too far.

Andrea James deals with “heckler/journalists” who are now inhabiting the LGBT community. Her main criticism is reserved for a writer for the Advocate who, coincidentally, went out of control on me about a week ago as well.

Jones’ piece was motivated by an equally excellent commentary by Calpernia Addams, discussing the same Advocate writer, and the larger problem of self-vitriol in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

Michelle Goldberg’s masterpiece

And finally, there’s Michelle Goldberg, who takes a look at what she says is the problem of “online feminism” becoming “toxic.”

Yet even as online feminism has proved itself a real force for change, many of the most avid digital feminists will tell you that it’s become toxic. Indeed, there’s a nascent genre of essays by people who feel emotionally savaged by their involvement in it—not because of sexist trolls, but because of the slashing righteousness of other feminists. On January 3, for example, Katherine Cross, a Puerto Rican trans woman working on a PhD at the CUNY Graduate Center, wrote about how often she hesitates to publish articles or blog posts out of fear of inadvertently stepping on an ideological land mine and bringing down the wrath of the online enforcers. “I fear being cast suddenly as one of the ‘bad guys’ for being insufficiently radical, too nuanced or too forgiving, or for simply writing something whose offensive dimensions would be unknown to me at the time of publication,” she wrote.

Here’s a bit more of Goldberg – you really need read the entire piece:

Online, however, intersectionality is overwhelmingly about chastisement and rooting out individual sin. Partly, says Cooper, this comes from academic feminism, steeped as it is in a postmodern culture of critique that emphasizes the power relations embedded in language. “We actually have come to believe that how we talk about things is the best indicator of our politics,” she notes. An elaborate series of norms and rules has evolved out of that belief, generally unknown to the uninitiated, who are nevertheless hammered if they unwittingly violate them. Often, these rules began as useful insights into the way rhetorical power works but, says Cross, “have metamorphosed into something much more rigid and inflexible.” One such rule is a prohibition on what’s called “tone policing.” An insight into the way marginalized people are punished for their anger has turned into an imperative “that you can never question the efficacy of anger, especially when voiced by a person from a marginalized background.”

Similarly, there’s a norm that intention doesn’t matter—indeed, if you offend someone and then try to explain that you were misunderstood, this is seen as compounding the original injury. Again, there’s a significant insight here: people often behave in bigoted ways without meaning to, and their benign intention doesn’t make the prejudice less painful for those subjected to it. However, “that became a rule where you say intentions never matter; there is no added value to understanding the intentions of the speaker,” Cross says.

There are also rules, elaborated by white feminists, on how other white feminists should talk to women of color. For example, after Kendall’s #solidarityisforwhitewomen hashtag erupted last fall, Sarah Milstein, co-author of a guide to Twitter, published a piece on the Huffington Post titled “5 Ways White Feminists Can Address Our Own Racism.” At one point, Milstein argued that if a person of color says something that makes you uncomfortable, “assume your discomfort is telling you something about you, not about the other person.” After Rule No. 3, “Look for ways that you are racist, rather than ways to prove you’re not,” she confesses to her own racial crimes, including being “awkwardly too friendly” toward black people at parties.

All of that is all too familiar.

A response to Goldberg and “liberal white folks”

Goldberg’s commentary prompted a response by Brittney Cooper in Salon that contains a large number of platitudes about “white people,” and especially “white liberals.”

[S]ince 2008, the liberal left has fumbled plays in political games where we began with possession of the ball, first down, on the 50-yard line….

For more than a century, the fate of African-Americans has been the pawn in a dysfunctional national family drama played out by whites on the liberal left and whites on the right.

Yes, whites on the liberal left helped elect Barack Obama. And black and brown folk have now endured six years of a straight-up, all out, go-for-broke temper tantrum on the right. Seeing themselves as the paragons of reason, liberal white folks have largely stood idly by reasoning with their brethren and sistren on the right to play nice, even though it is so clear that the right is not interested in a clean game.

It is this larger political context of white liberal dubiousness that Michelle Goldberg omits when she claims that “white liberal” has become a favorite left-wing epithet.

Huh? “Liberal white folks” have “dubiously” stood idly by, trying to play nice with Republicans?  Who exactly would that be?

The only liberal folks I know who tried to reason with the GOP to get them to play nice was a black man named Barack Obama.  (Don’t get me wrong – I think the President has been doing much better in taking on the GOP for a number of years now, but those first few years were another story.)

Crowd of people, via Shutterstock

Crowd of people, via Shutterstock

As for liberal white folks coddling Republicans, the gays sure as hell didn’t play nice with the Republicans (or anyone for that matter), and neither did the liberal blogosphere – both groups ironically, in this context, often chastised for being mostly “white men.”  Those white liberal men, and women, and a lot of people of color too, have been kicking the Republicans in the balls for the six years of the Obama presidency and more.  So it’s not entirely clear to me, other than elected officials, which liberal white folks have been pandering to Republicans.

Cooper continues:

Anger is a legitimate political emotion. And if your life is marked by injustices big and small each and every day, then rage, too, is a legitimate political emotion. I made the choice, though, to let my rage be generative, productive rage, the kind of rage that emboldens me to build the world I want to see rather than take a sledgehammer to all the things I hate. I stay mad. But there is a method to my madness.

Goldberg dishonestly characterizes this demand to be heard as both censorial and anti-democratic, even though if truth be told, it is the very expansion of the number of voices that has white liberals so shook. Like those on the right, she decries the rise of this new brand of political correctness, which demands that we speak of issues like transgender identity, sexual orientation, and ability with sensitivity and care.

Again with the “white liberals.”

Not to mention, we do in fact already speak a lot about sexual orientation, and I’ve never sensed blowback from “white liberals.” In fact, I’ve been rather surprised by just how supportive straight progressives have been on our issues.  Bloggers Markos Moulitsas (who’s Greek and Latino) and Duncan Black (white) come to mind as two people who have always supported our activism, but there are so many more. If anything, I regularly hear complaints from straight “white liberals” who are ticked off that we’re not including them enough in our advocacy – they’re yearning to help us. I couldn’t ask for better allies.

White liberals, get your sh*t together

Cooper concludes:

If white liberals were playing offense rather than defense here, they might do the serious work of translating some of these concerns into policy solutions that actually improve the lives of people of color, queer people, people with disabilities, cis and trans women and all the intersections among these groups….

Again, gay people have already been helped immensely. There’s more to do, but we’re the last group that should complain that our concerns have been ignored the last six years.  They haven’t been.

Rather than threatening people of color into capitulation, why don’t those on the liberal left see these incursions and schisms as a call to put their big-girl panties on and get their sh*t together? Accusing us of being divisive in left politics is a classic silencing tactic. Unchecked racism and the white liberal sanctimony that makes it possible are divisive. The left got 99 problems, but radicalism ain’t one.

Get their sh*t together. Silencing (aka disagreeing). Unchecked racism. White liberal sanctimony.


This stuff isn’t helpful.  It comes across as racist, and it really needs to stop. It almost sounds as if the goal isn’t to win at all, but rather to self-define as victims, while desperately seeking someone to blame for their own inaction.

A lot of progressives want to help on a lot of issues, and they’re not racist, sexist, misogynist, biphobic, transphobic, cat-haters just because they disagree with you on the finer points of the agenda, or because they don’t know all of your community’s intricately detailed rules for proper behavior.

Perhaps if we stopped treating every ally like an ist or an ic simply because their skin color or gender identity is different from our own, we might all end up a lot happier and a lot more successful in achieving our ultimate goals.

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CyberDisobedience on Substack | @aravosis | Facebook | Instagram | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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