I recently downloaded Layla F. Saad’s, me and white supremacy workbook (Me and White Supremacy) and have been working through the 28 daily challenges. I recently completed Day 16, “You and White Centering,” so the topic has been very much on my mind. When I involved myself in twitter conversations at the end of last week and over the weekend because I saw white centering happening, it became very clear to me that it’s one of the most difficult white supremacist paradigms to identify and relinquish. Because of that, this may be an uncomfortable post to read. I will be intentionally defusing it by using less personal examples and pointing out instances where white centering is something that other people do. I’m making that choice because this format does not lend itself to the type of constructive back-and-forth conversations that lead to growth. I will also be framing the post in terms of the primary campaigns, assuming that they are a common area of interest that most of us have been following. That also creates several degrees of separation, which allows for a sense of safety. But make no mistake: these are conversations that anyone who wants to claim the name “Ally” needs to be having, both internally and in small group settings, if possible. Comfort and safety are privileges of whiteness; if one wants to be part of deconstructing white supremacy, it will ultimately be necessary to choose to walk away from that refuge and address inequality and injustice with unflinching honesty, a whole lot of humility, and the willingness to fight back against one’s own internalized white supremacy.
What is White Centering? …White centering is the centering of white people, white values, white norms and white feelings over everything and everyone else. …Whiteness is so used to taking up space in all spaces, that when it is restricted or a boundary is put in place to center and protect BIPOC, its reaction is often one of white fragility, tone-policing, white superiority, white exceptionalism or just straight up violence (whether verbal or physical). (Saad, p. 89)
On the surface, white centering would seem to be easy to recognized and correct; it’s the “well, actually” of white supremacy, so how hard can it be to stop oneself or to recognize it when given voice elsewhere? But white folk like me have been so conditioned to see whiteness as the end-all and be-all of a hierarchical system like white supremacy that we often miss the subtler moments. Just like internalized misogyny, it can be staring us in the face and we still miss it. The point came into focus for me this weekend when someone on Twitter asked me why Julián Castro hadn’t had a townhall on CNN yet. I didn’t know the answer; I still don’t. It does seem curious, however, that Rich White Man With No Other Qualifications Howard Schultz has had a townhall, while a former mayor and Cabinet secretary has not. It’s easy enough to merely say that it’s the usual media obsession with the latest shiny thing or horserace politics or a chase for ratings, but what if it’s more? What if it’s internalized white centering?
A CNN insider has said this, “A CNN source, who asked not to be named discussing internal procedures, said the network invites candidates who have demonstrated they are running a serious campaign, though invitations are offered on a case-by-case basis.” CNN town halls put network at center of Dem primary Who decides the parameters and definition of “a serious campaign”? My gut tells me that it’s not a group of Brown and Black men and women at CNN who are making that decision. If a serious campaign is the criteria, why did the previously-obscure Mayor Pete Buttigieg already get a time slot at a townhall? Why did Rep. John Delaney (who?!), but Sen. Cory Booker will only get one this week? And yes, I can hear the “well, actually” already, because Sen. Harris has had a CNN townhall; of the women Democratic politicians in the race, she and Rep. Gabbard have had townhalls (and were also the earliest to officially announce their candidacies). Was that a move away from white centering, or was it a response to the criticisms leveled at CNN that in 2016 they would eagerly cut away from Sec. Clinton to cover an empty podium in advance of a tRump rally? I know what my gut is telling me on this topic too.
This thread by Jamil Smith discusses the topic from the perspective of a black man working in the media:
I’m looking forward to the sequel to this article, “Across America, Republicans Risk Speaking Boldly and Alienating Voters of Color.” https://t.co/31S1veNuqe
— Jamil Smith (@JamilSmith) November 25, 2018
It should be obvious that part of my reason for addressing this topic now is because of the conflicting reactions to Mayor Pete Buttigieg that came to a head over the weekend. His new supporters are adamant that he’s the “real deal,” while a good many people were pointing out that his comments were centering whiteness and edging very close to embracing economic anxiety as the reason for tRump’s win. Having followed him for years, read his book, and seen some of his statements, I am, quite frankly, confused. His history and book clearly indicate a man who lives the Democratic core values of racial and social justice; his statements over the weekend were ambiguous enough to invite a variety of interpretations, including the accusation of dog whistling to a white audience that felt the need to be centered. Both things can be true about Mayor Pete, by the way, but this is an important question for him and his supporters to be prepared to answer:
Do people not understand that “learning to speak to people in red states” and all that stuff about not “alienating WWC” with messaging is just another way to say “stop talking about race and gender so much” because “white guys don’t see themselves”?
— Sally Albright (@SallyAlbright) March 24, 2019
The question is a brutally frank description of centering whiteness (and patriarchy), and any campaign that features the WWC as part of its message needs to be prepared to address the concerns. The danger of alienating BIPOC voters is real:
See, you all tend to see black voters as guaranteed, no message for us, no lamenting, no catering to us and centering us to win our votes.
Y’all roll out the red carpet for Red State white voters.
You even seem to believe WE should beg them for votes.
It’s white supremacy.
— 👑Devin Nunes Cocaine BJ Cow Did Treason (@Bravewriting) March 24, 2019
Is it possible to talk about issues of rural America or the Midwest without centering whiteness? I think it is (in fact, I think Hillary did a lot of it in 2016, but for a variety of reasons, her message was lost in the noise and the chaos). The starting point is to remember that “WWC” is a subset of “WC”, and addressing the working class is the inclusive approach. Challenging what is too often defined as normative takes practice but is essential for deconstructing white supremacy:
Decentering whiteness doesn’t mean we white folk can’t contribute, teach, etc. It means we don’t define normal; we aren’t gatekeepers; it means we don’t protect white feelings when someone names our ways problematic.https://t.co/mVqTR4zpOj
— Em Rabelais (@Dr_Whomever) February 25, 2019
Decentering whiteness also means leaving behind claims to victimhood. Victimhood assumes that if one is elevated, the other must be lower. Decentering destroys a hierarchical view of humanity and celebrates the inclusiveness of gifts, strengths, and perspectives. The tweet below isn’t specific to decentering, but it illustrates what happens when hierarchy takes a backseat to inclusiveness:
I’m excited for:
Kobluchar’s senate record,
Gillibrand’s centering of feminism,
Castro’s centering of immigration,
Warren’s super-detailed economic policies, +
Buttigieg’s youth + pragmatism.
— randi marie (@RandiRandu) February 19, 2019
Listening and looking for the positive, the unique, and the special with both compassion and gratitude is the most effective way to recognize and decenter whiteness and recenter inclusivity. We can do this.