Op-Ed: Unmasking Toxic White Privilege

By Dorothy A. Clark

There is a long history in America of white progressives bravely standing up for Black causes like civil rights, voting rights, social and economic justice, judicial reform, and, more recently, Black Lives Matter.

But there is a parallel history of white progressives who practice a toxic form of white privilege.

One manifestation is using the Black community for personal and political gain – putting up a progressive façade to mask a reactionary record or pushing a white privilege agenda while pretending to serve the interests of African Americans.

Another is white progressives running the show with prominent people of color fronting the message, only to be cast off when white privilege conflicts with Black demands for having more say in shaping the message or running the operation.

Massachusetts history is littered with examples of both, including, most recently, U.S. Sen. Ed Markey’s efforts to cloak himself in the garments of a racial justice warrior.

In my own lifetime, “Urban Renewal,” launched in the name of social progress in Boston in the 1960s, turned into “Negro Removal” on the ground, with residents of Roxbury and the South End uprooted with little or no say in the bulldozing of their neighborhoods by supposedly well-intentioned guardians of the public welfare focused on saving the village by destroying it.

Before the Civil War, Frederick Douglass, handsome and eloquent, was a perfect spokesman for the abolitionist movement, until his own ideas got in the way of his chief sponsor, the controlling William Lloyd Garrison. Douglass left Boston to start his own movement in Rochester, N.Y.

White progressives can be great allies. But those imbued with white privilege have little tolerance for actually increasing access to power or resources. Witness the fights over affordable housing in what are otherwise reliably liberal bastions. Or battles over integrated schools – which Markey opposed — or economic equity in the form of hiring and contract goals to make up for centuries of discrimination and bias.

Just recently, we have seen peaceful Black Lives Matter protests hijacked by white antifa activists, setting up barricades, tossing Molotov cocktails and burning police stations in the name of justice for George Floyd. Who asked masked marauders of white privilege to commit mayhem in our name?

What is too rare is finding white progressives who listen rather than lecture and cooperate rather than dictate from their seat of privilege.

Months before the arrival of 2020, women eagerly anticipated marking the centennial of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which, after nearly a century of agitation, extended voting rights to women. White women, that is.

I sat through suffrage centennial planning sessions in which I had to inform white women that for women of color, particularly Black women, the passage of the 19th Amendment didn’t give them the vote, notably in the South. Many white suffragists, angered that the 15th Amendment extended the right to vote to black men, had no interest in working with African American women to fight for universal suffrage.

White women’s racism bifurcated the suffrage movement, requiring African American women to forge their own brand of intersectional activism. Still, African American women are expected to celebrate the centennial with a colorblind perspective.

Recently, a self-proclaimed anti-racism “ally” attempted to scold me on a social media platform after I told her that her efforts to associate with people whom she said “don’t look like me” was a hollow and insincere way to make friends.

Individuals typically form friendships because they relate on some level, not because they’re curating acquaintances as part of a virtue-signaling project. I have no interest in being added to a white person’s people-of-color menagerie, I told her. She then accused me of not wanting to engage in an educational, transformative discussion on racism. I disengaged after that; nurturing white privilege is exhausting.

Toxic white privilege is all around us, even in politics. We are now in the final weeks of a political campaign pitting U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy III against long-time incumbent U.S. Sen. Ed Markey in the September 1 Democratic primary for U.S. senator.

Markey has donned the mantle of a white progressive in spite of the fact that he opposed the integration of Boston schools during the fight over court-ordered busing in the 1970s. While Markey argues that he eventually changed his position, there are more recent measures of how woke he really is. When the parents of D.J. Henry approached the senator in 2014 to help push an investigation of the police killing of their unarmed son in New York, Markey ignored their pleas for assistance and used the word “colored” to refer to Black people.

The 2010 death of Henry, a Black college student from Easton, Mass., took place long before Black Lives Matter protests swept across America in the wake of George Floyd dying beneath a cop’s knee in Minneapolis. And long before Markey discovered the convenience of arguing about intersectionality between racial justice and climate change in order to garner the support of progressive young activists. The fact is that anyone’s commitment to a cause is best measured when the cameras aren’t on. By this measure, Markey fails miserably. His inaction falls into the category of toxic white privilege, using Black and brown people as campaign props when his record shows he is no ally of African Americans. 

In contrast, Joe Kennedy III has advocated tirelessly for the Henry family. He has fought for more compassionate mental health care and expanded addiction services – social needs he’s learned about by listening to people in the community and on the front lines of the battles that matter, by going to those closest to the pain to forge the policies of the future.

We need white progressives in office who have shed the mantle of white privilege, not wear it like a cape.

The issue of white privilege is bigger than any single election. But an election does serve as a test of alliances and authenticity.

Those who reject white privilege understand the hard truth that by giving up power and control, the broader society benefits.

What’s unacceptable is seeing naked self-interest cloaked in self-righteousness and hypocrisy. That’s the white privilege that must be unmasked and rejected.

Dorothy A. Clark is a writer and historian who lives in Jamaica Plain.

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