LEARNING TO TAKE THE BULLET: ANTI-RACISM REQUIREMENTS FOR WHITE ALLIES AND OTHER SO-CALLED FRIENDS OF THE RACE
Lerone Bennett Jr. once asked, “Who is freedom’s friend?” For many in the US, this question is obtuse because the answer is blatantly, even embarrassingly (for you) obvious—we are! The “we” here refers to we, White people—a point underscored by the idea of “all-American” which in the US most assuredly does not refer to African Americans, Mexican Americans, Asian Americans, American Indians or any other hyphenated Americans.
Interestingly, people of color have sometimes seen social justice-oriented things as not quite so obvious and somewhat differently from Whites as a group with regard to who is freedom’s friend—enslaved Africans who crossed the Atlantic in chains, for example, Native peoples who walked the Trail of Tears, our Japanese brothers and sisters sent to internment camps on American soil, those lost at Hiroshima, ones lost in the Philippines—and the list goes on. Indeed, writing his famous letter from a prison cell in the Birmingham jail in Alabama, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. lamented that those who should have been his strongest allies in the freedom struggle were willing to remain silent in the face of gross injustices and too often outright opponents who sabotaged social justice endeavors. The problem of freedom, he concluded, was a problem of good, not a problem of bad.
If we take this atrocious, deadly track record as truth—and the evidence is everywhere such that it might as well be written in the sky, to paraphrase James Baldwin, are Whites collectively, perhaps forever disqualified as friends of freedom? With the sincere White girl who once queried Malcolm X, we may find ourselves wondering, “What, if anything, can those White people of goodwill do in struggles toward social justice?” In response, Malcolm X told this young White woman that there was nothing she could do for social justice exactly because she was White. Later in his life, however, he wished he could go back in time and answer differently.
Malcolm X’s revised answer is timeless and deceptively simple. To paraphrase–If you are not willing to die for freedom, take the word out of your vocabulary. Not exempting White people, and like many who have gone before us, we must be willing to take the bullet for social justice. Like John Brown with his willingness to give his life for freedom, White people must declare and live their alignment with the oppressed and wronged at any cost; you must love freedom to the point that you will put everything on the line of sacrifice—not close to the line, but exactly on the line.
What might it look like, then, to be a White person who seeks to live a life in friendship with freedom and is willing to take the bullet for social justice? The answer is going to look different for each of us. Learning from Angela Davis, Noel Ignatiev and too many to list, I have tried to live my personal and professional life by continuously looking around me to see who is included and who is not. Then, if at all possible, I work collaboratively with others to make such a fuss to dismantle these exclusions until either I am put out or social justice changes are pushed forward.
Fortunately, I am happy to report, to date my life has not been threatened. Unfortunately, however, I have been put out on more than one occasion for my fussing for social justice for all. Authorized by a contract that requires no explanation for dismissal or the non-renewal of employment, for example, I have been forced to leave loved family and home to relocate in another region of the country after consistently working to interrupt the Whiteness of the teacher education program I then worked in. Too, I have been labeled by my birth family and childhood friends as a hater of my own kind. It has been some years since I have been invited to my birth family’s holiday gatherings or celebrations. Some students have described me as a lunatic who hates other White people. Colleagues have publicly advised students to stay away from me and the classes I teach given my unwillingness to knowingly collude with the historical privileging of the interests, values, histories and accomplishments of Whites.
I can not say that I have come through these alienating and alienated experiences unscathed, without some scarring. I have been grateful for the care and warmth of those around me who hold similar commitments to live their lives willing to take the bullet for social justice. I can honestly say I would not have survived to date without the love of my justice family.
Yet, including myself, I recognize that White people cannot expect to be freedom’s friend and simultaneously maintain the benefits of Whiteness. Freedom for all and Whiteness can never be simultaneously affirmed. Social justice will not be realized until we white people are so fed up with the suffering of the oppressed and wronged that we cannot and will not rest until that suffering is alleviated. As Dr. King put it, “Injustice anywhere is a challenge to justice everywhere.” Because our destinies are tied together on this planet, none of us are free until all of us are free.
Brenda G. Juárez, Ph.D. is an assistant professor in the Social Justice Education concentration program at the School of Education, University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her research has appeared in journals such as Democracy and Education, Journal of Black Studies, Race Ethnicity and Education, Power and Education, and International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education. She is co-author of the book White Parents, Black Children: Understanding Adoption and Race published by Rowman and Littlefield.
contact Dr. Juárez at: firstname.lastname@example.org