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Lady Gaga And The Problem With 'Non-Racist' White People

White people need to talk about her response to Charlottesville.

20/08/2017 09:05 SAST | Updated 20/08/2017 09:05 SAST

Look, I have absolutely nothing against Lady Gaga. I like (most of) her music; she has a great voice and can write one hell of a pop song. For better or worse, she also has a gigantic celebrity platform. With the best of intentions, she chose to use that platform to speak out after the devastating violence in Charlottesville perpetrated by white supremacists and neo-Nazis. White people need to talk about her response. Though she meant well, meaning well isn't enough for us white people. It never has been. We must do better.

White people built white supremacy and it's going to take white people to stop [it.]

I believe Lady Gaga has a kind heart. I believe she wants to see less hate and violence and more love in the world. I believe she believes her voice can help spread the vision of the world she wants to create. And I believe with those intentions she actually can do good and effect change. As a white celebrity though, she also needs to be very careful about the specifics of what she puts out into the world. With all that in mind, I believe her Twitter response to the horrific events in Charlottesville, without personal judgments of her, can also be used as a powerful teaching and learning experience for us white people about dismantling white supremacy and challenging racism.

On August 15, after a misguided and simplistic Twitter poll about whether we should be kind or violent in the face of what amounts to a war waged by neo-Nazis against the rest of us, Lady Gaga put out a call via tweet seemingly asking for advice:

Again, despite her best intentions, Lady Gaga's tweet is a prime example of what we white people need to stop doing immediately. For starters, she asks "the black community" what she/we can do, effectively putting the onus for solving the problem back on those most directly oppressed. White people built white supremacy and it's going to take white people to stop wringing our hands and launch a full-scale attack to bring it down. Others are beyond tired.

It's 2017 and Google is literally at all our fingertips; there are countless books, articles, essays, poems, etc. referencing what needs to do be done. Black women particularly have offered solutions for years, decades, centuries. To continue to ask "what can I do?" is to ignore all that tireless and thankless work done; not to mention, the ask displaces and defers our own white responsibility and assumes we can't/won't do anything until we receive step-by-step instructions by those already under fire. In short, we have to find the answers, or at the very least explore some different solutions without waiting for a reiteration of answers that have already been given.

Put another way, if you see someone on fire, it's not considered particularly helpful to ask them what can be done to help, right? Even if while asking you express your love for said person on fire. Just go find some fucking water. Do it now.

Perhaps the most egregious mistake in Gaga's tweet though is her use of the mythic "non-racist white community." Non-racist white people simply don't exist. And before you start screaming about how racist my statement is against white people (spoiler alert: it's not because racism is systemic and requires power which white supremacy still ensures is always already located in whiteness), let me explain:

We inherit the history of all that came before us and must constantly work to rewrite that history. That work is never over. The United States was built on white supremacy and white supremacy is still the bedrock of the country no matter how many other buzzwords and rights and protections and Supreme Court decisions we pile on top of the bedrock to hide a nasty underbelly. Counter-measures were only necessary to begin with because the creation of America systemically and systematically rejected everyone save straight white (wealthy) men.

In her book "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria:" And Other Conversations About Race, educator Beverly Daniel Tatum described racism and white supremacy in the United States as a moving walkway under our feet. Active racism like racist slurs, overt discrimination, hate crimes, etc. equals walking fast the same direction the walkway is moving. We're awarded by the system by arriving at the destination faster. Passive racism is like standing still on the walkway: we still move toward the same destination and don't have to exert any effort at all. The only way to counter the walkway is to constantly walk and/or run in the opposite direction. Otherwise the result of active and passive racism is exactly the same—just achieved in different amounts of time.

Beverly Daniel Tatum / Angela Davis / bell hooks

Being born or participating in life in the United States as white is tantamount to being placed dead center on the moving walkway. What do each of us do? I like to run for exercise and because it ironically calms my mind despite, or maybe because of, the exertion. So I tend to think about being white in the U.S. as being dropped on a moving treadmill. Similar to Tatum's analogy but working in different directions. If you do nothing on a moving treadmill, you move backwards, you trip, you fall. In order to stay stationary, you have to exert a lot of energy. In order to progress, you have to run even faster, beat the speed of the treadmill essentially, overtake the machine.

Both of these analogies are importantly about how fighting/challenging racism is a constant process. There's no reprieve. That's why there is no such thing as Lady Gaga's "non-racist white community." If we do nothing, we arrive at the same destination as those actively perpetuating racist acts. So what's the difference? Moreover, in the treadmill version, if we don't challenge white supremacy, we fall too. Because white supremacy also hurts white people, in much less devastating ways than what it does to people of color to be sure, but it allows a little bit of space to also dissect how every individual suffers under white supremacy (even white people that also overwhelmingly benefit). So we best get running and running hard.

To be "non-racist" is to claim a static identity. But because of the insidious ways racism and white supremacy work systemically, the opposite of racist isn't non-racist; it's actually "anti-racist" as professor, freedom fighter, and former political prisoner Angela Davis explained in a speech in Oakland in 1979: "In a racist society, it is not enough to be nonracist—we must be anti-racist." Because in an already always racist society, there's no such thing as the absence of racism, only tireless action to counteract/correct it. We're always trying to beat the speed of the treadmill; always struggling to reach the opposite end of the moving walkway no matter how hard we engage. To pause, even briefly, in any of our actions is to fall backward off the treadmill or advance further toward the white supremacist destination of the walkway. Stasis in either analogy is complicity too and our ultimate goal as white people should be to powerfully counter any tacit complicity through unequivocal action.

Even claiming to be an anti-racist white person becomes a bit tricky, because it can slide into an identity position rather than the intended constant focus on active work and allow us to rest on our laurels—given a label we can cite for ourselves, we might feel comfortable in sometimes shirking the most difficult work. Challenging racism as white people should never be about identity, only focussed on process and outcome. And, frankly, it should always be uncomfortable because it's a constant negotiation and attempted reconciliation between the benefits we receive from a white supremacist system and the knowledge that those benefits are doled out unfairly and discriminatorily. That fact should never sit well with us. For too many, it does.

When I think about this distinction, I often return to bell hooks. In her essay "Feminism: A Movement to End Sexist Oppression," she points to a distinction between claiming "I am a feminist" and "I advocate feminism." Similarly, I think it's useful to use that formulation in relation to racism and anti-racist politics because it differentiates a constant process, an always doing, from the static being of an identity. "I advocate anti-racist politics" versus "I am anti-racist" or "I am anti-racist." Author and activist Feminista Jones has a powerful Twitter thread (and so much other work) that communicates similar ideas regarding the performative identity of "ally" us white folks so love to claim for our own edification that sheds more light on this distinction:

It's also instructive to ask: why do we white people so deeply desire a name/category for ourselves that points out any tiny bit of good we might be doing? If your goal in countering white supremacy is your own recognition for doing "good," you're just centering yourself once again—an impulse we white folks have to fight to the death at every single turn because it will never fail to rear its ugly head. So again, I don't think Lady Gaga's tweets are evil or terrible. She just let a self-congratulatory impulse to claim herself as a "non-racist" white person get the better of her. She consequently validated and spread that impulse through her platform.

But there is no such thing as a "non-racist" white person and we have to dismiss the idea immediately. We have to refocus. Decenter ourselves. Do the work with no demands on others and no expectations of being recognized.

These words aren't an answer or a guidebook. Just a few thoughts on how we as white people can learn to be better, do better. We will never be "non-racist." And it's not anyone's fault—it's the way things are; the way the system we inherited was set up. So do you want to argue about the exact level and quantification of your own complicity in this toxic white supremacist system ad nauseam, or do you just want to get to work?

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