Being a “woke” White person is not the same as being an agent of change because when it comes to fighting racism and building a more equitable nation, we need people to do more than just not be a slur-hurling bigot.
In fact, White “allies” can sometimes be more dangerous racists because they may not realize their own racism, and when it’s brought to their attention, their outrage drives them to become bad actors. In a recent Medium post entitled “Beware of Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing: The Tale of a Progressive Professor Who Forgot to Hide Her Racism and Got Her Ass Fired,” Kayla Renee Parker, who describes herself as a “queer, Black, fed-up feminist” wrote that she was being harassed by her University of Tennessee, Knoxville professor Judy C. Morelock, a white woman. In the piece, Parker writes that Morelock “wears a safety pin so everyone knows she’s an ally for minorities. Her cover photo has a Black power fist. She regularly discusses her love for the Obamas, the Black Lives Matter Movement, and her admonishment for this current administration.” But that’s all surface because “I would soon realize that nothing would shake her more than a confident, Black woman contradicting her in front of a classroom of her own students.”
Parker said that during their heated exchange over an exam question about whether slavery destroyed Black family bonds, the defensive professor told her that she had spent her whole life “fighting for minorities.” Morelock argued that enslaved families were “kept together.” Parker’s interpretation, which relies solely on research by white male sociologists, gives credence to the belief that white people kept Black families together for moral reasons as opposed to through resistance and other efforts enslaved Africans undertook to preserve their families. Morelock’s entire narrative makes whites passive and erases their violence as well as the voices of Black folks who lived the experience. Even when owners did things like promote marriage among the enslaved, their intentions were backhanded and motivated by profit.
When Parker disagreed with the idea that Black family bonds were not destroyed during slavery, the professor added, “I have taught thousands of Black students and I have never had anyone disagree with how I cover this.”
Not done highlighting her John Brown bona fides, Professor Morelock continued, “You’re talking to someone who has spent their entire life fighting for people of diversity and marched with my Black brothers and sisters.” A lifetime of work. “I went to an integrated Kindergarten when I was 6 and I thought it was normal!”
Yet, still this professor not only dismissed the student’s curricular concerns, but she also publicly mocked and disparaged her on Facebook, with the promise of shaming her on all social-media platforms. This was not an academic or scholarly disagreement—it was personal, posting:
“After the semester is over and she’s no longer my student, I will post her name, her picture, and her bio on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn. Count on it. For now, I’m bound by university rules that grant her more latitude in freedom of speech than I have. After she graduates and I retire, all bets are off.”
There is nothing that suggests Morelock is an “ally” with these comments, actions, or that tone. She embodies the type of fake liberal allies that dominate academia—whose true colors emerge when a person of color calls them out, corrects them, or otherwise calls attention to their hypocrisy.
Morelock is an example of the notion that being a White professor of Black history doesn’t give you immunity to racism, or mean that white person will support the holistic learning process for Black students. Maybe this professor stands for Black Lives Matter on a conceptual level or as a consumer having bought the latest red, black, and green safety pin; but on the ground, or face to face, we have an entire different story. If the Black students sitting in your classroom aren’t worthy of basic respect, let alone protection from racism, do Black Lives really matter to you?
The rare good news is that the university supported Parker and fired Morelock. But the bigger and more problematic issue is the looming presence of White supremacy disguised as the much more benign White liberal.
While Morelock got her game peeped, a so-called White liberal professor at the famously progressive Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, made headlines when he objected to students protesting campus racism by holding a “Day of Absence,” (inspired by a play of the same name by African-American playwright Douglas Turner Ward). This “Day of Absence” was designed to have White “students, staff, and faculty members to leave campus in order to ‘explore issues of race, equity, inclusion and privilege,’” according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Ironically, Weinstein, a professor of biology, reportedly considers himself “deeply progressive.” He protested the “Day of Absence” via an email saying that, “on a college campus, one’s right to speak—or to be—must never be based on skin color.” He called the request for the White people to examine their relationship to racism “an act of oppression in and of itself.”
People like Weinstein don’t seem to realize that calling oneself “deeply progressive” doesn’t mean anything when actions translate to repression and oppression. By calling an attempt to address campus racism “an act of oppression,” he epitomizes the two-faced nature of those who like the idea of presenting themselves as down with the struggle, but balk at any suggestion of real work, of honest analysis, of tangible action that might actually move him out of his comfort zone.
The faux-White ally is not unique to academia.
Take Bill Maher, who recently referred to himself as a “house nigger” on his HBO show. The fact that people are still debating and writing think pieces about whether Maher, who is famously Islamophobic and often contemptuous of Black and other people of color, is actually a racist, speaks volumes. According to Maher’s stans, he dates Black women, he has supported the Democratic party and other liberal causes, he gave $1 million to the Obama campaign, and he supports decriminalizing marijuana.
Maher has made an entire career barely disguising his blatantly White supremacist ideologies. He has gotten rich starring in what Mia McKenzie describes as “ally theater.” While some people mistake his snideness for depth; his comfort with elements of Black culture for allyship, and his pop culture brand for the kind of White man who would go to bat for some real progressive change to benefit Black Americans, the receipts show otherwise. Let us not forget that just a few months ago Maher had Milo Yiannopoulos on his show and laughed along with his jokes. Giving a white supremacist a platform to spew his vitriol is in fact an act of white supremacy. This is the same comedian who lectured Black folks about criticizing Hillary Clinton because it wasn’t in their best interests.
Bill Maher is the kind of presumptuous liberal who believes that because of his “past work,” he’s earned the benefit of the doubt. His Black girlfriend and check writing allow him to do as he pleases without consequences or accountability. Last week he learned otherwise. He, like Weinstein and Morelock, are being judged for their actions and the consequences of their behavior.
But Maher still has a job, still has the freedom to speak, and as far as we know, isn’t receiving death threats. But Kathy Griffin and Reza Aslan both lost their jobs for scorning Donald Trump. And when Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, an African-American studies professor at Princeton said a few words about the Trump administration at a commencement speech at Hampshire College, she was barraged with so many threatening messages that she had to cancel her next talk. In another recent incident, Tommy Curry, a Black philosophy professor at Texas A&M, also received death threats when a 2012 podcast resurfaced of Curry arguing that Black people should practice legitimate forms of self-defense against white violence by arming themselves. “In order to be equal, in order to be liberated, some white people might have to die,” Curry said. The university has been inundated with demands for Curry to be fired.
What does it say if you support Black causes but not the Black students in your classes? What does it reveal that you support issues relevant to the Black community, but when confronted by millions of Black people saying you can’t use “that word,” you push back with “Hey, it’s just free speech.” Which always feels like that old saying, “I’m free, white, and 21.” In other words, white people will almost always support their right to think, say, feel, and do whatever they please, regardless of the consequences to anyone who they deem “other.”
All of these recent events reveal both the limits of white liberalism and the barriers to becoming a true accomplice of change. The notion that “woke liberal” means “in full of support of Black people, Black lives, and Black equality” is both flawed and dangerous. It imagines racism as part of a distant past, or something confined to the Southern states with their Confederate flags and reminders of unadulterated White hatred, contempt, and violence. It defines racism as something that comes from the poor, the uneducated, the GOP, and Trump supporters. It causes way too many White people to become complacent, patting themselves on the backs for their liberalism, yet balking at the idea that they contribute to and benefit from White supremacy, power and privilege whether they love, hate or are indifferent to the sources of those advantages.
White supremacy drove last year’s presidential election. It fuels countless laws and policies created by our government to maintain a system of inequity and oppression.
And it continues to thrive everywhere all over “conservative” and “liberal” America. It continues to consume us, whether from Democrats, Republicans, or independent political parties. Racism is Hollywood. Racism is our universities. Racism is American as apple pie, and no matter whether it is from McDonald’s or the gourmet bakery from around the corner, it is killing us.
Using the N-word, publicly mocking students, protesting efforts to diversify an institution, running to Fox News, dismissing the concerns of Black students, calling on universities to fire academics who write and speak about racism, jumping on the free speech train—these don’t equal comrades in the struggle. It’s not enough for White people to wear safety pins and say they support Black Lives Matter and or feel wistful for the Obama years or even repost articles on Facebook about police brutality—that’s great and all, but it doesn’t make them immune to racism. White people, liberal or not, who genuinely want to be our allies, have to do the work, challenge their own biases, and confront their own racism if they are serious about addressing it on the systemic and societal levels, or we’ll never move forward.