What is the role of white people in the anti-racist struggle?

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By ROSANA HERINGER*

An anti-racist perspective requires the permanent attitude of saying in the face of discrimination and inequality that “this is not normal”.

This question has been asked me frequently in recent days, as a result of the international anti-racist mobilization resulting from the protests over the cruel, unfair and unacceptable murder of George Floyd by police in the USA. In some way, I have been trying to answer it for over 30 years, through my academic work and my anti-racist activism, as a white Brazilian woman.

In an ideal world without racism, this would not even be an issue, as appearance and phenotype would not matter in individual trajectories. In the world we live in, which is still far from this ideal, built on the basis of racial inequalities, discrimination and racism, which bring suffering in various ways to the vast majority of Brazilians, it is necessary that each of us ask ourselves daily about our role, whether in the conservation or, mainly, in the transformation of these discriminatory structures and practices.

The persistence of structural racism in Brazilian society (which reproduces predominantly white wealth and predominantly black poverty, among many other harmful consequences) is based on the fallacy, already experienced by generations over the last century, that economic growth - or industrialization, urbanization, the return to democracy, universal public education, etc. – would bring equal benefits to blacks and whites in Brazil.

The first step in building an anti-racist attitude is to recognize ourselves as part of the problem, identifying and deconstructing racism both in everyday life, in our small and large attitudes, as well as in our convictions and expectations, in our projects for the country and for the future.

This attitude implies, on the part of whites who seek to have an anti-racist perspective, the denaturalization of discrimination and inequality. It is the permanent attitude of saying “this is not normal”. We need to use anti-racist lenses that allow us to scrutinize structural racism, present and reproduced, in spaces of power, in society, in politics, in the economic system, in the media, in education, in religious practices, etc. This perception, which is immediate on the part of black people in these spaces, often goes unnoticed. With our vision clouded by our privileges, we don't always realize what's been right in front of us, for a long time.

There is a demography of racism that is easily noticeable when we enter certain environments, mainly more exclusive and hierarchical ones. If we want to be anti-racist whites, it is up to us to find strange and repudiate this monotonous and almost monochromatic composition of spaces in the judiciary, the executive branch in its various instances, the National Congress, city councils and legislative assemblies. We must also find it strange and repudiate when we look at the private sector and other instances of public administration, where the same monochrome is repeated. In the media ditto.

The first step in the denaturalization of structural racism is followed, in my view, by our second necessary attitude: to seek ways through which these different structures and institutional spaces can be vigorously committed to the promotion of racial equality, or diversity, in the more “light” of these first decades of the 21st century.

Institutions are not immutable and impermeable spaces. If that were the case, we would not even be able to explain the adoption of affirmative action policies for access to universities in Brazil, adopted almost 20 years ago and expanded over time. Whoever, from my generation, was a student (probably white) at a public university in Brazil, certainly remembers living in a mostly, if not almost exclusively, white environment, in which the few black students were generally identified as foreigners. Among the professors, white monochrome also predominated. Until the end of the 1990s, Brazilian universities seemed to be part of a European country. In about 20 years, this scenario, with regard to students, was transformed, as a result of the struggles and demands of the black movement, which remain until today. A fight that started much earlier, but gained echo and became viable at that particular moment in the country.

These achievements were important, but not enough to bring about a more lasting and structuring transformation of the racist mechanisms that persist in Brazilian society and in our universities. Many shortcomings were and continue to be pointed out: are black students, beneficiaries of quotas, able to keep themselves financially at the university? Can they feel welcomed in our institutions? Do they have black teachers? Are they able to complete their courses and enter the job market? Or in graduate school?

And what about young black people who couldn't even finish high school and therefore can't even try to enter higher education? What about young black people who dropped out of school, who started working early, who suffered police violence, who died in violent actions?

And then we realized that the advances of the last 20 years were a small step. There remains a whole agenda of changes to be carried out. We realize that this effort demands much greater solidarity from whites who seek to be anti-racist with black Brazilians who struggle daily, in the most different ways, to be alive, to be present in all spaces, raise their voices and lead changes. We need to be together.

And what does it mean to be together? It means, on the one hand, recognizing the protagonism of blacks in their struggles, demands, mobilizations and proposals. On the other hand, it means recognizing yourself as part of the problem, of the reproduction of racism that happens in everyday life and in our structures, but also as part of the solution. It is necessary to be and act in an anti-racist way in everyday actions and, at the same time, in the construction of utopia.

We, as whites with an anti-racist perspective, need to convert to our historical responsibility, becoming agents of transformation and permanently incorporating strategies to achieve greater racial equality in Brazil. This is a democratic objective and, why not say revolutionary, in a country that repeatedly lives with crystallized patterns of racial inequality. Who knows, maybe at some point we will be able to talk about Brazil in a different way than Malcolm X referred to the USA in the 1960s (and which is still valid in 2020): “I don't see American democracy. What I see is American hypocrisy.”

*Rosana Heringer is a professor at the Faculty of Education at UFRJ.

Originally published on the portal Major Card [https://www.cartamaior.com.br/?/Editoria/Sociedade-e-Cultura/Qual-eo-papel-do-branco-na-luta-antirracista-/52/47934]

 

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