Is Freedom White? | Boston Review

My first impression on reading the title of this article, Is Freedom White, was puzzlement. How could a concept like freedom be associated with whiteness?

Intrigued, I read it and I urge you to read it, too. I learned that what I mean when I use the word “freedom” is subtly but significantly different from what some other people mean.

For me, at the simplest level, freedom is the ability to do what I want to do. But there’s a context that goes along with that: If I’m free to do something then all others are also free to do that thing, too. If I can do something that others aren’t allowed to do or are otherwise constrained from doing it then it’s my privilege, not my freedom.

Contrarywise, some people feel that if they can’t do something – even if it results in the oppression of other people – then their freedom is being denied and they are being oppressed.

This is where the “White” definition of freedom starts. It’s a sense of entitlement unconstrained by it’s deleterious effects on others. And, of course, this isn’t restricted to racialized oppression.

This has me wondering, though, if my definition of freedom isn’t more of a ideal. Maybe it’s a lofty though ultimately unattainable goal. Maybe we can’t have it in its purest form. We struggle toward freedom rather than reside in a state of freedom.

If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.

Attributed to Willa Watson (though she’s reluctant to accept sole credit for it)

I’m going to have to revisit this article occasionally.

“The killings are horrible but I don’t agree with the riots…”

I see quite a few people I know – and friends of people I know – expressing horror at the recent murders of Black people. It is and has been outrageous for years… decadescenturies. Unfortunately, some follow that outrage with some version of “… but I don’t agree with their methods/the property destruction/the rioting/etc.”

As recently as two or three years ago I would totally have agreed with them. However, after taking part in several anti-racism, anti-white-supremacy programs through my church plus the loving and firm guidance of several people of color, I respectfully – and strongly – disagree on several points:

1) I do not tell people of color or other marginalized groups how to feel about people or institutions who are oppressing them. I realize, now, that by siding with their oppressors I become one of their oppressors. In fact, by being white and not actively opposing that oppression, I participate in their oppression.

2) As a white person in this culture and nation, I do not know – and can never know – what it is like to be Black in America. The closest I can come is to listen to them, hear what they say, and believe them… and I still won’t know. Also, I know full well that there are many voices in the Black community and that few, if any, opinions will be shared by every one of them. Finding one Black person’s opinion that I agree with and telling other Black people that they should conform to that is racist.

3) Anything I say that implies that I will no longer support their otherwise-righteous cause if the resistance leads to destruction of property will be taken as me valuing property over lives.

4) When I fail to realize that any conflict may have more than two sides it is easy for me to think I know enough to make an informed opinion. However, I know that every narrative angle will oversimplify to some degree to support the view of that narrative. It behooves me to listen to the marginalized people instead of the powerful people.

This has not been easy work. It has been painful at times and almost always uncomfortable for me. I am trying to learn to exist in this discomfort. I feel that it allows me to sympathize – in a very watered-down way – with the existential discomfort that is an acute, daily reality for the Black, Indigenous, other people of color, and LGBTQ people in this world and the intersections of these identities.

I acknowledge that the wording of this post centers me and my feelings. Since I am not a person of color, this is problematic. My intended audience is other white people and I need them to know that they should take up this work and that they will also have feelings of some sort. The work needs to happen despite the discomfort of these feelings and I will support them on their journey.