Katie Ann Huy
With Trump’s election failure and Biden’s upcoming inauguration, it seems all is well for Democrats across the country. That is, the White ones.
For many BIPOC across the U.S., Joe Biden’s administration represents a reality they know far too well. Between Biden’s controversial policies, such as the 1994 crime bill, and Harris’ history as a prosecutor, many worry that their administration paints a strikingly distinct image of the “White liberal.” In reference to northern liberalism among White people, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. describes this phenomena:
“Over the last few years, many Negroes have felt that their most troublesome adversary was not the obvious bigot of the Ku Klux Klan or the John Birch Society, but the White liberal who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice, who prefers tranquility to equality.”
Dr. King goes on to say, “The White liberal must see that the Negro needs not only love, but justice. It is not enough to say, ‘We love Negroes, we have many Negro friends.’ They must demand justice for Negroes. Love that does not satisfy justice is no love at all.”
White liberalism doesn’t just invade overtly political environments like the White House — it’s in our homes, our Twitter feeds, our friend groups. However, what really shocked me was that this ideology had even infiltrated the classroom.
I’d encountered forms of White liberalism before — sentiments of allyship and charity that looked more like attempts to be a “White savior.” I saw it in books and movies like The Help, Hidden Figures, and 12 Years a Slave. Perhaps not ill-intended, but prevalent nonetheless.
Though, I never expected to encounter such damaging ideology in academia, especially not among sociologists and historians. I had assumed that educated professors would never fall victim to their own biases, as they’d spent years practicing critical thinking and reasoning. However, I’ve found professors were as susceptible to blind spots as anyone else.
I’ve heard professors teaching institutional racism, but condemning Black Lives Matter protests, praising White democrats for progressive policies, all the while criticizing AOC. They have been calling their classrooms equitable, but refusing to offer extensions to students with extenuating circumstances. I’ve seen Sociology professors mistreating Black student athletes, historians undermining policy brutality, and even dismissing racism in their own classrooms. In one course, each time the discussion turned to discrimination against people of color, my White professor would quickly add, “LGBTQ communities and women too!” What they might’ve seen as an act of inclusion only served to undermine the experiences of students of color in the class.
During a discussion with a self-proclaimed liberal professor, I argued that loving people of color without institutional change would never bring real progress. She disagreed. She argued that love, in enough people, over enough time, would bring the justice marginalized communities deserved. I couldn’t help but wonder, “Then why are we still here?”
I’m shocked each time it happens — that someone I believe to be educated, intelligent, and fact-based, can so obviously miss the point. It’s mind-blowing that professors, even those who’ve studied in fields that acknowledge the presence of institutionalized racism, can be so blinded by their own identity. What I thought would give White professors understanding — their liberalism — may be exactly what blinds them. The freedom White liberals have to separate themselves from their ideology on racism is exactly what creates these blind spots. Since racism is an idea for the White liberal, rather than a lived experience, there becomes a gray area of instances that don’t fit perfectly into definitions — instances like inequity in a racially diverse school and how someone who loves BIPOC, marries BIPOC, or adopts BIPOC children can be equally as racist as a White supremacist.
So what happens when White liberalism infiltrates academia? It creates further inequities in student learning, undermines the experiences of BIPOC students, mistakes progress and justice with diversity, and, most importantly, shifts whose voice is heard. When White liberalism becomes synonymous with equality, it creates policies that promote diversity without justice — policies that push to hire and admit BIPOC employees and students without first creating a safe environment for them. It allows White administrators to feel proud of anti-racist programs or curricula, without realizing they’re only promoting White savior tropes. It’s how movies like The Help and Hidden Figures get deemed “progressive.”
Allies are needed. I don’t think any person of color would argue against that. However, when the voice of the White liberal becomes louder than any other, when mere diversity is meant to fix institutional oppression, when the experiences of BIPOC are undermined, we have to ask ourselves if allyship is doing more harm than good. We have to ask if academia, where we pride ourselves on critical thinking, reasoning, and reliance on facts, is mistaking prejudice for progress. It’s not enough to be diverse, to have BIPOC clubs, or even to have a Black woman as our college president. If we have love but no justice, then we have nothing.
Feature image: Sage Admahl / Quaker Campus