Whites doing antiracism

Material Information

Whites doing antiracism : discourse, practice, emotion, and organizations
O'Brien, Eileen, 1972- ( Dissertant )
Feagin, Joe R. ( Thesis advisor )
Shehan, Constance L. ( Reviewer )
Burack, Cynthia ( Reviewer )
Gubrium, Jaber ( Reviewer )
Vera, Hernan ( Reviewer )
Place of Publication:
Gainesville, Fla.
University of Florida
Publication Date:
Physical Description:
viii, 180 p.


Subjects / Keywords:
African Americans ( jstor )
Approximation ( jstor )
Colors ( jstor )
Discourse ( jstor )
Guilt ( jstor )
Racism ( jstor )
Social activism ( jstor )
Social movements ( jstor )
White people ( jstor )
Women ( jstor )
Dissertations, Academic -- Sociology -- UF ( lcsh )
Sociology thesis, Ph. D ( lcsh )
government publication (state, provincial, terriorial, dependent) ( marcgt )
bibliography ( marcgt )
theses ( marcgt )
non-fiction ( marcgt )


In an effort to advance theory, pedagogy and activism which seeks to understand how racism can be combated, this study examines the lives and organizations of white antiracist activists. Through these data, it is argued that there are distinct types of antiracism, just as there are multiple ways of theorizing and practicing feminism. This study uses the methods of in-depth interviewing, archival analysis and participant observation to investigate the different ways whites do antiracism. The questions draw upon what little prior research has been done on the topic, as well as issues of concern to scholars, teachers, and activists alike. The first question asks what inspires or motivates white people to devote their lives to antiracist activism. The second question analyzes white antiracists' discourses about race, paying special attention to their orientation towards colorblind ideology. The third question examines what types of actions white antiracists practice, on both individual and institutional levels of change. The fourth question explores the range of emotions that are unique to the practice of antiracism, as opposed to other white states of awareness about race. Woven through this work is an ongoing question about how organizational structure and practice affects the answers to these research questions. The cognitive, emotional, and behavioral aspects of white antiracists' lives are all clearly shaped by the organizations to which they belong, resulting in interesting differences in the responses of those activists who were members of one of the two groups studied. The study concludes with implications of the findings for scholars, teachers and practitioners of antiracism, and suggestions for future scholarship in this under-explored area. ( , )
KEYWORDS: whites, antiracism, white antiracism, antiracist activism
Thesis (Ph. D.)--University of Florida, 1999.
Includes bibliographical references (p. 174-179).
General Note:
Title from first page of PDF file.
General Note:
Document formatted into pages; contains viii, 180 p.
General Note:
Statement of Responsibility:
by Eileen O'Brien.

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University of Florida
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University of Florida
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All applicable rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
Resource Identifier:
47680100 ( OCLC )
002456822 ( AlephBibNum )
AMG2153 ( NOTIS )


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This dissertation is dedicated to all those
who thought it was not my place to cross the color line,
and to all those whites, whether interviewed in this work or not, who knew that it was
their place to do work against racism wherever they found it.


First and foremost, I would like to extend my deepest gratitude to the white

antiracist activists all across the continent who gave their time to be interviewed by me

for this project. I especially thank those who opened their homes to me, sometimes

multiple times, and kept in touch with me on a regular basis. Their work and their lives

served as such an incredible inspiration to me, both personally and professionally, that I

cannot find enough words to express how much they have meant to me.

Second, I would like to thank everyone who has helped me academically,

especially my chair and mentor, Joe R. Feagin. By rescuing me from my former

institution, and being a living model that sociology could actually do good in the world,

he restored my faith in the field and helped launch what I hope will be a lifelong career in

activating sociology. I would like to thank my committee members as well, including

Connie Shehan, Cynthia Burack, Jaber Gubrium, and Hernan Vera. I appreciate all the

time they have given to help me become a better scholar. Kendal Broad also deserves

honorary committee status since her help and advice in getting me through the job search

process ended up being a major, nearly weekly, mentoring responsibility for her. I am

indebted to her for that. The administrative staff also recieves my utmost thanks,

including Janet Sjoblom, Mary Robinson, and Sheran Flowers for getting me through my

graduate career here. My deepest thanks for administrative help goes to Nadine Gillis

who was always there for last minute copying, conversation and a smile.

Finally, I would like to thank the friends and family who made sure my entire

personhood was nourished while working on this academic endeavor. This includes my

partner, Amanda Stronczek, and her family, Rich, Rita and Paulette Stronczek. I would

also like to thank my sister, Kerry O'Brien; my mother, Jean Kelly; my father and other-

mother, Michael and Shari O'Brien; and my aunt, Anne Batten, for all being there with

their support and encouragement. Diesel the cat also deserves much appreciation for

warming my lap throughout the writing of most of these chapters and soothing my nerves

with his purring. Occasional weekend getaways and weekly Scrabble games were so

important in not letting academia go to my head, and I have Amanda as well as Naima

Brown Smith, Lara Foley, and Karyn McKinney to thank for that.

My thanks and love go to everyone named here, and to anyone else I forgot. When

I get this diploma, it should not just include my name, but all of these names I mentioned

who each helped in their own way to make my life a liveable place.



A C K N O W L E D G M E N T S .............................................................................................. iii

A B STRA CT ............. ........................................................................................ vii


1 IN T R O D U C T IO N ................. .................................... .............. .. ............

L literature on W hite A ntiracists.......................................................................... ...... 4
Social M ovem ent L iterature........................................................................... ....... 8
Em otions--The M missing Link...................... .... ................. ................. ............... 12
Purpose of the Study ............... ......................... ............. .. ........ ........ 15
S u m m a ry ................................................................................................................. 1 7

2 M E T H O D S ...................... .. ............. .. .....................................................19

D defining W white A ntiracists..................................................... ............................. 20
Interplay Between Theory, Methods, and Me--A Chronology.................................21
S u m m a ry ................................................................................................................. 3 7

3 BIRTH OF AN AN TIRA CIST.......................................................... ............... 39

Networks and Antiracism--Social Movement Contribution................. ........... 42
Approximating Experiences--Race Relations Contribution............... .... ..............43
Narrative Linkages--New Contributions to Antiracism ........... ....... ...............46
Organizational Networks and Approximations--Analysis of Existing Frameworks....47
"Planting the Seed"--N narrative Linkages................................... ....................... 55
Summary............................... ...... ...... ............. 63

4 ANTIRACIST DISCOURSE ABOUT RACE..........................................................67

Literature on Colorblind Discourse............................................. ................... 69
Literature on Colorblindness and W hite Antiracists................................................. 72
What's Wrong With Being Colorblind?....................................................................74

C olorblind A ntiracists?......................................... ........................................... 80
Organizational Influences on Discourse........................... .......................... ..... 86
Summary............................... ...... ...... ............. 93


In div idu al A ntiracism ........................................................................ ................ .. 9 9
Institutional A ntiracism ...................................................... ............. ............... 108
Building A M ovem ent--Organizational W ork...........................................................115
S u m m ary ....................................................................... . 1 1 8

6 FEELING ANTIRACISM: EMOTIONS AT WORK..................................... 121

E m options of B ecom ing A w are......................................................... ..................... 124
Taking Responsibility--Emotions of the Actualized Antiracist ..............................131
Organizational Supports for Facing Emotional Challenges.................. .......... 136
S u m m ary ....................................................................... . 14 1

P R A X IS .......................................................................................14 4

C during H historical A m nesia............................................ ....................................... 144
E extended C ase M ethod............................................................................ ..............147
Organizational Influences on W hite Antiracism ....................................................... 159
A areas of Future R esearch........... ............................................... ............... 167


A IN TER V IEW G U ID E ......... .................... ............. ..................... ............... 170

B LIST OF RESPOND EN TS.............................................. ............................ 172

REFEREN CES ........... .................. .... ......... .................... .. 174

BIO GRAPH ICAL SK ETCH ................................................. .............................. 180

Abstract of Dissertation Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfilment of the
Requirements for Degree of Doctor of Philosophy



Eileen O'Brien

May 1999

Chairperson: Joe R. Feagin
Major Department: Sociology

In an effort to advance theory, pedagogy and activism which seeks to understand

how racism can be combated, this study examines the lives and organizations of white

antiracist activists. Through these data, it is argued that there are distinct types of

antiracism, just as there are multiple ways of theorizing and practicing feminism.

This study uses the methods of in-depth interviewing, archival analysis and

participant observation to investigate the different ways whites do antiracism. The

questions draw upon what little prior research has been done on the topic, as well as

issues of concern to scholars, teachers, and activists alike. The first question asks what

inspires or motivates white people to devote their lives to antiracist activism. The second

question analyzes white antiracists' discourses about race, paying special attention to their

orientation towards colorblind ideology. The third question examines what types of

actions white antiracists practice, on both individual and institutional levels of change.

The fourth question explores the range of emotions that are unique to the practice of

antiracism, as opposed to other white states of awareness about race. Woven through this

work is an ongoing question about how organizational structure and practice affects the

answers to these research questions. The cognitive, emotional, and behavioral aspects of

white antiracists' lives are all clearly shaped by the organizations to which they belong,

resulting in interesting differences in the responses of those activists who were members

of one of the two groups studied.

The study concludes with implications of the findings for scholars, teachers and

practitioners of antiracism, and suggestions for future scholarship in this under-explored



Malcolm [X] gave a speech and a white woman went up to him afterwards
and said, "I really loved your speech and I loved what you said and I agree
with what you believe and I want to help. How can I help? What can I
do?" And he looked at her and said, "nothing!" and walked away. And
then, years later, was self-critical in the way that real revolutionaries are--
sincere and blunt towards yourself like you would be towards someone
else--and said, "I'm not proud of that answer. I should have talked to her
about working in the white community." . .The problem exists among
white people (Steve, white antiracist)

Somehow, we must develop in this nation a large group of white anti-
racists who fight aggressively against the racism they encounter in their
daily lives (Feagin 1997:43).

Luckily, there are individual non-black people who have divested of their
racism. .. .We have yet to have a significant body of writing from these
individuals that gives expression to how they have shifted attitudes and
daily vigilantly resist becoming reinvested in white supremacy (hooks

Racism is the "r-word" that many white Americans do not want to confront.

When they do accept the assertion that there are racial problems in America, a blame-the

victim approach which suggests that people of color are responsible often prevails

(Feagin 1997). White racism, or even just the word racism, is not often found in public

policy discussions of "race relations." Even the White House's extensive web

page/official statement of the President's Initiative on Race is no exception to this pattern

(One America 1997). For the much smaller segment of white America who do see a


problem called white racism, the initial response is often despair. Because "one of the

consequences of racism in our society is that those who oppose it are often marginalized"

(Tatum 1994:473), we do not often hear of solutions for racism in which whites can

participate. There is a dire need to break this silence and transform despair into action.

To research and write about white antiracist activists is to break this silence, and

in doing so, to make multiple contributions to both the scholarly and general

communities. In the first place, those within the activist community are vocal about the

historical amnesia with respect to white antiracists throughout time, and the difficulty this

creates for making change. Becky Thompson, co-authoring with activist group White

Women Challenging Racism, pointed out that few people can name even five white

antiracists throughout history and that this historical amnesia means that "few white

people have role models or ways of knowing what has worked before--and not"

(Thompson and White Women Challenging Racism 1997:354). The historical amnesia

not only makes it difficult for current white antiracists to know what to do, but it also

forestalls the potential for more white people to join in the struggle. When learning about

racism means that white racism is to blame for the evil, it makes it difficult for whites to

retain a positive self-definition, especially when there are no alternative models widely

available of how to be white and simultaneously be an agent for positive change. Beverly

Daniel Tatum has written that this lack of published material on white antiracists presents

a stumbling block in her college courses on racism:

Do they [the students] know about white allies who spoke up, who worked
for social change, who resisted racism and lived to tell about it? How did
these white allies break free from the confines of the racist socialization

they surely experienced to redefine themselves in this way? These are the
voices that many white students are hungry to hear (Tatum 1994:472).

In an academic setting, Tatum invites white antiracist guest speakers to make up for this

dearth of written material, which she argues is essential for the "restoration of hope" and

displacement of despair, for students of color and whites alike. Knowledge about white

antiracists is necessary for members of the activist and academic community interested in

ending racism, yet this knowledge remains few and far between.

Furthermore, beyond the activist and academic communities, workplaces all over

the country have begun to offer diversity, sensitivity, or multicultural training as part of

their efforts to tolerate or appreciate their increasingly diverse staff and clientele. These

are often geared towards helping whites understand people of color, since many whites

have never come into contact with people of color through most of their upbringing. To

bring about this kind of change in the white mind, what does it take? What initiated that

change for white antiracist activists, and how is that sustained for them in their daily

lives? Understanding this can be a key piece of information to have for people who

design these diversity training, if they are interested in lasting change. As the United

States steadily changes demographically toward the time when whites will be in the

minority, improving the effectiveness of these programs will become increasingly

important, not just for a token few. Understanding whites who have not only come to

understand racism but who are vocal and active about changing it will help us to

understand how to better structure these "diversity" training. Thus, the importance of this


research reaches beyond the academic world and the activist culture to the larger national


The main concern of this research is to develop an understanding of how whites

do antiracism. Across several different themes, it will be argued that there are multiple

ways of doing antiracism for whites. Although it is widely acknowledged that there are

multiple types of feminisms (e.g., liberal, radical), we do not have the same understanding

of antiracism, even though racism and sexism are often compared as similar oppressions.

In this particular study, it will become clear that the antiracist organizations to which

white antiracist activists belong are an important part of the variation among ways of

doing antiracism. Anti-Racist Action (ARA) and the People's Institute for Survival and

Beyond (PI) are the two central organizations in this study, and they will be explained in

detail in Chapter Two. Yet even where organizations are not a part of white antiracists'

identities, there continue to be varieties of ways in which antiracism is done among them.

This will be the first time in which such an empirically grounded argument is made about


Literature on White Antiracists

Although scholarship on white antiracists has both academic and practical

importance, there is no published empirical investigation which focuses solely on

contemporary white antiracists. Herbert Aptheker's (1992) one-of-a-kind historical

review of the first 200 years of antiracism in the United States is a powerful testament to

the fact that whites have always been involved in black liberation struggles, but this work

stops just short of the civil rights movement. Thus, most of the white antiracists about

whom Aptheker wrote are no longer living. Furthermore, given that it is a historical text,

little sociological analysis was done with respect to what implications the research might

have for race relations or social movements. Although Aptheker did note that the white

antiracists in his book tended to be female, lower class and tended to have had significant

social connections with African Americans, he did not theorize on why that might be the

case and avoided too much generalization across these historical figures' experiences

and/or ideas. While this book does indeed attempt to rectify the "historical amnesia" that

activists and academics describe, it does not provide much on how whites can and do

confront the racism of the civil rights and post civil rights eras. Given that the dynamics

of race relations have changed considerably during both of those periods, more recent

information is indeed necessary.

A small handful of race relations scholars have done some preliminary work on

white antiracists. Eichstedt's (1997) study focused on how white antiracist women

conceptualized race as well as what initially got them involved in antiracism. Having

experienced "abuses of power" allowed these women to empathize with people of color

even though they were white themselves. They had encountered such experiences by

virtue of being lesbian, Jewish, or having been a victim of rape or incest in their lives.

Eichstedt also pointed out that her respondents were self-critical and diligently working

on "their own racism" as well as that of others and in society.

Frankenberg (1993) shared Eichstedt's interest in white women, but interviewed

very few antiracists. Since Frankenberg's focus was the diversity of white discourses on

race, an antiracist outlook was just one of many possibilities examined in her book.

However, her discourse analysis provides an interesting framework with which to

understand how whites can shift in their conceptualizations of race over time, moving to

antiracist thinking as a final point on the continuum. She named three discourses about

race that whites use: essentialist, color and power evasive, and race cognizance.

Essentialist discourse posits whites as superior and people of color as inferior in a

naturalizing manner. Color and power evasive discourse is what Frankenberg described

as the dominant mode of thinking about race in the United States, avoiding race and the

way our society is structured by race (giving some more power than others.) Race

cognizance is a race-conscious and power-conscious discourse that problematizes racial

hierarchies and takes an antiracist stance. Frankenberg found that white women who

identified as antiracist described moving out of color and power evasiveness and into race

cognizance as part of their transformation to being antiracist. Like Eichstedt, she found

that lesbian and Jewish white women tended to be "race cognizant," as well as those who

had partners or children of color. She also noted that these were not the only experiences

that helped white women embrace race cognizant discourse, citing family members,

college campuses and feminist networks as other influences (Frankenberg 1993:135.)

Although Frankenberg's study did not go beyond the realm of discourse, it provides a

useful window into how the racial theorizing of white antiracists differs from that of other

whites who are not antiracist.

Similarly, Feagin and Vera's (1995) work investigates various incidents and forms

of white racism, saving the mention of white antiracists until the end of the book as a

hopeful alternative. Like Frankenberg, they acknowledged that antiracism was not the

predominant discourse among white Americans, but were interested in how whites can

shift their thinking about race to develop an antiracist consciousness. They focused on

empathy as a key necessity for white people in understanding racial oppression: "An

important step in securing everyday equality for African Americans will be for whites to

develop the ability to empathize with African Americans as equal human beings" (Feagin

and Vera 1995:190). Citing research done by Feagin's graduate students (Hogan and

Netzer,) Feagin and Vera discussed different ways whites develop empathy with people

of color, called "approximating experiences" (1995:175-6). Another graduate student

whose research appears in the chapter on antiracism, Holly Hanson, looked into the

attitudes of white antiracists. Concurring with both Eichstedt and Frankenberg, Hanson

found that white antiracists were "deeply aware of their own and others' racism," a mind

set that set them in contrast to the larger white American population (Feagin and Vera

1995:181). Feagin and Vera's own focus groups with white antiracists also supported

this finding. With respect to the actions of white antiracists, Hanson's study

demonstrated that they are willing to take risks, citing a woman who challenged her

boss's racism as an example (Feagin and Vera 1995:183).

Although the empirical study of contemporary white antiracists is modest, the

work that has been done has some consistencies in the type of research questions being

investigated. One question of unanimous interest across the work reviewed here is: How

do whites become antiracist? These authors have been concerned with uncovering

commonalities across white antiracists in terms of their influences, whether these are in

terms of social statuses (female, Jewish, lesbian) or experiences (interracial relationship,

rape/incest.) A second question also shared across some of this work is: What is the

ideological perspective on race that white antiracists hold, and how does it contrast with

that of the general white population? A central assumption inherent in this question is

that white antiracists must break with the dominant culture's thinking about race in order

to be antiracist. A third question which received much less attention, but appeared

nonetheless, is: What are the actions and practices of white antiracists? Again, this

question suggests that white antiracists deal with racism in a way that sets them apart

from the larger white collective. These scholars have raised some important questions

about white antiracists that fit into the larger context of race relations theory, especially

that which focuses on how current racial inequalities can be attacked and minimized.

They are questions which need to be asked of a larger and more diverse sample of

contemporary white antiracists in order to develop more definitive answers.

Social Movement Literature

Although social movements scholars have not investigated contemporary white

antiracist activists specifically, some of their analyses of the civil rights movement of the

1950s and 1960s can shed some light on how activists mobilize and how they develop

interpretive frames of the social problem which they are protesting. McAdam's (1988)

work on the civil rights action of Freedom Summer, an intense voter registration drive in

the South in the summer of 1964, focused on a time in which the highest participation by

whites (mainly students) occurred. He found three main similarities among the majority

of whites who participated. Those who had organizational affiliations (i.e., church

groups, civic groups), those who had done other activist things already, and those who

had activist friends/networks were more likely to participate than those who did not.

Further, several of the white students saw it as their moral duty to do civil rights work,

and linked it to their obligation as a democratic citizen or as a faithful Christian. More

recent work by Platt and Fraser (1998), which analyzes letters written to Dr. Martin

Luther King Jr. during the 1960s, also found this pattern particularly among the white

letter writers. They created[] solidarity with the movement by identifying with its

principles and with its religious and nonviolent doctrine" (p. 170). The whites often cited

their commitment to democratic principles as a reason for their support, which contrasted

from the nonwhite letter writers, who had been affected by racism directly and drew upon

those experiences when writing. Platt and Fraser's work points out that within the same

movement, individuals can frame what the important issues are differently depending on

their social location.

Collective action "frames" have been particularly popular in recent social

movements work (e.g., Johnston and Klandermans 1995; Larana, Johnston and Gusfield

1994). Originally proposed by Snow and Benford (Snow and Benford 1992; Hunt,

Benford and Snow 1994), framing basically refers to how movement actors develop

shared understandings of what their goals are and how to achieve them. The concept is

an attempt at incorporating interpretive sociology into social movement theory, a

response to its previously highly structural focus (Johnston and Klandermans 1995).

Methodologically, this is often best accomplished via narrative analysis. For example, in

Gary Alan Fine's (1995) work with a group called VOCAL (Victims of Child Abuse

Laws), he explained that a social movement can best be conceptualized as a "bundle of

narratives," and that narrative itself can be seen as "a technique by which bonds are

cemented within a social movement organization" (p. 128). Members frame their reasons

and motivations for joining a movement by telling stories. In VOCAL's case, these were

"horror stories," "war stories," and "happy endings" (p. 135). This narrative framing

becomes part of a shared organizational culture which is drawn upon regularly by

movement members.

In more recent work, again looking at the civil rights movement of the 1960s,

Polletta (1998) argued that narrative analysis of involved actors posed some challenge to

structural assertions. Although the more structural resource-mobilization theorists argued

that civil rights activity was hardly spontaneous and was the product of careful

organization, those who participated in lunch counter sit-ins framed their activity as

indeed spontaneous. In her analysis of essays, speeches, and personal correspondence,

Polletta found that those students who participated in the sit-ins saw themselves as part of

a radical break with the adult leaders of the movement which, although spontaneous, was

not unplanned (1998:138). Polletta concluded that "although the sit-ins and the groups

they galvanized were not without prior organizational affiliation, their narrative

construction as spontaneous was central to an emerging collective identity" (1998: 153).

What this research illustrates is that actors' framing of their social movement

participation, available through narrative analysis, is of central importance to

understanding not only what initially mobilizes participation, but of what is the meaning

of the movement itself.

This social movement work described above, although varied, holds some

significant messages for the study of white antiracists. Although race relations scholars

have asked what motivates them, how do they cognitively understand the problem of

racism, and what actions do they take, social movements scholars tell us that these

answers will not only be individual responses, but will be reflections of a larger

movement, or movement organization. McAdam (1988) found that personal motivation

to start civil rights activism was affected by ties to larger groups, whether they were

networks of friends or activist organizations. Platt and Fraser (1998) added that one's

understanding of a movement and its goals will also be embedded in one's social

location. Fine (1995) found that motivations forjoining and shared definitions of

movement goals are shaped by organizational culture, built in part by narrative. These

findings, collectively, address both motivational and diagnostic framing, as defined by

Hunt, Benford and Snow (1994). Social movement actors frame (1) what motivates them

to join a movement and (2) what exactly the problem is within the context of collective

action frames. Thus, responses of white antiracists should be seen not only as reflections

of individual experience, but as products of the interpretive events of framing. Both how

antiracism is framed within the culture at large and how it is framed by individual

antiracist organizations should have a prominent impact on how antiracists describe their

ideas and experiences. Race relations literature about white antiracists has not taken such

organizational effects into consideration.

Emotions--The Missing Link

Now that I have reviewed the literature on white antiracists as well as that which

was relevant from social movement literature, I turn now to an area of race relations

which is rarely explored, either in the context of antiracism or anywhere else. This is the

topic of emotions. While racism has been fairly consistently characterized in the past few

decades as involving both attitudinal (prejudice) and behavioral (discrimination)

components, seldom do social scientists consider a separate emotional component of

racism. As Feagin (1997) pointed out, whites' responses about their resistance to

interracial marriage display emotions which are often distinct from more reasoned out

cognitive attitudes about race. Feagin reported that public opinions that blacks have

"gone too far" also denote affect rather than cognition: "Given the lack of civil rights

enforcement efforts in recent years, the white answers here suggest an emotional

response, perhaps conditioned by statements of conservative white analysts and political

leaders in the media, rather than a response built on reasoning about actual events in the

United States" (Feagin 1997:32). Although racism appears to have a lasting stronghold

on white Americans' emotions, few have interrogated this deeply in social science


If we accept racism as a part of our everyday conditioning in society, which begins

from at least the point at which we can talk (Feagin and Van Ausdale 1996) and maybe

sooner, it is likely that engagement with antiracism for whites represents a striking and

emotional upheaval from everything that had been learned up until that point. For one

"recovering racist," this meant she spent nights awake crying, realizing she was the very

thing she was fighting against (Duarte, unpublished). The only scholars to really delve

into this realm of racism have been psychologists. Janet E. Helms (1990) developed a

theory of racial identity which applies to blacks as well as whites, and her colleagues have

put the theory to use attempting to understand the stages whites go through when moving

from general ignorance about race to an antiracist perspective (Jones and Carter 1996;

Tatum 1992, 1994). Proponents of this theory argue that when white students begin to

learn about racism, it is common and even normal for them to experience feelings of

discomfort, anxiety, anger, guilt, and defensiveness.

Helms' theory involves six stages. The first three (Contact, Disintengration,

Reintegration) represent those who are in some sort of ignorance about racism, either due

to lack of exposure or limited exposure without real understanding. The second three

(Pseudo-Independence, Immersion-Emersion, Autonomy) represent a journey "toward a

nonracist white identity" (Jones and Carter 1996:7) where one moves from

acknowledging white privilege, but viewing one's whiteness as an obstacle to racial

progress, to a positive antiracist white identity. These stages bear some similarities to

Frankenberg's three discourses about race, in that they chronicle a series of ways of

conceptualizing race, moving from less to more informed. However, those who have

done empirical research using Helms' model also have identified some emotions that go

with the cognitive processes. For example, Tatum's (1994) journal data from students in

a "Psychology of Racism" course show how some students move from emotions such as

shame and guilt about being white to pride and excitement at being able to affect social

change. Not unlike most stage theorists, these psychologists stress that there is not

necessarily a linear path through the stages, but there is an implicit (if not explicit)

message that the most well-adjusted white antiracist has arrived when s/he reaches the

last stage (Autonomy.)

Since, like Frankenberg, these scholars have considered white antiracists as the

end of a continuum of a wide range of thoughts and emotions on race, this project will

delve more deeply and specifically into the emotions of white antiracists only. I share in

common with these researchers the goal of understanding the emotional processes that go

along with the transformation to antiracism, but additionally I am concerned with the

emotional work that a well-adjusted (Autonomous) antiracist does on a daily basis. Thus,

I take the Autonomous white antiracist not as a mission-accomplished, but as a work-in-

progress. Not only do I expect whites to experience some emotional struggle when first

becoming antiracist, but I also expect it to be an ongoing struggle which is perhaps even

lifelong, as they negotiate a position where it is extremely unpopular for whites to be. It

is surprising that the scholars cited in this section have simply described the emotions of

Autonomous antiracists as well-adjusted and happy, without taking into consideration the

myriad of emotions that might continue throughout an Autonomous antiracist's life.

Focusing on the latter here will be a contribution both to the literature on emotions of

race, and to the activists who certainly have a need to see their struggles normalized in

some way. By paying attention to the narratives of white antiracists about the emotions

that they experience, I will expand the social-psychological discussion of racial identity

and emotional work for whites.

Purpose of The Study

With this study, I intend to contribute in a meaningful way to our understandings

of white antiracists and their activist lives. Answering the call from academics and

activists alike, this research will explore the different ways whites have faced up to the

existence of racism and committed themselves to the struggle to end it. One layer of the

project is simply to tell the stories of how whites become antiracist activists and what

they do as their lives' work. Gubrium and Holstein (1997) would characterize this as

naturalistic qualitative work, or research that is concerned more with the "whats" of

analysis, rather than the howss" or the "whys." This means the activists will be able to

tell their stories in their own voices, and that alone is a contribution, both academically

and practically.

Yet another layer of this study will go beyond reporting and categorizing to

exploring existing theoretical propositions. Burawoy has called this the extended case

method (1991). Although the details of this as a method will be explored more in the

next chapter, it is important to note that the explanations I reviewed here--of what helps

whites develop empathy with people of color, and how whites transform their cognitive

understanding of race when becoming antiracist--become empirical questions to be tested

with the data I have collected. An additional tenet of the extended case method is it

allows us to amend existing theoretical frameworks based on empirical evidence. In this

particular case, where existing theoretical frameworks on white antiracists' actions and

emotions are nearly nonexistent, the data here will help us to make sense of the affective

and active dimensions of these whites' lives and practices.

The central research questions can be summarized as follows:

(1) What sparks/motivates/encourages whites to become antiracist


(2) Is there a cognitive understanding of racism that distinguishes white

antiracists from other whites?

(3) How do white antiracists practice antiracism? What are their actions?

(4) Is there an emotional component of antiracism for whites? What does

it look like?

The above questions were arrived upon based on my review of the literature and my data

on white antiracism. The answers to these questions will be attained using existing

theoretical concepts as well as by modifying existing frameworks based on the

information obtained. This means that I will analyze the data for points at which the

respondents refer to existing theroetical concepts or ideas similar to such theoretical

concepts. Additionally, where respondents tell stories and make linkages that challenge

existing theoretical ideas, or pose additional possibilities not accounted for by those

theories, I will report those as well, suggesting ways that those frameworks can be

modified and enhanced by these findings.

A third and final layer of this study, which will be interwoven throughout the

various research questions, is informed by social movement literature which gives

attention to how individual understandings are shaped by collective actions frames. To

this end, the four research questions as described above will be addressed with a

recognition that one's membership in a larger social collective, as well as one's


membership in a particular antiracist organization (where applicable) can have a profound

effect on how one frames one's individual answer. In the following chapter, it will be

noted what proportion of the sample had organizational affiliations, as well as what types

of organizations are represented. These organizational ties will be an important part of

each research question above, making them an integral part of the study. They are a key

factor in explaining the different ways whites do antiracism.


The intentions of this research on white antiracist activists are thus threefold.

First, it will be part of the effort to alleviate the historical amnesia about white antiracists.

This will be done by reporting their stories about what they do and how they have gotten

to this point. Such information will be a necessary part of academic courses on racism,

instilling hope in students, as well as an inspiration and model for other antiracists. This

naturalistic reporting also will indeed fill a gap in the academic research about the topic.

A second goal is to test and modify existing theoretical frameworks which have been

used by the few researchers that have investigated white antiracists. This includes

considering whether empathy developed via approximating experiences is the main way

that whites become antiracist (Feagin and Vera 1995), whether race cognizance is the way

white antiracists conceptualize race, and other theoretical propositions which have yet to

be applied in the context of a larger, more gender-diverse sample. The third purpose of

the study is to determine how social movement culture affects the answers to the research

questions. This branch of the study can serve as an evaluation tool of antiracist

organizations, to help us understand how to structure organizations depending on one's


desired goal. It also will speak to the broader sociological point that personal

responses/narratives are very much situated in a larger cultural context. Here I am

referring not only to white American culture but to the specific culture of the activist

groups as well. To explain more in depth the specific antiracist organizations represented

in the study, I turn now to the chapter on methodology.


"I, for one, feel most satisfied by a stance that acknowledges the
researcher's position right up front, and that does not think of objectivity
and subjectivity as warring with each other, but rather as serving each
other. I have feminist distrust for research reports that include no
statement about the researcher's experience. Reading such reports, I feel
that the researcher is hiding from me or does not know how important
personal experience is. Such reports seem woefully incomplete and even
dishonest" (Reinharz 1992:263).

"If technique is concerned with the instruments and strategies of data
collection, then methodology is concerned with the reciprocal relationship
between data and theory" (Burawoy 1991:271).

As the opening quotes would suggest, the methodology for this project is not only

technical but theoretical, and incorporates my own position as the researcher as well.

Going into the project attempting to apply and enhance existing theory determined the

questions that were asked and thus answered. Going into the project identifying as a

white antiracist had definite implications for the study as well as for myself personally.

In the following chapter I will outline the interplay between theory and methods in the

study, as well as how my own relationship to the subject matter affected the project and in

turn, how the project affected me.

Defining White Antiracists

The rationale for any research project is often to fill gaps in the literature about a

topic. This was certainly the case for the topic of white antiracists. As noted in the first

chapter, the study of "race" itself usually means a focus on "minorities," and therefore if

we are concerned with antiracism, the expectation is often on people of color to tell us

what to do about it. This is one reason why white antiracists have gotten little attention.

Concurring with several experts on race (from Malcolm X to Joe Feagin) that racism is a

white problem that entails a white solution, I turned to white antiracist activists as a

source for this solution-oriented information. This would add to the literature, both about

what whites can do about racism and what they, in fact, are doing about racism.

Yet I wanted to have a very specific definition of who a white antiracist would be.

In a culture where "I'm not a racist" rolls off the tongues of all sorts of individuals

(Bonilla-Silva, Forman and Padin 1997), it was important to weed out those who

professed their disdain for racism out of "political correctness" from those who were

actively antiracist in their orientation and practice. The definition of "antiracist" I used

for the purposes of this project borrows from bell hooks--someone who "daily vigilantly

resist(s) becoming reinvested in white supremacy" (hooks 1995:157-8). This sets

antiracists apart from the "new racists" who might say "I am not a racist" but who do

little to acknowledge everyday racism or to actively work against it. In fact, these new

racists practice racism covertly, sometimes without even knowing it. This also

distinguishes them from "nonracists"--in Barndt's words, "Nonracists try to deny that the

prison exists. Antiracists work for the prison's eventual destruction" (1991:65). I made

potential respondents aware of this working definition and allowed them to decide

whether or not they self-defined as antiracist within this framework. The gathering of

those respondents and the data collection process that followed is chronicled in the next


Interplay Between Theory, Methods, And Me--A Chronology

Although there is a general canon-like idea in sociology that one progresses neatly

from literature review to research questions to data collection and analysis, several

contemporary methodologists agree that the process is more of a "spiraling rather than

linear in its progression" (Berg 1995:16; see also Holstein and Gubrium 1995; Reinharz

1992). I began with a literature review which helped me write an interview guide, yet the

bigger and more diverse my sample became and analysis begun, the more research

questions came about, and the more purposive my sample became. The end result was a

purposive snowball sample of 22 white antiracists activists. This included twelve women

and ten men, representing several different cities around the country, including several

representatives of two different antiracist organizations as well as non-organizationally

affiliated individuals. The data gathered from encountering these individuals ranged from

interviews to written correspondence and participant observation at events and

workshops. Yet this final result of data obscures and conceals much spiraling indeed. It

will make the most sense to the reader for me to trace the process of data collection

chronologically; additionally, this will be the most honest way to do it, so that the

research questions do not appear in the beginning simultaneously, as if I came up with

them all at the same time.

Finding Respondents

After a literature review about white antiracists, I came up with an open-ended,

flexible interview guide which would ask the respondents questions about how they

became antiracist, about all the actions they took (including successes, failures, and

challenges--later to become emotional challenges), as well as what their ideology on race

was. I then began a purposive sampling strategy in my hometown. Purposive sampling

involves selecting respondents on the basis of particular characteristics (Berg 1995)--in

my case, I was selecting those who fit the "white antiracist" definition set forth in the

previous section. I was also trying to get an even number of men and women, since the

literature review revealed a disproportionate concentration on women, upon which the

few theories are based. I interviewed one female antiracist whom I knew, as somewhat of

a pilot, and then located two more in the community (one male, one female) through a

local grassroots activist center. Using this type of central informant to direct the

interviewer is known as snowballing (Berg 1995), and this strategy would be continued to

be used throughout the project.

For my next set of interviews, I traveled to a city where I had formerly lived,

where a friend got me in touch with Steve (this name and all others are pseudonyms), the

key organizer for Anti-Racist Action (ARA). It turned out that the organization was run

out of his apartment building. While I was in town, he scheduled four other interviews for

me, and I interviewed him as well. Steve used his own purposive sampling when he

scheduled the interviews for me--he wanted to give me a good age range, different lengths

of time that people had been with the group, and both genders. He subsequently got me

into contact with several other ARA chapters nationally, whenever I indicated that I

would be traveling to a particular area.

Snowballing often means that a key informant will vouch for the researcher's

credibility (Berg 1995). I soon learned the value of key informants the first time I tried to

contact another ARA chapter on my own, without Steve's help. Even though my letter

included a very formal introduction about my research, my qualifications, and even a self-

addressed stamped envelope for their use, no one from this chapter contacted me for some

time. The next time I spoke with Steve, he said that some people from this chapter told

him that "some lady" wrote them wanting to interview them about something. Once he

realized that they had received the letter from me, he assured them that I was "OK," being

an antiracist myself. Steve knew this because after my interview with him (which was

taped only after two very long conversations off the record), he asked me, "so what's your

story?" This turned out to be a very popular question for many respondents. Steve and I

remain in periodic contact. Because of our rapport, he invited me to a tabling

(recruitment) event when he traveled to my hometown for a band benefit. I got to work

the table with him, passing out ARA literature and information, and getting to observe

how he introduced people to the group and its mission. At this point, the study became

more than just a collection of interviews, but included a participant observation

component as well. Reinharz's (1992) survey of feminist methods notes that researchers

often realize the need for multiple methods during the course of a project, and thus decide

to incorporate them much like I did.

On yet another visit to a different town, I was able to locate one antiracist

educator, although due to harsh weather conditions we did not complete the actual

interview until I was back home (this was recorded via telephone.) This was the only

respondent I have not yet met face to face, since she has since moved to a place I do not

visit as often. However, she was instrumental in connecting me with another group, the

People's Institute for Survival and Beyond (PI). When I told her I would be visiting New

Orleans, where the group is located, she gave me their phone number and encouraged me

to get in touch with them. Although I was only able to meet two more respondents there

(who I interviewed in one sitting), one of these respondents put me in touch with a

veteran organizer for the group, Paul, who turned out to be another key informant for me

for the PI group. He first seemed tentative and asked for a statement about my research,

in which I included my personal identification as an antiracist. After receiving this

statement, Paul not only set up a rigorous schedule of interviews for me, but insisted on

providing me with rides to and from the bus station, and a place to stay in the guest room

of his own apartment in the French Quarter. He too did his own purposive sampling,

providing me with both gender and age diversity, as well as new and more seasoned

antiracists. Paul and I continued to correspond, and the written correspondence I had with

Paul (as well as that I had with Steve) became a part of the data for the project as well.

Additionally, when over a year later I was finally able to attend PI's Undoing Racism

workshop, participant observation at this event also became a part of the data.

The gathering of the data thus involved several themes. First, snowballing and

use of key informants was especially important. I ended up with a diverse sample of

white antiracists--twelve women and ten men from large cities (including New Orleans,

Toronto, New York, and Columbus) as well as smaller cities (Gainesville FL,

Northampton MA, and Fargo ND.) Second, what was originally intended as an interview

project became one of multiple methods. This included written correspondence,

attendance at a workshop, participation in an organization's tabling (recruitment) effort,

and even simply observing the homes of key informants and organizers. Third, my own

self disclosure and identification as a white antiracist activist became necessary to the

project and enhanced rapport with respondents. In other words, once other white

antiracists knew I was as heartfelt about their goal of ending racism as they were, they

were much more willing to interact with me and extend me every hospitality possible.

Although I should have been compensating them for their time, it ended up that I received

most of the compensation--from food and shelter to the gift of a CD. But most

importantly, I received the gift of their time as I interviewed them. I begin with the

specifics of the interview itself in the following section.

The Interview(s)

As with locating respondents, the actual interview was also a collaborative and

innovative process. The interview guide went from being less specific to more specific as

time went on, and the process of interviewing became more dialectic as time went on.

This happened as I began to learn more about interviewing and about qualitative methods

in general. It also happened as I began to analyze the data, so that I not only begun to

have more specific questions to ask, but I also had prior data to serve as conversation

starters for subsequent respondents.

As mentioned in the previous section, "what's your story?" was a common

question for respondents to ask me. In the first several interviews, when that question

would come, I was glad it usually came at the end. I would say I was going to turn the

tape recorder off, and then I would tell my story, basically answering many of the

questions I had already asked them--about how I became involved in antiracism and so

forth. Yet I preferred the question to come after the interview, because I did not want my

account to affect their responses. However, as I became more well-read on the topic of

interviewing, I began to change this approach in favor of a more "active"

conceptualization of the interview process. As Holstein and Gubrium argue, "all

interviews are reality-constructing, meaning-making occasions, whether recognized or

not" (1995:4). This means that both respondent and interviewer are active agents of

production in the interview process. They maintain that this constructed nature of

interviewing might as well be recognized, and hence, traditional guidelines for

interviewers reconceptualized.

Thus, under this perspective it is no longer necessary for the interviewer to avoid

stating her own feelings, or that of other respondents whom she has interviewed

previously. The whole idea of biasing or "spoiling" the "data" becomes a moot point,

since "The respondent can hardly 'spoil' what he or she is, in effect, subjectively

creating" (Holstein and Gubrium 1995:8). Reconceptualizing the respondent as active

clearly changes the way in which one goes about interviewing. Having previously

learned to see respondents as vessels-of-knowledge, I found it surprising when I began to

acknowledge the active nature of the interview, and presented my respondents with

"background knowledge"--things other respondents had said, or with my own views on

antiracism. Instead of having the ever-warned-about outcome of "social desirability"--

respondents simply concurring with what had been said--I found that respondents were

not at all hesitant to disagree with what I had said, and report their own take on the

matter. For example, when I told Steve that other respondents had said they lost family,

friends or jobs over their antiracist actions, and asked him if he had experienced similar

things, he replied, "No, I'm the luckiest antiracist you've ever met." And for those who

would say this brings "bias" into the research, Holstein and Gubrium have this to say:

Bias is a meaningful concept only if the subject is seen to
possess a preformed, pure informational commodity that
the interview process might somehow contaminate. But if
interview responses are seen as products of interpretive
practice, they are neither preformed, nor even pure. They
are practical productions .. .[thus] it is virtually impossible
to free any interaction from those factors that could be
construed as contaminants (1995:18).

In my case, while my interview questions on how the respondents conceptualized race

were at first vague to "avoid bias" (i.e., "what does it mean to you to be white?"), I

revised them to be more specific once the data analysis got underway and certain patterns

emerged. Examples of these types of questions later added to the interview guide

included "Do you consider yourself colorblind?" and "Do you consider yourself racist?"

These questions yielded a variety of answers, rather than be "biased" in only one

direction. Accepting that there was nothing to bias or contaminate in the first place, this

opened up a greater range of possibilities in the interview experience, including sharing

"my story" at any time, not just at the end with the tape recorder off.

"What's Your Story?"

Drawing upon her own experiences with interviewing women, Ann Oakley has

argued that the "no intimacy without reciprocity" (1981:49) rule of conversation is ever-

present in the interview process. Thus it should come as no surprise that, when they pour

out their hearts to an interviewer by telling their stories, respondents expect to hear their

interviewer's story as well. A majority of my respondents asked me for this same

reciprocity. The timing of this request varied--some asked at the end of the interview,

and others asked before the interview even begun, as if it were a condition of their

agreement to be interviewed. While this question might be expected of any interviewing

situations, it was especially salient to this project for two reasons. First, many

progressive activists groups are leery of academia. Academics are often seen as secluded

in their "ivory towers" with lots of time to study social problems but no time to do

anything about them. Evidence of this could be seen in my earlier account of ARA

activists not responding to my academic-sounding letter until another activist vouched for

me. Thus, the question "what's your story?" is even more important for gaining trust and

assurance that one's activist cause will not be egregiously misrepresented. Second, more

specific to white antiracists, is the simple knowledge that not many whites are involved in

antiracist work, relative to the proportions of people of color involved. Many whites see

it as "not their issue." Thus, the white antiracist respondents here especially wanted to

know what made me take the "deviant" path they have taken themselves. Because of the

historical amnesia discussed in the first chapter, it is no wonder that white antiracists are

looking to build up that historical repertoire by asking me, another white antiracist, my


So what is my story? Chronologically, it begins long before I was even in college,

but extends well into this project itself. When I was fifteen, my life was altered forever

by dating an African American. My mother and stepfather forbade me to associate with

this person, so I began doing it behind their backs. Every month or so I would get caught

and put on restriction, so my home life was in constant disarray. As still a legal child I

felt completely powerless, knowing that what I did was certainly not against the law, and

feeling like I had a lot more maturity/morality than any of the adults that seemed to be

around me. Yet my peers were hardly better. Although I had a few close friends, I lost

many, including my very best friend, whose parents blamed my sordid influence for their

own daughter's eventual interracial liaison. Her parents withdrew her from that school

and paid extra to send her to another one her senior year, so she could start another

"whiter" life without me or any of the African Americans she had managed to meet at our

school. If I so much as tried to call or write her, she would be punished by being sent to

live with her real father in another state. That year I also ended up in another state, living

with my more supportive father to avoid the turmoil at home. Later, I returned to my

hometown at age 18 and lived the remainder of my senior year in high school with the

financially difficult task of supporting myself. All this was because of racism, and it was

rather firmly implanted in me by this point that most of the whites around me were intent

on not noticing how unreasonable and far-reaching their racism could be.

College began my systematic learning about racism. My first semester I was

working three jobs and only taking one class, yet still enrolled in an Unlearning Racism

course at a community center, and attended a Students Organizing Against Racism

(SOAR) conference in a neighboring state. Instead of being seen as a teenager rebelling

against her parents, I could finally be seen as participating in a relevant social movement

for change. I was never a part of any regularly-meeting organization for antiracism.

There were none that I knew of--just isolated events I made sure to attend whenever

possible. Throughout this whole process, I had always found my support in communities

of color. I also was a victim of this "historical amnesia" about white antiracists, so my

heroes were people like Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Zora Neale Hurston. My

closest romantic and platonic friendships were mostly people of color for ten years, and I

cherished the moments they would say, "you're not really white."

Then two years ago, two major things happened. Having moved to a new area,

my new best friend and romantic partner (two different people) were both white. I also

started this research project on white antiracists. Ironically, while living as far south as I

had ever been, I was meeting more white people who "got it" about racism than ever

before. As I begin to do the interviews, I silently expected all the white antiracists to

have had lives like mine. Unless their lives had been turned upside down by having

experienced racism, indirectly but intimately, how could they have been such committed

white antiracist activists? Much of the literature told me this would be the pattern as

well--whites would develop empathy through experiencing some kind of oppression

themselves. I also expected the respondents to all theorize about race the way I did, and


again, the literature supported this expectation. If they thought any other way about race,

how could they be antiracist? Yet as I began the data analysis, not only were there

fiercely committed white antiracists who had never had an intimate relationship with a

person of color, but there were also white antiracists who used colorblind discourse. The

data were challenging not only the literature but my own experience, by telling me that

people with many different experiences ended up with convictions much like mine.

I will never forget going to bed in one of my respondent's homes. Paul's home

and family were lily-white and always had been, as far as I could tell. I was sleeping in

his guest room, which also doubled as his office, where half of his library was identical to

my own, and the other half were books I had been wanting to read. On the wall were

several plaques honoring him for his antiracist work in the community, but the one that

grabbed my attention was the "Number One Soul Brother" award from the People's

Institute. This moment was the epiphany for me--in both a personal and scholarly sense--

that there are many different ways of ending up in the same place. Personally, it showed

me that even as my social and intimate relations were becoming increasingly white, I

could still do antiracist work that would be trusted and valued by communities of color--I

could still be a "Number One Soul Sister." Borrowing the ideas of Denzin (1989), Hsia

has written that "an epiphany can change how a researcher understands and represents the

experience that she/he studies" (Hsia 1997:9). As a researcher, what this epiphany meant

was that I needed to value the "exceptional" places where the data challenged previous

theoretical work, and to avoid treating them as exceptions, or not "real" antiracists. This

"making problematic the exceptional or deviant cases" (Burawoy 1991:278) is a focal

point of the extended case method, to which I now turn.

The Extended Case Method

Michael Burawoy (1991) has described the extended case method as concerned

with difference rather than unvarying laws. He contrasts the extended case method with

Glaser and Strauss's (1967) grounded theory, a more popular method of qualitative

research, perhaps because it is so codified and more closely imitates natural science. But

while grounded theory seeks to generate general laws from data, the extended case

method compares data with existing theory. While acknowledging where the data fit with

existing theory, the extended case method also focuses especially on places where the

data do not fit with existing theory. It is here, with the "exceptions," that the possibilities

for new theory lie. Thus, the extended case method "seeks generalization through

reconstructing existing generalizations" (Burawoy 1991:279).

For each research question I considered with these data (and each subsequent

chapter of this study), I began the analysis by considering how well existing theories

explained them. To recall from the previous chapter, the research questions were as


(1) What sparks/motivates/encourages whites to become antiracist


(2) Is there a cognitive understanding of racism that distinguishes white

antiracists from other whites?

(3) How do white antiracists practice antiracism? What are their actions?

(4) Is there an emotional component of antiracism for whites? What does

it look like?

In the previous chapter I briefly reviewed the theories that can be applied to each

question, and those theories will be outlined more specifically in each individual chapter

that follows. After each chapter considers existing theory, then the succeeding sections

will focus on the places where the data do not match existing theoretical frameworks. It

is at this point where I will generate new theoretical concepts and ideas from the data.

Again, it will be the focus on the "exceptions" from which the new theorizing will come.

Many of the exceptions, where these data disagreed with existing theory, came

because of the organizational diversity represented in the sample. Initially, antiracist

organizations served the major methodological purpose of being able to locate several

respondents at one time--sort of a time-efficient sampling strategy. This methodological

strategy had unexpected theoretical consequences that I did not anticipate until I began

my analysis. This meant that the project definitely was "spiral" rather than linear. Once

it became evident that an organizational comparison was necessary to interpret the

findings, the sampling strategy became more purposive, and I made sure I had a

comparable number of respondents from each organization represented. This left me with

eight respondents who were not members of organizations, and 14 who were--seven from

ARA and seven from PI. I turn now to how this methodological strategy generated new

theoretical considerations

Anti-Racist Action (ARA) and the People's Institute for Survival and Beyond (PI)

In another curious marriage between my own experience and the literature,

nothing had prepared me for the extent to which answers to my research questions would

be dependent upon the respondents' organizational affiliations. I had not been a member

of any antiracist organization for whites myself, and I had read all of the previous

research about white antiracists which never once mentioned the effects of organizational

affiliation on their responses. Yet as the previous chapter mentioned, this organizational

focus became an important component of the research project. Since the subsequent

chapters will analyze specifically how these differences play out, it is important to first

outline in detail the history and structure of each of the organizations represented here.

The information that follows is a compilation of information from respondents'

interviews, from conversations and correspondence with key informants, from attendance

at organizational events/activities, and from organizational publications.

Anti-Racist Action (ARA) was officially founded in the early 1990s in the cities

of Columbus and Minneapolis, as well as Toronto, by mostly white individuals to

counteract Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazi activity in their communities (see Novick 1997;

Franklin 1998). Counter-demonstrations at Klan rallies drew initial memberships, and

youths wanting to protest right wing hate groups which were forming at their schools

followed suit. Now there are close to a hundred chapters in the United States alone.

Although ARA is sometimes criticized for its focus on the racism of these "fringe"

groups, its free bi-annual publication called ARA News exposes how these groups are not

so "fringe" after all. This newsletter, with subscribers in the tens of thousands, also

serves as education about racism (and other forms of hatred) happening around the

country through its collage of newspaper clippings and commentaries. Another form of

education ARA provides to the community is its visits to local schools to give

presentations. ARA focuses predominantly on front-line activism, and its newest and

most famous such project is Copwatch--a system of videotaping and police misconduct

litigation that "polices the police" in urban neighborhoods (Selena and Katrina 1996).

ARA has four main principles for all of its various chapters to abide by, which read as


1. We go where they go. Whenever racists/fascists are organizing or
active in public, we confront them and do our best to stop them.
2. We don't rely on the cops or courts to do our work or to protect us.
3. We defend and support each other in spite of our differences.
4. We are active with the goal of building a movement against racism,
sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia and discrimination against the
disabled, the oldest, the youngest and the weakest of our society (from an
organizational memo "What To Do: An Introduction to ARA").

Although ARA is a network of many different chapters with different foci and expertise,

they all agree to uphold these four principles. The emphasis on racism as overt acts is

evident here.

The People's Institute for Survival and Beyond (PI) was originally founded in

1980 in New Orleans by Jim Dunn and Ron Chisom, two African American men, as a

training institute for those in social service professions which served primarily

communities of color. PI is most noted for its Undoing Racism workshops which are

now offered on a national scale, and serve as transformative experiences for whites

confronting racism. Perhaps the best way to explain the workshop is to list what it is not:


"The Undoing Racism workshop is not... a quick fix, a sensitivity session, a guilt trip, a

sexism/classism workshop, a training in reducing individual acts of prejudice, [or] a

lecture" (Chisom and Washington 1997:88-89). While ARA concentrates on more overt

acts of racism, one of PI's workshop topics is "how well-intentioned individuals and

institutions unwittingly maintain racist policies, biases, systems and benefits" ibidd 87).

This suggests attention to covert racism as well. Focusing on institutionalized racism as a

barrier to community organizing, the workshop trainers delve extensively into historical

and contemporary race relations, and rely on a Malcolm X-like philosophy that whites

should be doing separate work in their own communities. As such, PI has a white

subsidiary group called European Dissent ("dissenting what has been done in the

European name") of which all of the PI respondents here are members. PI also has four


We believe the following:
that racism has historically been the most critical barrier to unity in this
country. It continues to be the primary cause of our failure to overcome
poverty and bring about justice.
that culture is the life support system of the community. Organizers must
understand and respect indigenous culture and cultural diversity.
that militarism is applied racism. It is a pervasive cultural, economic and
political force that undercuts all efforts to work for justice and peace.
that history is a guide to the future. We take seriously the notion that
those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it (from an
informational brochure).

These principles indicate that compared to ARA, PI is dedicated more toward

understanding/education as opposed to action. While ARA also does education and PI

also does action, these are not the primary foci of their principles. Further, a comparison

of the two organizations' principles reveals that ARA sees other "isms" as just as


important, while PI sees them as secondary while racism is "primary." The organizations

also differ in that PI makes explicit acknowledgment of race differences within their

movement while ARA does not.

Both ARA and PI are antiracist organizations which draw large proportions of

white members. Thus, for the purposes of sampling they served similar goals. However,

for the purpose of theory building, the differences between the two organizations are

considerable, and as the analysis began, it became evident that these differences would

have theoretical implications. The near polar extremes from which these two

organizations came, even though they were both antiracist, meant that there would

indeed be multiple ways of doing antiracism for whites. Since race relations scholars had

little to say about such differences with respect to antiracist practice, I turned to social

movement theory to explain how organizational culture affects individual activists'

experiences. This perspective allowed me to modify existing theories about antiracism as

it became relevant throughout the following chapters.


This chapter outlined the "spiraling" character of the interplay between theory,

methods, and the researcher as a person. After setting forth a careful definition of "white

antiracists," I went on to describe the "spiraling" of the project. First, I described the

process of finding the respondents. I selected a purposive snowball sample for which key

informants were critical. I also soon recognized the need for multiple methods and

reciprocal self-disclosure. Second, I argued that the interview was a mutually constructed

event between the respondent and myself--that is, an "active interview." This meant that

self-disclosure, use of background knowledge, and focused specific questions did not

have to be seen as sources of "bias" that might "contaminate" the data. Third, I explained

my personal relationship to the project, which Reinharz's opening quote argues is

essential to any research endeavor. I showed how my own experience as an antiracist

coupled with the experience of researching antiracists resulted in an epiphany, whereby I

achieved personal growth and the understanding of the need to incorporate "exceptions"

into the research process. These exceptions became much more than exceptions--they are

the multiple ways of doing antiracism around which this work is focused.

In the fourth section, I explained the extended case method. Its focus on

reformulating existing theory by paying attention to exceptions, rather than striving for a

general universal law, was the prevailing method of analysis for the project. Finally, I

compared and contrasted the two antiracist organizations (ARA and PI), whose

differences were noted as a source for further theory building. These organizational

differences and how they play themselves out in the lives of white antiracists will be an

important part of the chapters that follow.


One vivid memory I have of my high school years is walking into a store with my

mother, telling her that I wanted to buy a Martin Luther King, Jr. poster to put on my

wall, and receiving the following response: "Why don't you let the people who are

fighting that cause fight for it?" Without either of us ever actually mentioning "race," the

message was clear that a white person taking such a vested interest in racial justice was

not appropriate. It was during that time in my life, and later, that I learned firsthand the

derogatory names that went along with this "inappropriate" stance, like "race traitor"and

"nigger lover." Before even knowing what sociology or sociological theory was, it was

clear to me that any activism or social movement on behalf of an oppressed group was the

domain of that group alone. While it was within the norms of my white middle-class

upbringing to politely respect such a movement, it was certainly not normal to personally

involve oneself in it.

Given the social pressure within white society to shy away from issues of racial

justice, what it is that motivates and sustains white individuals to break ranks and become

engaged with antiracism? Is it a deviant's rebellion against authority? Is it the youthful

idealism of someone out to change the world? Is it the self-seeking interest of someone

who is romantically involved with a person of color, whose own social stigma would

decrease substantially if racism would subside? Is it the corruption of a young mind by a

zealous and radical college professor? Sociologists have surprisingly little to say about

these questions. One of the main concerns of social movement scholars has been

explaining why actors participate in social movements, yet the two most dominant

theoretical frameworks in social movement literature reveal the normative assumption

that those who do so are by and large members of a stigmatized group. Resource

mobilization (RM) and new social movement (NSM) or identity-based theories, although

generally referred to as competing frameworks, share the tendency to base their ideas

around actors who share a collective identity membership in a group that has grievances

or is disadvantaged by the current social structure. This tendency leaves them ill-

equipped to explain the situation of those who protest from within dominant groups, such

as white antiracist activists. Within the framework of racism, it is people of color who

have grievances and who mobilize against racism based on this collective identity.

Whites are seen as those who are being asked to concede, and as Frederick Douglass once

said, "Power concedes nothing without a demand." Why are some whites not only

conceding power without a demand, but advocating that people of color have a grievance

that is worth their struggle as well? Neither RM or NSM theories have attempted to

address this question.

In particular, RM theory takes somewhat of a rational choice perspective by

arguing that actors weigh the costs and benefits of social movement participation,

including organizational resources and political opportunity structure. If after this

calculation, the actor concludes that the rewards and chances for success outweigh the

personal costs, then she is likely to join the movement (Klandermans and Tarrow 1988).

In the case of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the indigenous resources of the

Black church and the heightened political receptivity to civil rights issues have been cited

as resources which mobilized the unprecedented numbers of African Americans to get

involved (McAdam 1982; Morris 1984). In contrast to this resource-focused approach,

NSM theory turns to cultural factors to explain social movement participation. Rather

than seeing actors as motivated by maximizing their rewards, NSM theories see actors as

motivated to redefine cultural codes, to contest current meaning of their group identity

(Cohen 1985). Thus, while RM theory would explain gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender

(GLBT) activists as inspired by the benefits that they would reap from things like

domestic partner benefits and anti-discrimination laws, NSM theory would interpret their

involvement as a need to challenge cultural codes about sexuality, to carve out a new

collective identity which they would be proud to claim. Characterizing RM as the "how"

and NSM as the "why" of social movement participation, Klandermans and Tarrow

(1988) have argued that neither perspective alone is sufficient and that an integration of

the two is helpful for total understanding. Yet even these two together cannot explain

what the motivation would be for a white person to see herself as benefiting from anti-

discrimination policies on behalf of blacks, or for a heterosexual to see herself as

benefiting from a redefinition of homosexuality. Scholars have had to turn away from

these two paradigms to answer these questions.

Networks and Antiracism--Social Movement Contribution

Social movements scholar Doug McAdam (1982; 1988), who relied largely upon

RM theory in his study of black insurgency in the civil rights movement in the 1960's,

had to leave that perspective behind when he undertook his research on white students'

involvement with the "high risk" activism of Freedom Summer. Focusing on the Student

Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)- sponsored voter registration drive for

Mississippi Blacks of the summer of 1964, McAdam conducted a large-scale survey and

in-depth interview study of the whites who participated in this effort. He selected this

particular segment of the civil rights movement because it was the action in which the

highest percentage of whites took part. Challenging the notion that these whites were

rebellious students or Communist-inspired, McAdam found that Communists were a

small minority, and that most of the white students involved saw themselves as furthering

democratic or religious values that were a part of their upbringing. Most of them were

Northern college students from elite, privileged backgrounds, and did not stand to reap

much material gain from this "high risk" action. This lack of any clear benefit poses a

direct challenge to the RM perspective. And although McAdam was writing before the

rising popularity of NSM theory, it is evident that his respondents were not motivated by

desires to shape a more positive cultural definition of whiteness (their own group).

Rather, McAdam demonstrated three major factors influencing these whites' participation

in Freedom Summer: (1) organizational ties (whether these be political, religious or

social, as in a campus club); (2) prior participation in some kind of activism (90% had

done so locally); and (3) personal relationships with others involved in the movement.


Thus, the importance of community supports, even at the level of personal social ties, was

important in motivating whites to antiracist action. To a lesser extent, an ideology of

democratic or religious notions of equality was a motivational factor for some, but this

was usually not without an organizational basis.

Approximating Experiences--Race Relations Contribution

Concurring with McAdam's social movement approach, some race relations

scholars have also stressed the importance of personal networks in motivating white

antiracism. Ruth Frankenberg's (1993) study of white women found that feminist

networks, college campuses, and the influence of friends and family served as routes of

awareness for the few women in her sample who were antiracist. Yet not all of them

were brought along by nurturing activist networks. Many were catapulted into awareness

and motivation to act through personal relationships with people of color who were

experiencing racism firsthand. Several of Frankenberg's antiracist white respondents had

been romantically involved with people of color and/or had children of color and credited

these experiences as major motivators to speak out on the injustices of racism, even in the

absence of familial or social support from other whites. In fact, it was sometimes the

negative reaction of whites who were close to them to their interracial liaisons that

propelled them to action. Herbert Aptheker's (1992) historical review of the first 200

years of antiracism in the United States also found that having had "significant

experiences with people of African origin" (p. xiv) was a frequently occurring

characteristic among white antiracists. Given the highly segregated nature of US society,

particularly in the case of African Americans who are "hypersegregated" more than any

other group (Massey and Denton 1992), such experiences were and are fairly rare for

most whites.

Aptheker also found lower class whites and women to be highly represented

among antiracists. Indeed, in the rare instances when race relations scholars have

considered what motivates whites to become antiracists, the focus is usually exclusively

on women (Frankenberg 1993; Hogan and Netzer as cited in Feagin and Vera 1995).

Focusing on the concept of empathy with people of color as a necessary prerequisite for

white antiracism, Feagin and Vera (1995) have suggested that women's experiences with

sexism might situate them as more likely to be able to empathize with the racism that

people of color face. They argue that whites who have had "some personal experience

with exploitation, discrimination or oppression are more likely than other whites to

understand the situation of and empathize with African-Americans" (1995:175). This

might explain why members of the lower class, having experienced classism, and women,

having experienced sexism, were frequently cited in Aptheker's historical review.

However, some preliminary unpublished work by Hogan and Netzer (as cited in Feagin

and Vera 1995), has found that multiple socially stigmatized statuses were more likely to

motivate empathy and antiracism for women than simply being female. For example,

Jewish and/or lesbian women were "better able than other white women to empathize

with the discrimination faced by African Americans" (1995:176). Eichstedt's (1997)

research on white antiracists also found additional experiences of oppression to be

common for white antiracist women. Not only were being Jewish and lesbian important

sources of empathy for her respondents, but many also saw their experiences as targets of

incest or sexual abuse as another form of "abuse of power" that enabled them to better

empathize with victims of racist oppression.

Summarizing these different routes to empathy as motivators for white antiracist

action, Hogan and Netzer developed three types of "approximating experiences" that

characterized the white antiracist women whom they interviewed. Some used "borrowed

approximations," which means that they learned about racism through stories told to them

by people of color, whether they were friends or intimate partners, that made racism

become real in their minds as a problem needing to be addressed. This is where some of

Frankenberg's respondents who had families of color and those antiracists whom

Aptheker described as having significant experiences with Blacks would fit in. Others

used "global approximations," in the absence of any substantial ties to people of color, to

relate to racism by seeing it as an unfair crime against humanity, a wrong that needs to be

righted to further the cause of justice. In this case a firm belief in wanting to do the right

thing could become a source of empathy and a motivator of activism. The third category

these scholars proposed is "overlapping approximations," whereby whites empathize with

the pain of racism by relating their own analogous experiences of oppression--these could

be women, lower class"whites, GLBT whites, Jewish whites, or even those who had

experienced sexual abuse as in Eichstedt's research. If these other stigmatized statuses

had already been motivators of other types of activism, such as involvement with

feminism or anti-violence work, then Hogan and Netzer's "overlapping approximations"

is closely related to McAdam's proposition that prior activism influences whites'

involvement with antiracism, although McAdam does not link this with empathy or other

forms of oppression. In any case, these three types of approximations do a good job of

summarizing the findings of the few race relations scholars who have dealt with this issue

of what prompts whites to antiracist activism.

Narrative Linkages--New Contributions to Antiracism

What I will evaluate in this chapter is how well McAdam's social movement

propositions and Hogan and Netzer's conclusions from the area of race relations fit with

the interview data from my white antiracist activists. The application of those two

frameworks to these data will improve upon the previous authors' efforts by evaluating

both men and women (Hogan and Netzer only had women), and by paying attention to

narrative linkages of the respondents. Gubrium and Holstein (1997) explain narrative

linkages as the howss" of respondents' storytelling--in this case, the links that white

antiracist draw to their lives in explaining what motivated them to become antiracists. Do

they refer back to their activist networks or their prior activism (McAdam), relationships

with people of color or their own oppression (Hogan and Netzer)? Or do they make

linkages to other aspects of their lives that previous research has not uncovered? In the

analysis of the data, it was not enough for the respondent to happen to be lesbian or

Jewish, or to happen to have an activist network of friends or a Black lover. Rather, these

personal facts only became relevant if the activist herself or himself linked them to their

stories of what was important in making them antiracist.

Polletta's (1998) research on sit-in activists from the 1960s civil rights movement

shows that narrative analysis can yield very different results in interpreting movements.

Although the civil rights movement had been characterized as orderly and carefully


calculated, for those participating "their narrative construction as spontaneous was central

to an emerging collective identity" (Polletta 1998:153). Thus, even though the sit-ins

were very much planned, the activists' narrative linkages were ones of "spontaneity," of

energetic breaks with movement elders. In finding out what sparked white antiracists to

action, then, it is important to pay attention to narrative linkages, and how the

respondents construct their antiracist "births." Neither Hogan and Netzer nor McAdam

did much with this type of analysis, especially McAdam who relied at least in part on

quantitative correlations. Thus, by including a sample which is male and female as well

as by analyzing narrative linkages, this chapter will improve upon the limited prior

research in this area and expand and modify the existing frameworks we have to explain

whites' antiracist behavior.

Organizational Networks and Approximations--Analysis of Existing Frameworks

Networks of Activists

McAdam's social movement analysis revealed that whites who became involved

with antiracist activism had ties to other organizations, had been involved in prior

activism, and were a part of a network of other activists. Several of my white antiracists

fit this pattern as well. When I asked Bill what motivated him to become an antiracist

activist, he responded:

Mm, it's hard to distinguish that from all the other movement causes that
I've been a part of. I've been an activist since I was in high school and
was trying to oppose the Vietnam war. And there was a racist element to
that, from some perspectives, if you want to count that, that would be the
first thing. As far as specifics, in America, racism always boils down to
black and white issues. I didn't do anything on that that comes to mind

right off hand directly until I moved to [his current residence] about ten
years ago, and got involved with progressive groups of different kinds, and
trying to oppose the extreme right in several different areas. There've
been a number of Ku Klux Klan, Nazi and the like, demonstrations and
other activities in the area that I've been a part of practically since I moved

Steve, an ARA member and organizer who is roughly the same age as Bill, got his start in

activism around the same time with the Vietnam war issue. Steve stated:

What made me aware of racism and all that was really not so much that
particular issue at all. What happened was I became interested in being a
radical. And then suddenly I wanted to learn about all the issues. You
know, I wanted to know about women's rights, and what I was that was
fucked up that I should unlearn, and how I could understand it.

As with the Freedom Summer white students, Steve and Bill both saw antiracist activism

as a logical extension of their other activism efforts, which originate with their anti-war

protests during the Vietnam era. Paul, a PI member and organizer, also dates his first

involvement with antiracism from when he became a "campus activist" during the

Vietnam was years. In more recent years, however, the campus activist spirit has also

been a motivator for the mid-twenties generation. Kristin reported that

I probably didn't identify myself as antiracist until probably in college,
primarily because that's when my political awakening really got serious.
And that antiracism would have been brought about by reactions to racist
events that happened on a college campus, that type of thing.

In fact, Kristin vividly recalls one incident when a black student found a picture of a

figure in a noose drawn on his dorm room door, and the campus responded with an

antiracist demonstration. She began to get involved with this and other race-oriented

protests, such as when the college attempted to "diversify" its student body by offering

inner city juvenile delinquents free tuition. Holly, another ARA member and activist of

Kristin's generation, also became involved with antiracism through the spirit of campus

activism. Of her first participation in activism, she recalled:

There was a demonstration on campus that was supposed to be against
bigotry. And it was right after--it's kind of funny--Larry Kramer of ACT
UP [radical AIDS awareness action group] came to speak, and he's such a
moving speaker. He was one of the founders--really aggressive and very
emotional speaker. So all these people came to hear him, and everyone
was so mad afterwards, and there was this march against bigotry at the
same time, like that night, and all the people who had gone to Larry
Kramer just sort of like--not all of them, but some of them--just sort of
naturally went into this demo, which was going to the house of the
president of the college.

From this point, she began hanging out with more "countercultural white people," and her

activist network of friends led her to more awareness of racism, to where she would

eventually work with people of color and learn a lot more. Yet all of these stories have in

common the fact that they date their first involvement with antiracism work back to

activist networks of other whites on related issues. Like McAdam's respondents, Jason,

an ARA member, says he had always had strong values of equality--"I've always held it

in my mind that we're all on the same team"--but it was not until the influence of other

activist friends that he became involved in ARA. Jason said:

I knew some of the ARA people and they said "we meet every Monday at
[location]" and I had a chance to go to meetings and actually start taking
an active part, and contribute what talents I had to the effort.

Jason contributed his knowledge of computers, and began coordinating the group's

internet access, formatting their newsletters, and participating in any demonstration that

came along the way.

Activist Organizations

When there is an pre-existing organization in the area to get involved with, friends

often persuade others to get involved and before they know it, they have other committed

activists. This is the case with ARA members as well as those affiliated with PI.

Especially with PI offering the 2- V2 day workshop, several credited the workshop itself

with motivating their start in activism. Many stories were similar in that they knew there

was "something" wrong in terms of racism, but did not develop an understanding and

commitment about it until the workshop. Lisa had come to work for PI as an

administrative volunteer on behalf of her church and had done some "social work"

things that made her want to help people, but did not see herself as antiracist until after

the workshop. Rosalind, who is also a member of PI, did the workshop with her church

and started doing antiracist work at her job and community from that point on.

Additionally, she convinced her husband, Henry, to take part in the workshop, and has

been working on her grown son and his girlfriend as well. Another PI member, Pam, also

talked about friends' recruiting her to the workshop:

Some friends of mine started making me even more aware of things I'd
always known but kind of, I guess, never really put in the forefront or took
real notice of, and then some other people that you've probably already

spoken with that are friends of mine, who got a friend involved, who got a
friend--who got me involved, in the workshop, and that was just amazing.

Since then Pam has not only been vigilant about transforming the racist atmosphere in the

school where she teaches, but has attended every single workshop that PI has offered in

her hometown since then. Thus, when activist networks are available and present to

whites, they often get involved the way that McAdam describes, through the influence of

other activist friends, other types of activism, and other organizational memberships, such

as church.

Approximating Experiences

Sometimes, however, white antiracists have come to their antiracist position

alone, without the influence of other white antiracists, and only later, if ever, become

involved with activist organizations. To understand how these respondents tell about the

birth of their antiracism, I turn to Hogan and Netzer's concept of approximating

experiences to interpret the data. Particularly common in these data were "borrowed

approximations," where whites developed empathy with people of color by listening to

their stories about racism or witnessing those individuals experience racism firsthand.

For Scott, he said his first antiracist action began in "sixth or seventh grade" when he

befriended the only black boy in his school, who was often the target of insults and

attacks, so much that he ended up transferring to a different school. Scott said:

My first activistic stance was that a couple of ignorant yahoos had him [his
black friend] cornered during recess one day, trying to shake him down for
his lunch money. I guess my first act was actually pretty physical [laughs]
because I knocked a couple heads together and actually threw the other

one into the ground and told him to "Get the hell out! What's your
problem?!" [and they responded with] that kind of reaction, "Why don't
you stick to your own kind?!". . and that's when I realized that I was
surrounded by a bunch of idiots, a bunch of closed-minded fools [laughs]

This action cost Scott much social disapproval and eventually ended what might have

been quite a successful football career because of the ostracism of his peers. In college he

later did participate in political demonstrations, and in graduate school acted as an ally to

a group of students of color's demands after racist incidents, but rather than being a part

of an activist network, he has done his work on more of an individual basis, including the

racism he confronts on a daily basis defending his Mexican wife and children. Also

witnessing the "why don't you stick to your own kind" white mentality, Travis was

converted to the antiracist cause through "borrowed approximations"--seeing not only the

racism that people of color in his life faced, but also the reaction other whites received

when associating with them.

A black family and then an East Indian family moved into the
neighborhood and I got to see how the neighbors actually treated them,
and it was pretty bad. They were beaten and eggs thrown at them, and for
no reason that I could see, they were harassed constantly--the kids beaten
up by other kids, the adults shunned by the other adults. And my mother
had started dating a black man at this point, and for that I was shunned and
beaten by other kids just because of the race mixing, as they called it. ..
My actions basically took the form of--when I was twenty I started dating
somebody of color and people would see, and call this person who's Asian
a gook or something, and I took offense to it and usually retaliated to it.

Like Scott, Travis began his antiracist activism without the support of a larger activist

community, but was compelled by the racism he witnessed due to people of color in his

life. When a local ARA chapter became active in his hometown, he was right there to

join in, but this action was an extension of a position he had already taken in his life, and

he does not credit ARA with giving him his start. Rather, his borrowed approximations

from earlier experiences are what he links to his antiracist "birth."

Borrowed approximations can also come from the testimony of people of color

who are not even friends or acquaintances. In Claire's case, she credits written word

(literature by people of color) and spoken word (rap music by African Americans) for her

awareness of what it is like to face racism, which led her to become active about it. Like

Travis, she later joined an ARA in her community. Similarly, Mike credits sociology

readings for his antiracist impetus. In particular, he mentions Jonathan Kozol's Savage

Inequalities, which chronicles the educational racism which he later experienced firsthand

teaching elementary school in the inner city. Given his outrage about these conditions,

taking the PI workshop only gave him confirmation of what he already knew, but gave

him the organizational backing to do something more about it. He is now involved with

the People's Youth Agenda, which reaches out to young people with antiracist

educational activities like Freedom School. While Hogan and Netzer's concept of

borrowed approximations referred to personal acquaintances with people of color, this

research reveals that borrowed approximations can also be obtained through literature,

music and other forms of expression in which people of color portray their experiences

with racism. This is an important point, given the extreme racial segregation in our

society, that even when whites are not personally acquainted with people of color, there

are still chances for borrowed approximations to occur.


Not unlike those respondents who had experienced interracial friendships and/or

relationships, Lori dates her first awareness of racism back to dating a black boy in high

school. She learned about racism through stories that he told her, and began to especially

"take things personally" when she became pregnant with his baby, envisioning herself as

a future mother of a black child. She said:

Racism was the first "ism" I became aware of, and then once I became
aware of that, everything just followed really easily. I started calling
myself a socialist and all of these other things. I attributed that to being
antiracist, I thought I was. Now I would say that I wasn't.

Although "borrowed approximations" began her awareness, Lori stated that it was not

until she relied upon "overlapping approximations," relating her own oppression to that

of people of color, that she would call herself antiracist. This happened when she came

out as a lesbian during her college years. She said at that point her understanding of

racism changed from being a personal issue to an institutional one (see Chapter 4 for

more on this ideological shift). Ani also linked overlapping approximations to her

antiracism. She said her outrage at bigotry comes firsthand, from being Jewish. Ani is

someone who later got involved with ARA but already carried with her an antiracist

position. Claire, who used borrowed approximations from literature and music, also

credited overlapping approximations--from relating to the experience of being bisexual--

for part of her activism. For this sample of both male and female white antiracists, it is

evident that overlapping approximations are used exclusively by women. This is

interesting, because women are not the only ones who can be oppressed along non-racial

lines. Men can also be gay, Jewish, or located at the bottom of the class structure, and

any of these could be the impetus for overlapping approximations. However, it seems

that at least for this sample, white men doing antiracist work were not as much motivated

by any oppression that they had faced themselves as were white women.

Global approximations, where antiracists rely on general humanitarian ideas of

fairness and equality to motivate them, were difficult to find in isolation. These

sentiments were spoken by many of the respondents, but they usually became activated

when the person witnessed something, read about something, or got involved with an

activist network or organization. For example, both Claire and Jason said they had been

raised to "treat everyone the same," but it was not until Claire started doing some reading,

and Jason attended ARA meetings, that they really saw antiracism as something

meaningful enough for them to take action. McAdam's work on Freedom Summer also

found this to be true. Those who relied upon democratic principles to explain their

activism also referred to an organization they belonged to which supported and enhanced

these principles. Similarly, global approximations do not appear to be strong enough on

their own to motivate antiracist activism for the whites interviewed here.

"Planting The Seed"--Narrative Linkages

Although Hogan and Netzer's framework of approximations (at least the

borrowed and, for women, overlapping kind), as well as McAdam's propositions about

activist networks, are useful in explaining whites' motivations to become antiracist, there

are certain commonalities among these activists' narrative linkages that these frameworks

have not addressed. When several white antiracists told the stories of their progression

into antiracist consciousness and activism, they vividly recalled an early childhood

experience that predated their antiracist work but seemed to make them destined to

become antiracist eventually. I borrow the term "planting the seed" to describe this event

from Lisa, one of my respondents. When she talked about the frustration of confronting

someone's racist practices yet not being able to immediately educate that person

successfully, she referred to "that idea of planting the seed, you have no idea what will

blossom." She may not convert the person to antiracism right then, but that experience of

having made that person think, if only just for a minute, will stay with them and perhaps

"blossom" into awareness and/or action at a later date. This is what Lisa meant by

"planting the seed," and for some white antiracists, a seed was also planted in their lives,

and they referred back to it when talking about what led them to becoming antiracists.

Seeds Planted in School

Mark, who now edits an antiracist journal and is trying to build a movement of

"new abolitionists," recalled the moment at which the seed was planted for his antiracist


When I was a junior in high school, which was in 1963, about, in that
September, it was four young girls who died in a bombing of a church in
Birmingham Alabama. And the man who I had as an English teacher that
year, who was himself just out of college--I was going to a Catholic high
school here in [city name] and he came to the class, either the first day--I
don't know, it seemed to me it was the first day, thinking back thirty odd
years, and he said, "let's say a prayer for those 4 little girls." And no one
had ever said anything like that in that school. The school was probably, I
think, all white students. And it really affected me. Now I honestly can't
tell you what my initial reaction was, whether it was positive or negative,
that I don't remember. All that I remember was sort of the scene. And by

the time that I left high school two years later, I had developed a friendship
with that teacher and had written an essay in the high school literary
magazine which was a review of James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time.
which had, you know, had just recently been published .... But in a sense,
my kind of political career around issues of race dates from that moment

Mark dated his antiracist "birth" back to an experience of a teacher daring to mention an

incident of racism in an empathetic manner in the early 1960's. Although he did not even

remember his initial reaction to this occurrence, he was certain that it is the moment with

which an antiracist potential had begun. This was an epiphany for him, or a turning point

at which key realizations were made that continued to have an effect on how he

interpreted future events (Denzin 1989). Similarly, referring back to roughly the same

time period, PI member Paul also reminisced about a daring schoolteacher:

For years I was kind of--inside my own mind and heart I guess you could
say--beginning to evolve into a southerner who would break ranks with
that which was expected of me. And I was very typical of everyone that I
knew. Knew nobody else, no one. Knew no moderates on the race issue.
There were just degrees of extremism, nobody, not one person--except in
retrospect, a schoolteacher, Vera Miller, when I was a senior in high
school, who would come in and write "hate". I remember one time she
wrote "hate" on the board and she told us to write, and to not ask any
questions. She would put her long fingernails on the top of my head and
say "think!" She was seeing something in some of us, and she was trying
very carefully, 'cause she'd get fired in a second. She was trying very
carefully to try to open up some vistas for us that simply were not going to
be allowed anywhere else. I was very impacted by her in retrospect. I
look back and begin to see things.

In a southern atmosphere in which even a moderate pondering on the topic of race was

grounds for termination of a teacher, Paul was struck by the bravery of his teacher who

cleverly devised ways to bring alternative perspectives into the minds of those she

thought had potential. Here a seed was planted for Paul "to begin to see things," even

within his repressive environment.

Antiracists from later generations also referred to seed-planting moments in which

they were placed head-to-head against the status quo of racism. Kristin, who later

became a campus activist, remembered how it troubled her to see the only black boy in

her elementary school face racism in first grade:

I became aware of the fact that when mothers would drop off their
beaming white children, they would glance over at him, and I could just
see, I started to notice looks being shot to him and that kind of thing and I,
for the longest time, my first grade year, spent trying to figure out why
everyone looked at him funny and ... first grade was also the year that I
was watching 3-2-1 Contact. . And on that show, during first grade, he
[black actor] did a thing about race, and I was watching it, and he was
telling me, "the only difference is that, you know, that pigments in the skin
and that kind of thing" and I remember sitting there being like, "no way!!
That's the only difference?!" [laughs] And like calling my mom and being
like, "mom! Did you know that that's the only difference between me and
Greg is that he just has different pigment in his skin?" And I thought I had
solved an answer to the world, like, if everyone only knew that, if
everyone else was aware of this great amount of knowledge, [laughs] then
there would be no problem, and the mothers of the kids in my class
wouldn't look at this kid funny, and I wouldn't have to wonder what
would happen to me if I sat down on this chair right after him or
something .... But anyway, so I called my mom and told her about this
and she was kinda like "yeah, you're right!" [laughs] "uh-huh" and I told
her that we should tell everybody, because that would really solve a lot of
problems [laughs] But anyway, so that was my big awakening year.

Although Kristin was only in first grade when this happened, and the black boy (whose

first and last name she vividly remembered) and his family moved out of the majority

white suburb shortly thereafter, this was a crucial point in Kristin's memory of how race

became a part of her life. Like for Mark and Paul, Kristin's antiracist activism did not

begin until later when she became a "campus activist," yet this event stayed alive in her

consciousness of how she grew into a person who would break from the norm of how

whites regard race.

Seeds of Desire for Difference

Other whites described seed-planting experiences that seemed to come from

nowhere specific. They only knew that they wanted to be around people of color. Once

they had been around people of color, they began to develop the borrowed approximating

experiences that Hogan and Netzer describe. Yet the fact that they, unlike most whites,

wanted to hang around people unlike themselves racially, was an interesting similarity

shared by several of the respondents--the seeds from which the borrowed approximations

began to blossom. Although they often looked back with embarrassment to these

moments of naivete or cultural appropriation, they did relate them as the stepping stones

toward eventual awareness. Susan wanted to be around people who were culturally

different from herself, and even though she did not exactly know why she wanted to do

so, this desire in itself was a seed that would eventually blossom:

I had ended up applying for an assistantship that supposedly was open in
the Office of Multicultural Affairs, and I look back on my application
now, and to me, multicultural affairs was sort of like international
students--that's how little informed I was [laughs] . and when I read
their description, I realized it's something very different than international
student affairs, but I considered myself a liberal ... and knowing what
they were doing, I believed in it, just from what I'd read about what they
were up to. So I went in and went for my internship interview, and
[laughs] the question that the director asked me was "why are you here?"
[I said:] I don't know", you know? It was like, that was the beginning.
And, I don't think they'd had a white intern before .... And so basically I
worked that semester there and I started out thinking I was gonna do stuff

like interviewing people of color about their interest in international study
abroad and stuff like that. And just realized after the first two weeks that
this is not what this is about. And I basically did an entire semester on
white awareness. Learning a lot about what it meant to be white. And
witnessing a lot of things that students of color were going through, just by
talking to people and being around the office a lot.

Being among the students of color, Susan developed what she would eventually call her

antiracist stance, on part because of these "borrowed approximations" gleaned from their

stories about experiences with racism on campus. Yet she would never have started on

that journey without the seed of desire to be around people culturally different from

herself. She laughed about that desire when telling her story, because she knew her desire

was not rooted in an understanding of racism itself which she has today. ARA member

Holly had a remarkably similar story of wanting to be in a multicultural environment (a

dormitory) while in college, even though she was not yet an antiracist. Unlike Susan,

however, Holly's naivete was not given the benefit of the doubt and she did not get the


I was interested in living in the Third World house. Just, I don't know
why, and I applied, and there was like this interview process and
everything, and I flunked it completely. [Me: You did?]
Yeah, yeah! Like [laughs] they asked me, "Ok, what's the definition of
the Third World?" I passed that question fine, I said, "well, any place
that's been colonized and screwed around by Europe." And I felt pretty
good about myself then. I had the right answer. And then they asked,
"well what's your experience in dealing with people of color and what did
you learn that you would apply to find better relationships?". . [laughs][I
said:] "Well, I come from [city name] it's like a multicultural city, you
know, I don't think I really have any problem" [laughs] I could just see the
way they're looking, some guy was like, "Oh, God, I don't know" [laughs]
But they sent me this nice letter, that said, "we don't think this is a really

good place for you, but keep thinking about your issues and educating
yourself." And I just felt like a complete loser [laughs]
[Me: That's interesting.] Mm-hm [pause] I mean, I knew they were totally
right because I had like totally unexamined things, like I would have been
a pain in the ass for people who are trying to learn about themselves and
be assertive about their identity. I just would have been the person they
had to argue with, or who'd be constantly sucking up and making them
pissed off or whatever [laughs]

Like Susan, Holly did not see herself as having an awareness of racism when she applied

for the Third World house (and neither did the interviewer, apparently.) Yet the seeds of

an unexplained desire were there, to be in a position which she said very few white

people at the school were actually interested in pursuing. And Holly continued to think

about her issues and educate herself, as she was asked, and years later launched her start

into antiracist action.

Angela's seed was planted much earlier. She reported an adolescence filled with

wanting to be around people of color, particularly men. Her first memory of an encounter

with a person of color was when she was ten years old. Her family had befriended a

Mexican man from their church, in whom she personally took an interest: "I got to be

really good friends with him. In fact, I think I had kind of a crush on him." This

friendship ended tragically when the man's wife and children left him and he committed

suicide by ingesting Drano. She recalled, "That was another early memory of just having

a real strong attraction--not a sexual one at that age obviously--but some sort of real

fascination with difference." This fascination continued into her teen years:

The first African American person I even knew at all was this one female
in my high school and I went to a private Christian school that was real

conservative and real white [laughs] and when I was like sixteen or so I
guess, she came to our school. And it was kind of weird, actually in
looking back I wonder if there was a curiosity there because I really went
after, pursued a friendship with her real hard. I really wanted to be friends
with her. And it wasn't like this thing of, "she needs friends so I wanna be
her friend," 'cause she had plenty of friends and stuff. It was just, I
thought I want to know this person, I want to know what she's like.

Angela said this friend never spoke about racism, so she did not begin to learn about

racism until a later friendship with an African American young man. For her later

antiracist position, she credited borrowed approximations from these relationships she

continued to pursue, and later overlapping approximations from becoming a feminist and

learning about her own oppression as a woman. Angela expressed quite a bit of

embarrassment, not unlike Susan and Holly, that her early "fascination" was not

motivated by antiracism. In fact, she even called it selfish "co-opting" of someone else's

culture. Yet Angela's seemingly unexplained drive to surround herself with difference

served as an important springboard into her eventual antiracist activism.

Whether it was an unusual preoccupation with people racially different from

themselves, or another antiracist voice planting the seeds of dissention in a young child,

many white antiracists shared in common the narrative strategy of reaching back before

their antiracist activism to find their motivational story. What is striking is how similar

some stories are between respondents who do not even know or live near each other.

Elementary and middle school students whose teachers who left strong impressions on

them by breaking the silence, and eager liberal college students without a clue about

racism held mutually an early experience which they felt was a crucial beginning to their


antiracist lives. Although the data here provide evidence for McAdam's theory of activist

networks as well as for Hogan and Netzer's approximating experiences framework, it is

equally important to pay attention to additional connections that the respondents

themselves have made about what has made them antiracist. This finding should also be

especially inspiring to white antiracists themselves, who are in the often unrewarding

business of planting seeds of their own for others. It is heartening to know that our seeds

may someday blossom for someone else years down the road.


This chapter provided the answers) to the question of "what motivates antiracist

activists?" or "how do whites become antiracist?" To answer this question, I turned to

existing propositions as well as to new insights provided by the data. This analysis

exhibited the multiple ways in which white antiracists are "born." McAdam's idea that

existing organizations, prior activism and networks of activists friends motivate

antiracism proved true in many cases. This was particularly true where there were

existing campus activist groups, as in the case of the Vietnam Era and in more recent

responses against campus racism. Also where there was a regular meeting or workshop

to attend, friends could get other friends involved. Certainly this was the case for several

respondents who were members of ARA or PI.

However, sometimes approximating experiences predated this type of

involvement. Hogan and Netzer's concept of borrowed approximations fit the

experiences of many white antiracists here, where whites' passion for working to end

racism was inspired by their relationships with people of color, whether platonic or

intimate. These relationships provided the respondents with information about racism

from the perspective of those who are oppressed, a vantage point not widely available to

white Americans. What is missing from the concept of borrowed approximations is the

recognition that this information can come not only from personal relationships, but from

secondhand sources of creative expression of people of color like literature and music.

This research highlighted the importance of such sources in whites' development of an

antiracist consciousness. This finding is particularly important for educators in

predominantly white environments, since it suggests that even in the absence of

interracial contacts whites can develop some antiracist inspiration through written and

spoken word about racism.

The two other types of approximating experiences that Hogan and Netzer

proposed, overlapping and global, were not nearly as prominent in white antiracists'

accounts here. Overlapping approximations, in which whites relate their experiences with

some other type of oppression to understand and act about racism, were only referenced

by women. This was true not only in the case of having experienced sexism, but in the

case of those who had experienced anti-Semitism and heterosexism as well. There is

some research by feminist scholar Carol Gilligan (1982) that suggests that women are

more likely to develop a sense of justice by relating personally to things (ethic of care)

while men are more likely to draw upon more abstract democratic ideals of fairness (ethic

of justice.) Additionally, Platt and Fraser's analysis of letters written to Martin Luther

King during the 1960s civil rights movement noted a similar difference in how white

men and women expressed solidarity with the movement. The women expressede]

networking with the movement by way of personal ties and men by way of external and

institutional ties" (Platt and Fraser 1998:172). However, these authors dismiss the gender

difference as a relic of the particular historical period, and Gilligan's research on gender

differences has been widely criticized both methodologically and substantively for its

assertions (e.g., Greeno and Maccoby 1986). Further, if Gilligan were correct, we might

expect the white antiracist men here to use global approximations (objecting to racism on

basic principles of equity) to the extent that the women use overlapping approximations.

Yet this is not the case. Global approximations were rarely motivational factors, for

neither women nor men in this sample. Therefore, since borrowed approximations were

mentioned as the most influential type of approximation, for both men and women, this

gender difference on overlapping approximations only is a fairly minor point for which

evidence is inconclusive at best. More research needs to be done on this topic, especially

on the way men relate to other anti-oppression movements such as feminism.

Beyond the existing frameworks for explaining how whites get involved in

antiracism, white antiracists made their own connections about their motivations for

action. Relating back to epiphinal moments, several respondents recalled a vivid memory

which they believe planted the seed of antiracism for their lives. These experiences came

before their borrowed approximations and/or activist networks, but they refer to them as

if they created a necessary predisposition for antiracism. In other words, if these seeds

had not been planted, perhaps they may not have encountered their subsequent

motivational experience, it might have taken much longer, or the seed was their first

motivational experience in and of itself. Some of these seeds included a person who


challenged them in their youth to question the existing racial hierarchy, or a strange desire

within themselves to break the taboo against interracial socializing without even fully

understanding the reason why. Since, as Feagin and Vera (1995) argue, we are trained

not to empathize with people unlike ourselves, these moments of epiphany were

important in whites beginning to develop the empathy needed to start them on their

antiracist paths. Frankenberg (1993) has written: "Many people have chance encounters

with antiracist discourses; the difficult question to answer is why some individuals

respond positively to them, while others do not" (p. 159). These seeds are new and

important ways of understanding why some whites develop a passion for ending racism

once presented with antiracist discourses. Once they are presented with alternative ways

of thinking about race that differ from those of the white mainstream, the seed is activated

and the journey of growth begins.


The first thing you do is to forget that i'm Black.
Second, you must never forget that i'm Black.
--from "For the white person who wants to know how to be my friend" by Pat

If this were a perfect world, you could reach utopia where color didn't matter in jobs or
whatever, but history is there .... You have to respect the history that came before, and
understand it. .. I think for somebody who is colorblind in the negative sense of the word,
I want to work from the negative colorblind to the positive colorblind... There should be
a shift in the definition.
--Pam, white antiracist

To consider white antiracists' discourse about race, one needs to put them in the

larger context of the society in which they live. Much of the mainstream discussion

among whites on how we should conceptualize and think about race centers around

whether or not one should be colorblind. Recent court decisions and voter initiatives to

end affirmative action programs and minority set-aside programs center around this

colorblind ideal (Crenshaw 1998). Yet much of public policy is back-and-forth on

whether colorblindness has a place in antiracist struggles. For example, President

Clinton's Initiative on Race professes the motto of "One America" where we respect,

even celebrate our differences, while embracing the shared values that unite us." The

Initiative's statement of purpose outlines an agenda which includes attention toward

"racial disparities" in society's major institutions, yet the respective "races" which are

disproportionately advantaged and/or disadvantaged by these disparities are never

mentioned, nor is the reason for these disparities (One America 1997). Clinton asks us to

celebrate color, not ignore it, yet he never quite mentions it himself. From the White

House on down, mixed messages on whether or not to be colorblind abound.

Unfortunately, there does not exist a simple yes-no answer on whether colorblindness is

the way to go, and the word colorblind itself masks a complicated set of ideologies,

beliefs and policies that too often remain unexamined.

Americans on all sides of race relations debates orient themselves differently

towards the concept of colorblindness. Conservatives see it as the only way to achieve

racial justice. Liberals see it as the desired end goal toward which race-based programs

like affirmative action can be a stepping stone. Others who position themselves to the left

of liberals argue that colorblindness is a mask for white supremacy itself--the newest

form of racism (Carr 1997; Winant 1998)--and is a hindrance to antiracist progress

(Frankenberg 1993; Feagin and Vera 1995). In fact, the scarce literature that exists on

what white antiracist ideology should look like also takes this latter position--white

antiracists should avoid colorblindness at all costs. Yet the data presented here will

challenge previously held conceptions about the incompatibility of colorblindness with

antiracism. It will become clear that colorblind is not something one simply is or is not.

Rather, colorblindness can be used in many different ways. It can sometimes coexist

with antiracist praxis and other times not, depending on the usage. The voices of the

white antiracists here will serve to develop and further refine what little literature we have

on colorblindness and antiracist ideology.

Literature on Colorblind Discourse

Colorblind as Goal/Utopia

Carr (1997) observes that liberals and conservatives actually agree that

colorblindness should be the goal of our racially diverse nation. Conservatives see our

current capitalist economic system as a fine colorblind meritocracy whereby racial

equality should be achieved in time once those who have historically been oppressed

deserve it. "Liberals argue that they must exercise temporary race consciousness to arrive

at the goal of a color-blind society" (Carr 1997:114). Interestingly, both camps draw their

ammunition from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s vision of racial harmony. Conservatives

use King as an icon of "blind justice" to support their point that public policy should

make no racial distinctions. Thus, programs like affirmative action are seen as "racial

discrimination" and a violation of King's dream. Yet as both Carr and Steinberg (1998)

point out, King actually endorsed affirmative action programs, which he termed

"compensatory or preferential treatment" (as cited in Steinberg 1998:16)--hardly

colorblind remedies. When liberals show their support for affirmative action programs,

however, it is usually not to debunk colorblindness as the ultimate goal of race relations

struggles. Rather, most agree that their goal is a time when the institutions of our society

will be colorblind, and for liberals, race-specific policies are a more expedient route to

this achievement.

Colorblind as Denial and Tool of White Supremacy

Frankenberg (1993) prefers the phrase "color and power evasive" to "colorblind."

In her research on white women's racial identities, she found that colorblind discourse

was used to avoid confronting the existence of racial inequality and the power

differentials inherent in such inequality--a state of denial. She argues that color and

power evasive discourse remains the dominant mode of conceptualizing race in the

United States today. This fact is certainly evident in the liberal and conservative

positions as noted above. One of the hallmark phrases of those whites employing this

discourse is "I don't care if he's Black, brown yellow or green," a "familiar cliche"

which "camouflages socially significant differences of color in a welter of meaningless

ones" (Frankenberg 1993:149). Being colorblind, from this perspective, is seen as an

"evasive" position which ignores the color-stratified arrangements of American society.

Such a position allows racism to survive and flourish--"central to the existence of racism

is the politics of its denial" (Lubiano 1998:viii).

Further, not only does Frankenberg demonstrate how colorblindness can be denial,

but she also shows how this "polite" language of race masks ideas of white superiority as

well. Those of her respondents who were "color and power evasive" prided themselves

on not noticing color. Yet "the idea that noticing a person's color is not a good thing to

do, even an offensive thing to do, suggests that 'color,' which here means nonwhiteness,

is bad in and of itself' (Frankenberg 1993:145). When whites claim to not notice others'

race, as in "I didn't even notice she was Black," there is an implicit ideology of white as

the norm. When whites profess blindness about their own race, as in "I don't think of

myself as white," they also position themselves as the "unnamed namer" of those racial

"others" unlike themselves. Thus Frankenberg argues that colorblindness, used by

whites, places them in a privileged position where they are automatically at the top of a

racial hierarchy, even as their language denies any existence of such a hierarchy.

Doane (1997) has developed the concept of "hidden ethnicity" to address how a

white colorblind view of self perpetrates racism, not only by masking dominant group

interests as "everyone's" interests, but also by "delegitimizing" how people of color

experience race. Carr (1997) has also argued this point in his book Colorblind Racism.

Drawing upon Supreme Court Justice Harlan's dissent to the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson

case and then tracing its legacy historically over time, Carr shows how politicians have

clung to a so-called colorblind constitution precisely because it was "the best way to

maintain the domination of the White nation" (Carr 1997:116). Proclaiming a

constitution that was written to uphold white slaveholders' interests as colorblind and

applicable equally to all, whites' dominance politically, economically and socially was

effectively sustained. Taking issue with those who see colorblindness as a desirable

utopia, Frankenberg and others see colorblindness as an insidious tool of white

supremacy. "Color blindness is not the opposite of racism, it is another form of racism"

(Carr 1997:x). Carr's survey data, which demonstrate how a majority of whites hold

colorblind attitudes while a majority of blacks do not, supply further evidence for the

position that colorblindness upholds white interests and ignores those of minorities (Carr


Literature on Colorblindness And White Antiracists

Race Relations Literature

What is known about antiracists' stance on colorblindness? To date there has

been no full length empirical investigation of white antiracist activists. Although the last

year has seen a few paper presentations on the topic (e.g., Eichstedt 1997; O'Brien 1997),

the most helpful pieces of research on today's white antiracist activists are located within

two books on whites and racism--Ruth Frankenberg's The Social Construction of

Whiteness: White Women, Race Matters (1993) and Joe Feagin and Hernan Vera's White

Racism (1995). Both of these texts examine how whites think about race, and white

antiracists appear in these works as the furthest point on a continuum of different ways of

conceptualizing race. Both works seem to concur that colorblindness is antithetical to

whites' developing an antiracist consciousness.

Relying upon in-depth interviews and focus groups with whites who had

participated in at least one antiracist action, Feagin and Vera observe that "antiracist

whites actively seek out interaction with people in other racial groups" (1995:180). Far

from disregarding whether others "black, brown, purple or blue," these whites take a

proactive stance on appreciating and engaging with "color" differences in their casual and

intimate social contacts. They tend to reject being colorblind when it comes to others, but

also when it comes to themselves. Feagin and Vera (1995) write that white antiracists go

against the norm of most whites in our society by confronting what it means to be white

and facing up to their own racism. The white respondents quoted by these authors


repeatedly make mention of whites' power and racial inequality in a way that is not "color

and power evasive," according to Frankenberg's (1993) definition.

Similarly, the handful of antiracist white women in Frankenberg's (1993) study

also strive to steer clear of color and power evasive thinking. Although Frankenberg

separates her antiracist women into two groups--the newer and the more established

antiracists--a common thread between them both is their engagement with a "race

cognizant" discourse. Frankenberg contrasts color and power evasiveness with race

cognizance by showing how race cognizant women face whiteness and white privilege

head-on. She characterizes race cognizance as marginal compared to the politically

dominant color and power evasiveness, but posits the former as necessary for antiracist

thinking and action. The white antiracists described in this book all identify the

movement from color and power evasiveness to race cognizance as a necessary trajectory

toward antiracism, "using metaphors including 'awakening,' and 'coming to' (as from

unconsciousness or a coma) to describe their newfound perceptions about race and

racism" (Frankenberg 1993:160). Such a transition is gradual, however, and for

Frankenberg's newer group of antiracists, "elements of both power evasive and race-

cognizant repertoires are interwoven" (1993:172). Frankenberg's analysis of this

transition period--in which colorblindness is mixed with antiracism--is highly skeptical,

and she warns that this combination often "short-circuits" antiracist action, keeping it at

an introspective level (1993:176). This research adds to the conclusion that

colorblindness has no place in the antiracist movement.

Social Movement Literature

To evaluate whether or not a particular ideology takes root as the theoretical

underpinning of a movement, it is necessary to take some ideas from social movement

literature as well. Snow and his colleagues (Snow and Benford 1992; Hunt, Bedford and

Snow 1994) have developed the concept of framing and master frames as they apply to

social movements. Drawing upon Goffman's (1974) idea of framing, these authors argue

that effective movements use both diagnostic and motivational framing to direct

members' understanding of the social problem and how to address it. In the case of white

antiracists, they frame who is the antagonist ("good guy") and the protagonist ("bad guy")

in the fight against racism. Although we would expect white antiracists to share this

basic level of framing, there are some differences amongst the sample, particularly for

organization members. While both organizations see antiracists as the good people, ARA

frames hate in any form as the antagonist while PI frames white power and privilege as

the antagonist. This divergent framing is likely to have serious implications for how the

members of the two groups see colorblindness and its utility (or lack thereof) for

antiracist struggles.

What's Wrong With Being Colorblind?

In concurrence with the race relations literature cited above, several of the white

antiracist respondents interviewed for this project also rejected colorblindness as an

ideology of antiracism. Put most bluntly by Paul, a PI member: "If I claim

colorblindness, I don't see how one can be anti-racist. It's a contradiction." Paul and

others spoke of colorblindness as incompatible with antiracism for a variety of reasons


which can be divided into three main categories: (1) blindness to institutional racism; (2)

blindness to others as people of color; and (3) blindness to self as white. Although the

respondents quoted in this section voiced their contempt for colorblindness as a solitary

concept, it became clear from their testimony that what they were referring to was a

multifaceted state of being which entailed blindness and denial of several issues.

Dimension One: Blindness to Institutional Racism

Racism is defined by Della Dora (1970) as "power plus privilege"--while

privilege is something that occurs on an individual level, power is seen as something that

operates on an institutional and societal level. Under this conception, anyone can be

prejudiced, but only those who hold the power (whites) can be racist, which discounts any

notion of "black racism" (Feagin and Vera 1995). Several respondents agreed with this

notion, and did not see themselves as antiracist until they stopped being "blind" to

institutional racism. Seeing racism as merely personal prejudice was looked upon by

them as a naive, uninformed stance. Lori made a distinction between becoming aware of

racism as prejudice and being antiracist. Although her awareness was raised during her

dating an African-American boy in high school, she makes clear that she was not a true

antiracist until much later.

I thought I, in my head, had it all down--the whole, everybody's the same,
we're all the same on the inside, you shouldn't be prejudiced against me if
I'm not prejudiced against you, and blah, blah, whatever. That was the way
I was thinking. ... I maintained that same viewpoint for quite a
while...until I was a sophomore [in college]... I think it has to do with
coming out, I think it has to do with taking women's studies .. that was
when I started being antiracist . when I started realizing, just when I
started really understanding institutionalized racism, I think, is when I
became antiracist. When I realized it wasn't a personal issue and it wasn't

about you treat me the way I treat you and everybody's equal and blah,
blah, blah, and we're all the same underneath. And I started realizing that
being colorblind wasn't the way to go and stuff like that. Dropping the
liberal ideology.

Describing colorblindness as a "liberal ideology" as opposed to a more radical antiracist

one, Lori noted that she was not a real antiracist until she stopped seeing racism as a

personal issue and reconceptualized it as an institutional issue as well. Angela, who had

also dated interracially as a teenager, referred to a similar personal transformation:

There was a time when I really subscribed to the belief that it would all be
changed [laughs] if we all just joined hands. . And it's been recently ...
as I've grown up some I've realized that's not going to solve the whole
thing... it's also structural.

Here we see colorblindness, in the form of seeing racism as a personal problem alone,

being looked upon as silly and naive. Likewise, Kristin laughed at her early childhood

awareness of racism: she thought she had solved the problem of the one black boy in her

class always being stared at when she saw a 3-2-1 Contact episode in which it was

pointed out that the only difference between her and this boy was the pigment in their

skin. She laughed because she saw such color-blindness as overly idealistic from her

newer race-cognizant perspective, or what she called her "political awakening." All three

of these respondents bring out one dimension of colorblindness--the way in which whites

tend to view the racial order as a whole, as an individual problem rather than a

structural/institutional one. They did not see themselves as antiracist until they got rid of

this "blind spot." Thus, one reason why respondents spoke of colorblindness as

detrimental to antiracism is because it ignores the institutional nature of racism.

Dimension Two: Blindness to Others as People of Color

Pat Parker's poem "For the white person who wants to know how to be my

friend" asks the reader to both forget and never forget that she is Black, making the point

that successful interracial intimacy should not be colorblind. Frankenberg (1993) argues

that when whites "politely" pretend not to notice the race of someone different from

themselves, it results in a feeling of superiority, as if one is overlooking a blemish or an

imperfection. Several of my respondents also reflected negatively on whites' position of

"not seeing" color. Rosalind, a member of PI, saw being colorblind as a way of ignoring

racism as institutional power (Dimension One) but went on to talk about how that

translated into ignoring the "color" of others:

I think the colorblind thing is being used to pretend that people are not
racist, and don't prejudge, and don't have power, and I think it's very
insidious. [elsewhere:] And even if they did treat people the same, I think
that when you look in terms of the institutions, that could be a very racist
unfair thing to treat people the same. I think you have to treat people in
terms of what they need and where they're coming from, that's more of a
definition of fairness than treating people the same.

Referring to "treating people the same" as a part of colorblind ideology, which she went

so far as to call racist, Rosalind illustrated how colorblindness could have unintended

unfair effects, and that a better approach would be one that recognized how racism that

creates a different reality for people of color, and treated people accordingly. This

comment reflects on the second dimension of colorblindness--not seeing people of color

as people of color. Kendra, a PI member who has an African-American husband, also

distanced herself from a colorblind approach:

I absolutely do not see myself as colorblind. I think that anyone who says
they do is dishonest or confused. There's this t-shirt people wear and it
says "love sees no color"--well, I think love loves all color. I think it's a
very different thing. I think that "love sees no color" is denial, in this
culture, in this racist culture.

Agreeing with Rosalind that colorblindness results in denial of racism, Kendra eloquently

summed up two contrasting slogans: the colorblind creed of "seeing no color" to the race

cognizant understanding of "loving all color." Kendra stated that as long as there was a

"racist culture," claiming to not see color was denying the very real differences in

experience that racism creates along color lines.

Pam, like her other PI colleagues, admitted she was not colorblind, mentioning

that when she watches the news, she notices "color" when people of color are portrayed


I'm definitely not colorblind .... You'd like to say you are, that it doesn't
matter. But I think even in terms of a white antiracist, that's why--because
now you have a better understanding of a different person's reality and
where they're coming from and what they have to endure. So it's still
there, but it matters for different reasons now.

Echoing Kendra's sentiment--that all whites notice color even if they do not admit it--

Pam pointed out that whites become antiracist when their acknowledgment of "race" is

done in the context of knowing what people of color "have to endure" rather than as

simply a difference in pigment. In addition to representing ignorance of institutional

racism, for these respondents colorblindness also meant denial of experiences of people

of color in racist America.

Dimension Three: Blindness to Self as White

"Being white in this society almost by definition means rarely having to think

about it" (Feagin and Vera 1995:181). Feagin and Vera argue that this blindness allows

whites to subscribe to the "sincere fiction" that there are no privileges or benefits that

whites reap from the existence of white racism. Henry, a member of PI, explained how

this white view of oneself in a way that does not acknowledge race can be problematic:

There's a great deal of denial and colorblindness that's in vogue, except I
think it's being carefully done to shadow the reality of racism. ... I mean,
we define what is with our whiteness. And I think that needs to be

Henry argued that ignoring the color of whiteness also means ignoring the privileges that

come along with being white in a racist society (i.e., the power to define "what is"), and

hence, denying racism. In discussing this function of the colorblind view of self on the

part of whites, PI member Paul stated:

"I don't think of myself as white," that's what we get in the workshop all
the time. Well, we try to say, and move people towards this: "That might
be true, but others see you as that. And you can say whatever, but you
need to know how you are being perceived. You also need to know that
you represent a historical relationship. And until--not just until people
know you, but until people see you doing some work and taking some
risks and understanding some things, you're just going to be a
representative of their experience with white folks.

Referring to PI Undoing Racism workshops, Paul noted how he tries to impart whites

with the knowledge of how others see their whiteness, even if they cannot see it

themselves. Not only does this type of blindness result in historical ignorance, but he

also points out that it can hinder one's relationships with people of color. As Du Bois

(1965 [1903]) revealed with his "double consciousness" idea, people of color have had to

acknowledge the realities of both self and other in order to survive in racist America.

Thus, as Henry put it: "of course, it's been people of color that have had to know what it

means to be white even when we didn't." For whites, being blind to whiteness means not

being able to understand people of color's perceptions of oneself, and that is seen by these

respondents as a stumbling block for the antiracist movement.

A sizable proportion of the sample unequivocally distanced themselves from

colorblindness and spoke of it as incompatible with antiracism. They concluded this was

so for three main reasons: (1) it eschews the existence of institutionalized racism; (2) it

denies the meaning of "color" for people of color; and (3) it ignores whiteness as both the

ability to be a definerr" and as a marker of historical and ongoing racism. Because not all

of the white antiracists interviewed here were as adamant in rejecting colorblindness, and

even used color and power evasive discourse at points during interviews, the next section

examines whether colorblindness simultaneously means all three of these things.

Colorblind Antiracists?

Frankenberg (1993), Feagin and Vera (1995) and even the respondents quoted in

the previous section, have all claimed that colorblindness is incompatible with aggressive

white antiracism. Although Frankenberg does identify some antiracists who mix race

cognizance with color and power evasive language, she concludes that this is a crippling

concoction that leaves people in a guilt-ridden mode without action. The data presented

here will pose a direct challenge to this assertion. Not only do the respondents quoted in

this section use colorblind language at times, but those who tend to do so the most are the

members of the more action-oriented organization, ARA, and have taken great risks to


challenge racism in their communities. Their reliance upon colorblind understandings at

times has hardly debilitated them or left them in an introspective state. Furthermore, their

colorblindness is not blindness to all three of the issues mentioned by the respondents in

the previous section, which adds further complexity to the question of whether

colorblindness is entirely incompatible with antiracism.

While most PI members rejected colorblindness on all three dimensions, perhaps

because of the organizational culture of a 2 /2 day training workshop that addresses them,

ARA members often used a language that was colorblind on one dimension but not

others. When I asked Travis, an ARA member, to elaborate on his interracial relationship

for which he claimed he was harassed (earlier in the interview), he responded in the

following way:

In terms of dating somebody of color, it really makes no difference if
they're of color or not. I've dated people that are white, I date--it doesn't
matter the color itself. ... It's got nothing' to do with the pigment of your
skin. ... To me, there's racists in every nationality, every color, every
religion, there's racists everywhere .... I've met hate-mongering people of
every color and every nationality. It's the hatred itself that is the monster,
the evil thing, right? ... So there's hatred everywhere and there's good
people everywhere. There's no thin line to say these people are and these
people aren't--each person according to their merit alone.

Here Travis espoused the "love sees no color" colorblind view of others, of which Kendra

was so critical in the previous section. Then challenging the idea that only whites can be

racist, Travis went on to say that hatred in any form could be considered racism, another

colorblind position which other respondents claimed was denial of historical experiences

of people of color. Examining this quote might lead one to assume that Travis, who

discussed his colorblind views of others, must have also eschewed viewing himself as

white or denied the institutional structures that benefit him. Yet elsewhere in the

interview, he stated:

The police would handle me different as they would somebody of color,
the state would prosecute me differently] than they would somebody of
color. I'm sure I get a little more leniency, because of the bigoted racist
points of view of our police and the state, that I get a bit of lenience
because I'm a white straight male.

Naming himself as a "white straight male," Travis switched to a race cognizant type of

discourse when he pointed out the advantages he received from the government and its

agencies because of its racist structure. Thus, even while Travis was colorblind on his

view of others, he acknowledged the institutional realities of what his whiteness means in

a racist system. He did not seem to be using his whiteness to deny that racism via white

privilege exists. Likewise, ARA member Jason articulated a colorblind view of himself

and of others in the following quote:

[on being white] It's that section on your driver's license that says skin
color--that's about all it is to me. I'm not proud, I'm not not-proud, that's
just the way I was born. When my page came up in the coloring book they
whipped out the flesh [sic] colored crayon. And I'm not green, I'm not
blue, I'm not any other color, I'm the color I was given. I look at
everybody as human beings first, and that's really all that needs to be
looked at.

Using what Frankenberg identifies as a common rhetorical device for color and power

evasive thinking about race, Jason referred to colors (blue, green) that are not part of our

racial hierarchy, which some would argue is a strategy to delegitimize the notion of

racism. He even seemingly ignored his privilege to "define what is" when he referred to

the crayon that goes best with white flesh as "flesh-colored" rather than peach or white-

colored. In this case, he took a colorblind view on his own whiteness, as well as on the

"color" of others, whom he preferred to think of as only "human beings." However,

elsewhere in the interview, Jason was not colorblind on the institutional realities of

whiteness and white privilege:

I know the shit that black people have to put up with, but I've never
experienced it first hand. I've never been yanked out of a car by a cop
because he suspects I'm in a gang or something like that. I've never been
looked at twice by a group of people walking down the street. I've never
been stereotyped on sight because of the way I look. .. I haven't been put
through 400 years of slavery and subjugation. I haven't been put through
unlawful medical experiments that are still in fact going on.

Far from being colorblind to institutional racism, Jason, who did not think of himself as

white, observed that even if he did not see himself as white, others did and do, and allow

him the advantages that he describes, with police, with strangers, and with the health care

system, among other things. He and Travis both seemed to pride themselves on being

colorblind as the right thing to do, and posited racist institutions and their lack of

colorblindness as the problem.

Perhaps the most powerful example of the complexity and multifaceted nature of

colorblindness happened in the following exchange I had with Tim, an ARA member:

I don't see myself as white, and I don't see other people as black, or Asian
or whatever. I recognize the cultures, but as far as I'm concerned, we're
all human. . [me: I know you just told me that you don't see yourself as
white, but what does it mean, do you think, generally speaking, to be white
in this country?] It means that you have a better chance at a future, I guess.
If you look at it in terms of the way it's been going in history, when you
look in terms of race, white people quote founded this country and it's
here for the white people or whatever, and they see themselves as better
than other races, just cause of their skin or whatever. And, it just means
you probably have a better chance than anyone else to go farther in your
future .... [me: mm-hm. Do you see yourself as part of that description
that you just gave?] It's kinda hard not to, 'cause other than my social
class, I am white. You can't change the color of your skin. You can

change your consciousness of your skin color, but I'm still gonna have
more of a chance, more--I can't think of the word right now--but I'm just
gonna be able to do what I want more easily than if I was colored [sic],
just based on that fact--which sucks, but, that's the way it is. And that's
what we gotta break down and fight.

Here Tim captured powerfully how he can change how he views his "color" and that of

others, but he can't change how a racist society views that "skin color." In his shift from

first to second person, he started by professing a colorblind view of himself and others

using the pronoun "I," but then shifted to using "you" and "they" when talking about

historical and contemporary advantages for white people. When I did ask him to consider

whether he included himself in that framework, he then oscillated between first and

second person, pointing out that his "color" and how it is perceived is unalterable, but

that he could at least change his own consciousness about it. Starting with a colorblind

statement about himself and others, Tim revealed that he was not blind to institutional

structures which benefited whites, even though it took probing for him to actually speak

of himself as included in those benefits.

These data pose a direct challenge to the previous conceptions that white

antiracists are uniformly non-colorblind. By breaking colorblindness into three different

dimensions, we see that these individuals are not simply "not colorblind"--they both are

and are not, depending on who's looking and how they are looking. The respondents in

this section were not colorblind on Dimension 1, yet exhibited colorblind conceptions of

race on Dimensions 2 and/or 3. Taking a "I'm OK, you're not OK" stance, they

acknowledge the non-colorblind nature of our racist society yet see colorblindness as the

preferred discourse for themselves. In recognizing racism on an institutional level but

expressing "blindness" at the more local level of themselves and other people of color

with whom they come into contact, these respondents exhibit a micro colorblindness but a

macro awareness of racism, or a macro race cognizance. They also more closely

resemble the liberal stance of "colorblindness as goal or utopia," knowing that in the

interim before the utopia, much work is needed to eradicate racism.

This mix of color and power evasive discourse with race cognizance is something

that Frankenberg (1993) thought would forestall aggressive antiracist action, yet Travis,

Jason and Tim were hardly introspective or inactive. Travis lives in one city where neo-

Nazis are quite territorial, and has found himself in both physical and verbal

confrontations with racists, in successful struggles to keep the streets "hate free" and safe

for people of all colors. Jason is one of the most active youth organizers for ARA in his

city, coordinating the electronic (E-mail and Internet) media of the group as well as

participating regularly in Copwatch street monitoring. Tim was one of the leaders of the

outspoken opposition to white supremacist led "White Power Hour" TV show on his

local cable access station. He narrowly escaped arrest when he and some others staged a

protest outside the host of the show's apartment. He credits the actions of himself and his

ARA colleagues with raising awareness about the presence of racist hate and violence in

his community. These activists' partially colorblind views have hardly kept them at an

inactive pace! Since the data here reveal that colorblindness can sometimes come into

play for white antiracists without crippling their action potential, the next questions I will

address are why this happens with some white antiracists and not others, and what this

diversity in philosophy means for antiracist organizing.

Organizational Influences on Discourse

The white antiracist respondents who said they were non-colorblind clearly

rejected colorblindness on all three dimensions. They were also clear that, not only was

race or "color" something they knew that others saw (even if they were in "denial" about

it) but it was something that they also saw. In contrast, the white antiracist respondents in

the previous section talked about being colorblind on some dimensions but not others.

However, this was not just an arbitrary mix of colorblind and race cognizant discourse,

but a specific pattern of blending the two that could be particular to antiracists.

Specifically, they were not blind to institutional racism but were more colorblind when it

came to themselves and others, as individuals. Further, colorblindness was seen as

something they strived to possess (much like the liberals who see colorblindness as a

goal) but that others did not. The fact that others were not colorblind was something they

thought needed to be changed as part of an antiracist agenda. Thus, all antiracists agreed

that racism is institutionalized and that there are people (and institutions) who recognize

"color," yet they are split in terms of whether they include themselves in the non-

colorblind category. This breakdown can be seen in the top two cells of Table 1. The

"selective race cognizant" category refers to antiracist ideology/practice which is

colorblind (usually on self and other), while the "reflexive race cognizant" category

indicates that which is antiracist but not colorblind. As the data above demonstrate, PI

members were more likely to express reflexive race cognizance--that is, to think of the

world "out there" and themselves (both macro and micro) in racial terms, and to think of

colorblindness itself as racist. On the other hand, ARA members were more likely to use

"selective race cognizance," reflecting on racial differences at the macro level but

expressing a colorblind way of viewing their day-to-day local (micro) interactions.

Although there is another category of colorblindness which is not used in an antiracist

way (the color and power evasive cell), those in ARA refrained from this usage of


Table 4-1: Uses of Colorblind Discourse

Yes No

Yes Selective Reflexive
Race Cognizance Race Cognizance
Antiracist (ARA) (PI)

Color and Overt Racist/
Power Evasive/ White Supremacist

Organizational Framing

Why are white antiracists different in their orientations toward colorblind

ideology? From analysis of the interview data as well as organizational materials of the

antiracist groups, it is evident that the organizations' framing of what an antiracism

movement should be profoundly affect the extent to which they engage with colorblind

discourse. Those who spoke predominantly in a reflexive race cognizant manner

(explicitly opposed to colorblindness) were either non-organizationally affiliated

antiracists or members of PI. This is relevant because, for PI members, it is an outcome

of their organizational culture that they are thoughtfully reflective about their own

positions of whiteness and their role in racism. The Undoing Racism workshops--of

which all the respondents here had attended at least one (and usually more than one)--are

explicit in putting forth that all whites are racist by definition, and that colorblindness is a

form of denial and escapism from the reality of racism. PI's master frame of the problem

of racism is one that posits whites, and the institutional power that they hold, as the

antagonists. PI also focuses its workshops towards people who are already working at

progressive social change--like educators in poor and predominantly non-white

communities, peace activists, social service agencies and churches--sending the message

that the Undoing of Racism needs to be done in these more subtle areas, rather than

targeting overt hate groups like the KKK. As such, PI's diagnostic frame of the problem

is "we are the problem"--accepting this during the workshop is often an emotionally

trying time for many whites. This framing makes it virtually impossible for them to take

the "I'm OK, you're not OK" stance (one form of colorblindness) taken by members of

other antiracist organizations. Even the very structure of the organization, with its

separate group for whites (European Dissent), creates an atmosphere where "color"

simply cannot be ignored. Thus, it is clear that when one's organizational culture frames

racism as a problem of subtle inequities in which all whites play a role, and separates

members accordingly, reflexive race cognizance, or absence of all colorblindness, is

likely to result.

Alternatively, other white antiracists take a Selectively Race Cognizant position.

They recognize the institutional structure of racism and the historical and contemporary


advantage that has given to whites, but fail to reflect on themselves as whites and others

as people of color in any meaningful way when considering them as individuals. They

pride themselves on being colorblind but recognize that others--hateful people and

institutions--are not. Further, their master frame posits that these non-colorblind,

discriminatory others are the antagonist. They do not see themselves as also the

antagonists, as PI members would. Organizational affiliation is again relevant here since

all the respondents here who fit into this category were members of ARA. ARA's

educational publications and its actions themselves point toward overt racists as the

antagonists. Most of their writings and actions focus on white power groups as the

antagonists, such as the culprits of the black church bombings and the Oklahoma City

bombings. A poignant pictorial illustration of ARA's diagnostic framing of the racism

problem is on the back cover of the latest issue of ARA News. There is a hooded

Klansman with several kids scowling up at him, and the caption reads: "Ew, gross! Let's

call ARA!" Clearly, overt racists like KKK members are the antagonist, and ARA is the

protagonist. Although the assailants ("bad guys") here and in all cases mentioned in

ARA News are identified as white people (ARA does not participate in the "black

racism" idea,) nowhere is it asserted that only whites can be racist, or that whites as an

entire group are the problem. ARA's mission statement says it rejects hate in any form

(including sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, etc.), and as Travis noted, hatemongerss"

come in every "color." ARA is not structurally separated by race, as is PI. All ARA

members meet together, regardless of race (although people of color in the group are a

small minority.) Tasks and goals are not identified in any racially specific way, as with PI

where white members are told they have work to do which is quite different from that

which people of color should do. Thus, an organizational culture which shows

"blindness" towards its members' race even as it recognizes the color of antagonists,

coupled with the framing of blatant acts of hostility as the main targets of antiracist

activism, create an atmosphere in which Selective Race Cognizance (a form of

colorblindness) is fostered. In this atmosphere, this specific kind of colorblindness is not

incompatible with the tasks and goals at hand (fighting overt racist practices) and it is not

at all debilitating to action.

Given these particular organizational frames, it is useful now to turn to the bottom

two cells of the table where ways of not being antiracist are displayed. Each category of

non-antiracist behavior is directly diagonal to its most vocal antagonist. In the bottom left

corner are color and power evasive individuals as Frankenberg describes them, who claim

not to see color but also believe it no longer matters to others (ignoring power

differences.) These folks do not think others see color anymore, there is no longer a need

for antiracist action because there is no more discrimination. They would also fit

Bardnt's definition of nonracists who "deny that the prison exists" (1991:65). This way

of thinking is identified as racist by PI members, and is their antagonist, or the key form

of racism that reflexive race cognizance targets as the problem. In the bottom right

corner are individuals who recognize color differences but do not believe that others

(including institutions) see them. These might include (but not limited to) neo-Nazi

groups who think "race" is an important distinguishing characteristic upon which people

should discriminate, but feel that the government and others are not doing enough to

recognize this and to keep the "races" as separate as they would like. Selective race

cognizance sees this position as its most important antagonist, found directly diagonal

from it in the table. The table demonstrates that there are racist and antiracist ways of

being colorblind, as well as racist and antiracist ways of not being colorblind. This makes

it impossible to answer the question "is being colorblind racist or not?"because it depends

on how one is being (or not being) colorblind in order to answer the question.

Doing Colorblindness--Shifting and Strategizing

It should be noted that colorblindness is not simply something one is or is not (as

in a noun) but rather can be conceptualized as an adjective to describe certain ways of

thinking and discussing ideologies about race. Further, the categories can be seen as two

polar extremes between which much shifting and strategizing occurs, regardless of one's

organizational affiliation. For example, ARA member Tim talked about how he treats

everyone equally, yet still noticed color internally in a way that made him uncomfortable:

I think everyone has a little bit of racism in them just because of the
condition they've been brought up with. I don't consider myself racist, but
I know I sometimes--like where I'm from in [town name], it's totally
white, so it's different being around different cultures. It doesn't bother
me, it's just, I'm really "PC" about it--it's like I don't want to stare or
whatever, it's just those stupid little stereotypes... I don't look down at
anyone as lesser than me, I never really have. We're all equal, it's just a
comfortable feeling I gotta create. I don't wanna do anything to make
them mad at me or think that I am a racist, just because of my own
paranoia. So it's all internal, little stuff. I wouldn't consider myself racist
in the definition I explained. [me: so you'd like to get to the point where
you wouldn't have that feeling?] Yeah, so I could look at other people just
as if I'd look at a white person.

Even though Tim told me he thought of himself as colorblind--did not see himself or

others in "color" terms--he did describe an "internal" awareness of color, due to his all-


white upbringing, that he wanted to work on eliminating in himself. In spite of his lack

of exposure to people of color, he wanted to get to a point where he did not have to do a

lot of self-monitoring to interact with people of color. Here we can see that Tim is not

using colorblindness in a nonracistt" way to deny that racism exists. He is well aware of

how racism has affected him in a negative way. Although he self-characterized for the

most part as colorblind, he also brought up the not-so-colorblind aspects of his self-

concept, in a reflexive race cognizant manner.

Another example of white antiracists crossing back and forth between categories

is that of PI member Pam. In a reflexive race cognizant manner, she argued that a better

alternative to colorblindness would be "working toward an appreciation for those

different colors that are out there and what they represent." For her, this included prior

history of racism: she talked about how she wouldn't blame blacks for being distrustful of

whites and that it was perfectly reasonable for whites to have to prove they were worthy

of being trusted, given their historical track record. Thus, for whites to have to "prove

themselves" to blacks, in a way that blacks would not have to do for whites, was just one

example in which she felt her interactions would be affected by "color." She

characterized herself as "definitely not colorblind," but she felt that the desired goal

should be to move from a "negative colorblind" (one that functioned as "denial of

racism") to a "positive colorblind" (giving equal respect to different cultural traditions,

histories and standpoints.)

Certainly, a person of color just being a person of color, I'm not going to
condemn them unless they give me a reason to. If you stab me in the back,
I have a reason now. But you're certainly going to have every chance, as