White Activism: More Harm than Good?

I haven’t written in a while because I’ve been guilty and afraid. Guilty because a few months ago I hurt someone I deeply admire. Afraid because, as a result, I started questioning if my attempts to combat racism are doing more harm than good. It isn’t helpful for me to “address” racism in a way that silences women of color and provides an easy out for women of privilege.

Wincing, curling into a ball and hiding is selfish and unproductive, so I’m able to push that aside. I owned my mistakes and apologized. I will do better in the future. But what does “better” look like?

How much of white “activist” work is actually oppressive?

I attended Western States conference last summer. In the second half of the Beyond Diversity workshop, I started noticing that the white co-leader resisted critiques of the process by people of color, but responded well to people of privilege, including me. The previous day in our Theatre of the Oppressed training, I’d had the physical experience of seeing my own racism show up in my body (and my speech) as we role-played a racist event.

It made me wonder if white people are MORE racist during their activist, anti-racist activities. The very act of trying to uproot racism, so seemingly central to white survival, can provoke a backlash within the white activist. And at the same time that this racism is showing up, the white person gets to feel like a good white person for being an activist. So, in the end, does it really help?

I don’t know. What I do get, on a new level, is how much it costs activists of color to work with white allies. People of color bear the cost of white enlightenment and make it “safe” for white people, because that’s how racism works. That’s how the system works.

How do people of privilege bring down a system that supports them?

Because while I want to destroy the system, what I seem to be doing is simply making white racism more “enlightened” in a civilized way…that kind of nice destructive civilizing that brought us the genocide of colonization. The missionaries had good intentions too, and I’m one of them.


  1. vanessa Timmons

    Wow sis, you always go deep and pull up the stuff that is hiding in the shadow. I am proud of the questions that you ask. I have noticed a similar pattern with internalized oppression. That we are dancing around the margins of something so fundamental and painful that we don’t know what to do with our enlightenment. My friend Desire is a leader and activist from the Pendelton Reservation. She says we have to move them to action, move people beyond raising awareness. But I have been thinking lately that the best kind of activism is asking deep questions and sitting with shadow.

    • I am so lucky to be your friend. 🙂 Thank you. I appreciate the suggestion to sit with shadow. I think about that shadow which is the terror of being found out as a bad/no-good/unworthy person. I don’t know how to help myself or others let go of that fear or face it or transform it, but I think it is one place to start. What if we weren’t afraid of those secret beliefs that we have about ourselves? Maybe we’d be able to risk more and be more open to relationships and actions which would change us.

  2. kathleen saadat

    Once I forgave myself for “NOT being God”, it became easier for me to forgive myself for making mistakes. I’ve found that almost all deep significant change in my life involved pain as part of revelation and growth. I believe this will always be true and have come to expect it. It is also true that in growing I have inadvertently hurt others and found the only remedy is to sincerely apologize using the words “I am sorry” followed by what I believe to be the wrong I have done giving no excuses for my behavior. Then I let it go because I cannot stand to be held hostage by guilt which paralyzes me, rendering me impotent/ineffective. The racial interactions between us are a dynamic. We need to talk more about this dynamic. I need allies of all colors but I have only the barest outline of a road map. you have parts of what we need to go forward. Each time we tackle race/racism we move into unexplored territory. We need to let go of the arrogance that makes us believe we SHOULD know thing we have never been taught. Keep talking, keep fighting for US (YOU AND I=US!). I NEED YOU! Read: Roll Jordan Roll (The World the Slaves Made) Eugene Genovese

    • It helps to think of it as “unexplored territory” and racial interactions as a dynamic between us rather than as a task/challenge that is just about me that I can either fail or succeed at. Relationships are messy and complex, and being in relationship means risking vulnerability for the sake of open-hearted and genuine connection. Thank you for this reminder, for the blessing of your you-ness, and for the book recommendation (I found it at the library at school and just put it on hold). Love you too! – Liz

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