Lisa Weiner-Mahfuz

Debunking The White Liberal Dog and Pony Show

Filed By Lisa Weiner-Mahfuz | December 09, 2010 7:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Politics, Politics
Tags: liberalism, movement, racial justice

I deeply believe that white allies who are committed to challenging white supremacy are critical to our efforts to build multi-racial and cross-issue movements. At the same time, I also believe that white liberalism lies at the heart of why racial justice2DF5360E4297EA0125466713E7631600.jpeg - as an ongoing practice principal - is not a central commitment of the LGBT movement.

There is a difference between white liberalism, which engages people of color as tokens, and a commitment to challenging white supremacy in a way that uproots the systems of power that maintain the status quo. White liberalism is what fuels the movements "add people of color and stir" approach to policy, political and organizing work. White liberalism uses black and brown bodies as window dressing in an attempt to appear inclusive without actually shifting power and making change. White liberalism strategically and intentionally prevents multi-racial alliances and the full inclusion of people whose bodies and cultures do not fit what is considered to be "the norm".

Simply put, white liberalism will be the death of our movements.

LGBT Power and Culture

Vibrant racial justice work that is rooted in an understanding of power and culture is happening in the LGBT movement. In fact, there are generations of organizations and individuals across our movement dedicated to advancing racial justice as a central tenant of their organizing. Yet, the practices, models and organizing strategies that many people of color and white allies have used to deepen racial justice work have been dismissed and devalued by the mainstream LGBT movement. In a recent speech about racial justice in the LGBT movement, Urvashi Vaid frames this intentional dismissal in the following way:

Not only am I tired of having to make this speech, what saddens me is that most of the audiences to whom I have made this presentation have no problem hearing the argument framed as "what can Brown do for LGBT people" but they always resist the reverse proposition that the LGBT movement needs to work on racial justice issues that affect Brown and Black people too. The existence of LGBT people of color is simply not really considered, nor deemed significant enough to justify engagement with racial justice - something that most white gay people see as a "diversion" of the LGBT agenda to address race. As a result, race in our movement is seen primarily as an issue of diversity or outreach, not as an issue of equity or fundamental justice that it is our business as a movement to achieve.

I could not agree more with you Urvashi.

In my opinion, there is a lot that the white liberal LGBT establishment doesn't understand about how we organize within communities of color. This not only leads to the marginalization of our communities and our vibrant organizing efforts, but it also is one of the major barriers to the LGBT movement making a deep commitment to racial justice.

How do we build a more just and racially diverse LGBT movement if the white liberal establishment doesn't understand our ways of organizing and refuses to make a commitment to racial justice practices and principles? Instead, the mainstream national movement is too busy telling communities of color how, when, where and why we should engage our communities in a narrowly defined LGBT political agenda that does not address the full breadth and depth of our communities needs.

In essence, we are expected to sit at the white liberal table and perform on their time and on their dime. Oh yes, something is definitely wrong with this picture.

The Intersection of Oppression and Privilege

I want to break this down further by sharing more about some of my experiences of organizing within communities of color and the ways in which white liberalism has been used to interrupt, disrupt and dismantle our organizing work.

Within and across our communities of color there is no such thing as a monolith. Language, skin color, regional differences, our personal and political values, class, gender, gender identity culture, immigration status, physical ability etc., often make it impossible for us to claim one identity. Our identities, and therefore our bodies, lie at the intersection of many forms of oppression and privilege.

As a result, organizing within and across our respective communities of color takes time. It takes trust building. It takes an ability to hold complexity and nuance. Simply put, our organizing can't be rushed and it can't be done using a cookie cutter approach.

Unfortunately, when white liberalism attempts to kick down the proverbial door in communities of color it assumes that we are all the same and that there is some sort of shortcut we can take to organize ourselves quickly in order to be ready for the white liberal dog and pony show. Remember, white liberalism just wants us to sit quiet and pretty at the table without any real institutional power.

If any of us dare to question the underlying culture, context or power structure of the work or the organization we've suddenly become too uppity for our own good. If any of us dare to organize, collectivize and build power with other people of color and white allies we are seen as troublemakers and agitators.

Struggling to Build a Collective Vision

Building political power within and across our communities of color requires that we spend the time we need to develop a shared vision and values for our organizing. In the context of white liberalism it can be shocking to discover that not all people of color think the same way or share the same organizing principles.

It is my experience that it is critically important that we, as people of color, take the time we need to reach mutual understanding around the values and principles we share as it pertains to racial justice and the range of issues that impact our communities. When we don't take the time to engage in this difficult but necessary trust building, we struggle to come up with a collective vision that truly embodies the complexity of who we are and the strategies that are necessary to address the myriad of issues facing our communities.

When we don't engage in these discussions as part of our organizing, it eventually leads to the eroding of our solidarity and our collective ability to do the kinds of organizing that truly creates change in our communities.

White liberalism assumes that we can skip over this step. I've been in far too many organizing efforts where white liberals have either not understood that people of color need to take the time to engage in the vision and values conversation and/or they grow increasingly impatient with what they consider to be touchy-feely process work. We are often pressured to move through this step quickly or not at all. And if it comes to pass that we can't foster enough mutual understanding and solidarity to actually move concrete organizing, policy and political efforts forward we get blamed by white liberals for under performing, being unskilled and not having the capacity to pull off 'real' work.

Connecting Time and Culture

Now let's talk about the interconnectedness of time and culture. Given the complexity of our bodies, lives and our political, social and cultural conditions time is important. It is my experience that our communities do not relate well to expedient political agendas. Expediency, which often leads to throwing members of our communities under the bus in order to win some rights at the expense of others, isn't exactly a popular tactic in our communities.

How we organize, including the models we use and the organic approaches we develop to address issues our communities face at any given political and economic moment, is far from linear. Also, our organic approaches to organizing, along with how we pace those organizing efforts, have everything to do with our culture.

For example, how folks in one community of color plan, discuss, execute, vision and build power around a political campaign may be very different than in another community of color because the cultural norms in each community dictate how things get done. In some communities, elders must be consulted first before any decisions are made. Time and pace is everything and if we are organizing across communities of color negotiating time and culture becomes even more complex.

In the end, a great deal of attention must be paid to the pacing of the work as well as to the ability to hold the complexity of the cultural expectations and understandings at play. Every community of color engages in their organizing differently, but there are often overlaps and places of solidarity that can be forged if close attention is being paid to creating mutual understanding.

White liberalism overlooks the importance of culture and time because its goal is to install a leader (preferably a white, able bodied, middle class male) and move along a political agenda that aims to achieve a narrow set of rights for the fewest people. White liberalism does not aim to center the most complex black, brown, disabled, working class, female, trans, bi, gender queer, immigrant bodies among us in the work of the movement.

On the contrary! It aims to push the most complex bodies among us further to the margins by dismissing how we pace our organizing, how we define our political issues and how culture fundamentally shapes our engagement in those issues.

White Liberalism As an Insurance Policy

I think of white liberalism, steeped in power and a corporate mentality, sort of like an insurance policy strategically used by our national mainstream movements to keep us stuck in a single issue LGBT movement. This policy is insidiously used to make communities of color invisible and protect the collective asses of movement leaders who try to falsely create the narrative and picture of movement that has authentic relationships with communities of color. Racial justice, in practice and principle, is critical to ending this policy and creating movements that are not based on tokenization, competition and the all mighty dollar.

It's time for the mainstream LGBT movement to wake up! Smell the java! Get moving around racial justice work!

Why? Because our mutual survival depends upon it.

Does the mainstream LGBT movement really believe that they can build political power without communities of color? This is not politically viable or strategic given that this country is in the process of undergoing a demographic shift of epic proportions. The LGBT movement, along with all of the other movements for social justice, will become irrelevant if they do not embrace what communities of color know so well: an intersectional understanding of issues, identities and communities.

We know it so well because this is the narrative of our bodies, our lives and our relationship to land and community. Most importantly it is the narrative of our ancestors.

(Artwork by Ricardo Levins Morales)


Recent Entries Filed under Politics:

Leave a comment

We want to know your opinion on this issue! While arguing about an opinion or idea is encouraged, personal attacks will not be tolerated. Please be respectful of others.

The editorial team will delete a comment that is off-topic, abusive, exceptionally incoherent, includes a slur or is soliciting and/or advertising. Repeated violations of the policy will result in revocation of your user account. Please keep in mind that this is our online home; ill-mannered house guests will be shown the door.


Victor Raymond | December 9, 2010 10:49 PM

White liberalism strategically and intentionally prevents multi-racial alliances and the full inclusion of people whose bodies and cultures do not fit what is considered to be "the norm".

As a person of color, I'm fully aware of this particular fact. But as a bisexual person, I'm reminded that it isn't just people of color excluded from full participation in the lesbian and gay political and social movements. Bisexuals and transgender people are often trivialized, devalued, ignored, and otherwise left out. And this isn't a "hey, me, too!" reaction - if anything, it is a validation of Weiner-Mahfuz's core point - that the centering of white gay male and lesbian perspectives that is at the core of the white liberal perspective doesn't leave out only people of color, but also all those whose "bodies and culture" do not match the norm of lesbian or gay male sexuality and gender identification. If anything, what I am suggesting is a larger critique of the white liberal perspective within and surrounding the lesbian and gay political and social movements - it's simply too neat to divide this as "sexuality vs. race" when even within the political construction of acceptable sex and gender there are deeply problematic exclusions taking place.

So - speaking for myself - I'm not just reiterating the legitimate complaint of Audre Lorde to Mary Daly. This isn't just about recognizing the contributions of past and present bisexual and transgender activists. It even isn't about making lesbian women and gay men uncomfortable about their silences and shunning of those not like them, whether on the basis of race or gender identity or sexual orientation. What I am suggesting is that Weiner-Mahfuz's and Vaid's critique of white liberalism needs> to move past an uncritical identification of "LGBT" as some kind of unified bloc of political perspective to say that - if anything - we should say "lesbian and gay" when attempting to identify the political movement that needs to change. Put another way, bisexuals and transgender people have been excluded just as much as people of color, so let's be clear where that line should be drawn.

When people with different backgrounds collaborate, the conversation about shared values *should* take longer than it would otherwise, IMO.

In work settings, at least, groups with more diversity can achieve better results than homogeneous groups can. But that doesn't happen without talking about values and common ground.

IMO, the liberal lesbian and gay movement could learn a great deal from the other groups you and Victor mentioned. Liberals are not necessarily aware of others' experiences, even when they've made a commitment to be inclusive.

IMO, it can be helpful to suspend the expectation that liberals will immediately "get" the value of diverse viewpoints and experiences.

Thanks for this, Lisa. You really effectively unite the theory and the concrete here in this piece, always the best place to go.

I think you would agree that what you describe is not limited to the LGBT movement (or as Victor usefully notes, the LG movement). I certainly saw the same issues about time, bodies, culture, as an organizer in the housing movement, when lower income tenants, mostly people of color, interacted with liberal nonprofit staffers, usually white and certainly committed to what you call "expedient" and they called "practical" style. (I.e. what can pass Congress, or get funded, or sound good to a reporter.)

The reality is that it takes time to build any movement, and that the expedient approach is not only racist and generally exclusionary, but it doesn't even really work. Its usual result is that we end up aiming for less meaningful and more attainable goals, and accepting definitions of success that are of less and less value to the persons directly affected by our issue.

I do feel a need to pitch the ideas of a book that just came out, and that I do have an article in, Accountability and White Anti-Racist Organizing, edited by Bonnie Cushing. Because setting up systems of accountability is I think part of the answer to this problem. In my article, I trace this idea of accountability back to the reparations actions taken by James Forman and others in the late 60s, and show how it played out in housing organizing.

As a white organizer who was accountable to people of color, i was strongly encouraged to learn respect and attention to process. I learned concretely how much more we could win, and how much deeper the struggle could go. Conversely, it seems to me that white liberals having accountability to everyone but people of color, the typical situation, is a major reason for the condition you describe.

Thanks again for this piece, which I have already shared with colleagues.

I'm a white liberal, and I've been waiting so long for this to come back into our public consciousness. Whiteness is not rightness!

One way physicists make progress is through a process called renormalization: they say let's put the 0,0,0 point there instead of here and see how the equations work now.

Our 0,0,0 point can not be white privileged, white normal. There's something wrong with that! Even white liberals feel that in our bones. We need to renormalize, to look at white-dominant groups and institutions and say "Look at all the white people!" Paradoxically (to the white-normal mind) white racial consciousness can be a way forward.

Leah McElrath | December 10, 2010 8:33 AM

Excellent piece, Lisa!!

The one thing I would add is that, rather than decry privilege, we need to challenge those of us who have it (whether it's racial, class or gender-based) to *spend* their privilege - because, as you lay out with such clarity - it's in our best interest to do so.

Proud to call you a friend :-)

This article had resonance for me through multiple factor analysis (of all things!) We need to transform the coordinates of all the factors in our intersectionality (race, gender, and the rest) to a new normal. The process is more important than the "right answer" at this point in our understanding.

Thank you!

this article and the comments, articulate so many aspects of the whole LG rights movement that i have been living as well.

as a white lesbian i have been offering an alternative voice to the white gay men's agenda of marriage equality. that is not my issue and i doubt it is the defining issue for many folks who are struggling with job security, gender norms and most overtly the abuse from religious communities- just to name a few.

i want to read the book that Yates highlighted.

i would also like to offer a bit of hope. the org that i staff is a faith based social justice movement. while we are a racially diverse group, in this moment it's a majority white movement.after several years of work, this march while meeting in NOLA, we passed a declaration to be an anti-racist organization. every time we gather as a leadership team - and our meetings are open to anyone who wants to attend and they have voice and vote - we do some kind of training on privilige/power/racism/intersections of oppressions. it's hard work that we must do. we are intentionally challenging white/oppressive/centralized notions of how to build community beyond the boundaries as we focus on racial justice and homophobia.

thanks for letting me share that bit of a commercial.

i am circulating this article widely and hope to connect with Weiner-Mahfuz for more conversation.

thank you all -


I found this a very frustrating article - you've identified the right problem and at the same time you've identified the wrong problem. The organizing methods used in lots of liberal groups are not working but it's not because they're dominated by whiteness. It's not a matter of white liberalism - it's a matter of mid-20th century liberalism. It's fair to point out that mid 20th century liberalism was dominated by white people but it's not color that defined their approach. Bear with me.

By the mid 20th century, liberalism was largely assumed in lots and lots of contexts and organizations. These organizations were very successful. They worked because of a shared cultural context in which they operated; they assumed that the people walking through the doors shared their values. This was a period of broad consensus in the US and it was a generally safe assumption that people coming to the meetings were all on the same page. These organizations were also very gifted at creating institutional memory. Leaders were mentored without ever being explicit about that mentoring. They simply "knew" how things were done. Members had social contacts outside of the group and so values and assumptions were easily communicated. People showed up at meetings or rallies or whatever already sharing the values and goals because they plugged in to the same social networks.

Those social networks no longer exist. The organizations still do and people within them work on the same assumptions as before because that's "how it's always been done." Its not a matter of whiteness per se but rather a matter of making bad assumptions about shared values. It's easy when you're in an organization to do that. Up until about a decade ago (maybe a longer longer), you could still operate more or less like that because there was still a sizable old guard. No more. The old guard is gone and with them much of the intellectual and institutional infrastructure.

Change theories such as appreciative inquiry, Open Space and World Cafe (to name a few) have arisen to address exactly the problem you've defined in terms of race that are to my mind organizational in nature. Lots of liberal groups have long assumed everyone showing up was on the same page and ready to go; they can't anymore and those groups that have adapted and are using better models to organize are seeing better outcomes. It's not to my mind a question of white liberalism versus other forms of liberalism but rather a question of adapting to new realities - the old models don't work and haven't for a long time. The organizations using them have been running on fumes and inertia; those that adapt will do fine, those that don't deserve to die.

Does that make sense? I know it does in my head but maybe not in the world around me.

Yes to all that, and, of course, the demographic curve is going to come wildly swinging its tail in a few years, and those who have not understood these points are going to be very, very sorry indeed, for quite a long while.