Woke White Liberals

Our conversation surrounding The Handmaid’s Tale and its appeal to the martyr complexes of white women has caused me to reexamine the role of white liberals in social justice and their reception of Baldwin’s writing. Audre Lorde draws attention to the passivity found in white women in issues of racism and discrimination in “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism” saying, “I have seen situations where white women hear a racist remark, resent what has been said, become filled with fury, and remain silent because they are afraid.” We continued this discussion in class and considered how the largest perpetrators of social racism are white liberals that adopt “polite racism” and excuse their own racial prejudices while denouncing systemic discrimination. I think comedian Bill Burr’s opening joke for SNL about white women and woke culture sums it up nicely: “Somehow, white women swung their Gucci-booted feet over the fence of oppression and stuck themselves at the front of the line.” The issue of white women using sexism to refuse to accept their white privilege undermines racial progress and intersectional feminism. Also, performative activism executed by white liberals over the summer during the public surge of the BLM movement undermined effective change that the movement was trying to bring about.

Civil rights activists like Baldwin and King have both had to deal with the backlash from white audiences and must have considered whether or not to adapt their messages to gain the support of white liberals. In “Why James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time Still Matters” Edmonds calls attention to the shift in Baldwin’s writing and his growing dismissal of the white gaze’s influence. He writes, “Lyne’s article narrates the history of Baldwin’s writing in conjunction with the development of his politics, that is, from being ‘the darling of the white liberal establishment” to developing a politics that “pushed him beyond the boundaries of canonization.” Baldwin’s later work is described as becoming more bitter, but also more radical as it shifts away from cold war liberalism. Edmonds expands on this saying, “Written during the middle period of his career, The Fire Next Time bridges these categories. Although it doesn’t reflect the “Black Marxism” Lyne finds in Baldwin’s later works, it isn’t interested in liberal integrationism either.” However, after this work’s immediate publication, it was criticized by white audiences for trying to goad white people into action and Kenneth Rexroth in the San Francisco Examiner wrote, “The Fire Next Time is designed to make white liberals feel terribly guilty and to scare white reactionaries into running and barking fits.”

Considering this context, I wasn’t sure what to make of this line in “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew” where Baldwin asks his nephew to find a level of forgiveness for white people. “The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them. And I mean that very seriously. You must accept them with love. For these innocent people have no other hope. They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand” (294). I thought Baldwin was being rather generous here and I struggle to see his view of white innocence in a history they “do not understand,” yet created and continue to repeat.