I recently finished my master’s degree in history at Iowa State this past spring. A part of my graduate school experience included writing many letters and articles, like this one, to the Iowa State Daily as both a student and columnist. Though I have moved on to a different university to pursue my doctoral degree, I thoroughly enjoyed my time and experiences at Iowa State. I have had the opportunity to meet, work with and befriend an assortment of people.
Importantly, my race, which is mixed Black and white, has never hindered my pursuits and rarely has it proved a barrier in developing interpersonal relationships. My race has never caused my conservative friends and colleagues to view me differently, nor my liberal friends or the several Marxist friends and colleagues that I have gotten to know well. I value the hours of amicable, nuanced conversations on complex topics with the people I have met, which always prove to be full of disagreement but also surprising amounts of agreement and understanding.
One can learn much from legitimately listening to people, empathizing with their viewpoints and taking their concerns seriously. Those conversations are always the most challenging, rewarding, fascinating, not to mention enjoyable. But there are those on campus, in true race reductionist and racist form, who cannot help but look at the world through a purely racial lens, often for selfish motives. The consequence of such an attitude invariably leads to racial stereotyping, low expectations and heightened egos and sense of paternalistic importance for the possessors of such a worldview. I am, of course, talking about a segment of the so-called young white “progressives.”
Young white progressives believe minorities are fragile beings who struggle to function as humans on the individual level. One of the most visible examples of that belief manifested this past March in response to a university-wide email sent out by the students for 2A organization concerning 3D-printed firearms. One example comes in the form of an individual who drew up a petition seeking to punish Students for 2A, arguing that that student organization caused racial fear and created an unsafe environment for marginalized identities on campus.
The orchestrator of the petition, a white woman, issued a lengthy letter claiming Students for 2A’s email was “not just simply an email, but another addition to the culmination of events that continue to make students, and those who hold marginalized identities, feel unsafe on this campus… It is a privilege to be able to manufacture a gun, discuss manufacturing a gun or even hold a gun without having to fear for your safety because of your identities.”
Two other white women who serve as president and vice-president of another student organization, Students Demand Action, concurs, writing, “Not only was the timing of this email incredibly insensitive, but the content instilled fear in students, especially those who identify as students of color.” Those assumed notions held by these women are sickening and embarrassing (especially when a coalition of minorities comment on their articles and statements directly challenging their assertions).
For me, I am personally a living descendant of slaves who broke their backs toiling in the cotton fields of Mississippi. Minorities in the U.S. are incredible people. As a historical collective, we have navigated and survived slavery, racism, war, Jim Crow segregation and many other forms of discrimination no doubt a part of American history. Much of that, we have gone through our own autonomous resistance. I think we can handle a non-threatening email about firearms, especially when the author and president of Students for 2A identifies as a part of two marginalized identities.
He is an ethnically Jewish and a gay man - which begs the question of what the meaning of harming marginalized groups mean to these women when they feel inclined to attack people with marginalized identities? (The president permitted me to divulge this information.) Not to mention, minorities own firearms and minorities and people with marginalized identities are not fearful children by their nature.
Historically speaking, gun ownership was vitally important to Black Americans in the Antebellum and Postbellum South, but I digress. Such responses would be embarrassing if they were not so infuriating. One should question if these women have spent enough time around minorities to even begin to make such assertions, let alone feel they can speak for entire groups of people.
Put simply, these particular women seem to possess a concerning ignorance as to who minorities are and what we are capable of. They would rather choose to relate to minorities as if we are monolithic caricatures instead of complex individuals with varying beliefs and value systems within our communities of any given immutable characteristics. It is always simultaneously amusing and cringeworthy (but mostly cringe) to listen to white progressives claim that they have a duty to speak on behalf of minorities and marginalized communities. The real question, though, is why do they engage in this behavior? What do they have to gain?
Let us return to the petition writer, for she offers important clues. In a separate statement to the Iowa State Daily commenting on Students for 2A, she asserts, “As a white woman… I wanted to use my voice to call attention to the harm caused to students with marginalized identities by the mass email.” Beyond the eye-rolling at the “as a white woman” statement, there exists a more disturbing form of paternalistic racism.
White progressives explicitly believe they hold more power and privilege than minorities by virtue of their white skin. The flip side of that ideological theory is the pernicious assumption that minorities/marginalized communities cannot navigate through the world without the benevolent action of white people. The consequence is the frequent “uplift” language and the paternalistic infantilization of minorities that white progressives promote, coupled with a rather bizarre belief in the individual power that a white progressive holds over a minority individual’s lot in life.
The “reward” for paternalistically “defending” and “uplifting” minorities for the white progressive is not an altruistic one. Instead, the reward is the feeling of moral superiority over others who do not hold their white power (used unironically) and privilege sentiments, including other dissenting minorities. In short, they attempt to wield a highly inflated sense of themselves to show they are better than others; what’s worse is that they will use the plight of minorities to “prove” that fact.
The word “use” should not be taken lightly. A white progressive can claim they must and will uplift minorities, speak on their behalf, write a catchy hashtag, post a temporary profile picture or even create a ridiculous petition that could not even survive a single news cycle. But at the end of the day, those actions serve only the egos of the authors and creators, doing virtually nothing to change the conditions and realities they claim minorities inherently find themselves in.
These racist attitudes manifest in a multitude of other ways and in other places too. A Latino can argue against the term Latinx because the term is “promoted by white academics, white media and young Latinos pushing gender politics” while, to an overwhelming extent, Latinx is not used or even known in the majority of Latino households. Yet, there will be cohorts of self-identified white progressives who will ignore the Latino/Hispanic community and continue to use the term as a way to signal their morally superior progressive values. In actuality, the term stands to serve the progressive user most, not the Latino/Hispanic community or even the LGBTQ+ community. So much for acknowledging and respecting cultural practices and preferences.
That similar mindset is on full display with those like Robin Diangelo, who believes all white people, including her, are racist. However, if you read her book, and more importantly pay her an inordinate amount of money, somehow, that self-proclaimed white racist might just solve racism... somehow. Whatever the case may be, the motivation for such attitudes and actions by white progressives are clear. Their desire for moral superiority, for clicks, cash and clout, comes at the continued expense of minorities. Indeed, those three “c” words are often achieved by exploitation siphoned off the backs of minorities.
White progressives believe minorities are powerless, weak and a monolith to use for their purposes of establishing moral superiority. Make no mistake, the above examples given are examples of racism and white supremacy. I and other minorities owe nothing to the eighteen to twenty-something, do-nothing, white progressives. The first step for a white progressive in fighting racism might just be identifying the image staring back at them in the bathroom mirror.
John Rochford is an ISU alumnus, who graduated with a Master's in history.