Whiteness and the Bernie Sanders Shutdown

On Saturday August 8th, two women interrupted Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders’ rally by taking the stage to protest racial injustice in Seattle and across America. Marissa Johnson and Mara Jacqueline Willaford, who claimed to be leaders of the Seattle Black Lives Matter chapter, attempted to lead the crowd in a four-and-a-half-minute moment of silence to honor the one-year anniversary of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri, which was the following day, Sunday August 9th.

Although debate has been raging on social media threads about the legitimacy of Johnson and Willaford’s affiliation with Black Lives Matter Seattle and their credibility as voices for the movement, one thing Johnson said helped illuminate a key point of the racial debate for me. As she fought to remain on stage and finish her speech, Johnson’s voice raised and cracked as she commanded the crowd to “honor the fact that I have to fight through all of these people to say [that] my live matters! That I have to get up here in front of a bunch of screaming, white racists, to say my life fucking matters” (2:20-2:34 here). Her comment struck a nerve with the crowd, which exploded in angry shouts. A few audible rebukes included, “How DARE she call me a racist?” and a man’s barking shout of “Get off. Get off. Get off. Get off.”

Johnson’s indictment of the mostly white liberal crowd assembled to hear Senator Sanders speak, as “a bunch of screaming, white racists,” was most likely purposely incendiary. Notable for me, though, were the words she used. She labelled the crowd racist because of their whiteness. By virtue of being majority white, she saw them as diametrically opposed to her cause. To Johnson, the crowd represented the white power structure, rather than a group of humans with individual opinions. How did one word, white, turn the whole group into racists? Johnson reveals one of the central, and often overlooked controversies of the race debate: the place of whiteness.

As a white person, hers is a disturbing logical equation: if to be white is to be racist, how can a white person fight racial injustice? Video footage of the confrontation between Johnson and Willaford and the crowd left me tense and confused. I was unsure whether I identified with the indignant liberals in the crowd taken aback at being called racist or with the courageous black women who stormed the stage to challenge an engrained and all-too-invisible (to some) white hegemony.

In one blog post about the incident entitled, “Interrupting Bernie: Exposing the White Supremacy of the American Left,” writer Jamie Utt employs a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King to claim that the major barrier to racial justice is the complacent alliance of white moderates who will ultimately defend their white comfort in circumstances like Johnson and Willaford’s protest. So, was I one of the faux allies who couldn’t handle the blow to my white comfort?

My squeamishness, however, is less with my white discomfort at being called a racist and more at the wholesale shutting out of well-meaning whites from the fight for equality. White people need to willingly examine and dissect their whiteness and divest from it[1] in order for racial justice to take place. Hitting whites over the head with their “racism” as Johnson did on Saturday resulted in them rejecting her entire position as offensive and ludicrious (cue the crowd’s cries of “Get out of my face,” “You will not tell me what to do, young lady,” and “I don’t have to shut up,”). This is a shame, because the protest could have been an opportunity for liberals, black and white, to find some common ground.

In my revisionist dream of the rally, those white liberals in the crowd would realize that racial injustice is their problem, not just an annoying disruption to their candidate’s rally. They would realize that injustice is part of their whiteness as much as it is part of the protestor’s blackness. Until we all internalize this, we are not true allies.

          ***

[1] A reference to Zeus Leonardo’s paper “The Souls of White Folk: critical pedagogy, whiteness studies, and globalization discourse” appeared in Jamie Utt’s blog post “Interrupting Bernie: Exposing the White Supremacy of the American Left,” linked in the preceding paragraph, which is where I first found it.

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Whiteness and the Bernie Sanders Shutdown

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