“Us” versus “Them”

This whole “us versus them” mentality really gets us nowhere.

I understand the desire — the need — to have community and to not always be the “other,” the “them.” (RENT, anyone? “To being an ‘us’ for once / instead of a ‘them!'”) As someone who has been part of a “them” for as long as I can remember, I get that.

At the same time, I think we often tend to go too far with the “us versus them” mentality. When marginalized groups have this kind of mentality, it’s certainly not the same as when it comes from the dominant groups because the power dynamics are so completely different. But that doesn’t mean it’s just okay.

It’s somehow so easy to go from “let’s celebrate what we have in common, revel in our shared experiences” to “they’re nothing like us, and we’re better than them.” When I was a kid at Korean camp, I remember trying to persuade people away from the “what do white people know?” attitudes. I’m all for the “being Korean is awesome!” but when it moves to “white people are stupid and ignorant,” I draw the line.

Actually, of the people I know (and granted, that’s not a very expansive group of people), many of the fiercest anti-racism advocates and activists are white people. I’ve had more nuanced discussions, more impassioned conversations about systemic racism and what needs to be done to combat it, with white people than I’ve had with people of color. And possibly it’s because when I end up talking about race/racism with other people of color, it’s ended up being “let’s vent about our own personal issues,” not “the system is screwed up in so many ways.” Am I saying that people of color aren’t activists? Absolutely not. Am I saying that white people are better at recognizing racism than people of color? Of course not. I am, however, saying that it’s problematic to make sweeping assumptions about groups of people (like that all white people are either ignorant or aggressively protecting their white privilege).

The same goes for women — “girl power” and pseudo-feminism can veer into the “boys are stupid and insensitive” and “men are sexist jerks” very quickly. I went through six years of all-girls school (and an additional four at a women’s college). Sometimes, it seems easy for anger at the patriarchy to slide into a “men are oppressors” attitude.

Trans groups, queer groups — I think that in our joy at finding community, we sometimes forget that true allies can exist. Yes, a lot of cis people mess up our pronouns and don’t realize the innumerable forms that gender identity and presentation can take. A lot of straight people don’t understand that sexuality is not always some fixed thing with unchangeable boundaries. But that doesn’t mean that they can never learn and grow. That doesn’t necessarily make them bad people. And it doesn’t mean that all cis folks are gender-boring or going to be freaked out by gender diversity.

I cherish the time I spend with people of color and feminist, queer, and trans people. I deeply believe in creating community based on shared experiences and identities, and I can understand wanting to let loose with frustrations behind closed doors (and within community). But I also believe in finding balance, and it worries me how easily people divide into “us” and “them” — even in things as trivial (in the grand scheme of things) as Mac versus PC or New York pizza versus Chicago deep dish. In bigger issues, however, that kind of mentality can cause division where there should be coalition-building.

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4 responses to ““Us” versus “Them”

  1. “Actually, of the people I know (and granted, that’s not a very expansive group of people), many of the fiercest anti-racism advocates and activists are white people. I’ve had more nuanced discussions, more impassioned conversations about systemic racism and what needs to be done to combat it, with white people than I’ve had with people of color. And possibly it’s because when I end up talking about race/racism with other people of color,
    it’s ended up being “let’s vent about our own personal issues,” not “the system is screwed up in so many ways.” Am I saying that people of color aren’t activists….”

    Just….no….you were wrong for this, and you really need to think about what you just said, as a Black Bryn Mawr student who has devoted a large part of my time at Bryn Mawr EDUCATING white women on racism and how it works, your statement is just hurtful and ignorant. Where the fuck do you think White people learned to talk and fight against racism….

    • Rereading that particular passage, I can see how it could be misconstrued. While I am sorry that you were hurt by it, I don’t think it’s ignorant. I can see how someone could infer that I believe white people have more nuanced conversations about race, etc., than people of color (and that’s a little horrifying because it’s so not what I actually think), but that is absolutely not what I meant. I meant that literally, as of last July, more of the conversations about systematic racism that I’ve had have been with (a very few, specific) white-identified people than with people who identify as people of color. I did not mean that white people know how to talk about racism in ways that people of color do not; I did not mean that white people in general have some kind of understanding about systemic racism; I did not mean that people of color don’t know how to fight against racism.

      All I meant, really, was that race itself does not determine whether someone cares about combating systemic racism. I was frustrated by the idea that all white people only care about their white privilege and couldn’t have/develope any kind of knowledge about, or interest in, combating systemic racism. I was frustrated by the idea that all people of color automatically have an awareness of racism in all its forms and wouldn’t ever need to educate themselves (despite being socialized in a society that clearly has a ton of racial issues). Neither of those ideas are true. That’s all I meant. I phrased it poorly: I recognize that, and I’m sorry for it.

      I didn’t mean for the statement to be taken as indicative of the world at large — I meant it at face value (although I should have been more clear about that). I know a couple of white-identified people who have politics and knowledge regarding race and racism that I really respect. They are aware of their white privilege; they recognize that aren’t people of color and don’t try to co-opt that experience/struggle; they call out other people on white privilege (imperialism, colonialism, capitalism, the way it all works with racism, etc); they respect people of color as central and essential to anything regarding racism and/or race. I also know white people who aren’t really aware of any of that.

      I know people of color who have fierce racial politics. A lot of them are people I know of, not people I’ve actually had a lot of conversations with regarding racism, etc. I’ve read a lot of really amazing writing by people of color . . . but I’ve not spoken with them. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist, or that they’re somehow not valid or important, just that I’ve not conversed with them. Most of the people of color I know are more aware regarding racism than most of the white/white-identified people I know. A lot of the conversations I’ve had with friends who are people of color haven’t been about racism — and perhaps it’s because we were watching a movie, or we were having brunch, or we were in a cappella rehearsal, or we were at dance class, or writing papers, or whatever, and it just didn’t come up. Or we were too exhausted or burned out to talk about it. Or we wanted to rant about something personal, rather than relating it to the larger system. It doesn’t mean that we couldn’t have had those conversations. It doesn’t mean we never have. It doesn’t mean anything about anyone other than us.

      I really do apologize for how I worded that statement and how it came off. And clearly you’ve spent more of your time educating people at Bryn Mawr about racism that I did. But I think you missed the rest of what I was saying (the forest for the trees, as the saying goes?).

      Like I said in the sentences following the ones you quoted:

      Am I saying that people of color aren’t activists? Absolutely not. Am I saying that white people are better at recognizing racism than people of color? Of course not. I am, however, saying that it’s problematic to make sweeping assumptions about groups of people (like that all white people are either ignorant or aggressively protecting their white privilege).

      The whole point of the post was that the whole “us versus them” mentality — the idea that we are so different that we can’t find common ground — is harmful.

  2. You’re simplifying the problem…people divide into “us” and “them” BECAUSE of systemic racism/homophobia/trans-phobia. People who experience these prejudices on a daily basis don’t always want to talk and think about them, or don’t always want to be around people that perpetuate them.
    White privilege is the ability to be able to remove yourself from these issues and talk about them when you want to, in an “objective” manner. I feel like YOU are missing the forest for the trees here. “Us” and “them” is a mental defense tactic. And the way that systemic racism works is that just by virtue of whiteness, white privilege is being perpetuated. White privilege and oppression doesn’t stop because a couple of your white friends opened their eyes and decided to join in the fight.
    I like that you’ve seemed to have found a group of White people who have no problem discussing these issues, but at the same time you said you’ve never even had conversations with the people of color who are fighting racism (?!?!) How is that at all unbiased, helpful, or objective in helping you create a good sense of what systemic racism is, how it works, and why POC and LGBTQ groups respond in the way that they do? You’re missing a big chunk of the story….

    • Now I think you just want to be mad at me. And fine, that’s your right. But might I suggest that you just go off and think I’m an idiot or something someplace other than my blog?

      And actually, I considered commenting about, as you said, the fact that “people who experience these prejudices on a daily basis don’t always want to talk and think about them” because I am fully aware of that, and the fact that white privilege means that you can talk about race on your own terms, when you want to. And then I figured that it probably went without saying.

      I never said that white privilege and oppression stops because “a couple of [my] white friends opened their eyes and decided to join the fight.” And I definitely never said that I’ve “never even had conversations with the people of color who are fighting racism.” I get that you’re angry with me. I get that you think I’m being ignorant. Fine. By now, I’ve realized that I can’t change your opinion of me, especially since you’re attributing things to me that I’ve never said.

      PS. If you were referring to this “I’ve read a lot of really amazing writing by people of color . . . but I’ve not spoken with them” — that would be a matter of sloppy writing (what can I say? I was upset; it was late; I was in a hurry. This is a comment on a blog post, not an essay). By “them,” I was referring to the authors, not people of color.

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