Social Activism Tastes Better When the Waiter is White

macklemore_gayEver heard the phrase, “When regarding a message, consider the source”? Well, it seems white people (and everyone else) have been doing that about pretty much everything. White supremacy means that everything good has to be white. Heroes, casts of hit movies, heck, even messengers need to be white. Social activism via social media is the newest “it” thing. And, even though racial minorities have been activism-ing for decades, it seems the only time the message is palatable for mainstream white society is when it is delivered by another white person.

I guess that means I need to get a white friend who can write then, hunh?

Remember when Macklemore made that song about gay marriage like he was saying something new? I remember sitting in the car with one other black girl and three white girls when I first heard it. The other black girl and I were like, “meh.” But, one particular white girl was just in awe of how courageous Macklemore was for singing about such a taboo subject. “This song is really powerful,” she swooned. Yeah, it’s a nice song. But, it can’t hold a candle to Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On?” It seemed to me like that phenomena on The Simpsons when Marge says something like forty times then Homer says it and acts like he initiated the idea. It’s like social activism Groundhog Day every time a white person decides to take a logical stance against white privilege in favor of equality measures.

I first thought this was so when the whole #WhiteGirlsRock idiocy happened. Basically, a bunch of white (and black) people were offended and butt-hurt that they couldn’t have someone as awesome as Queen Latifah tell them they rock. So, they made fun of the annual Black Girls Rock! Award Show on Twitter…like grown ups.

What was most interesting about this whole debacle was a piece on Huffington Post by Olivia Cole called “Why I’m Not Here for #WhiteGirlsRock.”An extremely well-written piece (honestly, I want to write like Olivia Cole when I grow up), it was hard-hitting, honest, blunt, and yummy. It was in the friggin “Black Voices” section. It even used current black slang in the title.

What disturbed me when I first read it was that Cole was literally rattling off factoids about the black community that we (meaning black activists) have been opining on for-(what seems like)-ever. It was like she grabbed a megaphone and stood atop the Empire State Building yelling, “My white brothers and sisters, listen to me. For I have seen the Promised Land and I have a message from our black brethren. Gather ’round white people. Gather ’round!”

While I agreed with her sentiments exactly, I was offended that she was the Chosen One to deliver the Good Lord’s message to the masses. Why were all of my black friends on Facebook eating it up like the Soup of the Day and shunning black activists who had been delivering the same – if not more rooted – message?

Well, I pondered on that for a bit. Then I went all bat shit crazy about it too and shared it on all of my social networks like I had written it myself. I forgot all about it…until today…when it happened again.

I went to see Hunger Games: Catching Fire. I friggin loved it. And, I was pleased to see Jeffrey Wright as Beetee, a very intelligent tech geek who, in the film, just so happened to be black (shout out to the blerds of the world). Why was I happy to see him in the role? Well, because I’m black and for all the reasons Cole mentioned in her piece about #WhiteGirlsRock. Black people just don’t get a lot of shine in Hollywood.

But, inside, I knew there would be some white people drama about the very same thing I was reveling in. Somebody somewhere would be personally offended because a cool role in a movie was “taken” by a black person (cue the convulsing trauma to black women everywhere that was Rue in the film trilogy’s first installment). And, I was right. White folks didn’t like brown Beetee. So, Olivia Cole jumped to our rescue again.

Her new piece, called “Hunger Games and the Limits of White Imagination,” is a spot-on indictment of white superiority and supremacy complexes. It was so good, I read it twice. My favorite part is the passage below.

“Our imagination and subconscious are so saturated with white supremacist notions of goodness, beauty, and heroism, that when confronted head-on with an image of a black man who is brilliant and kind and normal and who saves the day, we transform into robotic versions of ourselves: Does… not… compute. Hero… must be… white. It’s this line of thinking that turned Disney’s Princess Tiana into an animal for 95 percent of the movie. The collective white imagination had difficulty imagining a black girl as a princess… and so she became a frog.”

Olivia Cole said that…like a bauce.

This passage resonated with me so much that I just had to post and reshare on my fan page. I thought, “People need to read this like yesterday.” Then, something happened. It was like in all the movies when someone is a millisecond from death and everything passes before their very eyes. Only, for me, I was just recalling the last time I did this for another Olivia Cole piece that made me want to run outside in my suburban Orange County neighborhood screaming, “I AM SOMEBODY!” Damn you Olivia Cole…making me feel important and shit.

But, then, I became concerned. Why was I swinging from Olivia Cole’s writing pen, hanging on every word like she was an ivory messiah? Why was I so psycho about this white girl telling my black story to other white people?

Then, I figured it out. And, I felt guilty.

I love Olivia Cole because she is white and she is parroting black people. Olivia Cole’s very existence gives my humble activism purpose. Somehow, Olivia Cole is every black activist’s phone-a-friend. We’re all like, “Well, she said it so I trust that answer.” She is literally saying things that we already know and we are treating it like prophecy. And, that’s disturbing. Not to mention there are a ton of black writers out there who likely will get less shine for writing more poignant pieces. It’s like on American Idol when the white person sings a run and it’s “creative” but then the black person sings an even better run and it’s “predictable.”

Part of me thinks we should be serving our own messages to white folks hot and fresh, cut out the middle(wo)man. We should be the ones on the mount with the tablets and whatnot. But, then I wonder how far the message would go if we were the vessels; identical content would be rendered impotent, seen as complaint and “40 acres and a mule” activism.

It seems whatever activism white people serve will always taste better than anything from a black, Latino, or Asian person. I mean, what do we know? We’re just marginalized.

White people get extra credit because they have nothing to gain from activism. They’ve got privilege to buoy them when the race waters get shaky.White people are basically doing social outreach when they speak up for blacks, or gays, or Muslims, or whomever else is an “other” at the time.

I can’t tell if that means they are pitying us or sympathizing because they certainly can’t empathize. Olivia Cole has no idea what it is like to be black. But, she sure knows something about being white. And, her brand of activism is killing the game right now.

I guess social activism is for white women too then.

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Jenn M. Jackson

Jenn M. Jackson, PhD is a co-Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Water Cooler Convos. She is a native of Oakland, CA. Jenn is a radical Black feminist scholar who believes none of us are free until all of us are free.

19 Responses

  1. I agree with this piece wholeheartedly. I don’t mind having allies but part of being an ally is to know when to sit down, shut up and let us speak for ourselves with the support of our allies. Allies shouldn’t be the face of a movement.

  2. Moe says:

    I’m fine with white activists telling the black story, as long as they understand white privilege. You can’t genuinely speak on black issues, if you fail to recognize said privilege.

    In the case of Macklemore, he grew up in a city that has pretty much been very integrated since large populations of Black People started migrating west. I mean, Seattle and it’s neighboring city of Tacoma were two of the first ports on the entire west coast with an integrated workforce (since the 1890s). It isn’t uncommon to have many non-black people being outspoken on topics that effect the black community, and it isn’t uncommon to meet white people who recognize their privilege. Much of that is attributed to the long history of being a diverse city, where everyone lives amongst each other and always has.

    The comments he made on the AMAs about Trayvon Martin weren’t different from the comments I heard from black and white people alike, however I sincerely don’t believe he was making the statement as if it was some new epiphany. It was relevant because George Zimmerman is still in the news, terrorizing people and just letting it be a reminder. So, I would say it was just more of a reminder than anything…because many people have stopped talking about it.

  3. Olivia Cole says:

    Hi Jenn,

    Olivia Cole here. First let me thank you for your article. This is brilliant and I completely agree with every single word.

    White people should never be the face of a movement for people of color. I was actually annoyed when the #WhiteGirlsRock piece was placed in the BlackVoices section of HuffPo because the people who tend to read BlackVoices already know what’s up. It’s the amen corner, which I love and appreciate, but white folks are the ones who really need to be reading these articles. The Hunger Games piece was placed in the more general Entertainment section, and accounts for the increase in hate mail I received afterwards. *shrug*

    You are right on all counts. In a way, you are saying something similar to my points in the Hunger Games article: the same way that white audiences are more ready to accept a hero if he is white (and male), they are more comfortable with messages about racism when they come from white people, which defeats the purpose, when all is said and done.

    I have said from the beginning, “The only reason my work is getting the attention it is getting is because I am white.” I have written many other blogs about varying subjects and with one or two exceptions they haven’t gotten nearly as much attention as the ones where I am writing about white on black racism. Perhaps people are shocked that a white person is so ready to criticize her own people?

    I am saying nothing that hasn’t already been said by black voices everywhere, I eagerly admit this and have said it to every single white person who has emailed me praising my work. “If you want more, follow @thetrudz, follow @sassycrass, follow @crissles” I have told them. As for the articles, my goal was to use my privilege in any way possible to address issues that my skinfolk prefer to remain blind to. I see them ignore black voices every single day, and I wanted to, “from one white person to another,” give them something to think about. And as I mentioned above, I certainly, absolutely, positively am not the only voice they should be listening to. I hesitate to use the word “ally” because I don’t believe that is a title one should bestow upon oneself, but it is something of what I seek to be. Not to overshadow black voices, only to supplement them and support them. I would love to engage with you as I do every day with all of the wonderful people I collaborate with, both in life and on Twitter, about what you would have me do to be better. Because, Jenn, I do want to be better, and I want white people to be better. My writing has always been my weapon, but maybe I need other tools.

    My apologies for this bible-length comment. Let’s talk sometime.


    Ps. I want to write like YOU when I grow up.

  4. Dionne says:

    Great article Jenn. I applaud your head-on approach to the issue. I feel the same way. Sometimes I just want to roll my eyes, but then I think about women like Juliette Morgan, a white woman, who put a lot on the line for black civil rights in the jim crow south. It took courage for Juliette Morgan to stand up against the status quo, and she certainly had more to lose (or at least that is the perception). do you believe white advocates are apart of the process? if racism is the cancer, then white advocates are like the chemo. it’s only one approach towards healing and there are unintended side effects, but until there is a shift in treatment approaches grab your gag bag.

  5. Such a great article! Like so many things that began as black or has origins within our diaspora, the passion has been packaged in a new (& to, some improved)wrapping. Hey, I’m all for people that have any kind of social consciousness; but like you said about Marge and Homer- it seemed almost played out when we pump our fists and have certain “Water cooler convos” with peers…and then Becky recants what she heard on NPR or saw on Oprah and the whole office listens.
    I’m not mad at these waiters, but honey- we’ve been working this diner for a looong time…and the menu hasnt changed yet.

  6. Brian Kundinger says:

    That interchange between Jenna and Olivia just made my day. Thank you both for everything you do.

  7. Shawanda says:

    Jenn, thank you for this piece! I certainly see where you are coming from. Olivia, keep doing what you are. Along with the many black voices, your voice is also needed to tear down this seemingly unpenitrable wall. Harriet Tubman had support from like-minded white people to help free thousands in the Underground Railroad. For decades, black people have spoken out to injustice and the masses of white people have not been moved to action. It’s easier to ignore and convince oneself that the message and messenger has little value because their skin is brown. So, your have white privilege. You have options, many of them. You have chosen to step up to the plate with your big girl panties on and use you privilege to speak to your skinfolk about their effed up ways. You challenge them to get their sh*t together and it’s harder for them to ignore you and look at what you’re saying as valueless. You look like them! Tim Wise cannot be the only white voice speaking directly to white people in the wilderness. It’s awesome to have a female voice tearing down these walls, too. You guys are like the rogue Trojan computer program that has infiltrated the firewall and is reprogramming the system because you speak the same language as the other programs and are therefore accepted. Do your part Olivia! We will continue to do ours and let’s break this bit*h down together!!

  8. Agreed. I am all for allies as well. I just sometimes think we defer to allies rather than owning our own messages in the first place.

  9. You win the award for most humble writer ever. I so appreciate your willingness to embrace and understand my vantage point without becoming offended or defensive.I think you are an amazing writer and I believe that it will be voices like yours that cause the greatest ripples in communities of color.

    I believe that activism means and embodies different things for different people. And, for me, I am seeing a more complex dimensionality to the term as I read your work. Please don’t ever stop writing.

    I agree. We should definitely chat sometime:) Looking forward to it.


  10. Right. People love to disremember how integral white women were in securing the vote for black men and eventually women in general. I definitely think that white people are integral actors in the process of civil advocacy. If for no other reason than for the fact that people rarely distrust members of their own communities but almost always (in our jingoistic culture) fear encroachment from ‘others.’

    Personally, I vote that we clone Olivia Cole (not Macklemore) and have thousands of her inundating the airwaves, radiowaves, and the internets with sound critiques of white privilege. Then folks like me wouldn’t seem so obscure. It’s unfortunate though that that is one of the only ways to legitimize my cause.

  11. I totally feel you. Allies are awesome but representatives are not okay. We still need to fashion and send the message in the way that best fits us.

    In the case of Macklemore, I think he earnestly believes what he is saying but has no idea that, in a way, he is appropriating our struggle.

    Olivia Cole, on the other hand, is not appropriating but attempting to convince her peers to understand more clearly what our message is. I can appreciate that.

    It just befuddles me though that in 2013 we still need struggle translators. It just seems so anachronistic.

  12. Dionne says:


  13. Alan Dow says:

    I like your writing.

    Makes me think how lucky I am not to be living in the USA where apparently the first (and perhaps only?) thing people see is the colour. I guess if I lived in the USA, I’d be embarrassed to be “white”. I don’t, and I’m not.

    Makes me wonder – how long ’til people work out that so-called “white” is actually a shade of “light brown”.
    My wife who hails from Africa was very surprised to be seen as “black” when she came here to Australia. In her country of birth (where skin colour carries no particular status), she is seen as “light-skinned”. Me? I just see her as “beautiful”.

    Makes me think about when you get a headache. The more you concentrate on your headache, the worse it gets. The pain will never go away until you force yourself to concentrate on something else. That gets to be really hard, especially when people keep reminding you: “How’s your headache?”

    “Being” any colour is a state of mind.

  14. Troy Sebastian says:

    I shared the Cole article referenced here and the reaction I had was pretty disappointing. Sometimes even with a white waiter, some folks aren’t interested in picking up the cheque, so to speak. Anyhow, I loved this article and I look forward to reading more of what you have to say.

  15. Thanks so much Troy. Seems your experience was antithetical to my own. I wonder why there was so little appreciation from those you shared with. Thoughts?

  16. son of malcolm x says:

    Two words. TIM WISE. He gets props from Professor Cornell West who calls him that “vanilla” brother. You get made respect for your courage. I don’t believe you should be criticized because your face doesn’t not represent the movement, but your views should so I take no offense for articulating the elephant in the room called structural and institutional racism. My only request is that you always and forever leave at least 3-5 books in your articles as reference materials. For instance, you could also ask people to view anything from DR. AMOS WILSON, or Dr. John Henrick Clarke on youtube. Especially BLUEPRINT FOR BLACK POWER on youtube, every part in its entirety. And then Dr. Clarke’s A GREAT AND MIGHTY WALK produced by Wesley Snipes. That provides you with some history and please see all parts on youtube. Please see anything or read anything by Dr. Joy DeGruy Leary POST TRAUMATIC SLAVE SYNDROME. Or watch the late Gil Noble’s LIKE IT IS episodes featuring DR. IVAN VAN SERTIMA, DR. CLARKE AND DR. BEN. Crazy DE-construction of white supremacist ideology going on in that episode recorcded during the 1980s.
    I love white sisters talking de-constructionist smack. Man, I wish I could find a sister like you.

  17. son of malcolm x says:

    Honey, you could be my spokeperson anyday and take over the face of the movement because my voice is too sore, too old and needed for more productive engagements. So go ahead. you are wrong about being the face of the movement. You SHOULD be the face and take the water hoses, police batons, church basement bombings, beatings, stop and frisk maneuvers, etc. because we black folk are tired of it all and need your help to reduce global warming, fluoridation of the water supply, eliminate geoengineering from the skies, cease hydrofracking, stop genetic engineering of the food supply, and the dumbing down of society.

    I am too old to continue these battles with white supremacist ideology, now it it YOUR turn to create a new paradigm to deal with the power elite, the Council on Foreign Relations, Trilateral Commission (Henry Kissinger, et al), the Bilderberg Group and Club of Rome (CODEX ALIMENTARIUS). It is time for YOU to put the work in and although I don’t believe your heart will go the distance, at least hopefully your work will get more attention as to why this world is coming to an end during the age when the public is denying peak oil and the coming financial crash.

    I want you to see what MLK, Malcolm X, et al. had to go through when telling the truth about this psychopathic pathology called white privilege and white power. It is genocidal. And when people ask about another system (no I do not believe in Marxism, socialism or communism or any ideology/philosopy that comes from the mind of a Caucasian, except Gary Null or Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, ok SOME enlightened white people like YOU and Michael Moore) I say that we don’t have a lot of time thinking about how to subjugate other people or take over their lands or take control over oil, but better take more time in equitably making available resources for more people on this planet. We are really in trouble because we do not educate people on how to make the world a better place, colleges and universities do not have the answers unless it comes from a “corporate” psychic space which was created by white males.

    So preach on sister.

  18. TellinTruths says:

    God, this was good. And I stan for Olivia Cole too. White people are not going to listen to us. That is just true. We have to do for us. And WHITE people like Olivia Cole have to teach their own. THAT is how they help the movement. So I welcome her, and I welcome her voice. I welcome Tim Wise, and any other white person that wants to speak. But there are a lot of white people like Olivia Cole out there. And instead of them trying to get on and join in our Black come uppance, the best thing they can do is talk to their people and TEACH their own kind. That is how they hep this movement. So I’m glad she’s out there.