Disingenuous Solidarity: Keeping Track of Dominant Logics in Racial Tokens

[The intro to this post has been slightly edited to further protect the identities involved]

It seems that a brief follow up to my last post is necessary, just so my point doesn’t get domesticated or misconstrued, and then become operative for an opposing approach. This concern arose after someone recently pointed out to me that a person who happens to be an extremely right wing conservative with certain racial blinders, began suddenly posting videos of black people on the timeline that bolstered his already set ideology. This is a common strategic move seen often among white conservatives, though white liberals are also guilty of this maneuver as well. The logic (or lack of) is that certainly no one can label them racist for their thoughts, because, after all, there are racial minorities who are asserting the very same claims that they are.

Of course, this is only a plausible and convincing strategy in the minds of those that are novices in critical thinking around race. For those that have actually spent time, on almost any level, deconstructing how racism has operated in America, this tactic does not strengthen the argument, but instead exposes their own racialized reasoning. What they attempted to do, is to present themselves as colorblind and in solidarity with black, native American, and other minority perspectives and therefore hoping to repel any challenges that they are operating with a white supremacist logic.

I know that in the black community, the awareness of such not so tricky tricks is immediate and is un-strenuously spotted. What these perpetrators of dominant racialized thinking seem to not realize, is that black people who live or have been raised in black communities, or that have significant black networks, know what common or uncommon ideologies in their own communities are. That you sought out the 1% of African Americans that already agrees with your position and then propped them up as a symbol of solidarity with minorities rather than submitting to a community, truly hearing from them, and allowing that ongoing relationship to transform your own thinking is not missed. The temptation of people in dominant culture will always be to find the exception to the rule, the person that has assimilated into a framework and perspective that parallels your own and then disingenuously trying to associate with that person as though they actually care about what minorities think. No, this is precisely racist, since it is propping someone up solely on the basis of their skin, with complete disregard for being transformed by the experiences of those that have been historically oppressed and marginalized by one’s own community.

And while we are at it, this has been a serious enticement for the evangelical church (also read Missional here) as well. The classic tokenism strategy has been to find leaders that have completely bought into the agenda of dominant culture, in theology, politics, and cultural assessment, and then allow them to be the representative of their race. In reality, they are chosen precisely because they are an exception to their community. The harder challenge of hearing the concerns of the masses is bypassed through a disingenuous tokenism that actually doesn’t seek reconciliation and solidarity with minorities, but instead just wants somebody of another race there to deflect the image of an all white male ‘boys club’.

For me, I am thankful that when Jesus incarnated, he made solidarity with the masses of poor and oppressed Jews, rather than the privileged Herodians and Sadduceans of his time who did not represent the concerns and perspectives of most Jewish people. Jesus’ solidarity was not disingenuously working for the powerful, dominant, and oppressive system that was operative (Luke 4:18-19).

At that time, some Pharisees came up and said to Jesus,“Get away from here, because Herod wants to kill you.” But he said to them, “Go and tell that fox, ‘Look, I am casting out demons and performing healings today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will complete my work. Nevertheless I must go on my way today and tomorrow and the next day, because it is impossible that a prophet should be killed outside Jerusalem.’ (Luke 13:31-33)

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27 comments

  1. Kyle · August 9, 2013

    Thank you for pointing this out because so many use this technique as a kind of buffer. It is such an obvious strategy–they dust off the same folks that have bought into dominant culture to create a pseudo stalemate. smh

    • Drew Hart · August 9, 2013

      Exactly. The crazy thing is that they expect it to be a compelling approach.

      • Chris Schini · August 9, 2013

        It’s like the argument, “I can’t be a racist, I have a black friend.” I can see why people do it, as people tend to want to re-enforce their own viewpoint (even if only subconsciously), but that doesn’t make it right.

        As someone stuck in the trapping of the dominant culture, how do I identify those failure and correct them?

      • Drew Hart · August 9, 2013

        Exactly Chris! And good question. I think it is critically important for people of European descent to explore what exactly Whiteness is, how it emerged, and how it currently functions in contemporary society. He is not a Christian, but Tim Wise is probably the best at addressing this, himself being a white male.

  2. John Thornton Jr. · August 9, 2013

    I’ve also found that these kinds of blinders have a way of distorting or filtering what should be instances of challenge to dominant ideologies and turning them into token stories of exception. This past Sunday I was preaching to a very predominantly white congregation on Ephesians and prison. I shared 2 stories of what had been done to a black former roommate of mine by the police. I hoped my friend’s story would be a way to tell the congregation what racist policing looks like on the ground for millions across this country. I realized in the feedback I got from the congregation that it was actually received as “Look at this poor black guy who was mistreated by the police. Good thing this isn’t normal and he has his white friend John there.”

    It certainly gave me caution in how I think through preaching and speaking to people about these things.

    • tylertully · August 9, 2013

      I recently had a similar encounter trying to expose white privilege. My friend pointed out that individuals have bias, and individuals should be held accountable for their prejudices. In a sense, the individual argument sought to bypass the larger realities. It seems many dominant groups think that although there may be historical structures of privilege, that modern instances are only localized and on an individual basis. In essence, ignoring such a fact merely glosses over privilege and ignores any structural realities present today.

  3. Marianne Modica · August 9, 2013

    Derrick Bell calls this the “third rule of racial standing”: “Few blacks avoid diminishment of racial standing, most of their statements about racial conditions being diluted and their recommendations of other blacks taken with a grain of salt. The usual exception to this rule is the black person who publicly disparages or criticizes other blacks who are speaking or acting in ways that upset whites. Instantly, such statements are granted ‘enhanced standing’ even when the speaker has no special expertise or experience in the subject he or she is criticizing” (from Faces at the Bottom of the Well, p. 114).

    I tend to think of this as the Bill Cosby Syndrome.

    • Drew Hart · August 9, 2013

      Yup, the Bill Cosby syndrome! Why is he suddenly considered an expert on the subject? Because he was saying what the dominant culture wanted to hear. That black people have been calling for personal responsibility for ages (except being balanced and also calling for social responsiblity) gets lost because the rhetoric of tokens tickles the ear.

    • Lauren · September 1, 2013

      That is a brilliant analysis. I have used the Bill Cosby example before, but now I will call it a full out syndrome. 😉

  4. Art · August 9, 2013

    I agree that tokenism is an easily seen-through ruse of racism. It seems to me that the anticdote to tokenism is for those of the dominant oppressive group (namely whites in the US) to seek to be disciples- partners in community and followers of leaders of color who are leading the anti-racism movement. If whites have relationships that are not in a learning stance or that are not specifically seeking to undo racism that will only reinforce the current operative form of racism.

    • Drew Hart · August 9, 2013

      Thanks Art, I agree and am grateful for your input!

  5. RodTRDH--@ politicaljesus.com · August 9, 2013

    Did you just recommend Tim Wise, Drew, really really?

    That’s okay. I got something for ya soon in my last 2 posts on white supremacy.

    • Drew Hart · August 9, 2013

      Well, let’s be honest, white people will actually listen to him before they will listen to black folk who have been saying those same things for forever. Whatever gets people on the journey is a good thing, I think. 😉

      • RodTRDH--@ politicaljesus.com · August 9, 2013

        Yikes!

        It’s both good, and bad, but mostly bad. They’re more likely to listen to a white person than a POC? That’s how white supremacy works. I’m down for whites who are anti-racists, but he doesn’t even give credit to where his anti-racism and theory comes from.

      • Drew Hart · August 9, 2013

        Yeah he does. I heard him several years ago when he came to Messiah College, first thing he said was that everything he said he heard from black people and that ironically the only reason he was standing in front of them speaking instead of a black person was because of white privilege and that people discount black experience. It was through hearing him live that I saw how many white people were able to confront whiteness in a way they would not have with a black person. It is white supremacy at work, but it is also subverting itself at the same time. I do have mixed feelings suggesting him, but ultimately I do want to see change take place.

      • RodTRDH--@ politicaljesus.com · August 9, 2013

        I remain ambivalent.

      • Drew Hart · August 9, 2013

        Yeah, the more I think about it the more torn I am.

      • Lauren · September 1, 2013

        I can’t recommend Tim Wise to my White evangelical peeps, though. He hits all the wrong “anti Christian” buttons and they shut down.

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  8. sbf6 · September 1, 2013

    Forgive me as I am late to this discussion, but it strikes me that this is an excuse to judge a persons word based on the company that agrees rather than on the merit of the words spoken. Thus allowing not for critical discussion but flippant rejection. Current examples would be the reaction to Don Lemon, the non mention of Abernathy at the MLK50 and the non inclusion of the only current African American US senator at same event. I would quote Booker T Washington, but i guess i would be running foul of this post.

    In does make me wonder if this is how Jesus operated.

    • Drew Hart · September 1, 2013

      What we are doing is providing critical engagement rather than merely assuming that their aren’t alternative motives behind a persons words or actions. You mentioned three random examples that seem to have nothing to do with disingenuous solidarity as the topic at hand. I guess you would have to explain the connection explicitly if you want to make a counterpoint. As it is now, you have vague and random references to people but have not provided any content to unpack their relevance. I can neither agree or disagree with anything that you said, because you have not made your point with your examples.

      And just so I am clear, I am not suggesting in the post that people are not allowed to engage in sources that they agree with. What I have a problem with is giving an illusion to racial solidarity by tokenizing a voice, only utilizing them because of their racial minority status, when in fact normally you could care less what minorities think or feel. That is always wrong and I think everyone should agree that is wrong. Now, if you want to argue that that is not what is happening in any particular situation, then fine, lets talk. However, since we are talking pretty abstractly right now, we ought to all be able to agree that being ‘disingenuous’ is wrong. Thanks for commenting. If you would like to unpack your thoughts further and explain what you are getting at in your examples, as it relates to disingenuous solidarity, then you are welcome to do so.

      • sbf6 · September 1, 2013

        Attempting to assume the motives behind someone’s statements or quotes of other people is a tricky endeavor. To have a meaningful discussion on any topic do we not owe it to each other to, at the least, give the benefit of doubt without attempting to assume the motives until such time that their motives are made clear?

        Why does a white conservative quoting or agreeing with Bill Cosby immediately be discounted as suffering from “Cosby syndrome”? Does it make Cosby’s words any less true or mean that the white conservative is being disingenuous?

        It seems to me then that words are being judged not by their character but by their company. For example Don Lemon, hardly a conservative voice, agreed in part with some things that Bill Oreilly said. In adding his voice to the conversation Don Lemon was ridiculed because of the company of his words and not on the basis on the words themselves.

      • Drew Hart · September 2, 2013

        Well lets consider the Bill Cosby example first. What I have argued here in my post, is not that anyone who agrees with someone like Bill Cosby is performing Disingenuous Solidarity. No one could make such claim. Most people who agree with Cosby would have had a similar ideology prior to engaging Cosby’s thoughts on the subject.

        However, the reality is that Cosby’s commentary is a very unsophisticated and racially prejudice account on poor black life. The positives of what he said are things already being said within the black community all the time; a call for personal responsibility. However, he lacked the other side of the coin, a call for social responsibility. Furthermore, much of his commentary was very troubling and hypocritical given his own life. Education: he dropped out to pursue entertainment. Urban Slang: he made good money creating cartoon characters that spoke with slang. Desire for name-brand products: He made good money throughout his own career as the face of various corporations that created artificial desires in folks. And that is not to mention his deeply problematic engagement with traditional black names that can be nothing other than racially prejudice and classist. Finally, he has chosen throughout his long career to remain quiet on the subject of race when it was deeply needed while other celebrities were risking their career. So, while I agree that everyone who already held a particular view prior to hearing Cosby’s airing out the dirty laundry of poor black people to a white audience, it doesn’t make it any more helpful.

        What would make it disingenuous solidarity, as based on my post. Would be for someone who holds those beliefs, but never cares to engage and converse with black people ever, suddenly takes someone like Cosby and promotes him primarily because he is a black person saying what they already believe. Not because it is a strong argument being made (while I disagree with Cosby overall, I certainly think there are others who have made stronger arguments on the same subject matter), but purely because of this race of the person who is making the claims which somehow is being used as a trump card. That is deeply problematic. It neither outright rejects anyone’s thoughts, but it is skeptic of the choice of the spokesperson being used. For that reason, many have been concerned with why so many have gravitated towards Cosby’s problematic commentary. Funny thing is, I don’t know anyone who disagrees with him that personal responsibility is important, but that there needs to be social accountability as well. And what you say to what audience is important. When I talk to black teens, I talk a lot about personal responsibility. But when speaking to those primarily within dominant culture I talk about social responsibility. Context matters.

        As for Don Lemon, and maybe I just have sophisticated Twitter folks that I follow, but I didn’t even hear Bill O’Reilly mentioned once. People challenged the CONTENT of what Lemon said. I never heard anyone talk about his COMPANY.

        Finally, I agree with you that assuming motives behind statements is “a tricky endeavor”. However, not putting the claims and actions of dominant culture through serious critical questioning is ‘a dangerous endeavor’ historically for African Americans. The reality is that people are flawed and sinful. Add social power, historical amnesia, and cultural blinders to those in control and you have a recipe that creates the possibilities for great harm to continue. I do not believe that every time someone that is in the dominant culture that agrees with minorities is necessarily practicing disingenuous solidarity. What I have tried to sketch out briefly in my post is the tokenizing and amplifying particular voices precisely because they agree with one’s own held beliefs, even when in general that person shows, in their life, no care or concern regarding the experiences and vantage point of those that are marginalized. There is an important difference between the two actions.

        Anyway, thank you for engaging and for engaging fairly and dialogically. For certain, we all have various points of view, but I do hope that we can wrestle with these types of issues trying to speak the truth in love.

  9. Cody · September 10, 2013

    A lot of really good thoughts here. Agree totally that this is tokenism, as well as being down right gimmicky and superficial.

    I do wonder a little if there is an underlying assumption of collectivism in your critique, though. While white conservatives obviously don’t care about understanding the experiences of black Americans, is it necessarily the case that the majority perspective of black people in America is necessarily correct because it is the majority and black Americans are a neglected community? This perspective smacks of James Cone, who, for all of his valid points, makes truth exactly equivalent to the majority perspective of an oppressed community– and only that community may decide what is morally or factually right. Truth includes experience, but it seems that it is also more than that. Or am I perhaps reading too much into what you’re saying here?

    • Cody · September 10, 2013

      I think I am probably reading into your words too much. Perhaps your mention of political conservatives threw me off and got me thinking you were dealing more in politics than social experiences (something like, a leftist perspective is true because black experiences have led to the majority of black people in America being left-leaning).

      I appreciate your insights in this post. Thanks!

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