Ferguson, The Ice Bucket Challenge, And The Performative Discomfort Of Whiteness

I'm struck by how white people are willing to be uncomfortable, but only in very controlled and curated situations.
Publish date:
September 2, 2014
race, whiteness

There's something about crying on public transportation that feels so empty and yet necessary. To deal with things so personal and important in a lonely space that's filled with so many people.

If you were able to watch me in the past week or two on the subways of Seoul, you would have seen me with a phone in my hand and my head down, trying to blink and wipe away the tears. If you were to also see what's on my phone when I'm crying, it would seem ordinary enough. Email, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr. I cycle through them methodically, like when I see nuns praying the rosary in movies.

It's what I'm seeing on these platforms that's been causing comical levels of weeping on public transportation. There's the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, and the protests in Ferguson.

A lot has been said about both of these things. s.e. smith has a great piece about the bucket challenge and water rights. Mia McKenzie has a piece up about the 6 Things To Stop Being Distracted By When A Black Person Gets Murdered By the Police. Combining both topics, Orlando Jones has introduced the “bullet bucket challenge” to bring attention to violence. There's also the Ice Bucket Hack where people are taking the structure of the Ice Bucket Challenge and, well, hacking it.

I've been thinking about the combination of these stories in contemporary media. Take a look at just about any site, and they'll have articles about both that seem totally incongruent. Some celebrity was really cute or wacky in some stunt and a community is protesting and mourning another Black man murdered by the police. The scale on these two stories is incomparable, and yet they're presented as worthy of the same attention and audience.

What's most striking to me, and what's making me cry on the subways of Seoul, is the ways in which white people perform discomfort. In the juxtaposition of these two types of articles, I'm struck by how white people are willing to be uncomfortable, but only in very controlled and curated situations.

Part of the point of the Ice Bucket Challenge is to be uncomfortable -- icy cold water is a shock to the system, and then you're left cold and dripping wet outside. The video ends there, but we know there's a towel nearby and a warm shower and a dry change of clothes. The discomfort is minimal; it's carefully controlled and contained. It's also performed. It's recorded for use on social media-- it's supposed to be over-the-top and dramatic while on camera.

I contrast this type of discomfort with the protesting, mourning, and police brutality in Ferguson. This is not about performing for the cameras or getting attention of social media. It's about mourning the life of a young Black man and wanting justice. It's about living in terror in your own country, your own home. It's about trying to survive when it seems that it was never meant to be.

It strikes me that I've seen this type of white performance before. I remember sitting at a table across from a Teach For America (TFA) recruiter in the student union my senior year of college. I was very skeptical of TFA, and in particular thought that it was (and is) a racist organization. In response, this recruiter told me, in very drawn out emotional detail, how he had “thoroughly unpacked” his knapsack of white privilege. He even said he was “triggered” by my comments that TFA engages in racist practices that ultimately do much more harm than good for communities and students of color.

This man shouldn't be recruiting people for TFA-- he should be an actor! Finish the costumes and ready the stage: we've got a star in our presence. Except maybe this performance is really what whiteness is about. Instead of engaging with the real ways in which TFA (or the police force in Ferguson, or anything really) is racist, put on a grand show about your whiteness! It's perfect for recruiting other white people to join your cause and do the thing! It makes white people seem as if they really care.

And sure, let's make the obligatory disclaimer that there are white people who care and who are doing good things. But how much of that is a performance? How much of it is put on as a mask in front of others to play the sympathetic white person?

I think about my own circumstances too. I'm a mixed Latin@ who's playing it as white as I can. I work as a teacher in Korea, and in my last interview, they literally asked me my racial makeup. With the perfectly plastered smile I've been taught to wear as a woman, I said “white.” It's not entirely false. I'm read as white, and I've got a great-big-giant helping of white, should I call on it. And lately I think I have been calling on it.

There's definitely something to be said for anglo-foreigners here (non-Koreans in Korea who speak English as their primary language) shutting the hell up about this sort of thing. Why make a big fuss about my ethnic background when it won't really matter for my job? I'm also pretty sure the last thing the world needs is more Americans going around telling the world what to do.

But I also wonder if this complacence is a way to make sure that I'm not uncomfortable. It's always been the job of people who are mixed to complicate our basic (and by that I do mean racist) understandings of racial and ethnic identities. I say I'm white in a job interview because I know that means I'll get the job. But what would have happened if I were to say that I'm mixed Latin@? It might have been uncomfortable, but I probably still would have gotten the job. And I would have been a more sincere version of myself.

Perhaps a job interview isn't always the best time to challenge white supremacy (oh, how capitalism makes fools of us all). But really, am I willing to sit with discomfort in other areas of my life? Am I willing to challenge the commonplace white supremacy I see coming from the people around me? Am I willing to step back and have these uncomfortable moments alone? Without an audience and without the carefully curated boundaries of discomfort?

On public transportation, I'm surrounded by strangers, and they are my audience. I try to hide my tears, but I know the people around me can see them. Even if I hide my crying, and even if I'm certain that they won't try to engage me, they see me and they are my audience. In writing this article, I know there's an audience. How much of this am I performing and how much of it is sincere? When it really matters, how uncomfortable am I willing to be?