Hi everyone. I appreciate Deepa Iyer’s and Building Movement Project’s Social Change Ecosystem Map. It is helpful to see what roles we each play in the work to make the world better. And while we do that, it’s also helpful to see the roles we play that could make the world worse…or at least keep it from improving. You may recall that Dr. King said the greatest threat to justice are not the people burning crosses and otherwise being overtly racist, it’s the white moderates, people who are well-meaning but whose actions perpetuate inequitable systems.
Here below are the 12 archetypes of the white moderate that I’ve identified for this post. Examining them helps us to recognize when we are playing these roles. As you read, keep in mind that none of us are immune to any of these archetypes. And sometimes, we take on multiple simultaneous roles. While people of color can perpetuate white moderation, I want white colleagues to pay special attention, as you are more likely to play these roles and with greater frequency:
1.The Pragmatist: Believes in equity and justice, but prioritizes pragmatism above all else. They are risk-avoidant and gravitate toward incremental changes and slow, achievable progress. There are times that require pragmatism and there are times that require bold, visionary, risky actions, but they often fail to understand the difference.
2.The Devil’s Advocate: Believes in equity and justice, but loves to poke holes in visions and plans and thinks they’re doing everyone a favor. There is definitely a time and place to consider potential barriers and make plans for overcoming them. The Devil’s Advocate though is often less interested in advancing a plan, and more in appearing smart by being contrarian.
3.The Middle Person: Believes in equity and justice, but thinks that the answer is always for people to compromise and meet in the middle. They don’t seem to understand that when it comes to certain issues, compromise often worsens injustice. For instance, they don’t get that there is no “middle ground” between Black Lives Matter and All Lives Matter, or that there’s no “middle ground” between fascism and a functioning democracy.
4.The Politics Evader: Believes in equity and justice, but does not think that politics is the answer. They go out of the way to avoid politics and they try to get others to stop talking about politics because it makes them very uncomfortable. They have no analysis of how systemic injustice and politics are related, and they think anything that is even slightly controversial is “political” and should be avoided.
5.The Pearl Clutcher: Believes in equity and justice, but gets offended by swearing and other “uncouth” behavior. If they see or hear anything that might break Victorian-era decorum, they would place a hand on their forehead and faint on their fainting couch. Recent examples are the moderates offended that Beto O’Rourke swore at an asshole who laughed when Beto mentioned Uvalde. They’re more offended by the swearing than they are by the fact that someone literally laughed at the mention of kids getting murdered.
6.The Disillusionist: Believes in equity and justice, but is disillusioned with human beings and doesn’t think anything good can be achieved as long as people and their innate failings are involved. They create their own self-fulfilling prophecies by getting everyone else disillusioned too. “Great idea, but most people are selfish and won’t support it.” “That bill is great, but there’s no way it’ll pass, with the politicians we have in power.”
7.The Time Keeper: Believes in equity and justice, but just doesn’t think this is the right time to take actions. They encourage people to have patience and wait until the right time, which may be decades or hundreds of years in the future. The problem is, there is usually never a right time, because conditions are never perfect.
8.The Civility Cop: Believes in equity and justice, but thinks it’s more important for people to be civil to one another. As Dr. King wrote, these are the people who prefer the “negative peace” of people getting along and there’s no tension, than true peace and justice, which may necessitate the presence of tension, conflict, and people hating each other. The Civility Cop fails to understand how exhausting and unjust it is for the oppressed to constantly have to act civil to those who are complicit in oppressing them.
9.The Egotist: Believes in equity and justice, until their egos get hurt; then they go on a rampage. Doing the work of advancing justice means all of us will make mistakes from time to time. The Egoist’s self-image is so fragile, and their privilege sometimes so pervasive, that when people call them out on their mistakes, instead of accepting with grace and learning, they often become defensive and lash out at those who point out the gaps in their analysis or behavior.
10.The Both-Sider: Believes in equity and justice, but thinks there are both sides to everything and that it’s important to always give both sides equal opportunity to be heard. But when it comes to certain issues, there is often only one side that aligns with equity and justice. To give airtime to “the other side” is to legitimize it, leading to the proliferation of anti-vaxxers, Holocaust deniers, forced birthers, climate change deniers, etc. A lot of these Both-Siders go into media, where they help raise the profile and expand the reach of horrible ideas, in the name of “balance” or “diversity of perspectives.”
11.The Data Hawk: Believes in equity and justice, but requires all ideas and solutions to be supported by data, metrics, and outcomes. Research and data are often useful and necessary. The problem is that the Data Hawk does not have a deep analysis of the dynamics between race and other factors and data. They frequently forget, for example, that the default “valid” data and research methodologies have been determined by white dudes usually from elite white-led institutions.
12.The Minimizer: Believes in equity and justice, but never thinks things are as serious as they are. When people raise up concerns, the Minimizer calls them alarmists and say that they are overreacting. These folks minimized the repercussions of the 2016 US presidential election, despite countless warnings from people who knew how bad things would get. And now they continue to be in denial about how bad things are and how much even worse things could be.
13.The Friendly Fire: Believes in equity and justice, but spends a lot of time and energy attacking the people and institutions that are more aligned with equity and justice. This has been happening a lot lately, with progressive/liberal leaders bashing others of their own party instead of placing the blame squarely where it belongs (with right-wingers, who have been gaining ground and successfully spreading hate and rolling back basic human rights across many countries).
I’m sure there are more. Add others you can think of in the comment section. Meanwhile, don’t typecast people. (“John is such a pearl-clutching both-sider!”) The reality is that any of us (and our organizations, foundations, publications, etc.) could fall into any of these archetypes at various times and into multiple archetypes simultaneously.
Update: A few colleagues pointed me to Martha Cecilia Ovadia’s excellent piece that talks about similar and different archetypes. Check it out!
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