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A Promise and a Way of Life: White Antiracist Activism by Becky Thompson. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2001, 457 pp., $34.95, hardcover, $19.95 paper.
Writing about race and racism is increasingly concerned with whiteness, focusing on why European Americans became "white" and how that construction of "whiteness" translates into a position of power. Examining whiteness in this way has become an essential component of consciousness-raising around race, a project that takes many of its cues from the work people of color have done to address racism in their own lives. But while people of color can find messages of perseverance, struggle and liberation in their collective past, whites are more likely to dig up messages of oppression, domination, and despair.
Because we lack positive, anti-racist role models, teaching white people about white privilege can feel like sticking pins in their eyeballs. In my college classroom, students generally expect discussions of race to center around people of color. When I ask them to write about their own racial identities, the white students typically respond with a mix of confusion and guilt: "I suppose I'm white, but I don't come from Whiteland," one student told me. "Of course I know about the Indians and slavery. But am I responsible for the racism of my ancestors?" asked another. Since parts of Minnesota are close to one hundred percent white, some of my students are simply confounded: "How can I be racist if everyone around me has always been white?"
Raising consciousness about racism and white privilege is made even more difficult by the absence of a social-movement culture that contains alternatives to the racial status quo. The main goal of A Promise and a Way of Life is to present some of those alternatives. Sociologist Becky Thompson interviewed 39 white people who have committed themselves to a politics of anti-racism in the United States. They vary widely in tactics, strategies and ideologies, …