Fire in the Heart: How White Activists Embrace Racial Justice
reviewed by Lisa Albrecht - February 24, 2012
Title: Fire in the Heart: How White Activists Embrace Racial Justice
Author(s): Mark R. Warren
Publisher: Oxford University Press, Oxford
ISBN: 0199751250, Pages: 320, Year: 2010
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As a white person, my life and work is about working for racial justice. Ive made my share of mistakes, but Ill continue on this learning journey for as long as I am alive. I am where I am today because of many women of color feminists who saw something in me starting in the 1970s (and continuing today). Their generosity of spirit combined with their tough love have helped me choose this path. I also know how important it is to find role models because we, white people, dont have many visible white people to look toward. As white people, we have a difficult time talking with each other about race and racism. We mostly remain dependent on the good will of people of color to educate us. In my own experience, that good will has worn thin because many people of color are just plain tired of educating us white folks. We dont know the histories of many white people who have worked for racial justice, and we rarely know white people today who are doing this work. This is Mark Warrens gift to us.
In the opening of Fire in the Heart, he asks: How do people who are not themselves victims of discrimination come to develop a commitment to act for racial justice? (p. xi). Though this book does not focus exclusively on educators, it offers white readers (and, of course, people of color) many learning opportunities. Warren interviewed fifty white people across three activist arenas where racial justice is central to organizing education, criminal justice and community organizing/development. All the interviewees speak to institutional change as central to their work.
As I read this book, I often thought about what W.E.B. DuBois wrote in 1903 in The Souls of Black Folks: The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line. These words echoed in my head because we are in the 21st century and we have not yet figured out how to dismantle white supremacy. In fact, in many settings, particularly in education, the disparities continue to widen between people of color and whites. Warren notes that residential segregation persists, as does the failure of school desegregation. We dont have many opportunities to interact cross-racially; thus, few white people have meaningful relationships with people of color.
This leaves us white people at a loss. Without meaningful relationships, we fall back on racist media stereotypes of people of color, and using what we think is well-intentioned language we say we are color-blind. This insidious form of racism implies that we dont see color when we look at someone. Think about that, please. Unless you are a person without sight, all of us see race.
Warren challenges us to think beyond what he calls the interest/altruist approach to addressing racial justice. The interest model focuses on coalition work; it is in our shared interests that we white people align ourselves with people of color to eradicate racism. In the charitable altruist model, we white people want to work for racial justice for people of color, without considering why we must do this for our own humanity, and by working with people of color. Neither approach really gets at Warrens question.
Warren goes to great length to discuss the key themes he discovered through his ethno-sociological analysis of the interviews. Many of us white people feel shock and anger when we hear stories of racial injustice. However, Warren says that it is only through seminal experiences, that we come to have some understanding of how racism impacts people of color. These experiences dont often happen in classrooms, but in emotional contexts where white people actually engage with people of color experiencing racism. Those of us who take the next steps move beyond a do-gooder mentality toward building genuine relationships with people of color. Through these relationships, some white people may even earn the trust of people of color in our lives. As a result, we learn to be both responsible and accountable to ourselves, to other white people, and to people of color beyond our immediate circles. I agree with Warren when he articulates that over time, we white people begin to envision a new kind of humanity based on connecting deeply with all peoples. Our visions are not based solely on academic knowledge, but on a new morality we learn to develop that involves opening our hearts and allowing ourselves to feel (as best as we can) the pain of racism. We also learn that we are not full human beings because racism denies us our full humanity. In time, we begin to feel the genuine pain of racism too.
As a racial justice activist, writer and educator, I found myself not only agreeing with Warrens analysis, but often saying aloud and emphatically yes!, as I read each chapter. There is a growing body of literature within the academy known as Whiteness Studies. I have tended to shy away from it because many of the books focus less on activism and more on intellectual analysis. Pontificating about racism is just another excuse for us white people to not to act as far as I am concerned. Over the past twenty years, there have been several fine books that explore ways that we white people can work for racial justice. The writings that I feel are the strongest are not in the form of traditional academic treatise; they combine memoir, story, theory and practice and include books like Mab Segrests Memoir of a Race Traitor (1994), Francie Kendalls Understanding White Privilege: Creating Pathways to Authentic Relationships (2006), and Julie Landsmans, A White Teacher Talks About Race (2001).
I wanted to really love Fire in the Heart, but ironically I did not feel Mark Warrens own fire within his heart. He continually reminded us of his role as the distanced academic researcher. I would have much preferred this study to have been framed as participatory research, with Warren embedding his own stories beside the narratives of the people he interviewed. In his writing, when Warren uses the words white people, he follows with the pronoun, they. This distancing of self was not only awkward, but quite discouraging. Until we white writers bring our hearts and selves to these projects, I fear that we will not be able to build the critical mass of white people we need to work for racial justice. This doesnt mean you should not read Warrens book. Please do. Its a step in the right direction.
DuBois, W. E. B. (1903). The Souls of Black Folk. Chicago: McClurg.
Kendall, Frances (2006). Understanding White Privilege: Creating Pathways to Authentic Relationships Across Race. N.Y.: Routledge.
Landsman, Julie (2001). A White Teacher Talks About Race. Md.: Scarecrow Press.
Segrest, Mab (2002). Born to Belonging: Writings on Spirit and Justice. N.J.: Rutgers U. Press.