"The antidote is always turning deeper towards each other."

Garrett Bucks on community building and white grievance snake oil salesmen

This is the weekend edition of Culture Study — the newsletter from Anne Helen Petersen, which you can read about here. If you like it and want more like it in your inbox, consider subscribing

The first Q&A I ever did for this newsletter happened because a guy named Garrett Bucks made a really smart comment on a Friday subscriber-only thread about what draws people to QAnon. At the time, I was writing a piece about white women and QAnon (and, more specifically, #SavetheChildren), so I emailed him to see if he’d elaborate. He outlined what, to this day, still strikes me as the major, unsaid conservative attraction to #SavetheChildren and anti-trafficking in particular: the abiding need to be “on the right side.”

As he put it then:

We’ve never had more information available to us, as white people, that something is intensely wrong with the system. Everything is broken. And a key element of that brokenness is a rigged game that puts white people on top. This has been particularly true of the last decade of Black Lives Matter movement, and the awareness is so intense for white people that it can cause an incredible moment of cognitive dissonance: there’s this moment when you realize, oh, I thought I was a good person, and I’m trying to be a good person, and it feels really crappy to internalize this idea of “oh, I’m on the wrong side.” 

But white people’s responses align with the social position where they’ve found themselves. White progressives go to white guilt: there might be some productive actions that come out of it, and some non-productive actions that come out of it. But if they’re on the more conservative side of the political spectrum, then the cognitive dissonance is going to be even deeper. They’re not going to encounter this feeling with an existing justice vocabulary. They’re going to hear the voices calling for racial and social justice, and those voices are not associated with your political world. And then they’re confronted with white progressives who process their own guilt by disassociating themselves from other white people: who are less concerned with changing hearts and minds, more concerned with “I’m not that sort of white person.”

In these scenarios, it becomes even more likely that a person’s reaction is not “I’m going to sit with that and process this information.” Instead, they’re going to be particularly susceptible to a wide range of messengers who say to them: Don’t worry about it. Don’t worry about it because the people who are telling you this are lying to you — about the specifics of these cases, or, increasingly, you’d don’t have to worry about that, because you are *correct* that the world is unfairly rigged, you are *correct* that there is something deeply deeply awful going on. 

Any grifter or opportunist has it really easy if they’re dealing with someone in this position: they’re offering up something easy, something that’s non-challenging. They’re not asking you to do anything differently in your life. They’re just allowing these people to take new information in their lives and process it in a new way. I see that increasingly with reactions to social justice — and it’s why the compassion elements of QAnon, like #SavetheChildren, are particularly satisfying. 

I ended up transcribing the entire interview and turning it into a Q&A — and the response convinced me that it was a format that you all, as readers, would respond to, even if the questions and answers were long and meandering and it was hard to give a title to the piece. Since then, I’ve done Q&As with so many scholars and writers — two of my recent favs are this one, on the Fixer Upper aesthetic, and this one, on de facto preschool segregation. But as I’ve watched school board meetings flood with white parents asking questions about “critical race theory,” I wanted to come back to Garrett.

For the last nine months, Garrett’s been heading up The Barnraisers Project, which helps train white people to organize their social networks to care about other people (particularly for racial justice, but also for the common good just generally). Here’s his description of the work they do:

The people whom I train and coach all have a few things in common. They’re white folks who care a lot about racial justice but who have already put up their BLM yard sign and made their donations and followed the right anti-racist Instagram influencers and aren’t sure what to do next. I help them identify a community that they already care about and organize that group to take collective action for racial justice. For some, that means getting their hip but politically-agnostic megachurch to support organizations that are building alternatives to the police. For others that means helping parents make the choice to send their kids to majority Black and Brown neighborhood schools (and then not take over the PTA after they do so). For folks in super conservative rural communities, that means building neighborhood mutual aid efforts. 

In addition to The Barnraisers, Garrett has been writing a new book, edited by the amazing Yahdon Israel at Simon and Schuster, cheering for the Milwaukee Bucks, driving across the country to visit his hometown of Missoula, Montana, and responding to my very long questions about the pathologies of white people and the challenges of organizing during the pandemic, which you can follow below. (And as much as he says that he loathes Twitter, he’s very funny there and you should follow him).

What are white people freaked out about right now? I phrase this casually, but I do think this is a way of getting at the larger cultural freakout over Critical Race Theory — which feels at once wholly manufactured as a locus of grievance and a manifestation of bunch of different grievances and discomfort that have been percolating for years. 

The anti-Critical Race Theory (CRT) thing is an interesting case study in Generalized White Freak Outs, because  there are a couple things going on at once: there is Snake Oil being sold and there is Snake Oil being purchased, and my concern is that, in analyzing this moment, there has been more attention towards the former than the latter. Don’t get me wrong, I’m appreciative of all the ways that the curtain has been peeled back on folks like Christopher Rufo (the man who’s orchestrated a lot of this current freakout). But there will always be coordinated efforts to rally reactionary whiteness after even the smallest whiff of progressive movement forward. That’s the blueprint. Rufo is just Karl Rove or Lee Atwater with an (elder) millennial haircut. So of course there are men behind the curtain. 

What’s more interesting to me, then, is why the snake oil they’re selling is so desirable to so many. It’s great that those of us who want a more just country are asking for a break with every story that white America has ever been told about ourselves. That’s a necessary step. But we have been really uncreative and shallow pedagogically in considering the kind of space people need when they are asked to stare that level of cognitive dissonance in the face.

There is a mourning process when a myth dies, and when we skip that step (either in a workplace or school equity training, or in our online activism or in our debates with our friends and families), of course it will inspire an emotional response. I wish it didn’t. I wish that folks with power and privilege weren’t defensive when asked to give up our power and privilege — but that’s not how the human mind works, it’s not how we respond neurologically to change and mourning. So when you ask folks to sit in cognitive dissonance but you don’t give them the space for the emotions that brings up, it creates an emotional vacuum that grifters and bad faith actors have always, throughout history, been more than happy to fill.

We’ve talked before about this driving impulse for white people on both sides of the political spectrum to be able to think of themselves as “not bad.” As in, Bad White People might exist — historically or currently — but they, themselves, are not Bad White People. How do you see this working in, say, the resistance to CRT — and how does it work with white people buying How to Be an Anti-Racist, or a company issuing a public statement about Juneteenth? 

I had to laugh at myself a bit here, as I guess my whole deal could be summed up as an US Magazine-style message to white progressives: “Reactionary conservative white people! They’re just like us!” But the more time I spend with white people — across class lines, across political lines, across geographic lines — the more I believe that we all have the same basic driving animus in this moment: we all desperately want to be assured that we’re one of the good ones. 

For conservatives, of course, that’s why there is this fixation not only with saying that racism is in the past, but with the cartoonish reappropriation of King’s I Have A Dream speech. Those same three or four cherry picked lines, taken out of context, are the magic key that allows them to proudly declare not only that they’re not racist but that the Left are “neo-racist” (because by focusing on white supremacy, we’re supposedly judging white people by the “color of our skin, not the content of our character.”). It’s why Dinesh D’souza’s “hey, did you know that the DEMOCRATS were actually the slavery party? And that Frederick Douglas was a REPUBLICAN?” bit will never fully die. It’s all buffoonish, of course, to long so badly for Black people to absolve you that you have to make up imagined versions of long-dead Black people for the occasion, but it’s not unique to conservatives.

The progressive search for absolution is, to be fair, more sympathetic —I do want to trust that there is a real element of empathy and desire to do less harm mixed in with the more self-serving emotions. But even granting that, as somebody who has talked to thousands of white progressives about race over the past few years, you don’t have to do too much digging before folks reveal that, as much as they’re ashamed about it, their primary impetus for “anti-racist” work is to be seen (and therefore) validated by Black, Brown and Indigenous people as doing the right thing. In our case, that takes a couple different forms — a constant hunt for the perfect ideology/language/rhetoric, etc. and a reification of Black, Brown and Indigenous thinkers/writers/activists that can, at worst, really come off as tokenizing. 

This isn’t new, of course. I’ve been studying white reactions to the Black Panthers and an untold part of that story is how surrounded they often were by, for lack of a better term, white leftists groupies (especially celebrities, like Marlon Brando, John Lennon, etc.). Today, multiple Black figures with large public profiles have noted this fascinating  phenomenon: whenever they write something that really goes hard at white people, there of course is a lot of defensiveness and anger, but there’s another thing that happens too — they often get a huge influx of white followers, a lot of whom show up in the comment making a point to show that they can “take it,” that they’re grateful for the more strident criticism.

And listen, I would much rather have a trillion white people saying “THANK YOU FOR THE EMOTIONAL LABOR OF YOUR FEEDBACK I WILL DO BETTER” in Instagram threads than yelling at school board meetings that Ibram X. Kendi is the real racist, but it’s hard to look at any of it and not worry that it’s way more about clawing your way towards individual salvation than building a better world. We’ve tricked ourselves into making “feeling really badly” stand in for “actually making the change in our lives that will have the largest positive structural impact.” It’s why in the spaces I build with other white people, I don’t care one lick about how badly anybody feels. It doesn’t matter how fervently you can rend your garments. I mostly just want you to support a high enough tax rate that we can afford a universal safety net and reparations. I don’t care if your kids’ private school is using that “white supremacy culture” worksheet; I’d much rather you don’t send your kids to private school in the first place.

Can you talk about the last year of Barnraisers — what it’s been like to do this work over the past year, during a pandemic, with people at once very invested in creating lasting change and also very emotionally raw and vulnerable in ways that manifest unpredictably? As an add-on, why does community feel hard right now — and how do we make it easier? 

Oh my goodness, it’s been the best. I’ve learned so much both from what is going really well and also the parts of this nut I still haven’t cracked yet. I’m sure there’s a German word for that feeling where, before you speak your big worry/anxiety/dream into the world, you’re convinced that you’re the only person who is kept up at night by your particular bugaboo and you’re destined to be a lonely weirdo. Holy cow that feeling is intense! And so to go from feeling both very alone and helpless to discovering, in a year’s time, that hundreds of other strangers from across the world (45 states, three provinces, six countries and counting) are worrying and dreaming on the same wavelength is just incredible! As it turns out, there are so many other white people who actually want to move their communities in tangible, structural ways and who are also tired of this nonstop competition for individualistic absolution. 

In our most recent set of cohorts, we had everyone from a 17-year-old in Brooklyn who is part of the youth-led movement to integrate NYC schools to a Boomer Grandma in rural Iowa who is trying to help rebuild her church after white parishioners left en masse because they couldn’t stomach sharing the pews with the town’s growing Mexican-immigrant population. And because the thing we’re all learning together is how to organize other white people, I’m now connected not merely to all of these amazing people, but all these little mini-communities that they, in turn, are catalyzing across the country: a reparations campaign in Oakland, a community response to gentrification in the Hudson Valley, a reckoning with white-only “segregation academies” in small-town North Carolina. It’s amazing!

Now, with that said, the biggest challenge is that for every one of my Barnraisers alums who has really hit the ground running with their organizing, there is somebody else who still feels stuck in neutral. And while I can solve for some of that in the future by making the content even more practical, a larger piece of it can really be chalked up to that second part of your question — just how hard it continues to be for many of us to do anything (including organizing) that requires community-building. This is why I’m so thankful for all the focus you’ve given to the ways in which paid employment has colonized every corner of too many American’s life: after a lifetime of trying to squeeze all your energy into work and family responsibilities, so often our muscles for being a neighbor, for being civically engaged, for clubs and teams and worship communities have just completely atrophied. So, when somebody gets to the end of my course and there’s this call to go knock on your neighbor’s door, or invite the moms you see at the playground over to talk about equity issues in schools, or to start a mutual aid group… it understandably feels like SUCH a lift.

I’m super empathetic to how hard this is because it definitely plays out in my life as well. I’m craving community in so many ways right now, and I also have so many outlets to build it: here locally in Milwaukee, virtually with past cohort participants, etc. But in a given day, when I feel that pang of isolation or loneliness, my first instinct isn’t to reach out with a text or email… it’s to fire up Twitter, a website I objectively dislike and I know doesn’t give me real joy. I talked about “atrophied community muscles” above and that’s part of it, but when I parse the ways I’m stuck in unhelpful, isolating patterns: shame (for lost or now-distant connections), fear of rejection (in the case of new connections), self-defeating internal monologues (in every case). That’s a lot.

But then, I remember one of the many lessons the cohorts have offered me. Namely, I had this feeling of angst and unsettledness with what I was seeing in the world (in this case, a lot of performative anti-racism by white people but no real organizing). And while not perfect, I had a gift to put out there to folks who might be feeling the same way —I could offer a collective learning space. And so I took the risk and made the invitation, open-heartedly, trying all the while to both communicate who that space might be right for but to lower the barrier to entry. And that’s how I found my people! And then, once that community has coalesced, I try (again, imperfectly but full-heartedly) to lower the shame and judgment people feel in that space (really trying to establish a space that’s not about saying the right thing, not shaming people for missing assignments, etc.).

And I think there IS a lesson there for others: If we’re going to build these muscles together we must first recognize that we’re all simultaneously craving community right now and frequently quite out-of-practice in actually building it in practice. And then, after we’ve done so, we need to take the risk and just offer those invitations. We need to make open-hearted, shame-free offerings to each other… saying out loud “hey, I need ______ kind of space… does anybody else? If so, want to build it together?” And while there’s the risk of rejection in doing so, of course, it’s not as if the track we’re on already isn’t even more isolating than a few non-responsive text threads and unresponded emails.

Also, as an aside, a new set of Barnraisers cohorts will kick off the week of September 19th. They’re free (though I ask you donate to a BIPOC-led org on the front end and do an optional “pass the hat” at the end), virtual and run for ten weeks (five sessions, homework in the off weeks). You can get more info here and then, if you’re into it, sign up to find out when registration opens here.

You are currently in the process of writing a book. It’s about white people and interrogating white people and also for white people. What feels fraught and nauseating about the process, what feels promising, what makes the work worth doing?

I am writing a book! And I am terrified, but I’m also feeling incredibly energized and fortunate. A huge piece of that excitement is because of who I have as a partner in this work — my editor Yahdon Israel at Simon and Schuster. He’s already pushed my vision for this book in really profound ways, from a more academic-centered space to one that’s much more intimate, much more personal. And so while I feel like “what this book is about” is going to keep evolving a ton, here’s what I know: It’s not a book about race or racism for white people. There are plenty of amazing books by Black, Brown and Indigenous writers that cover that ground. It is a book about white people’s relationship to each other, about how and why we don’t conceive of ourselves as a community.

It’s also about the ways that aversion to accountable community keeps the gears of oppression and domination humming and about how it haunts us, how it destroys our souls. And that is a collective story, but it’s also one I know intimately — it’s one that I can trace in my own lifetime of trying to run from and appear exceptional compared to other white people. It didn’t start as a memoir, but that’s one of the many ways that Yahdon has pushed me already. He’s helped me realize that unless I was willing to interrogate myself, that this was going to be a “they” book instead of a “we” book. For so many reasons, I feel that white America needs far fewer “they” books but a few good, propulsive, liberation-minded “we” books. I hope this can be one of them. And that’s exciting, also totally nerve-wracking.

As a bonus kicker: You recently came back home to Missoula. What good do you see — and what makes your heart sink? 

I did! And we’ll be back in another month, because wherever I live, Missoula will be the “you” in my “I just can’t quit you” (it’s also worth noting, we’ve somehow convinced our children that 22-hour car rides through various Dakotas are  “normal”). And oh buddy, have there been some emotions. On the good side, I hope that Missoulians don’t take for granted that our little weirdo mountain city is blessed with a ton of thoughtful, civic-minded folks. The ways that the trail system connects corners of the town that previously were pushed off to the margins is incredible! The new library wasn’t open yet when I last breezed through town, but holy cow! A beauty! And there is so much good organizing going on — neighborhood mutual aid, affordable housing works, groups like the Missoula Interfaith Coalition. All great! But goodness, we need every ounce of that energy right now, because the forces of heartbreak are piling up. As it turns out, having your hometown be reduced to some abhorrent combination of gilded Rocky Mountain Elite Playground/International Real Estate Money Laundering Scheme is very, very very bad!

Listen, there’s no way to talk about this as a white person without a heavy dose of “chickens coming home to roost.” I mean, this valley has always been a place that various groups of white people have viewed as theirs for the taking because they loved the location, regardless of the impact of who was there already. There’s no white family in this valley, regardless of when we showed up, that isn’t part of that legacy. But it’s still worth saying: What the folks driving the multi-million-dollar-cash-offer-no-inspection real estate bonanza in our town will never understand is this town isn’t special because it’s located in a gorgeous chunk of the continent. There are plenty of pretty places in the world, as it turns out.

The reason why I will never love any place like I love Missoula, Montana isn’t actually because of Rattlesnake Creek sparkling at twilight or Pattee Canyon under a perfect blanket of snow. It’s because it used to be the kind of town where the folks I washed dishes with at Finnegans (RIP) could afford to live here on a dishpit salary, which meant in turn that they could spend the rest of their time playing in punk bands at Jay’s (RIP) and writing mind-blowing stuff in the Indy (RIP) and, in doing so, change the lives of teenagers like me. It’s because it used to be the kind of the town that, when I was spending a summer doing anti-WTO organizing (wow that’s the most turn of the millenia phrase possible), I discovered that some of the most consistent, committed, community-minded activists in town made their income selling incense on the street in front of the Wilma. And the moment that this town has a dollar-sign gate on it, where the barrier to living in this valley is a six or seven figure income, it’s not just that you hurt people… you also make this town into a shell of itself. 

I wasn’t intending this, but everything we’re talking about really is all the same story. We trick ourselves into thinking that there’s some pathway to salvation, to happiness, to fulfillment — that we can forge on our own. It’s white people tricking themselves into thinking we can transcend racism in isolation from one another. It’s a well-heeled home owner searching for their own little perfect mountain hideaway. Those kind of quests will always reveal themselves to be empty in the end. The antidote is always turning deeper towards each other. It’s in moving away from being consumers-next-door to  actually being neighbors. It’s staring down the part of yourself that doesn’t want to show up to that organizing meeting, that says it’ll be awkward and that you’ll be rejected and that the forces of capitalism and patriarchy and racism are too strong… it’s about looking all those emotions in the eye and then showing up anyway.

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