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Where whiteness meets race

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The Alliance of White Anti-Racists Everywhere was fired up at its conference in downtown Los Angeles last month.

"Reject the Hate in '08" was their rally cry at the UCLA Downtown Labor Center near MacArthur Park.

"White privilege," one speaker said, "is the enemy of equality."

"We have to maintain our activism," warned another, "and not let whiteness overtake us."

The crowd -- mostly young and white, with a hippie vibe -- applauded as the small corps of self-described "anti-racist whites" tried to introduce them to their hidden racist ways. The peasant skirts, political T-shirts and revolutionary cries made me feel like I'd wandered back in time, into a radical chic salon.

But I clapped too, because it was nice to hear white people talk publicly, bluntly, about race. And not pretend to be colorblind.

Where whites get real about race

A month ago, their worries made sense.

The effigies of Barack Obama hung on college campuses in Oregon and Kentucky, the vile rants on right-wing blogs and attempts to divide the country by "us" and "them" had stoked my own fear that racism would doom Obama's candidacy.

Then millions of white voters helped make Obama the nation's first black president.

And I thought I'd take a second look at the group's mau-mauing.

What are "anti-racist whites," anyway? Why do they need their own club? Is this progress, or a throwback to the 1960s-era identity politics?

On Monday, I interviewed Clare Fox, an urban planning student at UCLA who spoke at the meeting. Her talk about whites' responsibility to challenge racism had struck a chord in me. For too long, minorities have done the heavy-lifting -- explaining, excusing, fuming silently.

Fox, 26, grew up in the San Fernando Valley. She had "feminist leanings" in high school, at the Sherman Oaks Center for Enriched Studies, but was blind to the notion of white privilege.

Then she took an African American studies class at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts "and a whole world opened up to me."

"I knew racism was wrong, but I'd never thought about it in a systemic way," she said. "It was 'Wow. So much happened. How'd I miss the memo.' I was so ashamed. I'd leave class bawling."

When she returned to Los Angeles, the Alliance of White Anti-Racists Everywhere gave her a framework for her new sensitivities. The local chapter of the national organization was created five years ago "to create a space for anti-racist white people to talk openly and honestly about the role of whiteness and race in our lives."

Now, at weekend anti-racism classes, Fox helps other whites get in touch with the notion of white privilege -- the concept that whites still benefit in "invisible" ways in a country that once enslaved blacks and enshrined white supremacy.

"We have homework assignments," Fox said. "Like at least once a day, use 'white' as a descriptor for somebody. You discover how odd that sounds -- 'the white professor' or 'the white guy in the lobby.'

"You realize that 'white' is the norm, Fox said. "And maybe you start thinking about the unearned privilege that goes along with that."

The notion doesn't go over well in some quarters. Older whites tend to be defensive, Fox said. And her generation is so caught up in multiculturalism, the notion of claiming -- and moderating -- whiteness is foreign to them.

"White kids born and raised post-civil rights associate 'white' with being bad and racist," Fox told me. When she tried using MySpace for outreach, she got a message from an old friend -- "Irish, white as they come" -- who said "I really don't appreciate being called white."

Her group's work "isn't naval-gazing," she said. "And it's not about backing yourself into a a corner of shame . . . It's about figuring out where we fit in this narrative.

"It's about newspaper headlines that say 'Barack Obama's Race Problem,' like it's something he's supposed to solve. It's not his problem. It's all of ours."

Dogged by race

It's easy to tie yourself in knots pondering the impact of race. And some of what I heard at the anti-racism rally made me wonder if getting beyond race is possible.

Is Obama a phony, as one speaker suggested. Were his basketball games on the campaign trail staged to make whites as comfortable with him as they are with Michael Jordan?

I wondered, does it have to be that complicated? Maybe Obama just likes playing basketball.

I think the concept of white privilege is real. Even Obama himself alluded to it, in my interview with him three years ago. "If you ask people of all races, 'Is it tougher being black than white?,' I think white people know the answer," he said, "whether you ask in Utah or in Chicago or in Los Angeles."

Still, I'm exhausted by the soul-searching and hand-wringing. I want to give it a rest for a bit.

So I was relieved when I heard Obama being bashed Monday by a talk radio host, wondering if the nation is ready for him. He's going to give away your money and take away your guns, the guy said.

Because he's a "left-wing liberal," not because he's black.

sandy.banks@latimes.com

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