An Open Letter to White Males January 1992

Frequently over the years I have been in conversation with other white men who share a commitment to bringing about change in the status quo which supports racism. One of the issues of concern is how best to motivate white men to want to work for change. That discussion elicits a sharing of our own motivations. At that point I usually find myself in a somewhat different “place” than most of the others with whom I speak. The discussion often comes to a quick consensus that the best (and the implication seems often to be, the “only”) way to motivate white men is through an appeal to their self-interest. When that conversation ends, I usually end up clear about my own motivation, challenged by everyone else, and with a two-pronged approach to the process. In this brief essay I want to explore some of those issues, and invite more extended thought from others.

I begin with the part that seems to trouble many of my most respected white friends .. my personal motivation, which I claim to be rooted in an imperative to seek justice. In my life that imperative is grounded in a spirituality which I used to express in theological terms now difficult for me to use with integrity. The words to express the motivation are not the same as they used to be, but they point to specific events in my life which are daily, powerful influences toward justice. An old pamphlet in the early days of school desegregation spoke of “simple justice;” that is really what I live for in the struggle against racism. I HATE injustice, and I seek the power to intervene wherever I see it. If government and other institutions, governed by white men, pretend to “represent” me, then they had better be just!

All of that “justice” troubles many, and probably turns some away. It is old-fashioned “liberalism” warmed over. Like a twice-baked soufflé, it is not appetizing to many. The appeal to “simple justice” has had a bum rap, and many do not trust it. So those who speak with me will most commonly say, “we need to appeal to the self-interest of white men to work for change … that is the most sure way to gain a sustained commitment.” With that there is sometimes an insistence that I must see my motivations in those self-interest terms or somehow it is not quite valid. The conviction expresses confidence that only if one is motivated because there is an identifiable advantage for himself can he be trusted.

It is a kind of self-evident truth that at some level people are moved by that which affects themselves. There is both theory and practical evidence to support the appeal to self-interest, and I do not argue that. I do want to argue that the appeal to self-interest has its own slippery slope, raising a doubt for me about it as the only motivating power.

I am aware that my life would be more fulfilled if there was no racism or other form of oppression in society. There are clear ways in which the long-run of life propels an interest in anti-racism simply because things will be better for me. After consistent, full-time work in the struggle for years, my life is clearly more focused, more fulfilled and enriched in ways which I would never give up. The benefits are clear every night when my pillowed head reviews the day and gives thanks for the richness I have known. My work in the struggle, meager as its results have been, has clearly brought to me a liberation from many things to which I was previously in servitude. There is not a single moment of doubt about the clarity of that self-interest.


There is evidence for arguing that self-interest is a risky motivation by itself It would be easy for me to argue that in many ways the status quo works just fine for me as a white male. I can demonstrate in my own life that there has been a significant cost in time, energy, and money for engaging in the struggle against racism; it has been my choice to accept that cost, I do not regret it, and when measured over against the cost of not engaging in the struggle, I would make the same choice again today, as I make that choice everyday. That could become an argument for my self-interest motivation. On the other hand, there are benefits for me which make it very easy to live in the world without change. I would not need to even resist change, but simply not abet it, and the system would go right on providing those benefits. Measuring some of the costs of engaging in the struggle for change might easily lead back into that comfortable place provided for me simply because I am white, male, and middle class. I have seen many white men in a variety of institutional settings, in family, marital and other relationships, for whom the temptation of the status quo overcomes an initial appeal to change, because their self-interest lies in preserving things as they are. It may have been that the self-interest in changing was not clearly enough articulated for them, and that becomes an argument for making that self-interest more compelling.

The matter boils down to a fundamental distrust of long-lasting white motivation for change; that in turn comes from a frightening conviction of the power of racism in the heads, hearts, and habits of whites. I am left with an uncomfortable feeling that the self-interest approach leaves many white men on a very slippery slope indeed. So I want to buoy that motivation with an appeal to justice also. Friends will then point out that my concern for justice is in the long-run a matter of self-interest. That is true, but I shall strenuously resist attempts to turn a concern for justice into simple “self-interest.”

All of this just proves that I am “old-fashioned!” I am that, and proud! I’ll continue to work for justice, and want to join other white men, no matter what their personal motivation, who will do the same. A prophet once called for justice to roll down like a mighty stream. I’m for that. How about you?