What in the hell does race have to do with the topics on this blog? The answer: Everything. Self-acceptance, aligning actions with intent, deeper relationships, and freedom all fit in.
None of what I’m about to say is new, and I’m no scholar on the subjects discussed here. But I’ll reflect on my own experiences, and write about them from the heart, in the hopes that a few people who read this might find it helpful in your own life. Especially if you’re white like me.
Whiteness and sitting with emotions
As I get into definitions of whiteness and white supremacy, you’ll start to see where one focus of this blog—accepting and sitting with tough emotions—comes in.
Before I go any further, here’s an aside that’s too important to stick in a footnote: Racism has an impact on people of color in the U.S., especially black and indigenous people, that’s incomparable to anything I’ve experienced in relation to being white. Being uncomfortable, for example, pales in comparison to shit like being less likely to get a job with no criminal record than a white person with a felony record; undergoing regular racial profiling; being directly impacted by mass incarceration; and dealing with a scary diagnosis while simultaneously being uncertain you’re getting quality healthcare because your provider has implicit racial bias. White feelings aren’t even close to the experiences people of color have due to racism.
Whiteness is, on the most basic level, a color and a race. But the reason it matters is that skin color is not even close to the end of the story. On his blog healing from whiteness, Tad Hargrave sums up whiteness about as briefly one can:
The short story is this: whiteness began in North America. But it did not refer to skin colour. It was a mark of status and privilege. The rich British were white. The poor Irish, Scottish, Jews, Ukrainians were not. This is critical to understand. Whiteness began as a club into which you were born. Only later, and as a tactic to divide the lower classes along ‘racial’ lines, did everyone with my skin colour become ‘white’.
So, being ‘white’ (as opposed to Polish, Italian etc.) began as a system to privilege. And it continues to be this.
It’s easy to imagine that European = white. That those two have always been the same. But it’s not true. Whiteness is what was used to cover up any remnants of European indigeneity.
The term ‘white’ comes from particular places and time in history and many laws, institutions and policies came from those times and places that were designed for the benefit of white men.
^^ On a side note, white women clearly benefit from white privilege too. The author isn’t implying otherwise—he’s just giving a quick run-down of how whiteness came to be. So we white women aren’t off the hook. I keep making side notes because I want to avoid misunderstandings. Back to my line of thinking.
Personally, coming to terms with being white has meant sitting with and processing some very uncomfortable feelings. I haven’t had a hard time looking my unearned white privilege square in the face; it’s a fact. But I’ve experienced grief, discomfort, horror, and pain as I’ve come to realize that having white privilege means I benefit from and have a role in white supremacy and racism. My whiteness comes at a steep cost to people of color—oppression in endless, well-documented forms from the school-to-prison pipeline to extreme hiring discrimination and beyond. Tad Hargrave again says it well in the same blog post I quoted above:
Whiteness is inseparable from white supremacy. White supremacy is the father of whiteness and notions of ‘race’, created from and driven by a desire to justify the hungry-ghost urge to rule the world and to dehumanize those who were in the way of this happening, are the grandparent. This is where ‘white’ comes from. The notion that humans are divided into different races and that the ‘white’ race is the best and most beautiful of them all.
… [Whiteness is] a trauma visited upon Europeans that led to a trauma on everyone who was not white.
^^ Emphasis added. I’ll post about the “trauma visited upon Europeans” another day.
The term white supremacy can trip some white people up. So before I move on, I’ll give a few examples of how white supremacy plays out so those of you who might be stuck here can move on with me. A lot of people think white supremacy equals white nationalist groups like the KKK. Those are groups of white supremacists, yes. But there’s also a system—a clear pattern supported by dominant culture, laws, policies, organizational cultures, practices, and so on—of white supremacy that all of us can play into and perpetuate. Lots of people have documented and written about this. These particular examples come from this article by Kali Holloway (note the focus on black people; outcomes like these are even worse for indigenous people in the U.S.):
- College professors, across race/ethnicity and gender, are more likely to respond to queries from students they believe are white males.
- White people, including white children, are less moved by the pain of people of color, including children of color, than by the pain of fellow whites.
- White people are more likely to have done illegal drugs than blacks or Latinos, but are far less likely to go to to jail for it.
- Black men are sentenced to far lengthier prison sentences than white men for the same crimes.
- White people, including police, see black children as older and less innocent than white children.
- Black children are more likely to be tried as adults and are given harsher sentences than white children.
- White people are more likely to support the criminal justice system, including the death penalty, when they think it’s disproportionately punitive toward black people.
- The more “stereotypically black” a defendant looks in a murder case, the higher the likelihood he will be sentenced to death.
- Conversely, white people falsely recall black men they perceive as being “smart” as being lighter-skinned.
- A number of studies find white people view lighter-skinned African Americans (and Latinos) as more intelligent, competent, trustworthy and reliable than their darker-skinned peers.
Aligning actions with intent
Learning to sit with all of the above has been critical to bringing my actions in line with my intent. I’d be immobilized if I didn’t process the pain, grief, horror, and discomfort I’ve felt and still feel as I increasingly understand white supremacy’s impact on people of color. And if I sat here immobilized, I’d be pretty damn useless in terms of ending white supremacy. What good is saying you care about people of color—or anything, for that matter—if you don’t take action?
So what I choose to do with my whiteness is important. In regard to this, some of the most helpful ideas I’ve ever run into are from a project called I Can Fix It by damali ayo, an activist woman of color. Her project focuses on steps individuals can take to end racism. She lays out 5 steps for white people and 5 for people of color. Here are some excerpts from her steps for white people, truncated by me:
- Admit it. Be white. … Learn how to say “white people.” … Admit that racism exists. … Observe how others are treated. … Don’t let white be the default race. … Realize people of color may see things differently from you for good reasons. Understand that reverse racism is an impossibility. …
- Listen. … When a person of color is sharing their experiences, resist any urge to jump in and minimize their experiences or excuse their feelings. … Don’t talk too much or say predictable stupid nervous things, just listen. … Remember that people of color are sharing their true experiences not merely voicing an opinion. … Consider racism to be a form of violence or abuse. … Don’t tell people of color that they should educate white people or be gentle. …
- Educate yourself. …without asking any people of color to help you. Realize that for the most part white people don’t have to care about or think about what it’s like to be a person of color. … Read 5 novels by people of color. … Learn about people of color because they are a part of your country and society, not because they are “exotic.” Do not view people of color as “different” as though white people are the norm. … Educate yourself about the history of race and racism in the United States. Learn about the economic basis and effects of racism, and the institutional powers that perpetuate racism. … Turn things around. Instead of asking why all the kids of color are sitting together in the lunchroom, ask why all the white kids are sitting together. … Be willing to be uncomfortable. …
You probably noticed that’s 3 steps, not 5. Steps 4 and 5 are “broaden your experience” and “take action.” I didn’t summarize them here because you should check out the entire project yourself!
Learning from people of color
I also stopped at #3 to reflect on how much of an eye-opener it’s been, and continues to be, for me. Instead of mainstream literature and media, which is by mostly white people with little to no critique of white supremacy, I read news, blogs, books, and other literature by people of color. I’ve done this for the past several years, and it’s been a game-changer.
So far I’ve been reading black writers in media outlets like Very Smart Brothas, The Root and stories by Ta-Nehisi Coates for The Atlantic, and blogs by black writers, such as The Field Negro and What About Our Daughters, and any number of books published by black authors (Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, for example). I’ll keep doing this and expanding my horizons; I have even more to learn about indigenous history and experiences in the U.S., for example, and I’ll be turning to indigenous literature for that.
Once I started learning from people of color in this way, it became impossible to revert to not thinking about how people of color might view or experience a given event. And it became impossible to revert to ignoring, or not even noticing, the constant onslaughts dealt by racism and white supremacy to people of color. I read more-than-daily examples of the physical, psychological, monetary, and existential violence of white supremacy toward people of color
It also influences how I see things like the white supremacist rally last weekend in Charlottesville: To me the rally was no surprise because people of color have been saying for a long time that this extent of racism is a reality, and, more recently, that strong currents of racism were what propelled this country’s current president to power. And I noticed white people talking about Charlottesville “with concern,” as if making chit-chat at the water cooler. And I’ve noticed a lot of white people going back to business as usual now that it’s a little over a behind us.
There’s far more to this story, both for me and for our country. For example, I alluded in the introduction to the fact that how I’ve chosen to reckon with whiteness has led to deeper relationships. There’s also more to the issue of bringing my actions in line with my intent. And then there’s the whole freedom thing. More in future posts…