GRIEVING THE WHITE VOID
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“I stood to my feet in the midst of the cosmos. I discovered that all were intoxicated and none were thirsty. At the moment you are inebriated, but free from the effects of wine, you too may turn and stand.” — Yeshua, Saying 28, Coptic Gospel of Thomas
I am heir to the great American tradition of East coast White liberal ideology. I was raised to believe that Republicans were the problem to which Democrats were the solution, and that change in America happens at the ballot box. My political education happened around the dinner table, where we would talk politics, history, and literature and rail against the societal problems that conservative ideology reinforced.
I learned that although our American system was malfunctioning, it was a fundamentally righteous and free system, and the job of Americans of conscience was to fix it. Looking back, I had no lived experience to tell me differently. After all, my experience with the systems that came together to shape my life did seem to be working just fine for me as a White, upper-class, heterosexual male.
And yet, I had the nagging sense that something was fundamentally wrong with this system. I sensed it in the anger inside me and other White children, especially those who were working class and poor. I sensed it in a friend’s casual use of the N-word as an exclamation of general frustration at a situation that had nothing to do with race. I sensed it in my own inexplicable resentment of the Black students who sat together in the cafeteria, creating a space in which I perceived that I was not welcome.
I had no language for what I was experiencing, only shame. I was a conscious, left-leaning, intelligent, and compassionate White person. How could I allow the casual racism going on around me to continue unchecked? How could I, too, be host to that parasitic racism?
In 1990, Professor Janet E. Helms presented an illuminating model of White racial identity development. According to Helms’ framework, after White people discover that race really does matter and that its effects directly contradict narratives of equality and freedom that are deeply engrained in White American culture, many of us go through what’s called the “reintegration” phase:
At this point the desire to be accepted by one’s own racial group, in which the overt or covert belief in White superiority is so prevalent, may lead to a reshaping of the person’s belief system to be more congruent with an acceptance of racism. The guilt and anxiety may be redirected in the form of fear and anger directed toward people of color who are now blamed as the source of discomfort.
I think that our gravitation to the reintegration phase makes sense. The denial of racism helps us to erase the contradiction between the White racial brutality that is all around us and our deeply-held belief that we are fundamentally good White people.
Denial is a feature found in another facet of the human psychological experience: grief. When I compare the famous Kubler-Ross model of grieving to the stages of White racial identity development, it appears that these two processes, while overly generalized and linear, resonate with one another, and generally match my own life experiences.
The parallel between these two processes has been highlighted in passing by anti-racist educator Jane Elliott, who proposes that White people who confront racism are forced to grieve the loss of power that comes with ending racism. I believe that Elliott is right, but here I would like to explore a different, more profound kind of grief — the grief of a person who was not allowed to develop into a full human being.
Grief is usually thought of as a product of losing something or someone. But what happens if parts of myself were tied off at the stump with the fine threads of White culture, never allowed to develop in the first place?
What is the absence of humanity inside of me created by Whiteness?
And what would it mean to fully grieve that absence?
A caveat: the story of my experience growing up White in White supremacist culture is mine alone. I live at the intersection of many different privileged identities, including Whiteness. What follows is not an attempt to describe the experience of all White people, but only my own. I only hope that this articulation of my truth will inspire other White people to tell theirs.
White supremacy has always protected me and benefitted me materially while simultaneously killing me on the inside by crushing my spirit, my intellect, and my social self. This internal death is invisible. It’s especially easy to miss in a materialistic society that gives lip-service to holistic well-being, yet typically worships material abundance over everything else.
In my life, the primary effect of Whiteness (and other supremacist mindsets) has been separation, the construction of walls between all sorts of aspects of my life, from the micro to the macro levels. As a European-American child in a mostly-White community, I was raised with walls between my heart and my head, and walls between myself and other people, particularly those whom I did not see as “White.”
It took a great deal of work for me, as a White American, to finally accept the reality of racism as real and ever-present. I stayed in denial for many years as a liberal White American, trying to cope with my complicity in the vast story of White supremacist violence. I was able to break through that denial thanks to the cumulative teachings of hundreds of individuals, writers, speakers, artists, friends, and students who, consciously or unconsciously, chose a risky investment in me through sharing their truths.
But before I began to break free from denial, I spent years trying to bargain my way out of Whiteness. I sought out opportunities to “help” people of other cultures. I felt that they needed my White help, while I needed their non-White culture. I believed that somehow, if I helped “poor” people of color, I could be invited to embrace their culture, which, I could sense, offered a chance to fill the void at the center of my Whiteness.
I took African dance classes. I learned to play the Chinese fiddle. I taught children of color, most of whom were living in some degree of financial poverty. I thought that through this bargaining I could be saved, but in reality, I was desperately flailing to fill the yawning White void.
Despite all of my well-intentioned work, I was far from understanding what White supremacy had done and was still doing to me. I thought it was a problem for people of color. I thought that “they” were the ones who needed support in coping with reality. My inability to see my own stake in ending White supremacy fooled me into working to address racism as though it were a moral dilemma, an optional experiment on behalf of unfortunate, downtrodden people of color.
But now I know that race was invented to justify turning the world on its head. As European settlers committed atrocity after atrocity against Native American and African people, they needed ways to justify their terrorism. The illusion of separation based on skin color and facial features set the stage for the grand lie of race, which enabled Europeans to sustain the blatant contradiction of ongoing genocide and enslavement in the name of freedom and progress.
Today, race continues to operate by flipping the world upside down. Because White people stole two continents and two hundred years of the backbreaking labor of millions, race reassures us that Blackness is related to thievery. Because White men have raped Black and Brown women with impunity for more than 400 years, race comforts us with the lie that it’s Black masculinity that is defined by hypersexual predation. Because White people penned Black people in the “ghetto” through the practice of redlining, race tells us that that “ghetto” is an indictment of Black pathology.
And while race tells me that racism is a problem for people of color, it turns out the origin of racism is within White families and communities. People of color weren’t the ones who created Whiteness or violated my spirit with it. That was my own people who did that…and I do it right back to them.
In perhaps the most violent world-flipping performance of Whiteness, even our tears, which should be inherently sacred as expressions of our inherent humanity, are defiled. The tears of White people under the influence of Whiteness become weapons of mass destruction, offering a thick blanket of justification to nearly any act of racial violence in which a White “victim” can conjur the image of a fearful, threatening brown-skinned person in the minds of our fellow White people. These metaphorical tears can turn Mike Brown into a “demon” and can justify the murder of 12 year old Tamir Rice for playing with a toy gun in the park.
This is how race turns the world upside down. And now it is our White work to turn our world rightside up again.
At first, this realization felt like the greatest burden — it felt like I was Cyclops of Marvel’s X-men, or the medusa, bearing a gaze powerful enough to destroy everything in its path. How could I continue to live in the world, knowing that my mere presence was destructive? I wished to return to ignorance, back to the time when I wasn’t aware of how much harm my existence caused.
But with the support of the teachings of my peers and those who came before me, I came to realize that this knowledge is not a burden, but instead the greatest of gifts — the gift of work that is mine to do, which is what I’ve been looking for my whole life. Like many well-intentioned progressive White Americans, I spent so much time and energy trying to figure out just what my work in the world was — where could I go to do The Most Good? Africa? Haiti? The “inner city?”
It turns out that my “Most Good” is right here within me, and in the White relationships and communities that are closest to me. We need to help ourselves. We need to heal ourselves. I am all I need, and there is nowhere I need to go.
For 400 years, the power structures of this country have silently centered my White experience, while people of color have been put under a microscope in the form of minstrel shows, traveling circuses, and, now, our commodification of Black music and dance.
When I accept that I’ve been prevented from seeing my hidden White absence, I arrive at the need to center the experience of people of color, while putting Whiteness under the microscope. This is in contradiction to the simplistic call to “not center Whiteness,” an approach to anti-racism which has allowed that Whiteness, and the elegant way it covers its own tracks, to go uninterrogated. This approach sustains our White ignorance to the very fact that we are born delusional.
Now, peering through the microscope at my Whiteness, I see that my programming is so deep and so thorough that even my understanding of the lie in which I’ve been living is itself only understandable through the lens of that lie.
There will never be a moment of final awakening. I will always be forced to live out of integrity with myself because of this system of White supremacy to which I was silently and invisibly harnessed before I was born.
The only road towards integrity, and my only chance to be able to celebrate who I am, requires me to go back through to the narratives my identity has been built on and grieve their malformation. Laying my head down beside my microscope, I surrender, allowing myself to begin the grieving process.
This is how I start to see my personal stake in ending White supremacy as a White person. As a White child, I was brought up to hone my weapons of intellectual, logical, rational analysis, disconnected from my body and my spirit. This has prevented me from growing into a whole person who can lead with different facets of my humanity. But that outsized focus on the intellect leaves me well-positioned to turn my weapons of logic around to face the White-hot forge in which they were created.
The study of my particular experience with White supremacy culture leads me to see that I’ve spent my life wrapped up in a velvet strait jacket, force-fed rich food, laid down and shackled on the softest of cushions next to a roaring fireplace. Through the persistent, aggressive, comforting, and silent White acculturation process, I was never permitted to develop into the full human that I have the potential to be. Here is my White absence:
Intellectual stunting — I grew up perceiving myself to be superior in the arts of logic and reason, but I couldn’t see what was right in front of me when it implicated me in systemic oppression. My life has been filled with all sorts of data to make that oppression clear to me: Who did I see in power? Who did I see empowered to speak their truths? Who did I see marginalized? Every day, a barrage of data…and yet I couldn’t connect the dots.
Social stunting — I couldn’t figure out how to connect with people I perceived as different (read: inferior) to me, beyond a patronizing, fearful superficial engagement that inevitably ended with one or both of us feeling hurt or misunderstood. Why is it so difficult to forge genuine friendships with people with different identities from me?
Spiritual stunting — I professed universal values of equality, freedom, and love, and yet my delusions made it so that I couldn’t even see the ways in which living in a body labeled “White” put me out of integrity with those same values every day. White supremacy is so deeply embedded in my mind, my interpersonal relationships, the institutions I’m a part of, and the systems in which those institutions operate that my “original sin” was being complicit in systemic violence against people of color from before I was born. Whiteness, through cultural erasure, also disconnects me from the faiths of my European ancestors, who had to shed so much in order to “integrate” into American society.
Many people hear these ideas and roll their eyes, crying “White guilt.”
No. I know White guilt. I come from it. I spent most of my adult life with White guilt as my primary motivation for my work. White guilt has been an important phase on my journey, but it was not my endpoint.
Why? Because guilt is rooted in regret about our actions, and my original sin was not my fault. In the womb, I did not choose Whiteness. Privilege was chosen for me by the dominant culture, which anointed me as one of our country’s protected children. I never had a chance.
Peering at myself under the microscope, I ask: How many of the sacred unfoldings planned for the people we call White have been miscarried by the silent machines of White acculturation? What parts of our humanity were tied off at the stump in the service of the racist status quo before we ever had the chance to define ourselves?
We, the people who labeled ourselves “White,” could live in integrity. We could live unfragmented lives in which we could be accepted for who we are, along with our radically diverse ancestries and experiences, which are erased under the suffocating blanket of Whiteness. We could have wholeness. And I believe that it is our right and our duty as human beings to fight for it.
In most instances of grieving, such as that which might follow the loss of a loved one to cancer, the loss is clear, undeniable, and often sudden. The people around the aggrieved person probably understand the reason for grieving, and understand on some level what has been lost.
But the stunting of my humanity as a White person is an absence, not a loss, which makes it invisible. It began before I was born, with the invisible White training of my parents, their parents, and their parents’ parents. It is nothing I can sense without intentional training, because Whiteness is simply the air I breathe. It’s all I have ever known. While I believe that all White people have some deep-down sense of our stuntedness, society conspires to keep us stuck in the swamps of denial and anger.
Nearly every facet of American society conspires to hide my White absence from me. The dominant American political frameworks around racism keep me locked into a false choice between guilt and anger. Both responses are only possible if I can’t see what White supremacy is doing to me as a White person. As I rage against White conservative “racists,” I remain unaware that we’re in the same delusional boat — not seeing that White supremacy controls and polices people of color by first controlling us White people and our perceptions of reality.
The creation of a false conflict (White conservative vs. White liberal) to mask the underlying issue of White supremacy makes sense: a critical mass of White people, aware of our personal stake, could upset the balance that allows for White supremacy and the subjugation of people of color to continue under the banner of freedom, democracy, and equality. My lack of awareness of my White absence is what keeps me comfortable, silent, and complicit.
White supremacy is a near-perfect brand of mental programming because it covers its own tracks. Since it takes enormous, uphill effort for me to even begin to see my programming, I can quite easily spend my entire White life in furious denial of racism’s existence.
I stand on a bridge over the abyss. On one side, a return to the feast, the soft pillows, the warm bed. On the other side, a wall of flames.
Is it a surprise that I so often take the easy way out?
Because who am I to imagine leaping through the fires to confront the fact that I am not who I think I am? To accept that I’ve been had, tricked with cheap, shiny rewards into service as an unwitting stormtrooper, used as a tool to support a system of physical, social, and emotional violence against people of color, living my day-to-day life in violation of my own democratic values of equality, freedom, compassion, and love?
Could I even withstand the fires that would sear and crackle my skin if I accepted that my White life is based on a foundation of lies?
I cannot face the flames if I think that I’m in this on behalf of someone else. Comfort and safety await me the moment I turn back. It makes no sense to abandon that. Only faith, a belief that beyond the veil of Whiteness, I can be forged again, can steel me for the leap through the flames.
Once burned and reforged as a fighter for my own freedom, I will no longer retreat when the struggle becomes risky. When I see the fight against White supremacy as a fight for both the lives of people of color and White souls, retreat ceases to be an option.
We, the good White people, will know we are really winning against White supremacy when we see the police guns turning to point at us.
I ask us: what will we, the newly-targeted, do then? And what will our timid White peers do when they see us at the end of the barrel of a gun?
I offer this essay as a love note to my White self and my White siblings, those of us who are already in the struggle to end White supremacy. When we witness White denial and anger, instead of reactively rolling our eyes, or lashing out, we should strain to hear behind the lies and distortions a cry for support, for time and space to begin the work to confront our White absence. That is our calling as White people working to end racism — and it’s work that we are uniquely positioned to do. It is work we must do.
As I work to help build alternative White communities whose work is centered on ending White supremacy, I learn to embrace White grief as a necessary foundation for action. In doing so, I move towards my own racial healing as a White person and prepare myself to be a part of the multi-racial coalitions that will be required to end global racism.
I began to wake up as a White person in 2014 largely thanks to the movement for Black lives, which provided me with an opportunity to better understand myself even as it lifted up the voices and experiences of Black America. Anti-Black racism is the lens that I’ve been most focused on, but I am aware of that vast gaps in my knowledge and experience when it comes to other non-Black people of color. My writing here is incomplete in that it does not fully take into account the struggles of non-Black people of color to free themselves from White supremacy, and that is due to my own inexperience, not simply an omission. I look forward to reading the work of other White people who are able to better illuminate their own Whiteness next to the experiences of the many non-Black groups that also suffer under systemic White supremacy.
As I have learned to grieve my delusions, I have begun to see that people of color are much better positioned to understand the insidious ways that Whiteness operates than I am. That doesn’t mean that people of color can’t also be deluded by White supremacy, nor does it mean that I can’t develop my ability to see more clearly. But it does mean that things that people of color have been forced to confront about Whiteness have been deliberately hidden from me.
Given this realization, I am no longer going to waste incredible quantities of energy and time trying to be the “exceptional White person,” the one who magically isn’t also complicit in systemic racism. Such dissimulation makes me a White infiltrator, taking up space and dispersing the momentum of racial justice efforts with my ego-driven posturing. Instead, I can allow myself to close my eyes and breathe into the reality that is my unavoidable complicity in White supremacy. There is no need to frantically and furiously deny it. I was born into this mess, which isn’t my fault, and now it is my responsibility to fight for freedom from it.
I understand that I will never be able to live in integrity with myself as a White person until people of color are free. The intentionally-deprived material existence of Americans of color, especially Black and Native peoples, defined and constrained by the White power structure for over 400 years, is a direct reflection of the contorted and tortured spiritual condition of White America.
As I embody the understanding that I am always going to be delusional, and that I’ll be deluded about my delusions, I can accept that I am not in a position to make demands about the road to freedom. I lived for my first 30 years of life unaware of the existence of my own velvet restraints, and I’m only just now beginning to create a vision of my own freedom. So telling people of color what they should be doing seems like a waste of time and energy — that of mine and anyone else who is listening to me. I have plenty of work to do to figure out my own liberation. Only people of color can lead their own struggle against White supremacy.
One major reason Black and Native people haven’t been able to get free yet is that they don’t have access to the material wealth that would be necessary for them to collectively envision and carry out their liberation. One of the first barriers to their liberation is White America’s systematic and sustained denial of material resources to Black and Native communities. Those resources wouldn’t guarantee victory, but it would provide a necessary foundation for it. So I see three ways I can “help” Black and Native people:
- Moving material resources to Black and Native organizing efforts (reparations)
- Speaking up in White public spaces about the realities of White supremacy
- Building community through working with other White people to reforge our identities as White people
This is my process of reparations. Of course, there are millions of White people who, unlike me, have very little wealth, land, and power to turn over. Reparations will look different for them, as the resources they may have to contribute are more likely time, energy, skills, and access. The particular experience of Whiteness articulated here is mine alone.
Instead of framing the conversation about reparations as a moral obligation to historically marginalized people, I frame reparations as everyone getting what they need to heal from White supremacy. What if people of color don’t actually need White people’s help to figure out their healing, but instead, only need the financial and material resources to create the space for figuring out their healing for themselves? That frees me, as a White person, to focus on healing and recovering from my own White grief instead of worrying about what people of color need. Just as a person grieving the loss of a loved one can heal through expressions love and gratitude for the people and communities around them, material reparations are the primary way for me as a White person to channel and embody my grief, transforming it into strength, joy, and freedom. This is a transcendent, symbiotic healing system — our distinct healing processes support and reinforce one another.
There is no roadmap for this work, although there are many who have come before us and blazed their trails through the wilderness. I would be lying if I denied my fear at the loss of some of my unearned power. But I also know what is at stake if I hold on to that power.
So all I can do is stumble forward, committed to learning and trusting that my relationships with fellow travelers on this journey will help me to correct my course when I stray. I honor the many who have gone on this path before me, people of color and White, who have laid the foundation for me to be able to fight today.
Below I list some of my reparations/White racial healing projects not to earn cookies, but because it’s important for me to make concrete the abstract ideas I’ve put forth, to remind other White people that there are real paths forward that we can take right now.
- I donate what I can to Black-led Black liberation organizing efforts locally and nation-wide. Check out this partial map for local efforts.
- I support local Black-led organizing efforts, especially by fundraising and publicizing their efforts to White communities. For me, this includes groups like Intelligent Mischief and Black Lives Matter Cambridge.
- I also support efforts to organize White people for racial justice, via Community Change, Inc., Showing Up for Racial Justice, the Catalyst Project, and others.
- I am part of a growing collective of White racial justice educators and trainers called White Awake. We design curricula for White people to embody our personal stake in ending White supremacy.
- I organize people with class privilege to commit to redistribution of wealth as a part of donor-organizing networks Resource Generation and Solidaire.
- Through my relationships with other White people, I work to reforge our collective sense of what it means to be White, so that we can co-create a new culture centered around achieving wholeness through working to end White supremacy.
Through this work, I have the opportunity to break free from the lie that reparations are only about helping people of color; I benefit from wealth redistribution just as much as everyone else. Through this work, my world is expanded, I am more human, and I am spiritually-connected in ways I have never been before.
By stepping fully into my White grief, I get to move forward in my quest to break free from White supremacy alongside my White siblings and people of color. I am able to see how I, too, get a chance to live with integrity, to be whole, an opportunity to be a part of the age-old story of people struggling to be free. Thus I stand to take up the battle, alongside millions of other people, to fight the only opponent I’ve ever really had, the only opponent I could ever fight, and the only opponent that stands between me and my own freedom.
Thank you to Martha Collins, Johnny Lapham, Ukumbwa Sauti, and Jason David for editing.