How I Am Healing From the Nonconsensual Conditioning of White Supremacy (and Patriarchy)

Erin Monahan
Feb 21 · 8 min read

I have to admit that when I started waking up to whiteness it gave me anxiety to know that I am part of the “all white people” category. Living in a white supremacy means that we, white people, are conditioned to see ourselves as individuals, acting as agents separate from a larger group. I really didn’t want to be lumped into a generalized, homogeneous group. I wanted to keep thinking of myself as special, unique, different. I wanted nothing to do with the less “woke” white people. I wanted to be “the wokest.” I didn’t realize at the time that this was my glaring attachment to the construct of whiteness and how it conditions us to strive for toxic individualism.

White supremacy perpetuates the myth of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” in this really unhealthy way where we white people don’t know how to ask for help when we need it. The phrase “it takes a village” was a message I never heard and hardly could wrap my head around when I heard it for the first time in my twenties. We have always been taught to “worry about ourselves,” “focus on yourself,” and “be the best you can be.” While my parents, as well as the influence of my catholic church upbringing, purportedly encouraged us to think about our neighbors, what stood out more for me growing up was a sense that I needed to handle everything on my own to the point where I would bottle my emotions (this didn’t last long because I am a verbal processor) and then unleash my unprocessed feelings in a rage fit for a child throwing a tantrum.

This obsessive desire for individuality leads to a rejection of community, and a lack of understanding that we are all connected, that there are ties to everything, and that none of us are islands.

Because I was trying to be a “good” “woke” “anti-racist” white, I wanted to stand out a part from the other less “woke” white people. But part of waking up to my whiteness meant realizing that this anxiety was born out of entitlement. I felt entitled to my individuality, even though white society refuses to recognize the individuality of those who are Black, Indigenous, or people of color.

It took me some time to accept that I am just like all other white people in so many ways. The list of characteristics of white supremacy culture created by Tema Okun made it really clear to me. I had to grapple with my sense of entitlement to being an individual when my ancestors made choices that impact my position today. Now I understand that my work is to acknowledge their choices and be accountable for how I have been living out their legacy, intentionally or not. And now it is of utmost importance to me to learn how to be “a good ancestor” as @laylafsaad points out. It is important because I realize how damaging, violent, and harmful these structures are to my own humanity, and how this is connected to the humanity of all.

Part of waking up to my whiteness means that I have to accept that I cannot control how people perceive me, if they like me, or trust me. I had to do some deep reflection as to why I so desperately not only wanted those things upon initial and immediate introduction with another person, but also in some ways, felt entitled to another’s grace and trust. I realized that in my personal experience upon meeting people that I thought I had to immediately trust them too.

This lack of boundaries stems from patriarchal conditioning. In reality, it’s not one way or the other. None of us are obliged to trust or like anyone. It’s about honoring how we feel, when we feel it, and observing and acknowledging that. There doesn’t necessarily need to be an action taken with all of the feelings and reactions we have. These are lessons I know my parents tried to teach me, but even our parents cannot save us from the disease and terror of oppressive structures that infiltrate every facet of our society from school to the grocery store, to the way we are taught to greet our unfamiliar uncles with begrudging hugs.

Reflecting on my need to be liked and trusted, made me think about how whiteness allows no room for patience and cultivation. Whiteness wants immediacy, quantity over quality, and a guaranteed return on investment.

My need to be liked and trusted by everyone is non-consensual. I just assumed and felt entitled to everybody’s good will and loyalty without putting the work in to build that trust, or without understanding that the person has a choice as to whether or not they wanted to like me and trust me. For me, this also impacted the way I received others and how I allowed people to treat me. I thought I had to find a way to automatically like and trust others. This put me in some comprising and dangerous situations as a woman. And a part from being a woman, this mindset also meant that sometimes I was manipulative towards people to get them to like and trust me…which is the opposite of trusting.

White supremacy, along with patriarchal conditioning, are dehumanizing phenomena that strips us of an intimate connection to ourselves and therefore, our boundaries. Detaching from whiteness (and unlearning patriarchal conditioning) means humanizing myself again, and figuring out what my boundaries are. It means figuring out how I can honor them, so that I can also honor the boundaries of others. This is an ongoing, ever-evolving process.

When I came to realization that I am lumped in with “all white people” I started worrying particularly about gaining the trust of people who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC). I was reading obsessively about how to be an ally, not realizing my motives were completely selfish and white-centering. I couldn’t stand the idea of being just like all white people, so I poured over the texts of people of color and Black feminists. I was absorbing as much knowledge as I could in an attempt to figure out how to not be racist. But as a white person you can’t avoid being racist in our white supremacist society. We are fish in the water of whiteness.

I didn’t understand this at first, and really, how could I if I was just waking up to whiteness? It requires a lifetime, or more, to understand just how deep and ingrained the layers of whiteness are inside us. Many have described that the process like an unraveling, as if you are pulling a tangled string from your mouth out of the pit of your stomach. You pull one string and you realize it is connected to a whole mess of other strings. Whiteness is something I will be pulling and digging at my entire life. But in the beginning, I put desperate effort into a performance of anti-racism. I wanted to be so “woke” I couldn’t be called out, which is a desire rooted in white fragility.

To be free of accountability is a horrible reason to study how to be an ally, and it’s also the opposite of allyship. Allyship means you are holding yourself accountable and that you are willing to show up in that way no matter how uncomfortable it might be. Being an ally is a verb, which means no one gets to call themselves an ally. You are acting like one or you are not.

All of this really goes to show just how much healing I needed to do and how much I need to continue to do.

If you would have asked me one year ago about my healing, I would have said “heal from what?” Because I used to think race wasn’t a white person problem. I used to think that I didn’t even have a race. I used to think white people and particularly upper, middle class white people were the norm and that everyone is fighting to have the ability to achieve our lifestyles. I used to think my way of life was the desired outcome. I had no clue that I was completely wrong, and that healing from my commitment to whiteness — my commitment to these false beliefs of superiority — is essential for my well-being, for my freedom, and for my humanity. Since no one is free unless we are all free, I was not yet able to comprehend how I actually wasn’t free, despite all of my access and privilege. And instead of looking at that, instead of looking in the mirror at my truth, I chose to deflect because it seemed way more comfortable and easy.

Seeing myself as white my entire life means that I am well-versed in keeping my own imperfect, ugly, impure, messy, complicated layers under wraps. We never talked about heavy issues at the dinner table in my family. I know a lot of families like mine who keep these things secret and hidden away, not fully comprehending the toxic nature of how these unspoken traumas manifest later in life. I have always desperately avoided admitting that there is anything wrong with me. Much like how our society has a really difficult time navigating conversations about mental health, admitting that I needed to heal, or that I had my own trauma, was something to hurriedly sweep under the rug.

I got caught up in the optics of allyship and anti-racism, instead of focusing all of my care and attention towards healing internally. My white fragility reared its ugly head and I desperately wanted to prove how “not racist” I was, so I overcompensated by being overly-friendly, or extra smiley to BIPOC strangers. Still, to this day, I have to check myself frequently for overcompensation. I find that it is important to be transparent about this because this is the reality of my process of waking up to whiteness, and I think it is important to acknowledge how white supremacy has convinced us that white people are the norm and everyone else is “other.”

White supremacy is manipulative. Instead of “how can I be a better person and heal from my obsession to be validated and accepted and adored by everyone?” my mind went straight to “how can I make everyone think I’m not racist?” I now understand that a part of anti-racism work means healing internally, and building relationships based on mutuality and trusting bonds. It’s through cultivating connection. These things cannot be forced, but white supremacy feeds off of control.

This process has felt long and painful, but it is getting less so as I learn what healing means. I had to learn how to accept myself, flaws, mistakes, and face-palm moments and all.

I think the key to the process of waking up to whiteness and beginning the journey to detach from it, is learning how to hold space for yourself so you can sit in the discomfort and pain, and move through it. To allow yourself to be in sadness, guilt, anxiety, stress, or whatever feelings come up when you feel them.

This process is one of transparency, and while we strip ourselves of the behaviors and mindsets that we know are harmful to ourselves and others, it is vital that we learn self-compassion and self-love otherwise we will make ourselves sick and get burned out. I am still (and always) working on self-compassion and self-love. I go through waves of feeling solid and clear, and then plummeting into complete uncertainty and insecurity. But the waves are becoming a little more manageable.

What does healing look like and mean to you?

Erin Monahan

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Writer/Facilitator Focused on Dismantling White Supremacy/Founder of Terra Incognita Media