Open Question: What is a world without whiteness?

This question is directed to my white brothers and sisters, in particular. Let’s pause and ponder some answers.

In this moment, I’ve wrestled with taking up more air space. And at the same time, I recognize that “white silence is violence.” So here I am struggling to locate words that offer some semblance of clarity in this ongoing atrocity of police brutality. We are witnessing a violent eruption of whiteness, but these roots run deep throughout our daily lives. What we have before us are the fruits of a particular tree that has been seeded, watered and grown across many generations.

This tree carries particular culpability for me, a 42-year old white woman.

I want to break open the psyche of white America. I want us to grapple with the fact that we are implicated — yes, me and you! There’s no pass, woke index, or foreseeable exit. Yet this should not stop us from doing the work. “What if we began at a kind of ‘unachievability.’ What if we began there and still proceeded? Not because we’ll win but because we’ll have an experience within our activities” (Evol, 2020).

I’ve spent the last year interviewing white people who are moving strategically and consistently from white fragility to white accountability. I’m inspired by many groups of white people who are holding themselves accountable: “We as white folks, regardless of our other intersecting identities, must take ownership and lean into the responsibility of creating a new legacy rooted in racial equity and a rejection of our perpetual benefit from white privilege.”[1] This commitment is critical, and my continuous challenge — to myself and others — is our collective liberation.

Take a moment to imagine a kind of quantum leap forward through the portal of racial justice. On the other side of all of this, maybe we no longer need to exist.

In previous work, I’ve discussed the need for a Critical white Consciousness. This is not the destination, just a step in the right direction. Along the journey, we should be mindful that we don’t just walk in our ancestors’ footsteps nor run forward as leaders. These pitfalls will ensnare our identities to the vestiges of white supremacy. It is through some semblance of grace that we will be allowed back into the human family.

We are on borrowed time. Whiteness will not last forever. Part of our path is to manifest our own demise.

When analyzed within a historical context, the mythology of white supremacy is a relatively young idea (Bradley, 1978; Coates, 2015; Lopez, 1997; hooks, 2013). This is not to diminish the pervasiveness or destructive power of racism, but to disrupt its monolithic hold. Part of the mirage of whiteness is that it exists; a reality comprised of pseudoscience, manifest destiny, and the fallacies of pigmentation. In other words, a really complicated trick that is inherited and learned, internalized and socialized. I am not implying that we need to live in a post-racial era or that it’s possible for white people to escape our privileges, yet I do want to push us a bit further.

If the present generation of whites would study their own race in the light of their true history, they would be anti-white themselves.” -Malcolm X

In the process of breaking down our privileges, I’ve seen some pitfalls. Consider that this is not about running away from ourselves, nor is it grounded in white guilt or shame. Or even about how to be an ally. In my opinion, that’s often part of our egotistical mirages that don’t really do much to disrupt the status quo; like the dangerous liberalism of Amy Cooper. So much of what we pretend to be is a “fleeting illusion to be pursued but never attained.”[2] Despite some good intentions, we continue to perpetuate racism. What’s still missing from our reflections and racial integrity?

In 1880, Charles Chesnutt, an African American essayist, wrote extensively about the need to interrogate whiteness. He believed the best strategy for instigating social change was to contend with the mind of the oppressor. Years later, in 1910, Du Bois stated that white supremacy is “the new religion of whiteness” (1995, p. 454). In his research, Du Bois was concerned with the troubled white psyche of divided aims: human recognition and connection, on the one hand, and selective racial advancement on the other. A generation later, James Baldwin also recognized the polarities inherent in the white racial identity and rationalized that it would manifest into perpetual cycles of disillusion and remorse.

There is a particular blindness that often accompanies privilege; a naivete that preserves subjugation.

As a society, we have mastered technology, but have not mastered ourselves. So scientific advancements can take astronauts into the cosmos (like the recent SpaceX deployment) and yet we are still missing critical pieces about how to put our humanity back together. Primordial misgivings about race keep us divided and often paralyzed by prejudice. Few have put the quandary of race into a more poignant analysis then Ta-Nehisi Coates (2015). In Between The World and Me, he posits, “racism is rendered as the innocent daughter of Mother Nature, and one is left to deplore the Middle Passage or the Trail of Tears the way one deplores an earthquake, a tornado, or any other phenomenon that can be cast as beyond the handiwork of men. But race is the child of racism, not the father” (p. 7). The invention of whiteness lies inside the “heart of these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white. These new people are, like us, a modern invention. But unlike us, their new name has no real meaning divorced from the machinery of criminal power” (ibid). Coates’ timely examination of race breaks us away from solely focusing on the Black body, and frames the cage as a façade of our own white racial identities.

We have not uprooted whiteness. The tree of this ideology is based upon fallacies:

  • White People are not the Center of Civilization and Progress
  • White People are not the Majority and the Norm
  • White People do not Own this World
  • Whiteness is not Real

Neely Fuller (1971) warns, “If you do not understand White Supremacy (Racism) — what it is, and how it works — everything else that you understand, will only confuse you.” This is not just 2020. And this is not just about the United States of America. Racism has destroyed more than any other socio-material system on earth.

Consider the gravesites of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the gravesites on this Turtle Island, the entire ocean floor of the Maafa, or the ashes of Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahama. Injustice is not an anomaly. Do you know our history? Equity starts with autobiography.

  • Why are we the killers?
  • Why are we the looters?
  • Why is it us with our knee on George Floyd’s neck?
  • Why do we murder like this?
  • Why do we lynch?
  • Why can’t we embody our own humanity?

Toni Morrison was spot on when she told us, “People who practice racism are bereft… If you can only be tall because somebody is on their knees, then you have a serious problem. And my feeling is white people have a very, very serious problem, and they should start thinking about what they are going to do about it.”[3]

Building upon Morrison’s analysis, we’ve been at war with the world and ourselves for so long. At war with our own morality and mortality. This starts at birth. White supremacy is experienced in our infancy and reified before we even formulate our first words. Without the language or historical context to deconstruct why certain people are perpetually disadvantaged, oppression gets operationalized intuitively and internalized. These patterns often become self-fulfilling prophecies of marginalization and privilege — the building blocks of white racial hegemony (Leonardo, 2004; 2009).

“This future edifice is linked to the present insofar as I consider the present to be something to be overtaken.” -Franz Fanon

Whiteness is visible, invisible, and can seem invincible, which is all part of its dangerous allure. It creates delusions of power that we unconsciously perpetuate and defend. It is imperative that we lift the veil on the manipulative nature of white supremacy; let’s see it for what it is.

And yet I should also make clear that I do not assume that whiteness is monolithic. Rather, it shape-shifts like a ghost: ever-present, undeniable, and hard to destroy. Its power as a constructed category has been its malleability, kept alive for centuries through the reproduction of racism and biological determinism. It is also important to underscore that spreading the mythology of white supremacy knows no hue. People of Color can — and do — perpetuate colonial mentalities. But this, my friends, is not about them. Here, the spotlight is on us.

We are victims of our own ignorance; defenders of destruction. Dana White seemed to say it best: “Being Black is not exhausting at all. White people are exhausting. That’s what they do, exhaust others, exhaust resources, exhaust themselves in their obsession with dominance. Whiteness is exhaustion.”

There is clearly an unexplored psychological and pathological toll that racism takes on the oppressor. It’s going to take its own kind of radical healing and healing justice (Ginwright, 2010; 2015) to authentically reconnect with humanity. For this to authentically occur, we need to get real with ourselves. Here’s an important, daily question: What are you doing to stop or curtail the spread of white supremacy in yourself, your community, and this world?

Along our lifelong journey to embody this answer, the goal is not to re-center whiteness within our analysis of racism, but rather to systematically dismantle it. Let’s get there, together. Below are a couple of ideas to help us move forward:

1. “The ubiquitous socializing power of white supremacy cannot be avoided” (Di Angelo, 2018, p. 129). We cannot scapegoat racism by denying or hiding from our identities. To consider even a slight possibility that we can be colorblind in a racialized society is like claiming a fish in an aquarium might not be wet. It is what it is — we are all wet — so let’s deal with ourselves with integrity and empathy. And when these dynamics get intense or the information is too much to bear, try not to get defensive, for it is the surest way to miss the lesson. So, stay present, even if it’s painful.

2. Whiteness is full of white people who have “no awareness of whiteness as a construction, let alone their own role in sustaining and playing out the inequities” (Matias, 2016, p. 100). Recognizing the pervasiveness of inequality allows us to focus on how — rather than if — our racism manifests.

3. Inside an ecosystem of oppression, labels act as borderlands — opposite ends that are distinctly co-dependent. The hierarchy discriminates between the owners and the owned; the innocent and the guilty; those considered civilians and aliens; those who are taught they are brilliant and those who taught they are bastards. To put it another way, privilege is based upon marginalization. Wealth can’t exist without poverty. Whiteness is dependent upon racism for its survival. When we fail to adequately examine the intersectional nature of white supremacy, it limits our understanding of injustice and the ways to adequately disrupt it.

4. Racism is about us: white people. But often, we feel for and identify with the plight of the oppressed. We might watch a movie about chattel slavery, for instance, and actually see ourselves in the victim and not the villain. This is problematic. If you were living in the days of slavery, who would you have been? If you were at that picnic when they lynched and castrated a Black man, what would you have been doing? Smiling for the camera, perhaps? Or munching on your sandwich. This is not about the personal shame of whiteness, but rather our collective responsibilities. “Part of the mythology around racism” explains Segrest, “is that it only affects people of color” (2001, p. 43). We have to do the work of facing ourselves.

5. We are the embodiment of our ancestors; look no further than your last name. I encourage white families to double-study our history and lineage. Professor Christine Sleeter did just that and discovered her family stole land from the Ute Indian Tribe in east-central Utah. After realizing this legacy, she took her inheritance and returned it — a quarter of a million dollars — to the tribe.[4] Money is power and giving it up in the name of justice, is a very real and important action. Invest in movements that are pro-Black and anti-racist.

6. We have so much learning to do. Understanding how our families have benefited from whiteness is critical, and yet incomplete. It is vital that we raise and develop children who have a rich understanding of world history. Have you read, They Came Before Columbus? The Autobiography of Malcom X? Or White By Law? We cannot teach what we do not know, so please read and then read some more.

7. Show up; don’t show out. And sometimes, please don’t show up. There are certain words we are not allowed to speak. Similarly, there are places that we do not belong. Often, our presence can be part of the problem. Consider the wisdom of Kelsey Blackwell in her essay, Why People of Color Need Spaces Without White People. She explains the need to organize and congregate without the white gaze. To find escape. To stop the code-switching. To maroon.

8. Other times, our presence is essential. Like the ways the white folks just recently formed a human barricade to protect Black protesters in Kentucky. This is strategic positioning. It is using whiteness against itself.

9. Just stop asking People of Color to help us unpack our racism; it’s another example of privilege and our narcissistic pathology. Take the time to write and fathom a future society that no longer centralizes and normalizes us. What does that reality look and feel like?

10. In many respects, as white people, we need to get a lot better at policing one another. Not in the name of blame, but in the name of growth.

11. Once you become critical and conscious of your skin, this is just the beginning of a lifelong journey. As a process of awakening, we become mindful of the skin that we are in — People of Color are forced to see themselves in this light because of all the ways society others their reality — but for us, we need to awaken and then re-awaken to our privileges. What does it mean to be white becomes a quotidian practice.

12. My nephew once asked me, “Do you wish that you were born Black?” I looked him eye-to-eye and stated definitively: “GOD does not make mistakes. I am who I am and I strive to love who I am, and so should you.” Given the world we live in, when it seems everything is for sale, including racial identity, I see our confusion and maladjustment around racism getting more misconstrued. We cannot run away from ourselves, no matter how hard we try to conceal who we are or create deception about where we come from. Self-love and genuine self-esteem are still very important. Not being at home in/with ourselves is actually synonymous with our larger illusions and confusions.

13. I am grateful to Aja Taylor who I do not know. She recently wrote words on Facebook that resonated within my own heart: “White people with white children, what are you doing today to teach your children about white supremacy and white violence? How will you keep your child/ren from killing a Black person — to include calling cops on us, resulting in our death? How do you explain to them the racial inheritance of white violence and anti-Blackness? What is that conversation like? And if you’re not having that talk, why not?”

14. Whiteness gets perpetuated even when we have romantic relationships or children with non-white people. Sleeping next to a Person of Color does not equate to some sort of escape from the skin we’re in.

15. Courage is contagious, just like fear. Leadership often takes a leap of faith to move systems in a new direction. What is your north star? What is your bolder horizon?

16. Empathy without action is vanity. Likewise, institutional statements about racial justice are mere rhetoric if they do not include their own data (disaggregated by race) and accountability measures, including how money is allocated. Read between the lines because this can mean the difference between an announcement and a commitment.

17. We need to use our positionality strategically. Advocate and hire People of Color and work diligently so leadership actually changes hands. I’ve said it many times, Black leadership matters.

18. Reparations matter. Not just in this country, but in Africa as well. Europe and the USA underdeveloped Africa on every indicator imaginable. There will be a price to pay. Similarly, we’ve got to divest financially in public institutions — like prisons and the police — that explicitly perpetuate systems of white supremacy.

19. My son recently asked me, will white supremacy take the world with it?

20. Race is a social construct and the superiority of whiteness is a lie. A reality built on lies is destined to demise. We need to kill whiteness for our humanity to survive. For our earth to heal. This is not about self-hatred, it’s about a particular kind of genocide that can birth a new reality.

I hope that you take this as an opening. Digest the ideas. Comment, question and commit to discovering your own answers. May we unveil ourselves to ourselves so that we emerge from this moment changed.

All that you touch

You Change.

All that you Change

Changes you.

The only lasting truth Is Change.

God Is Change.

-Parable of the Sower, Octavia E. Butler

[4] https://www.sltrib.com/news/politics/2017/09/25/professor-gives-250k-to-ute-indian-tribe-to-compensate-for-great-grandparents-profiting-off-tribal-land-sales/

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6S7zGgL6Suw

[2] Speech by King Haile Selassie I to the United Nations in 1963. Later reproduced as Bob Marley’s song, WAR, in 1976.

[1] Check out, Advocates for Action Consulting

References

Blackwell, K. (August 9, 2018). Why People of Color Need Spaces Without White People. In The Arrow: A Journal of Wakeful Society, Culture & Politics. https://arrow-journal.org/why-people-of-color-need-spaces-without-white-people/

Bradley, M. (1978). The Iceman Inheritance: Prehistoric Sources of Western Man’s Racism, Sexism and Aggression.Toronto: Dorset Pub.

Butler, O. E. (2012). Parable of the Sower. New York: Warner.

Coates, T. (2015). Between the World and Me. New York: Spiegel and Grau.

DiAngelo, R. (2018). White fragility: Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism. Beacon Press.

Du Bois, W. E. B. (1995). In D. L. Lewis (Ed.), W.E.B. Du Bois reader. New York: Henry.

Evol, K. (May 29, 2020). “George Floyd & What black utopian thinking can offer us,” https://www.mnartists.org/article/george-floyd-what-black-utopian-thinking-can-offer-us.

Fanon, F. (1963). The Wretched of the Earth: Pref. by Jean-Paul Sartre. Transl. by Constance Farrington. New York & London: Grove Press.

Ginwright, S. (2010). Black Youth Rising: Activism and Radical Healing in Urban America. New York: Teachers College Press.

Ginwright, S. A. (2015). Radically Healing Black Lives: A Love Note to Justice. New directions for student leadership, 2015(148), 33–44.

hooks, b. (2013). Writing beyond Race: Living Theory and Practice. New York & London: Routledge.

Leonardo, Z. (2009). Race, Whiteness, and Education. New York: Routledge.

Leonardo, Z. (2004). The color of supremacy: Beyond the discourse of ‘white privilege’. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 36(2), 137–152.

Lopez, I. F., & Lopez, I. H. (1997). White by Law: The Legal Construction of Race. New York: NYU Press.

Matias, C. E. (2016). Feeling white: Whiteness, emotionality, and education. Brill Sense.

Segrest, M. (2001). The souls of white folks. The making and unmaking of whiteness, 43. Duke University Press.

Sertima, I.V. (1976). They Came Before Columbus. New York: Random House.

X., M, Haley, A., Handler, M. S., & Davis, O. (1965). The autobiography of Malcom X. Random House.

Campus administrator & scholar. Her work focuses on racial justice, equity, & belonging. Doctorate in Education from Harvard University.