On Whiteness:

Positionality, Sacrifice, and Collective Responsibility

For quite some time, I have been feeling and thinking about whiteness, specifically three transitions of focus and analysis and how we, as people categorized as white, are involved. Conversations around whiteness seem to situate it as either: (a) individual white identity/privilege or (b) white supremacy as a system with which we have a “choice” to participate. Rarely do I see or hear whiteness talked about, among white people, in respect to how we individually and collectively engage with our relationship to the construction of whiteness and systems of access, supremacy, and domination informed by this racial construction.

People of color — especially Black folks — rightfully distrust white people before and after we display attitudes, perceptions, and behaviors perpetuating racism. We, as white people, seem to misappropriate this way of identifying white people who overtly perpetuate racism and anti-blackness, and this misappropriation must be critically observed and addressed. Do we have more of a responsibility for the racist behaviors of other white people than we are currently embodying? I attempt to explore this question through three focal shifts:

  • Whiteness as identity → Whiteness as positionality
  • Leveraging privilege → Sacrificing and risking access, opportunity, social status and standing (i.e., “Privilege”)
  • Dismissing other white people → Taking collective responsibility for other white people

It is important for me to state how I am defining whiteness. Whiteness equals white supremacy and domination. Whiteness cannot be separated from supremacy and domination. For me, when we begin to speak about whiteness in separation from domination and supremacy, we need to consider why that is and bring ourselves back. Additionally, as the work of Kimberlé Crenshaw teaches, we must consider the ways systems of oppression interlock and overlap, always acknowledging the gaps and fractures, who is harmed in those gaps and fractures, and in what ways we are responsible or implicated.

Identity to Positionality

Shifting focus from whiteness as identity, to whiteness as positionality.

Whiteness is less of how we, as people categorized as white, identify, and more about how we have a deeply rooted relationship to supremacy and domination through institutions and systems, including the ways they interlock and overlap. When we consider our own whiteness and limit it as a matter of individual identity, even collective identity, we fail to recognize our relationship to supremacy and domination. I believe this often leads white people to think that if we do not “identify” with whiteness — whether this means carrying tiki torches or not saying the N-word — then we do not access and perpetuate white supremacist and dominant institutions and systems, and this is not the case. Whiteness is ever-present, as long as we are present.

Actively considering our racial positionality (along with our other sociopolitical positionalities such as gender, ability, sexual orientation, religion, class, etc.), we can begin to engage with our relationship to systems, institutions, and other people; the gaps in our understanding and perception of ourselves and others; and the ways we are embodying white supremacy and domination, whether or not we are intentionally doing so.

Risking and Sacrificing our Access to Supremacy and Domination

Shifting focus from ways to leverage privilege as white people, usually through bias intervention and “uplifting others”, to sacrificing and risking privilege (access, opportunity, social standing and status) — becoming “abolitionists” of white privilege.

My understanding is that race was/is continually constructed for the purposes of inequity, hierarchy, supremacy, and domination. If this is the case, which I believe it to be, we must consider: How can one leverage a system that was created to oppress other people, in order to dismantle that oppression? In this attempt, a white person would still be accessing the power that only came to be because of that oppression of other people. This right here is why “leveraging privilege” neither intuitively feels right nor makes logical sense to me.

I have begun to engage with questions around the meaning of loss: What does it mean to lose access, opportunity, and social standing and status for the purpose of equity and justice? How do we, as white people, begin to shift our focus from hoarding power and perpetuating harm, to risking our ability to access power and sacrificing it? There can be no abolition of white supremacy and domination, without the abolition of our ability to leverage and access it.

Taking Responsibility for Our Impacts and Other White People — The Collective Work

Shifting from dismissing other white people to becoming collectively responsible for other white people.

We, as white people, seem to look to people of color — often Black folks — when considering whether we have had harmful impacts on others, and we are often met with the reaction that if there is any circumstance in which we can take the least amount of responsibility for our actions, we will. We claim how it was not our intention, the person of color is being too sensitive and/or does not understand our context. As if it is the job and work of people of color to hold us, as white people, accountable rather than take on our accountability as our own responsibility. We must begin to hold ourselves and one another accountable for our impacts, and place our intentions to the side. Intention is not a good enough reason to continue the harm caused by white people. Intention does not lessen the harm caused by our impacts. Intention cannot dismiss what a person of color is telling or showing us what we have done and continue to do.

Moreover, it seems that we often look to people of color when considering how to address other white people who display racist views and actions. These methods of addressing often fall into acts of shunning, dismissing, and cutting those people out of our lives altogether. This is absolutely necessary for folks of color to practice, for various reasons — their health, their survival, their exhaustion.

Is this irresponsible for us, as white people, to use the same methods of challenge and do this amongst ourselves and to one another? For me, the collective work of uprooting whiteness and, therefore, uprooting white supremacy and domination, is taking responsibility for other white people’s actions and behaviors. This requires emotional, physical, mental, sociopolitical labor. By not being responsible for the actions and behaviors of other white people, we are not taking responsibility for our own positionality and relation to racial supremacy and domination. And when I say taking responsibility for other white people’s actions and behaviors, I do not mean engaging in competition around who is the most radical, socially just, anti-racist, “wokest” white person.

What does it truly mean to “collect our people”, as we have been so often asked to do by people of color, both inside and outside of our intimate lives? I have understood, through the patience and comradery of friends, self-education through reading, my own mistakes, and personal experiences, that this collection can mean many different things based on the circumstances and context — from using our physical bodies to prevent immediate harm, to doing the emotional labor often falling on shoulders of a person of color. The truth is, this is where circumstances may get deeply uncomfortable, when collecting our people actually means listening, empathizing, and healing with them in ways that remind us of how the harm to them benefits us, including instances where we are the ones who need to be accounted for and collected.

I was recently watching Deeyah Khan and her documentary, White Right: Meeting the Enemy, as she expended various levels of labor to sit down with members of the National Socialist Movement, one of the largest white supremacist/neo-nazi organizations in the United States. This documentary brought up some complex thoughts and feelings for me.

First, there is so much power in sitting down with someone and listening to them, as displayed by Deeyah Khan. She sat and listened to white men as they spoke of committing various acts of racial violence, in addition to enacting these various levels of violence on her. Do we, as white people, do this? Do we do this? Perhaps not directly with members of neo-nazi groups, but do we give the time and energy to sit with white people who cause racial harm? Did a white person do this with #BBQBecky after she called the police on Black people BBQing? Did a white person do this with #PermitPatty? How do we take collective responsibility for individual actions taken by white people, and still humanize these individuals? White people too often get away with racist behaviors without any large consequences (beyond making national news, and possibly losing their job, in a few cases) or any significant accountability.

What will it take for us to hold the white people in our lives accountable for their actions? Our relatives? Our significant others? Our friends? Our parents? Our siblings? Our children? When will we do the collective work of uprooting white supremacy and domination in our own intimate spaces, spaces to which folks of color cannot access without facing abjection?

Conclusion

From one white person to another and all others:

  1. We, as white people, must water spaces that already exist and create more intra-group spaces for embodied, experiential, and person-centered sharing and learning among white people in order to uproot whiteness (white supremacy and domination) in our lives.
  2. We, as white people, must build a critically conscious relationship with whiteness — an intimate one which spans across every aspect of our lives, even when we are in spaces with only white people. As Robin DiAngelo states, it is critical that all white people build the stamina to sustain conscious and explicit engagement with race”.
  3. We, as white people, must do the work of uprooting whiteness in both individual and collective ways. There are aspects of this work which require a deep look within ourselves, even painful introspection. Recently, I experienced the importance of doing accountability and healing work as a collective, and believe this is possible and necessary.

Building community around uprooting whiteness, anti-blackness, patriarchy, capitalism, imperialism, colonialism, heterosexism, cis-sexism, and other ways we harm and oppress others is deeply needed for the purposes of holding each other accountable, and beginning to answer the ever-present call for justice by those we continue to ignore or from whom we only hear what we want to hear.

We, as white people, must display urgency and determination in our individual and collective work, take decisive steps towards understanding, feeling, and acting from a critical understanding of our positionalities; risking the access in which we so deeply invest — access which comes at the cost of other people’s safety, humanity, and life; and take responsibility for our actions and the collective actions of all people who are categorized as white.

Coming to this understanding of constructed positionality, holding it, feeling it, and being accountable for it, is necessary for us to heal from it and engage with all humanity.


But don’t take my word for it…

bell hooks (Wikipedia) (bell hooks Institute)

Beverly Tatum (Wikipedia) (TEDxTalk)

Carol Anderson (Wikipedia) (Book: White Rage)

Charles W. Mills (Wikipedia) (CUNY Graduate Center) (Video)

Claudia Rankine (Wikipedia) (Personal Website)

Deeyah Khan (Wikipedia) (Documentary: White Right: Meeting the Enemy)

Eduardo Bonilla-Silva (Wikipedia) (Duke University)

James Baldwin (Wikipedia) (Video) (Documentary: I am Not Your Negro)

Jessie Daniels (Personal Website) (Hunter College) (Twitter)

Joe Feagin (Wikipedia) (Texas A&M University) (Twitter)

Kimberlé Crenshaw (Wikipedia) (UCLA) (Twitter)

Malcolm X (Wikipedia) (Documentary: Make It Plain)

Mark Chesler (Program on Intergroup Relations)

Michelle Fine (CUNY Graduate Center)

Nell Irvin Painter (Wikipedia) (Personal Website) (Princeton)

Paul Kivel (Wikipedia) (Personal Website)

Peggy McIntosh (Wikipedia) (Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack)

Robin DiAngelo (Wikipedia) (Personal Website) (White Fragility)

Tim Wise (Wikipedia) (Personal Website) (Twitter)

Gratitude to Eun Y. Lee for being my thought partner, editor, and sister.