Whiteness, Intimacy, and Everyday Antiracism
SSWR2020: Brief & Brilliant
Preface: in person, the brief and brilliant was more of a spilling than a talk. Most of my memorization went out the window as I spoke and I was extremely nervous to share about my experiences with family, intimacy, and whiteness. Despite coming to terms with what I did share and sitting with it––that it was what it needed to be––I also wanted to share my full script with folks because it was an important part of process which I also must honor.
I must acknowledge my gratitude and love for my good friend and family, Sherina Rodriguez Sharpe––thank you for always seeing my humanity and pushing me to see it as well.
In his 1964 autobiography, Malcolm X asked the question:
“how can white society atone for enslaving, for raping, for unmanning, for otherwise brutalizing millions of human beings, for centuries?”
He is not the first person to raise questions about white atonement for our past, present, and plans for the future. Malcolm X didn’t stop at asking the question though, he also had an answer for white people’s role in this societal atonement:
“combat, actively and directly, the racism in other white people.”
He believed that white people should be fighting racism on the frontlines
in our own communities. A powerful position to take, and today, one that we as white folks often fail to heed.
I remember reading Malcolm X’s words at the age of 19, and feeling angry––like he was the first person telling me the truth. That people who look like me celebrated throughout history, are not heroes––they were the brutalizers of whom Malcolm speaks. After that initial anger came fear. Fear of what people who look like me are capable of, and what I may be capable of. So for many years, I tried my hardest to separate myself from other white people.
Taking pride in having no white friends. Growing my hair and beard long, I believed I could separate myself from the capacity for violence that whiteness inherently entails, despite this being a misguided impossibility. I had also apparently forgotten that many other white men have long hair and beards.
In 2016, it even led me to separate from my own family. I am sure most of us have had moments in our families. When someone says or does something that is not okay. It became a question of when and where do I draw the line. Every time a family member said or did something––whether it was blaming Black people for getting killed by police, or reminiscing about playing cowboys and Indians, for nostalgia’s sake––they were asking me to perform. To do what white people have always done, join in, agree, and be silent. This is what the performance of white domination looks like. And in 2016, I decided to act otherwise.
I wrote my extended family a three page letter telling them that until some accountability had taken place, I would no longer consider them my family and didn’t return for two years. Shifting from participating in harm and a culture of white domination and silence is messy. At the time, that familial separation felt like the most important act in my world. And yet, as I stand before you more than three years later, this separation has led to very little perceivable change in my family dynamics.
I have returned a few times. No one mentions my absence or the scathing emails I received from many of my family members. No one mentions when my aunt told me it would break my grandmother’s heart––My grandmother who had recently passed away. No one mentions referencing how it was just me experiencing career stress and mental health issues. And no one mentions the amount of fragility our family had over one grandson challenging the very core of our harmful white culture. That the family space is not for those discussions.
If I were in your shoes, I would seriously consider reaching for a University Professor position and much respect in your field and passing your knowledge onto many interested students, a far better objective than family respect discussions. — My 92-year-old grandfather
A lesson I continue to learn, is that we may believe that we are calling the current frames of domination into question through our actions, when in actuality we may be justifying, reproducing, and invoking them. After this experience, it became clear that whiteness protects itself in the intimacies of our lives. Whispering that it should not be challenged, even enlisting the ones we love as its most ferocious protectors. So I began to think of ways to further understand the intimacies of whiteness.
Last October, on a Wednesday night in New York City. I sat in a circle with 26 Students and my co-facilitator. We had all just met for the first time, and had come together to do something that white folks don’t often do: talk about our everyday experiences of being categorized white. They had all voluntarily chosen to attend a bi-weekly group I organized called the Space for Uprooting Whiteness. The space is intended for white people to participate in a process of examining and uprooting their relationship to white supremacy and domination. There are three organizing principles for the space:
- Often white learning, whether it is in the classroom or not, relies on the entitlement to and harvesting of people of color’s lived experiences. This space is for white people to learn about race, racism, and whiteness, without the normative reliance on the social and emotional labor of people of color.
- The space is intended for white people to build an individualized everyday practice. A practice of considering and confronting race, racialization, and most importantly, their own positionality and role in sociopolitical systems of white domination––Pairing what bell hooks calls a “daily vigilant resistance to reinvestments in white supremacy,” With what sociologist Eileen O’Brien calls a commitment of the self to thought, action, and practice to dismantle racism.
- The space is there to challenge and support white students to take these practices of confronting whiteness into their everyday and intimate lives. To challenge and shift the ways we show up with our friends, with our intimate partners, with our families, spaces where whiteness often exists without any critical thought.
To support students during this process, they meet with another member of the group in the off weeks––Their rotating accountability partner––to both continue the processing that happens during the space, and start to build a practice of racial awareness and stamina with other white people.
On this first day, one by one, these students were asked to share out what had brought them to the space, and why, but before they did. I told them they would experience something as they thought of their answers. A strong urge and desire — a need even, to perform. To perform what the rest of us wanted to hear — despite the rest of being white. To be seen as the good white person. However, this racial performance only serves and benefits us and does little for the disruption of whiteness. The only guideline I gave to these students was to fight this urge. To be vulnerable and honest, even if they didn’t entirely know what to say.
During another session, we sought to build a collective and common language, so the group chose five words that we posted around the room: Whiteness, Uprooting, Guilt, Accountability, and Racist. Participants silently rotated with smaller groups and wrote down what those words brought up for them. and here are a couple examples:
Is it possible to cultivate a healthy white identity?
Is it possible to be a white anti-racist?
Can I be racist and still love myself?
These responses clearly need unpacking. However, after only two sessions students were asking some difficult and vulnerable questions––questions which often go unsaid and unprocessed without intentional spaces to engage in this necessary praxis.
What would it take for white people to grapple with the reality that we are implicated in other people’s lives? What would it take for white people to understand that our everyday decisions are of consequence? That these decisions carry the weight of histories. That this weight cannot be reduced to mere bias nor prejudice, and cannot be taken off and put back on––that we are connected to whiteness.. even when no people of color are present.
Professor Philomena Essed describes everyday racism as cumulative practices, often covert and hard to pinpoint, and draws connections between structural racism and these everyday practices, stating that:
“there is no structural racism without everyday racism. . . By the same token, everyday racism is always structurally contextualized”
If racism exists in the everyday, so must antiracism. How do we begin to train white people in practices of structurally contextualized everyday antiracism? We must come to terms with the reality that the potential to think, feel, and “act otherwise,” lies in every moment. However, all practices require consistency. I am sure many of us in this room have much experience with practice. And often we are willing to do this. Everyday. Giving of our time, energy, and focus. It is what we do for what we value. There is nothing heroic about the everyday. It is a grind and must become habitual.
However, we must also come to terms with our white performativity. As Author Nicole Chung points out:
How do our racial performances as good white people justify, reproduce, and invoke white domination? How do our racial performances serve ourselves and not antiracism? How do they protect our investments in whiteness?
If we truly value racial equity and justice as many white folks claim we do,
What are we willing to sacrifice? If we are sacrificing and risking nothing, how impactful can our actions really be? There can be no abolition of white supremacy and domination, without the abolition of our ability to leverage it.
So to end, I ask, What would happen if we stopped performing? If we were authentic, vulnerable, and honest with our friends? With our family members? And most importantly, with ourselves? And what are you willing to give up for racial justice and equity? What will you sacrifice to resist your reinvestments in white supremacy and commit to dismantling racism? What will you do this week? This month? This year? And will you repeat it every single day?