I breathed deeply, feeling my heart pounding and my feet under me on the creaky wooden stairs leading to the conference room. This time, I thought, I will fight for justice...
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This essay, one of three, focuses on the concept of external lines of dismissal. The second part will focus on internal lines of dismissal, and the final piece will explore how to transform lines of dismissal into tools for collective liberation.
I breathed deeply, feeling my heart pounding and my feet under me on the creaky wooden stairs leading to the conference room. This time, I thought, I will fight for justice...
Read the rest of this piece by clicking here!
Can good teaching save America? Considering the number of education-focused government agencies, non-profits, and businesses in America today, there are plenty of folks who believe that this is true. I’m one of them.
Liberal white folks like me usually focus on low-income children of color when we think about saving America’s educational system. In my case, I spent a decade of my life as a dedicated teacher of such students. There were many unmet needs in the schools I taught in, and the resulting costs to my students’ education and health were significant.
But this essay isn’t about the challenges faced by low-income students of color. It’s about another group of at-risk students we’ve been ignoring for too long: rich, white boys.
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Burnout saved my life.
I didn’t think so at the time. In fact, while it was happening, my burnout as a public middle school English teacher felt like watching a close friend dying a little bit each day while I helplessly looked on.
For ten years, I was a dedicated teacher, spending my time, energy, and money in order to provide the best education I could for my students.
But something was wrong. It wasn’t that I wasn’t working hard enough. It was that I was working in the wrong direction.
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White people, we are not free.
We are not free.
This may sound strange, to those of us who are no longer in denial about the ways that systemic racism benefits us at the expense of People of Color in every single American institution — education, housing, healthcare, law enforcement, employment, and on and on.
These institutions give a few of us unearned material wealth, access to power, and physical comfort. Millions more White people are given a leg up when it comes to accessing the institutions that shape our lives. And millions more are given not much more than the reassurance that while they may be poor, at least they are not Black, and thus are spared the very bottom of the barrel of the American dream.
Despite these benefits, White people, we are not free.
There is an invisible exchange that happens when, from early childhood, we are trained to accept the gifts that come with Whiteness. As we are rewarded for buying into Whiteness, we agree to tie off parts of ourselves at the stump.
The curse of systemic racism makes a mockery of White people’s lives and our dreams. We’re given the freedom to see ourselves as a great, moral people, all while being forced to live out of integrity with our own deeply-held values.
Being White means living a life that is permanently in violation of the Golden Rule — “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
Even as systemic racism makes it impossible for us to live by the Golden Rule, we are taught that our people created it, that America was founded on it, that we exemplify it in the world, and that we can even export it to other places around the globe.
By accepting the lies of Whiteness, we turn ourselves into the comedic buffoons of the world, puffing ourselves up with our delusions while the audience looks on, completely aware of our hypocrisy.
This story could be a wonderful dark comedy if not for the fact that our theatrics are defended with tear gas, AR-15s, Bearcats, and drone bombers, waiting in the shadows behind the curtain.
Our own inability to face our truth kills other peoples’ children, while deforming our White children’s souls into grotesque shadows of the beautiful beings that they have the potential to be.
This is our legacy. This is what we are born harnessed to, without our consent.
But we could be free. There is a freedom beyond what we have now, beyond this trick freedom that has us in invisible chains of complicity to brutality, rape, and the sustained denial of the dreams of humanity.
We could refuse to silently indoctrinate our White children into the death culture of White supremacy. We could stop the violence that we commit against our own White children when we teach them to not see or hear the words and screams of the people being murdered and brutalized in their names.
When Black lives matter, White people will be whole.
When Black lives matter, White people will be humans once again.
When Black lives matter, we will know a freedom beyond Whiteness.
* * *
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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:
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.
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.
“Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it, the loss of all that gave one an identity, the end of safety. And at such a moment, unable to see and not daring to imagine what the future will now bring forth, one clings to what one knew, or dreamed that one possessed. Yet, it is only when a man is able, without bitterness or self-pity, to surrender a dream he has long cherished or a privilege he has long possessed that he is set free — he has set himself free — for higher dreams, for greater privileges.”--James Baldwin
In a society where material comfort is presented to us as the best we can hope for, can we even imagine Baldwin's concept of “greater privileges” beyond those that come with Whiteness?
The Charnel House
Today there is blood everywhere. Mixed in with my food. Stained dark and deep into my clothes. Soaked into this computer keyboard. Flowing through the middle of the sweetest moments with my family. Everything I would experience as beautiful, and all my memories of beauty, now sit in a soaking rain of blood.
My toddler learns to take her first steps, and shrieks with absolute joy. Her eyes twinkling, she totters towards me. Her seven little white teeth shine through her grin and her little pink shoes splash puddles of gore with each awkward step forward.
At the movies with my wife, on a rare date night, our two young children at home with a babysitter. The film is beautiful, illuminating of a core part of our shared humanity. Blood oozes from the walls of the theater, throwing dripping shadows across the ceiling and pooling on the floor down by the screen. By the end of the movie, the first three rows of seats are islands in an impassable, stinking ochre lake.
I go to a bar to see a show for the first time in ages. I forgot how much fun it is to have a few beers and listen to loud music. At the end of the night I walk out into the clear, warm night, burp, and enjoy being tipsy under the summer stars. The gutters run red with silent torrents of gore, clogging the storm drains and overflowing onto the sidewalks.
All the wealth and material resources that have been accumulated in the United States rest on a foundation of land theft from Native Americans, theft of labor from enslaved Africans under torturous conditions, and ongoing exploitation of mostly Brown-skinned people across the world.
So as one of America's most cherished, protected children, my entire material existence is saturated with the blood of both the ancients and those who still die today in my name.
As my White comfort is uncovered to reveal the Black death beneath, my instinct is to scream. I was raised to believe that I always have the right to speak my mind. For the first time, though, I find myself mute, choking on mouthfuls of blood.
When an old acquaintance asks what I've been "up to," or a stranger asks what I "do," or a family member asks what I'm "working on," instead of confidently speaking my truth, I hesitate, wincing slightly, as I work to cobble together an answer that will honor myself while not alarming their unstated expectations of my answer.
"I'm an organizer."
"I do social justice work."
And if I'm having a particularly confident day, "I work for racial justice."
The power of Whiteness is in its silence. Our bloodbath has been made to be weightless, transparent, silent, and thus nearly invisible to those of us who are comfortable in it.
So to name Whiteness is to give that term shape, weight, form, color, and sound. To shape reality by uttering a word is to play God, and such play has never gone
The First Victims of Racism
Rev. Thandeka, in her book, Learning to be White, says that White people are the first victims of racism. She argues that White supremacist culture begins with the violent policing of White children’s racial behavior by their parents and caregivers, which creates White people who are shamed into violently policing the behavior of people of color.
For people who are skeptical as to how powerful White culture’s stranglehold on us is, Rev. Thandeka challenges us to play “the race game.”
The Race Game, [as described to a White colleague, has] only one rule. For the next seven days, she must use the ascriptive term “white” whenever she mentioned the name of one of her Euro-American cohorts. She must say, for instance, ‘my white husband, Phil’, or ‘my white friend Julie’, or ‘my lovely white child Jackie’…I guaranteed her that if she did this for a week and then met me for lunch, I could answer her question [what it felt like to be Black] using terms she would understand. We never had lunch again. Apparently my suggestion had made her uncomfortable.
Even if we as individual White people can overcome our personal fear of confronting our own Whiteness, that doesn’t change the fact that most of the other White people around us are still unlikely to be willing to confront it with us.
This makes sense. It is terrifying to confront Whiteness because it means we’ll have to start seeing a living nightmare. We bathe our White children in hot blood every day and teach them so thoroughly to not talk about it that soon they learn to truly believe they can’t see it, let alone talk about it.
But those of us who have been taught to see again and to develop a resistance to unseeing embark on what may be a lonely journey. We find that many of our closest loved ones are not on the journey with us. Many are in fact invested in never even seeing that the journey is possible. And so silence descends.
But what the fuck is that?
Is that the society we dream of, that our ancestors fought for?
A society in which we can't speak our truths to those who love us?
In which we fear to convey the paradoxical sense of joy that comes with being able to finally see the truth, even though that truth is a nightmare?
Please assume: yes, I want to talk about the blood.
I have to talk about it. Now.
I can’t unsee.
No, it can’t wait. The bath is rising.
If we’re having a conversation and it doesn’t come up,
I am drowning.
Silenced for the first time, I hear, from faraway halls, the voices of movement ancestors: Ella, Anne, Fannie Lou, Marlon, Yuri, Grace, Toni, Maya, Malcolm, Rosa, Martin, Lillian, Sitting Bull, Frederick, bell, Angela, César, James, Stokely, and thousands more whose names and faces I'll never know, whose words I'll never hear with my ears.
These voices tell me, above all, to remember.
They say remember that I will always have to fight to stay awake. I live in a society that offers me so many sedatives, soft beds, fresh linens, warmth. To not fall asleep is an act of constant effort, and I'll never be done waking up.
They say remember to stay humble. White supremacy is baked into my being and is always, always maneuvering just outside of my peripheral vision. The day I think I'm done fighting it is the day I stop being useful to the rebellion.
They say remember that I'm not the first White person to do this, and I'm not alone today. There have always been White people who have rejected their birth culture of White supremacy, who have refused to succumb to the death culture that offers them material comfort while destroying their souls. Today, in the time of #BlackLivesMatter, there are tens of thousands of other White people alongside me who are waking up to our racial reality and who are showing up with their bodies and hearts in the fight to end White supremacy.
Above all, they say remember to love, even in rage, and to remember that such love is the only way towards the new world we are fighting for.
The World of "greater Privileges"
As I commit to the deliberate practice of remembering these commitments, the shape of a world of “greater privileges” begins to take form, though it remains so dimly lit as to be nearly indescribable. But it is illuminated, piece by piece, as I work with others like me to try to learn how to live it into existence.
In the world of "greater privileges..."
every second I am not working to create this new world,
the corners of my diseased eyes are blooming with cataracts,
gently spidering out at the edges of my vision,
velvet white fog,
and behind the murk
gears straining and servos whirring,
hands pull levers and shovel coal
inside a groaning machine,
gas me back to my cloudy sleep.
Readers, please comment: what is your vision of the "greater privileges" beyond the petty identity-based ones that dominate our society today?
LOVE AND RACISM
As a middle school teacher, I loved my Black and Brown students and taught them from a belief that I could cure them of what I saw as their racial illness (not being White) by sharing my access to my White culture, knowledge, and behavior.
This way of teaching--genuine love for students of color accompanied by mindset of "saving" them from their non-Whiteness--is my modern, liberal manifestation of the White Man’s Burden. That term comes from a poem written by Rudyard Kipling in 1899, in which Kipling "appears to [give] a rhetorical command to white men to colonize and rule other nations for the benefit of those people."
It might suprise some people to know that I don't feel guilty for teaching under this mindset. After all, I'm White and I grew up in a country founded on and maintained by Black subjugation and White domination. Is it any surprise I've absorbed a deep belief in Kipling's White Man's Burden, even within my liberal political framework?
the "outside" world
Whether or not it was intended as satire, White America has treated Kipling's poem as prophecy. Today, we continue our 400 year-old quest to tame the non-White savages here and abroad in the name of financial profit.
And by and large, we've been successful. Our world--in which the blind pursuit of money within and across borders is acceptable to most governments, regardless of the impact on mostly brown-skinned people--would make Kipling (or his tongue-in-cheek alter ego) proud.
The dominant cultures of wealthy White men have shaped my world into a comfortable throne for me. So when I look down at the toiling masses at my feet and shake my head at their problems, dilemmas, and cycles of trauma, it's so easy for me toforget that it has been my people who have shaped the material conditions that these people live in.
My people shaped our American culture, in which the average Black family has 1/20 the financial resources of White families, despite their ancestors being forced to create America's wealth as slaves.
As my people continue to dominate the world I live in, I realize that we have also assumed responsibility for the conditions of that world, both good and bad. If my goldfish's water tank were dirty, would you blame the fish or me?
This is the real White man's burden--understanding that the material conditions of the toiling masses I've been looking down on are actually a reflection of my own culture. We defined and continue to define the material boundaries and rules of our world, and so what happens within those boundaries offers us a beautiful reflection of ourselves.
If so many of the problems that I see manifested in my world can be seen as reflections of the collective failures of my privileged people, the furious denial of privilege begins makes sense. Who would be willing to accept responsibility for the weight of the modern world's systemic problems?
It makes sense that I would tend to stay stuck in the defensive "re-integration" stage of White racial development. My self-image has been formed on a foundation of superiority across multiple identities. What would it do to me to accept the reality that my "superior" identities have so effectively maintained the wickedness of the world, albeit in new forms?
The burden of carrying the weight of our broken modern world is too much for me to bear. But my White man's burden is actually a double-burden: I also have been conditioned to force myself to deny that I am carrying that burden. Hence my fragility as a White person when White privilege is named, or my defensiveness when someone mentions patriarchy in my presence. I have to deny the ideas that would reveal the cracks in my foundation.
But there is nothing more toxic to the body and mind than a forced denial of a truth that lives deep inside of me. As a White man, by default I filter the truth trying to come out of me through a screen of denial, and that denial is poisoning my insides.
Poison insides. When you have power over others and you're poisoned inside, they will live your poison too. That's how we end up with the story of #SandraBland, a 28 year-old Black woman moving to Texas for a new job who ended up hung by the neck in a jail cell.
The authorities call it suicide, but the only suicide in Sandra Bland's case is that of the White soul. When we are complicit in a society that can take a person like Sandra and have police murder her in a jail cell and pretend it was suicide, then we know that our White souls were hung right alongside Sandra.
RELEASE THE BURDEN
Yet there is good news, even as we mourn another state-sanctioned murder of a Black person. The Black people who are made to suffer under the White man's bootheel understand our sickness better than we ever could. We don't have to start from scratch to get our souls free. We have Toni Morrison and James Baldwin and bell hooks and Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X and so many others whose words stand ready to illuminate our White mirror.
Black people have been fighting for 400 years to free themselves from the lie of White supremacy. We don't have to go it alone. We get to follow.
This is what freedom looks like for me, the White man: letting go of the weight of the broken world and letting go of my denial of what I've done to help break it, and joining the river of humanity demanding freedom from the death culture of White supremacy.
#BlackLivesMatter. So does #MyWhiteSoul.
"[T]he fear of...the racial black other is not just about the loss of a job, the decline in property values, or other material privileges, but the very loss of the self. Of course, what I am suggesting here is that the self that is being so violently protected is itself the problem." --john a. powell, "Dreaming of a Self Beyond Whiteness and Isolation"
"You rape our women and you’re taking over our country."
The White terrorist who murdered nine innocent people massacred in Charleston, SC on June 17, 2015, justified his actions with this statement, which reveals nothing about his victims, but much about the murderer himself.
I was born into this body in a certain place and time. Based on what people in my time and place see, they tell me who they think I should be through words and the way they treat me. And one of the things the world sees me as, is White.
In America, White people like me have created a cultural belief that we can “save” Black people by teaching them how to become what is often called "productive members of society."
Underneath this belief (which you can see operating at various levels in schools, non-profits, and government agencies across the country) is the idea that Blackness is some sort of disease to be cured by Whiteness. (Coincidentally, check out the banner images from the Twitter account of the person who got the @risksomething handle before I did!)
But Blackness doesn't exist.
Blackness, along with Whiteness, is a deliberate invention. Race has no biological foundation. It was made up by ruling-class European Americans who wanted to figure out ways to divide poor European-Americans and poor African-Americans from coming together and rebelling against the ruling class.
The invention of Blackness allowed us to justify African enslavement and retain the loyalty of poor European-Americans.
Black people only became Black when White people looked at them.
If there is a disease associated with Blackness, it’s in our White eyes and how they perceive Blackness. The ocular disease that we call racism shows up in White people with three powerful symptoms.
As a White person infected with a full-blown case of racism, I used to operate under the unconscious assumption that I was a sort of “race doctor,” capable of diagnosing and treating people of color’s race problems. I thought that I was an objective, neutral observer of the disease of race.
This complex dynamic of racism in White people reminds me of reaction videos, a genre of video where Person A watches a video, while Person B films Person A’s face during the film viewing. The video Person A is watching is usually disturbing and so their reaction is usually comical.
When I think I’m diagnosing Black people to help treat their Blackness, it's like I'm the target of a reaction video. I believe that I am the doctor, observing the patient, but in fact, I am the patient, unknowingly self-diagnosing. I’m actually making myself a case study for what racism does to White eyes.
So when I say, “Why is this Black person doing/saying that?”
I’d be better served to ask, “What does my discomfort/judgment/anger at what this Black person is doing show about my disease?”
And when I offer suggestions, such as, “Black people should do X instead of doing Y.”
I’ll make more progress to help Black people by asking myself, “Why is my disease telling me I know what’s best for Black people when I have no idea what it’s like to be Black?”
Of course, there are also Black people who look at White people and have judgments about what we do and say as well. The crucial difference is that when Black people judge me on my Whiteness, they don’t have access to institutional power to keep me out or limit my opportunities.
Yet collective White judgments about Black people have vast power over the lives of those people--through our systems of legislation, policing, housing, and more. When diseased White eyes look at Trayvon or Eric or Aiyana or Mike in their Blackness and see them as animals and/or criminals, they end up not only dead, but indicted for their own murders while their killers walk free--forgiven and justified by our American institutions.
So as a White person seeking to be part of the long arc of racial justice in America, I must commit to making sure I'm paying closer attention to my racial "reaction video" than I am to the behavior of people of color. How do I feel in racially-charged situations? How does my disease respond?
When the St. Louis Rams come onto the field with their hands up in honor of Mike Brown, instead of focusing on what that display shows about Blackness, what does my reaction show about my Whiteness?
When Black people in Baltimore take to the streets by the thousands, is the indignation I feel about property damage at CVS proportional to the indignation I feel about police officers arresting and murdering an innocent Black man? What do I fear will happen if protesters are protesting in what I see as the “wrong” way?
As a White person, I am needed in the movement for Black lives. One of the most valuable contributions I can make is gaining control of my Whiteness for the first time. By mustering the courage to look in the mirror and diagnose myself, I take control over my body and my mind, which I now see have never been mine alone, but unknowingly shared with a silent, vicious host.
If real change requires people to take risks, what would it mean for a straight, White, cisgender male, tall, thin, able-bodied, English-speaking US citizen with class privilege to take risks?