Somebody I respect and look up to greatly, who also happens to be a writer, once told me to write the article you wish you could have read when you first started your journey. This is my attempt at doing just that.
As the country once again reels from our collective inability to address issues of race and racism, more white folks are becoming aware that their identities (how they identify socially and politically) are not neutral and benign but are actually very problematic and rooted in a history of violence (of course we all know this at some level that’s why we have yet to embrace truth-telling in any meaningful way). There is a growing desire and willingness to embrace transformation. It is incredibly important, then, to support folks who are just beginning the process of shedding whiteness. I have often said the first step in this process is being able to identify and name whiteness in order to work against it. That is easy to say and very hard to do. What follows is my best attempt at articulating what I am calling the pillars of whiteness. By beginning to understand these pillars those of us with white skin will be able to more readily identify and work against whiteness.
Pillar One: Whiteness is Ideological
The most common misunderstanding of whiteness is that it is biological. Many of us with white skin observe this biological fact and automatically begin identifying as white. We embrace things such as rugged individuality, an obsession with private property and punctuality. We shame open displays of sexuality and sensuality while internalizing shame and guilt around a great many aspects of the human experience. This is because whiteness is a coalescing of White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) ideals, values and norms. The fact is that people we now label white would not have been considered white for most of history. Which brings us to the second pillar.
Further Readings: The Racial Contract by Charles Mills. The Myth of Race The Reality of Racism byMahmoud El Kati
Pillar Two: Whiteness is Fluid
Because whiteness is ideology it can be shaped to fit specific needs. When whiteness was first codified it was meant to protect the planting class in the colonies from the multiracial rebellions that threatened their profits. All that was necessary to guard the status quo was to extend certain rights and privileges to poor English. But as America grew and more immigrants came to the country from various cultures across Europe the threat to the elite once again posed too great a risk. As a result whiteness was expanded. Groups that were previously not considered white where now granted membership into the club given that they shed their cultures and assimilate into the dominant WASP culture. The Irish were one group who quite explicitly demanded rights in exchange for accepting whiteness. As more and more European groups acquiesced to whiteness the divide and conquer nature of whiteness was further entrenched.
Further Readings: Working Towards Whiteness by David Roediger, How the Irish Became White by Noel Ignatiev, A Different Mirror by Ronald Takaki, The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter
Pillar Three: Whiteness is divisive
Whiteness can not survive unity. It’s entire purpose is to maintain a chasm between those it labels white and those that fall outside its purview. It requires isolation. In order to maintain the division it nurtures discontent and hatred towards those that fall outside its borders. Because we all know this (at some level), and nobody openly chooses oppression, marginalization and dehumanization those of us with white skin invest in the ideology and the division. Also, our institutions are built on a foundation of whiteness which further perpetuate its destructive impact. When we blindly accept the label of white because it “matches” our skin tone we are also accepting the division, the disease. We must push back against this. We must reach for connection and struggle for community. We must unlearn whiteness.
Further Readings: Wages of Whiteness by David Roediger, Possessive Investment of Whiteness by George Lipsitz.
Pillar Four: Invisibility
Growing up I was taught not to “see color.” I know so many good people who were taught the same thing. The problem is that when we don’t see color we are defaulting to the norm i.e. whiteness. We are requiring people to give up their cultures, religions, languages, customs… themselves and become, in this country, white. This colorblind approach has been the dominant frame for liberals since the Civil Rights movement and has become especially prevalent in the age of Obama and the rise of post-racial rhetoric. However, without dealing with the other pillars of whiteness this invisibility only serves to protect whiteness. It creates an environment where the privileged actually believe they got where they are by themselves and resent efforts to rectify the systemic inequity that facilitated their position in society. Ironically this resentment is also eating away at their own humanity. Whiteness is cannibalistic. We must begin talking explicitly about whiteness and how to heal from its effects.
Further Readings: Racism Without Racism by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, White Like Me by Tim Wise.
I am hopeful that more and more people who look like me will begin to do this deeply important and sacred work so that they can join the struggle. A new world is possible and it is up to us to path the way.