I doubt either of them remember the conversation, but in April 2010 Rosa Clemente and Dereca Blackmon changed my life.
We were in a small circle discussing Hip-Hop and social justice; well really they were talking and a few of us were listening. Rosa had just delivered a keynote speech and Dereca had facilitated breakout sessions at Vices to Verses, a Hip-Hop conference at the University of Minnesota organized by the student group Voices Merging (salute to the powerful people that came through that org!) I remember feeling honored to be in their presence. I was hungry to be as powerful as they are. I wanted to be involved in the same things, connected to the same people, the same networks. Then Rosa said something, to which Dereca agreed, and I felt my chest cave in. They started talking about white folks organizing themselves and supporting themselves. It wasn’t the first time I had heard that sentiment, but for some reason this time it felt different, painful even. I wanted to be with them, not white people. I sheepishly agreed and did my best to ignore the truth that had just rooted itself in my consciousness.
Five years later and I can finally embrace that truth: I need to work with my people, not be better than them. For so long I had been consuming every bit of knowledge regarding white privilege and trying to be better than the injustice, like so many other “allies.” While we read about our privilege –and may even understand that it is systems that have granted them to us; some of us may even take up the cause of working towards justice — we are largely ignoring, either consciously or subconsciously, the fundamental problem of whiteness. We talk about white supremacy, we talk about white privilege, and we profess our desire to live in a world free from these things, yet we call ourselves white.
This may seem inconsequential, but is, in reality, incredibly important. When we identify as white the best we can hope for is a re-imagining of what that means. This requires ignoring the genesis of whiteness: the tool used for justifying genocide, rape, murder and enslavement. Whiteness did not exist before these things. It is not a historical nor biological fact that was co-opted and used for evil. Quite the opposite, it was born for these purposes. As such it can not be salvaged. It is impossible to “make it mean something good.” Identifying as white and embracing white as a legit identity is a perfect example of trying to use master’s tools to tear down the master’s house. Whiteness has already proven its ability to adapt and to survive. Unpacking the knapsack won’t help us when whiteness shape shifts once more. We must attack it at its very core, offer it no space to reinvent itself. This is the truth that those of us who are labeled white must accept. We must stop identifying with whiteness. Period. Full Stop. If we fail to do this we have no hope of liberation.
Trying to Find a Balance
It can be a tricky thing, searching for liberation as a person inscribed with whiteness. It is important to recognize the reality of racism and white supremacy which marks the lives of Blacks, Natives, Asians, Latin@’s and everybody outside the parameters of whiteness. This history and legacy is real. However, this often leads to white guilt and the desire, as I talked about earlier, to be the “good” white person. There is no liberation in that. No power. No transformation. To avoid this many of us decide to take the universal humanism approach that race is made up and we are “all human” (All Lives Matter crowd I am screwfacing you here). This approach protects our sensibilities because we can claim we care about “everybody” while maintaining our identity as white. This does nothing to dismantle the systems of oppression which fuel the institution of white supremacy. The only real option left to us, then, is to focus our attention on whiteness. This is scary. For many of us we have no idea what we would be outside of white, outside of American. We react on a visceral level and end up turning into fragile, defensive puddles. Again, this is not power. This is not transformation. This is not helpful. That doesn’t mean we stop doing it. Interrogating whiteness is the only way out of racial thinking. And we need to get out of racial thinking. It doesn’t matter how many anti-racist workshops we attend, or books by Tim Wise we read, if we are trying to stop racism while identifying as white we are losing, and we are going to lose. We need culture. But even this requires nuance and sophistication.
So, I’m Not White Anymore, OK?
It’s not as simple as just saying “oh, ok cool! I’m not white anymore, I’m Irish.” Whiteness is so insidious that it has worked its way into every aspect of our identity. Our definitions of gender, of religion, of class, of America etc. are all intimately tied to the apparatus that is whiteness. It is not enough to just stop calling ourselves white. We must change the way we act in the world! We must make different choices. This can only happen through serious self-reflection and an interrogation of our deepest held beliefs, along with extensive study of whiteness. We must have the courage to ask questions about ourselves, our reactions, our feelings in every situation and work at disentangling them from whiteness.This will certainly involve exploring our own ancestry, but even getting in touch with our root culture (for me Irish) will not lead us to liberation. Culture is not an artifact that we just reach back and bring into our modern world. We must get in touch with where we come from as a way to expose the falseness of whiteness, but our liberation will truly come from being polycultural. Polyculturalism recognizes the constant interfacing of cultures, and acknowledges cultures fluidity. It is polyculturalism which facilitates the necessary exchange to build trust.Therefore it offers a future. Polyculturalism is the only approach that will lead to the dismantling of whiteness, and therefore white supremacy. It is the only one that makes the space for those of us who are labeled white to become cultural, to truly live free and in authentic community with people of color.
A Note on Decolonization
Words matter. One of the first thing that colonizers do when they attack is to outlaw the language of those they are oppressing. As such the English language does not offer the space to describe a world free from white supremacy. Let’s make no mistake, the work I have laid out is inherently decolonizing work. It is deeply personal work for those of us perceived as white, but it is not only our work. One day we (those of us interested in a world free from white supremacy) will have to develop liberatory language that differentiates white bodies (biological lack of melanin) from white people (those who buy into the ideology of whiteness). Until then we are stuck trying to find a balance, and are required to be sophisticated and nuanced with our words. The sooner a critical mass of white people are actively participating differently in the world the sooner this decolonized language can emerge. I look forward to that day.
It took me five years to fully embrace the challenge of fully and completely challenging race thinking. It took me five years to see myself as worthy of freedom. A Big Homie once told me that a guilty white person is the most dangerous thing to the movement for justice. I know now that guilt doesn’t look like hurt feelings and white tears. It looks like failure to confront whiteness.