The 11th Hour: reflection on racial justice work with white folks

When I read the post my stomach dropped. I could feel my chest tighten, forcing me back in my chair. I must have read it three times before my next breath.

Maybe it was the precision with which it cut to the heart of the matter. Maybe it was the fact that somebody else—somebody who had experienced, as he calls it, the worst of my people—was asking the question that has been haunting me. Probably, though, it was the fact that I didn’t have an answer.

When Kiese Laymon posted: Nearly two thirds of white folks support Trump. 40% of white women ride with this dude. He got way more college educated white support than we think. I have no hope for white men. None. Not an ounce. So my questions are: can white folks be fixed by white folks and why are white women doing this. These questions may be rhetorical. I wanted to hear a call to action, and in many ways I did. Mainly, though, I needed an answer. I needed to know that white folks can save themselves. I also felt fear. Fear that any action is going to be too little and too late. Fear that we are too far gone, that we are beyond saving, too disconnected. Fear that we are too in love with too much pain.

That idea, the idea that we are in pain, is essential to understand. The work of racial justice is fundamentally healing work. Many of us, though, don’t understand it in those terms. We see this work as sacrifice, as something we do for people of color evidence of our moral fiber. We frame it as the ultimate selflessness. And that is fucked up. We have a stake in this. Racial justice is in our interest. White supremacy is eroding our souls, and we need to heal with a quickness.

***

When I logged in they were already started. I had been looking forward to this webinar, Healing Toxic Whiteness, for a couple weeks. I really thought it was important whiteness was being named as toxic. It was exactly what I needed to ease my own uncertainty. But, as I listened and followed the chat anxiety started to grip my throat. What I was seeing was beautiful –people, my people, acknowledging their pain and wanting to heal– but it was nowhere near enough. It was reformation. This, like most of the conversations I’ve had around justice, fell short of the simple truth: there is no other form of whiteness than toxic. I know why it was framed that way: the belief that we, by and large, are not ready to hear that whiteness is nothing but evil. But we have to be. If white folks are going to save ourselves, if it isn’t too late, I believe we need to begin by talking about whiteness. More than that, I think it is the most effective approach to take.

Too often the logic around talking about racial justice is: 1) introduce race and racism as systemic 2) jump into talking about privilege and then, if you haven’t lost everybody 3) you talk about whiteness. The rationale behind this is that if you start by talking about whiteness it will turn to defensiveness and you won’t get anybody. I don’t believe that is true. In fact, I think it will be more effective if we turn that logic on its head. I believe that we should start by talking about whiteness and use that to illustrate the complex and sophisticated system within which it operates. Race and racism were invented to protect whiteness. Highlighting that fact illuminates the systemic nature of racism and the fiction of race in a way that can’t happen by skipping over whiteness. Starting with an analysis of whiteness will make it easier to highlight intersections. Perhaps most importantly, understanding whiteness is the only way we will actually deconstruct white supremacy and begin healing. Why not start there? There are two major critiques to this approach 1) people will get too defensive and 2) it is simply too devastating to our sense of selves to hear the truth about whiteness. I reject both of these.

First, let me address the defensiveness argument: yup people will be defensive. Those will be the same people that are defensive about the systemic nature of racism so we aren’t really losing anybody there. We can, however, gain people. When we start with whiteness we are beginning by validating the connection that we all, at one point, shared: our humanity. A common distractor in conversations about racial justice is “well aren’t we all human.” As it stands now the answer often does not sufficiently deal with this question, it says “yes, but…” and goes on to imply things about whiteness, but avoids just diving in. When we start with whiteness, when we start with “yes we are and then we became white” we kick the door open for reconnection. We open space to heal. We name the problem from the start and then everything else  orients towards solving that problem. It becomes easier to see how systems worked and evolved to protect whiteness, this made up thing. It becomes harder to conflate prejudice with racism because whiteness is explicitly positioned as a social construct from the beginning. This is a major difference from racial justice work that positions race as a social construct and waits to tackle the issue of whiteness, allowing whiteness to remain de-raced.

Another common critique I’ve heard about starting with whiteness is that it strips people of their identity. To that I say, yes. All the yeses. And ain’t that the point? If we truly believe that whiteness and white supremacy are hurting our people shouldn’t we want it stripped? While that is a scary thought to wrap our minds around it can also be exhilarating. It gives us endless opportunity. We will then have the space and freedom to craft a healthy identity that works to honor and respect the humanity and dignity of all people, ourselves included. It opens the door to reimagine an economy not build on competition, exploitation and consumption. It opens the door to honor the love people share regardless of their gender. It paves the way to rethink what gender even is and how it (if it is even a thing) informs our everyday practices. All the things racial justice work is supposed to be about become much more attainable when we begin by naming whiteness. The fact of the matter is by positioning the conversation around whiteness as somehow too sophisticated for the average white person we are catering to our fragility. The truth is we all know, instinctively, that whiteness is a thing and that we have a group consciousness and interest, Donald Trump’s candidacy is exhibit. We need to stop acting like that consciousness and interest has ever been, or could ever be, healthy and just abandon it completely. We can then get to work on developing a healthy identity to replace it. Anything short of naming that reality is itself an injustice.

I still don’t have an answer for Kiese. I don’t know if white folks can save ourselves or not. I do, though, know I am going to live everyday trying to do just that: save myself. Every day I am going to try to save myself from this thing called whiteness. This thing which is so toxic to my humanity. My hope is that others join me in encouraging others to  start here as well, before it’s truly too late.

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