I’ve spent long enough sitting uncomfortably with my own whiteness that I know what is at its core, when I freeze up and am not sure what to do or say in a situation involving race. First of all, a word on whiteness itself: like all skin color, it is more a cultural and political designation than a physical reality. My skin is usually rather peach-colored, and in the summer it can head toward a definitive brown. But even then, at my brownest, I am white. My ancestors were Scotch-Irish and Dutch and English and, somewhere in there, Mediterranean (so, not all white—but most white people aren’t all white). In other words, like most white people, I come from a mix of heritages. But my whiteness, like all race, isn’t about my ancestors so much as it is about our dominant culture: I blend in all over the place. Like white on rice.
In confronting my whiteness, in coaxing myself from uncomfortable silence to sometimes equally uncomfortable speech, I have learned what is at the core of white silence: fear, ignorance, guilt, and a sense of helplessness. Let’s take these one at a time:
- Fear: In matters of race, white people are sometimes afraid we will do or say the wrong thing. We are also afraid of confrontation, both with people of color and with our own families and friends. We are afraid of churning up controversy, of rocking the boat, of being so incredibly irredeemably rebellious that we would speak truth to the greatest power we have ever known—the dominant power of our own culture, which is stamped as plain as day on our skins. The skins that look just like those of our forefathers and foremothers, who told us to keep the status quo, who told us America is great, who never mentioned whiteness and pretended it didn’t exist—only color existed, and whiteness was its obvious foil, as inevitable as the sun and just as powerful. White people must put our finger on the pulse of these multiple fears, now, and wade in: we must feel the fear and do it anyway.
- Ignorance: I recently shared an article by Ijeoma Oluo entitled “White People: I Don’t Want You to Understand Me Better, I Want You to Understand Yourselves.” It’s an excellent article, explaining the kinds of interactions she gets from well-meaning white people who haven’t spent time in self-examination or cultural examination, but who want to respond to her comments on race and culture. She makes the point—central to understanding whiteness—that white people are steeped in ignorance about what it means to be white. That word, ignorance, sounds like a bad thing: no one aspires to be ignorant. I considered using another word, but ignorance is accurate—it isn’t bad or wrong, it just means a lack of knowledge, which fortunately can be remedied by learning. Just as men of all races need to examine masculinity to understand the ways in which it depends on homophobia and sexism, white people need to examine whiteness to understand the ways in which it is privileged and given cultural power, and the ways in which our collective unwillingness to examine it further that privilege and power. Facing ignorance is always difficult—in this case, it is linked to that sense of helpless I mentioned. For example, you might see a post from a friend–black or white–that makes a statement about the institutionalization of power that makes you uncomfortable or that you aren’t sure you agree with (my favorite from yesterday: a tweet by deray mckesson that read, “If black folks were carrying torches on a college campus right now the administration would’ve already called the National Guard.” True that. But maybe you read it and aren’t so sure. If so, examine what makes you uncomfortable about it, and why. Examine what that statement says about whiteness.) White people must educate ourselves about how whiteness functions in our society: in doing so, we are helping to dismantle one of the foundations of white power and privilege.
- Guilt: Many of us, both on a deeply subconscious and an increasingly conscious level, know whiteness affords us power and privilege. That, coupled with our history, makes us feel guilty—it makes us uncomfortable in our own skins. As I discussed in my post Beyond White Guilt, guilt of any variety is paralyzing. The good news is, we don’t need to hold onto it: we can let it go. It isn’t my fault I was born white, and I didn’t invent patriarchy or the race hierarchy related to it. Guilt about things I have no control over just gets in the way. White people must let go of our guilt so that we can speak constructively, and with knowledge of how institutional racism and white power interrelate, without feeling bad about our own whiteness, or making our white listeners feel bad about theirs.
- Helplessness: This, I believe, is the true cork in the bottle of white silence. White people have been trained to believe that we are helpless in the face of our own whiteness: we might feel guilty about it, but on some level we know we didn’t invent whiteness, we didn’t create the system, and we think there is really nothing we can do about it. But here’s the kicker: it’s our job to fix this. So we can’t be helpless. You know which American principle, in combination with whiteness, gets me the most here? Free speech. Every time someone—conservative or liberal, I’ve heard it from both—brings up free speech, I freeze for an instant. My hand wants to fly to my heart, my country ’tis of thee, o sweet land of liberty, of course free speech I would never impinge on free speech. And I wouldn’t. But there is a lot more to say than that: how free is the speech of a woman of color in the midst of a KKK riot? Hmmm. Now there’s a thinker. And even mentioning it means I’m not helpless, and we are not, I repeat we are NOT, obligated to privilege the speech of white supremacists (by providing them spaces on University campuses, for example) to use their free speech to suppress the speech and rights—the very lives—of others. White people must face our sense of helplessness about whiteness and white power so that we can counter claims that white power is inevitable because America.
Many white people are doing just that. Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old white woman, was killed when a white terrorist (suspected to be James Alex Fields) intentionally drove his car into a crowd of protestors in Charlottesville yesterday. My first thought: She’s somebody’s baby. My second: She would have been my friend. My third: Bless her, and let her protest not be in vain.
There is so much I could have written about what happened in Charlottesville yesterday, a town I love dearly. The day broke my heart, and breaks it still.
I chose to write about whiteness because that is my job as a white person: to help other white people who are struggling with what to do or say in the midst of this, and to denounce white terrorism. To help us stand, together, to shake off the things that paralyze us—and some of the things I’ve named sometimes paralyze me still—and become an engine for change. In addition to speech, we can use action: here is an excellent list of things white allies can do.
When white people denounce white supremacists (in our own voices and in our own words), when we acknowledge that we are white and not sure what to do with whiteness but we won’t stand for this, when we commit ourselves to dismantling the pieces of our society—including Confederate statues and other memorials to the foundations of racism and colonialism—when we wade in to face our fear, ignorance, guilt, and sense of helplessness—we knock a hole through the seemingly impenetrable wall of white power.
And through that hole, we let the light in.