Crossposted from my patreon: https://www.patreon.com/posts/examining-32183696
Our culture is saturated with whiteness; whiteness and its performative values are socialized within all of us from a young age. Those who are not white are socialized to react to whiteness in specific ways, and those who are white (or white-passing) are socialized to perform whiteness without thought. To lead with whiteness.
So what does that mean?
Let’s break it down into segments, and this is not a complete list. It is one that focuses on how we communicate and utilize what we know and don’t know in conversations. (Others with far more authority than I speak to more segments, see the “how do we unroot this” below).
When Whiteness Speaks
• White folks are socialized to view their opinions as important no matter how little information they may have (or even if they have any knowledge of the topic at all).
• White folks are socialized that their voices matter more than folks of color. One way this can manifest is for white people stepping forward to be interviewed by media at events that supposedly center people of color. Another way this can manifest is when white people speak over people of color or minimize their concerns.
• White folks are socialized to minimize the concerns of people of color, especially if the white person doesn’t experience it. White folks are taught to not trust people of color as being reliable about their own experiences (this can lead to white-splaining and harmful dismissal of very valid concerns).
• White folks are socialized to justify their actions even when they are wrong.
• White folks are socialized to offer advice regardless of whether they have up-to-date information or even know anything at all about the topic.
• White folks are socialized to expect free emotional labor from folks of color, and sometimes (if not often) get mad when called in about it. They may view their anger as justified.
• White folks are socialized that if they justify their words, then it’s somehow okay what they did or said. Thus, they may dismiss the feedback and/or not take full responsibility for the impact of their words and actions.
• White folks are socialized to assume folks of color are monolithic, and/or think folks of color should conform to their view of how things should be. This ties into the idea that there is one correct way, and that the white person’s idea of what is the “better way” to do something is the “right way” (regardless of the white person’s knowledge of the subject, their understanding of the cultures involved, the impact of their “better way,” etc).
• White folks are socialized as being default culture, so many don’t even think about the undercurrents of how different cultures intermix in a diverse planning group. Thus, navigating the cultural tensions within a diverse group is collapsed into doing it the “white” way. (Instead of seeking to understand the different perspectives that are intermixing, white folks may downplay cultural tensions and/or concerns if not outright dismissing them with pleas for “unity” or “cooperation.”)
This socialization happens to us all consciously and unconsciously; society is reinforcing it throughout the media we consume. How it manifests may also be conscious or not.
It takes conscious action to unlearn. Even then, because of how deep the roots of whiteness extends into our psyche, this is something we must continuously unlearn, continuously check our privilege. We must be intentional and honest about what we know, what we don’t know, what we need to learn, what we don’t understand, and how it is not always appropriate or good or right for us to advise.
We also must check ourselves when it comes to viewing what is the “right way” to do anything as the “right way” isn’t what a white person often thinks it should be. There is no “right way,” but instead, there is a path and solution that is appropriate to the situation based on the knowledge and skills of all involved. That solution will be messy, will involve a lot of navigation of different cultures, different skillsets, and different perspectives, but the compromise that everyone reaches is often better for that situation.
The bullet points listed above is often unspoken white privilege. It crops up in many a meeting with white people and folks of color, especially when planning events that supposedly center folks of color. Whiteness can end up “leading” too much, and thus advise in ways that cause harms to the very people we seek to center. When whiteness speaks, it speaks with an authority given to it by the continuously reinforcement and socialization from our white supremacist culture. Thus, that power must be intentionally examined, deconstructed, and dismantled.
Whiteness should not lead nor speak for us.
We must be intentional with our words and actions, willing to listen, willing to step back and support people of colors in ways that they deem best, and most importantly, we must be open to critique and willing to change. How to do this?
Personal call-in example
As an individual who is deemed “white” by society, I often must check myself to see if I fall into the traps describe in the bullet points above.
There are times in my life when I let whiteness lead, where instead of me speaking it was whiteness speaking. In those times, I didn’t have enough information to advise appropriately; I didn’t listen well enough to the feedback given to me; and/or I failed to communicate in a way that showed acknowledgement of harm done and commitment to do better.
What could I have done differently?
- Listen to the critique/feedback given to me. Then own what is mine to own. (Do not justify my words or actions. Do not become defensive. Listen, listen, listen.)
- Acknowledge the validity and importance of that critique and feedback.
- Compensate the emotional labor to which all parties consent.
- Commit to changing (this can be said to the person or if it is not possible to do that, then commit privately).
- Change one’s words and behaviors and do our best to be consistent and continuous with this change. Do not let the commitment stay as words — embody it.
These five steps I have made into a mantra, and I am committing to them the best that I am able. I will mess up, but that is part of taking responsibility and trying again to commit to change. Commit to dismantling the bias of whiteness. I call-in all the white folks I know to commit to these five steps with me.
This is why I examine whiteness, deconstruct it, try to understand the many little roots it digs into my psyche. White supremacist culture is embedded in the very roots of America– it branches out throughout its history in violent and persistent ways.
At young ages, we are seeded with the weeds of white supremacist culture, and those seeds turn into tangled roots and vines that can distort our perspectives, our worldviews, and our communication and ability to understand and empathize with others.
Unless we commit to weeding out whiteness, unless we work intentionally on it, it can fester and transform into strangling vines that lead to bitterness and hate instead of love and compassion and understanding.
I have a lot still to learn, and thus I read, listen, seek out unrooting what I can, and owning my words and actions.
I am responsible for my words and actions, but I am not responsible for the words and actions of others. I can acknowledge their words and actions, and if I see whiteness speaking, I can call them in in hopes they will see it as well, but I cannot do the work for them, just as no one can do it for me.
Yes, it seems a lonely route, but we can do this with friends as well, where we seek to unroot it in ourselves but also hold space for each other by calling ourselves in when we fail to unroot whiteness or be intentional or to listen. Where we take responsibility or remind each other to own our actions and words to the best of our ability. To remind each other of our commitment to continue the journey of dismantling and unrooting whiteness.
This point is crucial in the unlearning process. I have seen some white people despair and think they must take responsibility for all aspects of whiteness, that they are ashamed of their whiteness or think they are being held responsible for all the harm white supremacy has caused throughout all generations. I challenge them to reconsider this view as it falls into the trap of “white savior complex.”
The white savior is when a white person takes on things that are not theirs to own in order to “save” people of color — even though the folks of color do not in any way “need saving.” They are fine as they are, but whiteness is pushing the white person to try to “redeem” themself and whiteness by engaging in what they “think” is “selfless” acts. They take on what is not theirs to take, and thus their whiteness leads.
A common example of white saviorism is missionary trips to countries in Africa, where a white person shows up with little to no skills to assist on the necessary tasks and then proceeds to “help” and takes pictures of their journey to “be better” and do a “selfless” act. When in actuality, they hinder the projects with their lack of skills and knowledge.
White saviorism can also manifest in white people creating events to “center” folks of color, but they take on the role of leader instead of stepping back to allow the people of color to lead and determine what is the best way for this event to assist them. (Ijeoma Oluo’s So you Want to Talk about Race has a chapter that dissects this thoroughly. Racecraft by Barbara and Karen Fields also deconstructs this.)
To avoid falling into that trap of white saviorism, it is best to take the step back, to be intentional about why we are at this table, why we are engaging in this event, and what we actually bring to the table.
How can we use our privilege for good and not to dominate? How do we support people of color with their consent?
Follow the five steps above. Continue to unroot whiteness. Be intentional and honest with what we know, what skills we offer, what we can or cannot speak to, what we can bring to the table (and what is not ours to take or own), and let people of color lead.
Be the support not the leader. Be the sidekick not the hero.
So how do we continue to unroot whiteness?
There are a lot of people of color who have written about this, and deconstructed it and created materials to assist us. But to avoid perpetuating the harm of using these materials as if we are beholden to them as white people — we should always seek to engage in reparations through the act of compensating those harmed by whiteness — historically and currently.
Emotional labor is not free. Should never be considered free, but that is also a socialization of whiteness, where white people will scoff at the idea of emotional labor, see it as “political correctness” and thus write it off. That is whiteness leading and dismissing the intensity of labor that people of color undergo in order to produce any material that deconstructs the very thing that harms them. That emotional toll, that psychological exhaustion — all of it is real and valid. It needs to be acknowledged.
It needs to be compensated.
I will link to my Deconstructing Bias thread as it has a lot of resources for deconstructing whiteness, but I ask that white people compensate those who put their emotional labor and skills and knowledge into these materials.
Consent to educate is something that must be practiced. There are materials to learn out there; I made a list to assist others, so white people do not fall into the trap of demanding a list from of people of color.
I recognize my list will never be complete as there is much more to unlearn, much more to examine, much more to deconstruct. Be willing to seek out authors of color that discuss these topics and commit to compensating them (buy their books, become a patron, send them money through paypal or ko-fi in gratitude, and/or ask them what is the best way to compensate and commit to it the best we can).
Consider this Deconstructing Bias post a starting point: https://www.patreon.com/posts/25299584
Take the time to read, to listen, to learn, to deconstruct, and most of all to meditate on how whiteness has spoken for you, how whiteness lead instead of you, and how you can end that cycle. It will not be easy; social justice and anti-racism is a difficult journey, but it is one worth taking if we wish to be better, to create a more just and equitable and equal world for all people, where all of us, especially folks of color, are finally and truly free.
P.S. If you have ideas on ways to deconstruct whiteness or would like to work with me on this life-long project, feel free to comment. Any defensive posts about whiteness is not constructive, and I’ll have to ask you to stop and read the recommended reading before you post again. Thank you.
Recommended reading for further discussions about this topic:
- White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/43708708-white-fragility
- So You Want To Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/35099718-so-you-want-to-talk-about-race
- White Rage: The unspoken truth of our Racial Divide by Carol Anderson: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/26073085-white-rage