I was privileged to have a conversation recently with a young Black activist who I deeply admire. I was surprised when she suggested that there is nothing remarkable about the white part of white supremacy.
In different cultures around the world, in the past and present, groups have acted in similar ways, creating and maintaining brutal, dehumanizing and oppressive control of others. Those groups did not use the label “white” or come from european backgrounds.
Part of me recoiled as I listened to her talk.
I felt myself wonder: so we aren’t special? There isn’t something inherent in whiteness that makes us oppressors?
While I know that whiteness was historically constructed, an identity placed on me for the purposes of social control, rather than a cultural identity (like my German-immigrant-ness)…it still feels as though white is something I am.
To think that I could be white, and white could just as easily be the social label for people who are enslaved, denied culture and language, profiled, targeted and incarcerated….my brain-body-self couldn’t process this idea.
As I sat with it, I realized my defensive reaction was related to my internalized sense of being superior. That internalized superiority was embedded in my sense that there was something about my identity that makes me especially suited for holding the role of oppressor. Even as I denigrate and mock it, I simultaneously cherish and claim it.
What if the talk that whites do around racism and white complicity is a means of reassuring their internalized superiority?
Whites bemoan their complicity. Catalog the list of their privileges. Study whiteness, attempt to deconstruct themselves. Call out other whites for racist behavior. Roll their eyes at white culture. I do this.
Whites “re-imagine” history by noticing all the terrible things white people have done, rather than by listening (without interruption or re-interpretation) to histories that have not been told. Whites remain the authors of their lives, the shapers of the narrative. That they have changed the narrative to less explicitly mythologize white dominance doesn’t mean they have stopped being dominant. This is me.
Whites succeed at shaping and controlling a set of stories about racism and their participation in it that does little to shift the center of power. Saying “I am a racist” or “I participate in racism” doesn’t, in and of itself, reduce internalized superiority. In my experience, whites can say that and go on believing that there is something special, unique about them that makes them suited for the role of oppressor.
In fact, the anti-racist work that whites do, can in itself be an exercise in maintaining white dominance. Several times in anti-racist workshops I’ve noticed that a conversation that was supposed to be about racism turned into a conversation about what it meant to be white. (As if whites were the only or most important people in the room.)
Since I started this blog as a way of being transparent in my consciousness around race, I have become more and more uneasy with addressing only whites. So in this post, I have changed the way I use “we” and “our,” noticing the way it is different when I address whites as a subgroup rather than as my primary audience.
Whites that I’ve met in activist circles seem to carry a kind of white self-consciousness about them. I think many whites understand anti-racist work as an opportunity to deepen their understanding of themselves.
Certainly, I pursue anti-racist work because I want to see myself more clearly and be more authentic. I have tried to deconstruct what it means to be an oppressor, in hopes of driving a wedge of anti-racist consciousness into the routinely racist thoughts and actions I commit.
So I seek out conversations and relationships with people of color, listening for the parts of reality that I miss, the things I can’t see. But am I listening for myself in those conversations? Am I filtering everything I hear by how it applies to me? (This articles seems a case in point…ARGH!)
Perhaps some of that self-absorption is baseline human behavior, a survival instinct, a need to find recognition and belonging. Yet I believe that racism is about power, and giving up power is difficult.
Maybe I need to work on listening and being present for the primary purpose of affirming the speaker’s humanity, without an agenda of making it useful to me. There a difference between “I am listening because I want to learn” and “I am listening because you are worth listening to.”