What does it mean to be white?

[An evergreen reminder: I am a white woman writing about racism so I might share with other white people what I learn—mostly what I learn from people of color—so we can all work toward societal transformation.]

What does it mean to be a good white person? Most of us white people who have lived in white culture long enough that it’s the default—it’s our “normal”—don’t think much about being white. In fact, we spend a lot of energy trying not to think about it.

People of color, on the other hand, are much more likely to include their racial and/or ethnic identities into their overall sense of who they are. Beverly Daniel Tatum explains in “Why are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria, And Other Conversations About Race” that because racism impacts people of color directly in ongoing and regular ways, they are more likely to find their racial identity plays an important role in their understanding of who they are as they are growing up. Most of us white people haven’t examined what it means to be white, or how we fit into the world as white people. Because we haven’t explored the way our race impacts our identity, we don’t know who we really are, we haven’t fully developed; we are not whole.

As I’ve been exploring what it means to be white with my daughters, we have found our tendency is to associate being white with oppression, greed, and violence. And, it’s true, as of this moment, I haven’t yet found a quality that I associate with “white culture” that is entirely positive. But I also know there have always been white people who have fought for justice, who have resisted oppressive systems, and who have lived in ways that did not uphold white supremacy. Those white people have and do exist. I used to think that learning about them would be just another way to excuse (me) white people by saying “look how we weren’t all awful!” but I can see now how it doesn’t have to serve that role. My daughters and I will be studying white racial justice advocates as a part of our larger process of self-exploration.

My own racial identity follows along a path of racial and ethnic identity development (and loops around and returns to where it was and then moves forward and then back—this stuff isn’t linear!) that has been well studied and is described in Tatum’s “Why are all the Black Kids…” book. Here is a table outlining racial and ethnic identity formation, using the data described by Tatum, based on the work of Janet Helm, and then adapted by Lisa Sung in 2002. Can you see yourself in this identity development chart?

The chart says that we white people who explore our racial identity go from “pre-contact & contact,” where we aren’t aware of the “significance of group,” and we see ourselves as unprejudiced, or “colorblind.” We then become aware that racism is impacting our lives. Maybe we say or do racist things (“racially insensitive” if you prefer) by mistake and maybe we lose a friend, are moved to tears after viewing online a recording of violence against people of color, or participate in a “diversity workshop” at work. We move to “reintegration” where we feel tension, guilt, and shame. What does it mean that I’m a part of the group that’s been causing all of this harm?

For me, the cognitive challenges of these new views of myself have been significant. I’ve spent a lot of time in the “pseudo-independent” stage where I “understand the problem of white privilege,” but am “unsure what to do about it.” I can see myself having touched the even more “advanced” areas of racial identity in the last few years, for moments at a time. But, mostly, with some dips and darts into contact-disintegration-reintegration and psuedo-independence, I’m in the phase where I’m trying to figure out what it means to be white (“Immersion/Emersion”); that is, how can I be white and not support white supremacy?

Thus far, I know that historically and presently, being white means that I am a part of a group that created white supremacy, that it is a system that benefits me, and causes me to have an inflated sense of superiority. It is a daily practice to recognize how the qualities of white supremacy (I mentioned in my last post) permeate all of my life, and to practice doing things in different ways. In this way, I am sure I will learn more about what it means to be white.


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Every area of my life is permeated by white supremacy, even this title

There’s a fine line between sharing my experience so others might benefit, and sharing my experience simply because I think it’s interesting. I understand from my conversations with other white people that most of my questions about racism are common questions. My intention when I write for BGIM is not to navel-gaze and say “my life is interesting!” I want to share the awkward and uncomfortable process of learning how to actively take white supremacy apart so it no longer serves as the foundation for my own life or the lives of everyone impacted by it. I am doing my always-imperfect best, and I hope my intentions match the impact as you read.


Over the last couple months, I’ve been taking a class by Lisa Graustein, a white queer woman who has been a racial and gender equity and justice trainer and facilitator for more than a decade. With the support of a grant from New England Yearly Meeting (Quakers), Lisa has been sharing resources and spiritual guidance while modeling communication styles that don’t reinforce oppression. The class is called “Racial Justice and the Beloved Community,” and we are practicing looking at how white supremacy informs almost everything we do as Quakers; most importantly, we are practicing changing our attitudes and behaviors.

To understand my part in supporting white supremacy, I’ve had to spend quite a bit of time studying the history of the social construction of race (see Nell Irvin Painter’s “The History of White People” and/or Ibram X. Kendi’s “Stamped from the Beginning”). Building on that fact-finding I look at where in my life I’m being guided by white supremacist culture. When Lisa shared this description of white supremacy culture in our class, gathered together by Tema Okun of dRworks, it nearly knocked the wind out of me. Dear readers, please take a moment to read the description of white supremacy culture.

Okun details the following qualities of white supremacy culture, summarized here: perfectionism; sense of urgency; defensiveness; quantity over quality; worship of the written word; only one right way; paternalism; either/or thinking; power hoarding; fear of open conflict; individualism; I’m the only one; progress is bigger, more; objectivity; right to comfort.

Do you recognize yourself in those terms? Do you, as I did, find yourself defensive? Thinking, sure, I can see how those qualities could be problematic, but there are lots of reasons we feel and behave this way. To say it’s “white supremacy culture” is a bit of a stretch, we might say.

But scholars and activists who have studied and lived with the oppression of white supremacy are telling those of us who benefit from the systems that those qualities are white supremacy culture. Every single quality described makes it possible to keep white supremacy alive and strong; research and evidence support this statement. This holds true for people of color as well as white people—all of us living in the United States of America are impacted by white supremacy culture.

What does this mean for us? Well, I hope you might join me in learning about the history of white supremacy in the USA, to inform your understanding of how we got here. I’d also like to invite you to notice where in your life those white supremacy culture qualities appear. Are there places or times you can try something different? Do you have people in your life with whom you can talk about these issues? Remember, white supremacy wants us to be alone—individualistic, I’m the only one—so even the act of finding others to offer mutual support can be a step toward dismantling white supremacy.

In the title for this piece, I mention that the title itself is permeated by white supremacy. In it I see my tendency to think that my own experience matters so much that it seems appropriate (as it usually does in my posts here!) to center the title of the post on me and my experience. As I said in the beginning, there’s a fine line between sharing my experience just because I find it interesting (see “white supremacy culture“) or sharing my experience—most especially sharing what I’ve learned from others—to try and benefit others. I hope what I’ve shared is beneficial. We aren’t alone in stumbling and bumbling through the lessons we need to learn. I welcome any feedback you’d like to give me.

And, I’d like to put in a plug for supporting this blog. Black Girl in Maine pays the writers on this site, doesn’t use advertising, and does this work mostly as a labor of love/survival. Please consider making a contribution—one time or (preferrably) monthly—in support of the work done here.


If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Want more BGIM? Consider booking me to speak with your group or organization.

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Taking my experience as a sexual assault survivor to better understand racism

In some ways, this latest post from Heather Denkmire carries echoes of a couple other recent posts, so I’ll link them here: Me Too by René Goddess Johnson and How about we examine what’s really likely with Kavanaugh? by Samuel James. -BGIM


If you’re anything like me—and most women (of color and white) I know are—you’ve survived some kind of sexual violation. My own history includes 12 traumatic sexual abuse, assault, and harassment experiences, eight of which were with boys (teens) and men with backgrounds similar to Brett Kavanaugh.

Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony echoed my own experiences closely, and I knew boys from my preppy Connecticut high school who told me they participated in assaults like those described by Julie Swetnick. Since the 2016 elections, I have been careful about my intake of the news, as Donald Trump’s vile behavior is also very familiar. To say that mid-September through early October was difficult for me is putting it mildly.

Many people came together to object to Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, and they are still protesting. There were amazing and powerful protests of Kavanaugh by survivors like me, and survivors with very different stories, and people who know and love survivors, or simply people who have empathy and understanding. But in these protests, we white women have done harm to women of color.

It’s true that it wasn’t only white women protesting Kavanaugh, that’s for sure. And, believe me, I’m not suggesting the protests were a mistake. But, just like with the women’s march—see I’ll pass on “Unity” and the Women’s March and Black Girl In Maine’s The path to unity requires honesty, or Beyond the march—too many of us white women were driven to outrage because of our own experiences and the potential impact on our own lives, which, regardless of our intentions has the impact of telling women of color their lived experiences effectively mean nothing to us.

Let me explain what I mean here, and I’ll tell you how I use my own experience to try to comprehend what it must be like for a woman of color seeing the protesters dressed as characters from the Handmaid’s Tale, or (understandably!) crying about losing ground in women’s rights.

Let’s start with this article by Melayna Williams, “For black women, The Handmaid’s Tale’s dystopia is real—and telling. In her piece, Ms. Williams points out that the show “doesn’t offer a vision of an America where democracy has collapsed. Instead, it shows white women subjected to the conditions under which their country was born. The thing that, tellingly, has proven the most alarming to audiences.” The characters are “find themselves captive, were bred against their will, and were tortured and even killed for attempting escape,” as Black women were for centuries.

The way we white women are full of rage and fear because Roe v. Wade is likely to be overturned is reasonable. What is harmful and not reasonable is for us white women to act like all women’s bodies have had safe and affordable access to medical care and only now are those rights being threatened. Black women have not had the same access to abortions and other necessary medical care that we white women have had. For example, Black women are three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than are white women.

So, if you are a survivor of sexual violence as I am, and you see or hear another survivor like Dr. Blasey Ford go public with her experience, how does it feel when people don’t believe her? How does it feel when a survivor’s accusations are treated as if they are not evidence? How did it feel when you saw people demand Dr. Blasey Ford offer up more proof, more proof than her own lived experience? How many times are harassment, abuse, and assault survivors told they must’ve misunderstood? (Some claim they believe Dr. Blasey Ford was assaulted but think she must be mistaken about who the violent teen boy was.)

Now imagine being a woman of color saying to us white women, “My life is not protected by the current system like your life is protected. The current system causes me harm every day.” And our response is, “Why are you bringing up race?” (I hear, “Quit complaining. Quit making a big deal about nothing! You’re missing the important point!”)

Imagine being a woman of color saying to us white women, as Melayna Williams did, “White supremacy, weaponized to protect white women’s bodies, is not new. Liberal and conservative women have collectively struggled to acknowledge the ways in which mainstream feminism has served to undercut and erase the voices and struggles of women of colour.” And our response is to say women of color should work toward unity with us white women? Would we tell Dr. Blasey Ford she ought to shake hands with Brett Kavanaugh and make nice?

No. I’m quite sure the white women activists who are puzzled by the anger women of color at their Handmaid’s Tale costumes, or at their suggestion that people “take a knee” to protest rape culture would never tell Dr. Blasey Ford that her lived experience is not evidence, or that she ought to find common ground with Brett Kavanaugh.

When it comes to our activism, fellow white women survivors, we must listen to the truth tellers, the women of color who are understandably saying, “No. I will not work with you.” We must work to understand why. We must listen to the women of color who are telling us to acknowledge the harms we’ve perpetrated against them. We must change. We need to believe her when she tells her story. We must not cause harm to women of color in the way abusing, assaulting, harassing men have caused harm to all of us.


If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Want more BGIM? Consider booking me to speak with your group or organization.

Comments will close on this post in 60-90 days; earlier if there are spam attacks or other nonsense.

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