In the years since the Great Racial Awakening of 2020, the number of white-bodied folks who can spot dog whistles and give a general overview of white supremacist culture has grown.
Recently, I saw this in action when a rabid racist or two showed up on an Instagram post I made, where I lamented the troubling nature of this most recent Black History Month. It was actually quite heartening to see so many people tell the problematic racist white woman about herself. It means that despite the slow movement of progress, change is afoot.
However, despite the number of white folks grasping certain learning lessons, I think the biggest hurdle to truly making change happen is getting white folks to divest from whiteness in their daily lives—beyond those moments of overt racism. I am talking about examining every aspect of your life and deciding what is truly yours and what is dictated by the norms of whiteness.
Big-time racism—the kind that resounds with a capital R inside your head—is becoming easier to identify, but it is the small daily activities that still can hang many of us up. That include that includes Black folks and other people of color, by the way, because we are just as infected with whiteness as actual white-bodied people.
Do you stray away from difficult moments or uncomfortable conversations because it is not polite to rock the boat or make things “difficult?” Do you find it challenging to consider using your resources and money to directly help or support Black and brown people, as opposed to funding obvious causes and organizations that support them more generally? How much of your emotional self do you stuff down because of societal standards?
Things like that. The things that aren’t so obvious and right in front of your face.
For several years, we all lived through a catastrophic life-changing event—the kind of event, where you should be changed by it. A global pandemic that left millions dead and disabled and damn near shut down the entire world. But instead of being changed or even articulating what the past several years were like on an emotional/social level, society has instructed us to get back to living. No processing, no grieving, no change.
That’s the culture of whiteness. It doesn’t take a break to feel; it is a machine that governs our emotions. It tells us what is acceptable and what is not. Emotionality is not big on the list.
I think a lot about grief in our culture, and how true expressions of grief in white supremacist culture are forbidden. A loved one dies and the expectation is that you will take a few weeks to be sad and then get back to living, with no acknowledgement that losing loved ones changes us for life and keeps coming back to hit us at random times. Beyond the immediate pain of their death, we are not the same. Ever. It is neither good nor bad overall, as some of that change can be positive. It just is.
What is bad, though, is how many don’t feel safe enough to express their feelings.
Having lost my mom 19 years ago, and my dad almost three years ago. I can say that you don’t just get over someone’s death and never think about them again. Hell, my maid of honor from my second marriage died unexpectedly at 28 and all these years later, I still occasionally think about her. What would she have been like in middle age? My son occasionally brings up the fact that she was the only person he knew who liked pineapple pizza, until his eldest son started eating it. My son was only six when she died. Memories of loved ones live on, but rarely do we give space to verbalize it—lest we be considered “weird” for not moving on.
As someone who is very open publicly in my journey with grief, I am aware that it sometimes makes others uncomfortable. But for years, I did try to hide my grief, especially around my daughter, who never knew my mother—her grandmother. It meant until recently there was a lot of myself I wasn’t sharing with my daughter. I also realized that when I talk about my mother and grandmother, it allows my daughter to feel a deeper connection to our family. It has also been truly healing to revisit the memories and pass down traditions and familial ways of being.
Even in our professional lives, society has told us that we cannot bring our real selves to work. We must never talk about what we earn, or what we are really feeling or dealing with, lest it become weaponized against us. Sure, there are good reasons from a managerial standpoint to have such rules and cut down on the ruckus. The problem is, we spend a lot of our waking time working. Which means we are spending a lot of our time not being our truest selves. No, your boss and coworkers don’t need to know every single thing about you, but as a manager, I appreciate knowing if an employee is dealing with external stressors that may carry over to the work world.
The truth is, the culture of whiteness is our societal operating system, and it does not encourage the full humanity of any of us. It creates competition where there should be none. It encourages the stuffing down of feelings and emotions. It demands a blind allegiance to rules and ways of being.
It is problematic in anti-racism work because how can you truly become vested in this work if you aren’t questioning and actively pushing back on your societal operating system? It is not enough to simply know that you have white privilege, white-adjacent privilege, or any other privilege if you aren’t examining that under a lens of seeing how it impacts everything you say and do. So much of the culture of whiteness is following rules and regulations without ever questioning them, and passing that mindset down to the next generation.
A common example I see in my work is funders wanting to give money to anti-racist initiatives but using a system that is steeped in whiteness to access and accommodate said funds. Vu Le of Nonprofit AF regularly calls out this crap. You want to give money to solve a problem, but then fail to grasp how your metrics of success and reporting requirements are built for short-term results and gains—with problems that can take generations to fix.
Another problem: While well-meaning white people are bogged down with stuffing away their emotions or following the status quo, the one emotion that bubbles up to the surface often is fear. Fear of making a mistake in particular. That is the number-one thing that comes up when I work with individuals and groups as the barrier for them taking bigger risks in their anti-racism work.
To have fear is to be human. I live in fear everyday that my work might finally light a spark with some demented racist who might physically harm me. That fear is so real, that I caused some very real harm to someone I love when I violated their trust multiple times—just to be sure they weren’t some covert operative for white supremacists. The story is a bit comical now, but to have the level of fear where you literally have to background-check everyone you allow to get close to you because of their skin color is not a normal way to live. It is an unseen reality of this work and the real risks that are present in today’s climate.
We all have fear, and if I and other Black people and people of color can do this work, knowing that we are in many cases putting real targets on our backs that may cause our lives to be prematurely ended—you can take some risks too. Take a risk to say something—even if you flub it up, you can learn from any criticisms you get back. It is the least that any white-bodied person who is serious about this work can do.
I rarely play the comparison game, but this is the one time where I think perspective is useful. Far more rarely is it life-threatening for white people to speak up and rock the boat compared to people of color, especially Black and Indigenous people—usually, the worst a white person faces is potential embarrassment at messing up or pushback from peers and family who are basically racists. I leave you with this thought: What is one beginning step that you can start now to divest yourself of some kind of toxic whiteness in your daily life and move beyond your fear to better embody your anti-racist beliefs? What is one way that whiteness is holding you back? It is important to answer these questions within yourself. Then you can stop worrying about whether to do something or how, and actually start doing it.
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