The uncertainty of whiteness

Growing up, my parents only had a few hardcore rules that were ingrained in me early in life. Among them was: Don’t ever bring home a white boy.

If you ever saw my TedX talk from years ago, you know that my father grew up in rural Arkansas as one of 16 children—and my grandparents were sharecroppers. My father grew up picking cotton after school until he was almost a teenager, when the owner of the land that my grandparents worked made an indecent proposition to one of my aunts, who was barely 18 at the time. My grandfather went to speak to the owner of the land about his sexual propositioning of my aunt, and that white man decided that after years of them working the land, the answer to his own poor behavior and being called on it was to throw my family off the land. All for having the audacity to protect one of their daughters. 

The thing about rules without context, especially when we are young, is that they don’t make any sense. And as someone who from childhood often pushed the boundaries, it meant disregarding the rules. At 18, I ran off and married a white boy who had attended my high school and was originally from New England, only telling my parents weeks after the deed was done. Had we been Catholics, my parents would have done everything in their power to have that marriage annulled. They were already itching to have the marriage erased when we learned that I was pregnant—less than two months after our trip to City Hall. 

For better or worse, a white man was going to be a part of our family, and a child was born out of that union—my beloved son. The marriage fell apart two years after it began and instead of learning my lesson, I would eventually remarry again—almost four years later—and yes, it was another white man. 

My reputation as a wild child and black sheep of the family was firmly cemented in Stewart family history, and still remains to this day at the tender middle age of 51. The last time I attended a family reunion, my mother was still alive and several family members made it clear that a white man had no place in our family. 

Our family’s deep disdain for marrying across racial lines is so firmly entrenched that despite the hundreds of cousins and the sheer size of our clan, I am the only one to have ever crossed the racial lines. No one, and I mean no one, has ever brought home a white person. If you are a descendents of the Stewarts of Blytheville, Arkansas, you simply do not marry across racial lines, especially white people. Not after what was done to our family. 

We all heard what was done to our elder relatives and, well, for whatever reason I was the only one to think of testing the boundaries. Not even my son, the product of a mixed-race union, brought home a white woman. He married a Black woman—a very proper Southern Black woman in fact. A Southern belle to be honest. My father was beaming at my son’s wedding, basking in the Negritude. When he conducted the marriage ceremony for my second husband and me, he wasn’t beaming. He was accepting his lot as being the only one to have a child to break with tradition. 

It wasn’t until I was almost 40 that I truly started to understand the depth and breadth of what had been done to our family directly because of white people beyond the lived experiences in my Black body. I can’t go back in time, and I wouldn’t trade my babies for anything, but I understand better what my actions meant in the larger picture of family. 

My rebellious streak as a youngster also means that I have spent more time than most in the company of white people. Up close and personal. For the better part of the last 33 years, I have been married to white men; for the last 22 years, I have lived in Maine. In many ways, I see white people in their truest humanity and, well, until a few days ago I have held a certain set of observations close to the vest. 

Despite white people’s vaunted status on the food chain of humanity, white people are not only incredibly brittle—hellooo, white fragility—but they literally move with an uncertainty that frankly is jarring. 

In the last decade of my career, navigating professional white spaces while doing anti-racism work, more times than not I have been struck by the lack of confidence that is often present in white people at the heart and soul level. It’s almost as if being told generationally that you are special without proof leads to a lack of grounding and foundation as a person and a collective. A reminder of how the culture of whiteness and white supremacy strips white people of their humanity. What is your grounding as a white person? 

Now, I have long held these thoughts and rarely do I share them, but a conversation with my daughter reminded me of just how transparent and uncertain whiteness really is on a micro level. 

My daughter, who is almost 19, is taking a gap year and working in our state’s largest city at a popular retail destination for tourists and residents alike. She has been there for approximately eight months now, and she is always regaling me with tales of befuddled shoppers. As tourist season is kicking up, the store is starting to see a more diverse mix of shoppers, though primarily the clientele is white folks. 

The other day, she announces, “Momma, have you ever noticed how uncertain white people are?” I asked her to elaborate, and she explained that she has noticed that white shoppers always seem to need approval from others about their purchases, to the point of absurdity. 

Even a simple $30 purchase requires the shopper to ask the members of their party if they should make the purchase. As she put it, it seems like white people need approval for everything. She has observed this across the board regardless of age, gender, or class. To the point that people will ask her for her opinion if they are shopping alone. I asked her to elaborate and she explained that it seems people need others to validate their choices, whether it is a ring, a top, or curtains. 

She also explained that when customers of color come in, she doesn’t observe that behavior—that even if a customer of color is shopping with a group, the prolonged chat of “should I buy this” is almost never present. 

As I listened to her, I couldn’t help but think that what she was describing at the retail level is most certainly what I have observed in my years of life in a host of settings. A lack of confidence. Personally, when I am buying anything I don’t need anyone’s approval. If I like it, and I have the means, I am buying it. When I need to make business decisions, I weigh the data and make a decision. When I have worked with an entirely white board of directors and staff that doesn’t happen. The indecision and inability to make decisions is what often makes my job hard. 

Until this year, I had spent the last several years reporting to an entirely white board of directors and it was beyond stressful. Unlike in my early years at my organization when we had a racially mixed board and decisions seemed to flow, working with an entirely white group at the decision making level was one of my biggest stressors. The lack of confidence; the uncertainty. 

Now that I am back working with a multiracial group, board meetings are no longer stressful, especially with Black and white co-chairs. Decision making flows—we take the leap after weighing the data and back story. I leave meetings feeling as if we are a team and less like I need a few shots of Jack Daniels and a punching bag to get out my frustrations. 

Bringing my anti-racism lens and understanding of whiteness, I think the perceived strength and decisiveness of white people is a cover to hide the profound lack of grounding and humanity due to the irreparable harm of white supremacy on white people. 

I think that the almost constant state of uncertainty that permeates the lives of white people can only be healed by confronting whiteness and the generational harms it has inflicted upon white people. By creating and strengthening the arms of anti-racism work that focuses on white people. By giving them a reason for rooting into anti-racism work beyond helping BIPOC people. By giving them something that seeks shared humanity and understands that the material gains of whiteness came at the cost of the white soul and psyche. 

I believe that one of the reasons so many white Americans responded to Trump and are still enamored by Trump is that he gave white people something to believe in and validates their whiteness, which is ultimately about denying the wounds of their humanity. 

The anti-racism movement of the last decade has been inching closer to white people being forced to face the glaring gaps in their humanity. It’s why diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) work is being banned—it’s dangerous to white supremacy to get a plurality of white people who want to heal and who want to dismantle white supremacy because they know it has destroyed them as well. Healed white people joining together with Black folks and other BIPOC folks is to create a better world that serves all of us, that holds our collective humanity in high regard, that pushes back on capitalism, imperialism and all the isms. It will free our brothers and sisters globally, from Gaza to the Congo and in-between. 

Right now, though, what we see is “Nah, gotta keep white people fragile and uncertain to keep this machine running.” That can be changed and we can all be the better for it. What do you say?

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Image by Jamie Street via Unsplash