In the midst of the great racial reckoning in the United States, many people are thinking and talking about race. In the United States, mainstream society tends to discuss race as being about people of color, but I want to focus on whiteness.

People of color, including and especially blacks,  have been trying to change systemic and institutional racism in this country for hundreds of years. Personally, I’m newer to the struggle, yet as a white person I understand that we white folks must bring ourselves up to speed about the history and the mechanisms of racism, and work with other white people to change systems that perpetuate racism. This will mean a lot of education.

Right now, though, I won’t do a whole tutorial on how race is man-made and whiteness was created for the purpose of consolidating and maintaining power and wealth. Instead, at the end of this article, I’ll refer you to a few resources; for now I’ll offer this quote from the Dismantling Racism Project of the Western States Center:

White emerged as a classification of people during the 1700s in the British colonies of North America….Poor white indentured servants were building alliances and relationships with African slaves due to their similar state of oppression…. The category white was created as a political construct that was used … to unite Europeans in order to consolidate strength, increasing their ability to maintain control and dominance over the Native Americans and African slaves, which in many places outnumbered Europeans.[1]

In the ensuing centuries, whiteness served to concentrate power and wealth into the hands of a few elite white people, and became entrenched pervasively in society’s institutions and systems, including, for instance, redlining, educational segregation, trade union exclusions, and anti-miscegenation laws. Whiteness has been exacerbating inequities for centuries.

Notice that this is about whiteness, not white people. A social construct, not a human or humans, and not a judgment about specific humans. This isn’t about bashing white people, and I’m not saying, “Don’t be white.”

Yet that’s exactly what I want to do when I think about the litany of horrific things that have been done because of whiteness: I want to be not-white. I want to get out from under my white skin, to distance myself from those white people. I want to aver that I’m different, I’m better, I’m not white like that, never mind the conceit of such a statement. 

Multiply me by many well-intentioned yet deeply conditioned white people trying to make sense of this moment: uneasy about being white, learning more the impact of racism, trying to find where they fit in the struggle for justice and equity, and maybe even learning to hang in there for the long haul.

Dr. Chenjerai Kumanyika is an activist, artist, and expert on media studies who teaches at Rutgers University. He offers a sounding board to John Biewen, the host of the Scene on Radio podcast and its

2017 series “Seeing White.” Kumanyika ruefully observes that whiteness is hard to defend, given that its entire purpose is the exploitation of others and the concentration of power and wealth. Biewen, who is white, doesn’t even try. Instead, he makes the case for detachment from whiteness, holding it at arm’s length so as to get a good look at it.

Goodness, detach from whiteness? What does that mean? Can I do that? If I detach from whiteness, am I still white? Can everyone detach from the race constructs they live within, or just white people? Is detaching from the social construct of one’s color different from detaching from the experience of racism? If I can detach from my experience of whiteness, can I detach from my experience of racism? Can anyone?

We white folks need to step up and start learning. Here we go.

Even though I’ll focus on whiteness, it helps if we first define racist. Scholar and activist Dr. Ibram

X. Kendi, author of How To Be An Anti-Racist, defines racist as behavior or policy that increases inequality on the basis of skin color. Anti-racist describes a behavior or policy that does the opposite: it decreases inequality on the basis of skin color. Kendi believes that labeling a person racist, i.e. giving someone a pejorative label that is indelible and fixed for all time, is counterproductive, in part because it doesn’t allow for the possibility of growth and change. Further, according to the Dismantling Racism Web Workbook,

Racism is different from racial prejudice, hatred, or discrimination. Racism involves one group having the power to carry out systematic discrimination through the institutional policies and practices of the society and by shaping the cultural beliefs and values that support those racist policies and practices. [2]

These definitions facilitate detachment from whiteness, because once we’ve defined racist and racism as being about behaviors, policies, and power, and not about people, white folks’ entire beings are no longer under the microscope, so we can be less apprehensive, less defensive — we’re not going to be attacked for being white every time we show up for a conversation about race. It’s like when I was a new parent, and I had to remember that when my son misbehaved he wasn’t bad, it was his behavior that was bad. Once I could wrap my mouth around that language, it freed me to love him unconditionally.

Similarly, while your actions might be racist — they may increase inequality based on skin color — it’s not the same as saying you are racist, even as you may want to consider behaving differently.

If the words racist and racism can be attributed to a person’s behavior, not to the person who behaved that way, could the same be true of whiteness? If you are not whiteness, you are merely a person with white skin, then can you detach from whiteness-the-social-construct? (If Black people are not blackness, but merely folks with brown skin, can they detach from blackness? I think racism makes that harder, but I can’t know, and need to focus on what I can know, which is whiteness.)

Detachment seemed pretty abstract to me, until I realized that it’s what one does in meditation: watching one’s thoughts and feelings, rather than becoming absorbed in them. Detachment is also a key tool in the Twelve Step programs (AA, Alanon, Alateen, etc.), offering practitioners a means of stepping outside of their connection to alcohol, the alcoholic, and the emotions that might otherwise lead someone to drink. In psychotherapy and hypnosis, patients are sometimes guided to imagine an experience or emotion as being outside of themselves, and then to visualize it shrinking, or perhaps transformed from color to black and white. This detachment allows the person to observe it critically, but without judgment.

In 1994, Robert Kegan developed a theory of learning in which the idea of detachment is central, differentiating between Subject and Object in this way:

Things that are Subject to you can’t be seen because they are a part of you. Because they can’t be seen, they are taken for granted, taken as true—or not even taken at all. You generally can’t name things that are “Subject,” and you certainly can’t reflect upon them—that would require the ability to stand back and take a look at them. You don’t have something that’s Subject; something that’s Subject has you. Kegan (1994) describes Subject as “those elements of our knowing or organizing that we are identified with, tied to, fused with or embedded in.” [3]

It’s the difference between being in a movie and watching a movie. When you are in the movie, the action happens to you: the action (in this case whiteness) is the subject and you are the object. When you are watching the movie — detached — you are the subject, and the action, what you’re seeing, is the object.

It took me quite a bit of practice, but I can now talk about whiteness — the idea — dispassionately, as a power structure, not as a moral failure. Once I relaxed and realized I didn’t have to take everything personally, I could think about whiteness more freely, with greater creativity and insight. It became easier for me to talk about race without anxiety, and my learning both accelerated and became more analytical.

By detaching from my whiteness, I could listen with more of my heart as well as my brain to the stories, pain, needs, joys, thoughts, ideas, and analysis of people of color. I’m better able to follow their lead and support their leadership. I could tell more of my own stories, without self-consciousness about being white. I could be a better ally.

Detaching from whiteness allows white folks to acknowledge what whiteness does for us and to people of color. It allows us to shift the balance, from fretting obsessively about individual instances of white privilege, to a greater focus on the institutions of white power.

I believe that individual behavior is important. Yet for large-scale, sustainable change we must turn a critical eye to the institutional and structural privileges of whiteness, from the early history of settler colonialism to the police violence against people of color that led to this moment of racial reckoning.

Developing such an awareness is a prerequisite for change. As we keep learning how the social structure of racism and whiteness have shaped us, we can become ever more effective at changing them.

I believe that’s what’s next: a whole lot of white people learning to detach from the fact of their whiteness, so as to better analyze and dismantle the systemic nature of white power.

 

 ______________________

[1] Bowman, Moira and David Rogers, “A History: The Construction of Race and Racism,” p. 13, Dismantling Racism Project, Western States Center, Portland, OR 1999.

[2] https://www.dismantlingracism.org/racism-defined.html

[3] Kegan, R. (1994). In over our heads: The mental demands of modern life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press., p. 32, referenced in “A Change Theory: Key Concepts for Understanding the Work of Robert Kegan.” The Shifting Thinking Project of the New Zealand Council for Educational Research, accessed 6/30/2020.

 

Learn More:

Greater Good Magazine: Science-Based Insights for a Meaningful Life: Based at UC Berkeley, Greater Good reports on groundbreaking research into the roots of compassion, happiness, and altruism. They have compiled their writing on reducing prejudice and contributing to racial justice here. In their words, “The science we cover reveals the considerable psychological and structural challenges we are up against. But it also gives hope that another world is possible.”

A History: The Construction of Race and Racism, part of the Dismantling Racism Project, produced by the Western States Center in 2017.

The Dismantling Racism Web Workbook is produced by Dismantling Racism Works (dRworks), and can be found at https://www.dismantlingracism.org/racism-defined.html.

Kendi, Ibram X. How To Be An Antiracist. Penguin Random House, New York, 2019. In my article, I mentioned Kendi’s redefinition of racist, a reframing that has the power to transform the conversation about race.

More than thirty years ago, Peggy McIntosh conceived of privilege as a knapsack full of unearned items. Her knapsack for white privilege had so many things she made a list that educators still us, and that  you can find here.

Racial Equity Tools is a non-profit that “offers tools, research, tips, curricula and ideas for people who want to increase their own understanding and to help those working toward justice at every level – in systems, organizations, communities and the culture at large.” Find them here.

How Race Survived U.S. History: From Settlement and Slavery to the Obama Phenomenon, by David R. Roediger is an accessible, comprehensive telling of why the issue of race continues to vex us as a society. You can get it from the library or purchase it here.

In my article, I quote Dr. Chenjerai Kumanyika and John Biewen, correspondent and host, respectively, of the Scene On Radio podcast, at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. Season Two of that podcast entailed fourteen episodes focusing on questions surrounding whiteness: ” Where did the notion of “whiteness” come from? What does it mean? What is whiteness for?” In addition to the podcast, there is a study guide and a bibliography of all of the studies, books and other resources mentioned in the “Seeing White” series. Available at Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and iheart Radio.