The brutal, soul-wrenching race-based murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Rayshard Brooks demand that white people move away from the calloused benefits afforded to them within an unjust racial structure.
In the battle against terrorism and in pursuit of racial justice, the only meaningful position white people can hold in dismantling the master’s house (aka white supremacy) is putting in the time, blood, sweat, and tears to develop an identity that is inherently antithetical to whiteness. During the past several weeks, I have been asked by several white people, “What can I do?” The short answer to that is: Roll up your sleeves, and lean the f*ck all the way in to dismantle the master’s house of white supremacy. That’s what white people can do right now. And they can start with identifying and dislocating the bricks we call whiteness.
The truth is that white people play a critical role in achieving racial justice and liberation for America. Yet, far too many fear and hold uncertainty about how they fit into dismantling white supremacy. This fear holds them back from stepping confidently into their position and role in the work of justice. While there is no place for deadweight in justice movements, this fear comes with good reason, as white people have been socially conditioned to invalidate, negate, and rationalize the adverse impacts our racial construct has had on Black people in particular. An example of such social conditioning is being taught to “not see color” as a means to not only make race invisible, but to make unseen the harm being done to other people because of their race. Race narratives such as the narrative of color-blindness (that many a white folk have clung to for decades now), have resulted in generation after generation of white people being trained to simultaneously be used as a tool to maintain white supremacy and as a conduit through which white supremacy is constantly being birthed.
By design, white people have been diverted from critically analyzing the racial identity assigned to them. Whereas the survival of Black and brown bodies mandates that they develop an intimate comprehension of race, the privileged existence of white bodies within a racialized system requires that these bodies remain ignorant to the harm being wielded by the very same racialized system they receive privileges within, in exchange for their ignorance. The work before white people at this moment in our collective pursuit of racial justice is to do the very heavy and personal lift of increasing their own comprehension around whiteness. From there, it is then incumbent upon white folks to make the conscious decision to constantly free themselves of the many ways in which whiteness is weaponized.
pro-tip: liberating oneself from whiteness, or anything for that matter, is an ongoing life-long commitment. It is a practice, not a perfect.
What Is Whiteness?
Simply stated, whiteness can be defined as the life source of white supremacy. It is the mentality that sustains the micro, macro, and outright violent ways in which power is amassed and held in an unbalanced way, mainly by white people. It speaks to all of the intentional and unintentional ways in which white people maintain “power over” rather than “power with” relationships with others, to the specific detriment of Black and brown bodies. Whiteness emboldens white people to normalize the lived experience of being white at the expense of negating the very real and painful lived experiences of being Black and people of color in America due to the heavy weight of sheer caucacity they have to shoulder on a daily basis.
In general, whiteness is amplified through frames that encourage white folks to not notice race and to minimize its impact, rendering its harm ‘invisible’ to white people, but not to the people who are constantly being harmed due to their placement in the racial order. The very nature of whiteness in this way reflects a lack of interrogation by white people about how they are used and positioned within white supremacy. Without a true interrogation of whiteness as a mentality, and without liberating their mind from its stranglehold, white people will never be able to truly understand the profundity and urgency in the words so often spoken by Black people, “my skin color is not a crime.”
What Does Whiteness Look Like?
From my vantage point as a Black woman, whiteness is omnipresent. It is constantly inserting itself and functioning in some way, shape, or form in any given space and at any given time. Depending on the situation, whiteness can be subtle or lurid. It can be dressed in well-intentioned acts. Its aggression can be micro or macro. Whiteness is communicated in explicit language, defensive minimizations, and even misaligned repentances. Unsurprisingly, people of color are acutely aware of the presence of whiteness in any given situation, but to white people it remains unseen. Consider the following personal real-life examples that demonstrate varying degrees of whiteness in the hustle and bustle of everyday life, that go virtually unnoticed to white folks:
What Does Whiteness Cost Us?
The existential threat white people embody to people of color in general, and black folks in particular is not by virtue of their racial identity. People being white is not the problem. The problem is that the system of white supremacy primarily uses white bodies as a means to inflict suffering. If white people do not put in a mass effort to dedicate their position within a racial order to advance racial justice instead of promulgating white supremacy, racial justice will always be just out of our reach. In order to dedicate their position to the cause of racial justice, white people must place their feet squarely on the path that is meant only for them to walk. They must begin and persist in the time consuming and gut wrenchingly tedious examination that will have them come to understand just how deeply connected their privilege and identity is dependent upon (and conflated with) white supremacy. It is from this point, and this point only, that their life-long journey of divorcing themselves from white supremacy begins and their role in manifesting racial justice deepens. Anything short of this will mean that white people will never be able to break free from their own chains that keep them bound to white supremacy, and thus will pose a continued threat to collective justice and liberation.
I read a captivating tweet recently that shared deeply profound words by Dwayne Reed:
“White supremacy won’t die until white people see it as a white issue they need to solve rather than a black issue they need to empathize with.”
Just as I, a Black woman, hold rage for the suffering white supremacy has inflicted on me, my loved ones, and my community, white people ought to hold rage at the ways in which this system has duped them, exposed them, and used their bodies to wield violence and trauma. White folks ought to be holding a tremendous amount of rage for the extent to which they have been used to execute suffering within this racial structure. White folks absolutely cannot get to solving anything if they can’t get to raging. Rage, if used right, is what invokes one to act from a place of conviction rather than serving up solidarity through mere dictation.
Mother. Teacher. Agitator. S. Rae Peoples is the founder and principal consultant of Red Lotus Consulting, a race equity and service boutique. Her writings and opinions have been published in the Washington Post, the East Bay Express, the Oakland Post, BlogHer, as well as Young, Fabulous and Self-Employed magazine. Currently based in Boston, S. Rae is a student affairs administrator at an art school and serves as Co-Chair of the Board of Directors for North Atlantic Books.