Being white and “whiteness” are not the same things. I want to share with you what I learned about how “whiteness is a thing.”
It is designed to make you think it does not apply to you, even as it seduces you into using its deceptive tactics to advance its interests and sustain its life force.
Its vitality is linked to a denial that whiteness exists. Whiteness wants you to believe it belongs to someone else.
But we can untangle its hold on our progress of coming together as a people. We can learn to see it. And when we observe it, we are able to learn from it, understand how it operates, and develop new skills to deprogram the codes that have been unknowingly handed down for generations.
There is no room for shame or guilt in this work. Only a willingness to be brave, see uncomfortable truths, and be dedicated to changing cultural patterns so we may all heal together.
Disarm. Disrupt. Dismantle.
This is the path to unlearning and undoing racism.
Find the space to listen to your heart’s greatest yearning and courageously walk with me on this healing journey. I have a story that I want to share with you. . .
. . . I stood there looking at the butcher block sheets marked up with the list of words our retreat group had quickly brainstormed out loud to capture the assignment:
self-absorbed, disconnected, gatekeeper to the universe, narcissism, urgency, joyless, rigid, frigid, dishonest, socio-pathological, competitive, mean, ignorant, bully, underhanded, thievery, clannish, arrogant, paternalism, exclusivity, gaslighting, obsessive, cowardice, entitlement, fearful, individualism, superiority, demanding comfort, discriminatory, vengeful, selfish, phony, gossiper, neurotic, cowardice, (the list goes on…)
It was the fifth and final day of an intensive retreat to look more deeply at systemic white supremacy and to learn ways to disarm, disrupt, and dismantle racism.
To disarm anything, first we have to see it.
This assignment was to collectively call out and name aspects of how we experience whiteness showing up around us.
Though I and other white-bodied people in the retreat offered some of the words on this list, the examples flowed most freely and quickly from the mouths of people of color. They have witnessed and experienced our whiteness for far longer than we have – because, by design, it is meant to be invisible to white bodies so that we silently and systematically reinforce and perpetuate it though our institutions, economy, and culture.
It is worth mentioning here that science has proven there is no such thing as race. It is a made-up social construct. And throughout history, we who identify as white have used the construct of race to define a superiority that would assure our place at the top of the hierarchy of life. None of this is innate to our being. It is learned. And we can unlearn it.
But first we have to see it.
We had a break after this brainstorming exercise at the retreat. I stood before the easels, really taking it all in.
My eyes catalogued all the words. I read them over and over. I closed my eyes and let the feeling of the words and their meanings land on me. These words were not unfamiliar to me.
I had often invoked them in various ways since 2016 to describe the unflattering behaviors of President Trump.
Indeed, I was quite confident that if I conducted a poll where I read these words to a random sample of people and then asked for them to speak of the first person that comes to mind, Donald Trump would be a consensus choice.
It hit me in that moment that Donald Trump is essentially the President of Whiteness. He wins. He is all of these words.
But here I was in the middle of a retreat on undoing racism, and I was hearing from my Black and Brown friends that this list is also me.
Hello, white fragility.
This is definitely uncomfortable space to hold. Our moral objection to racism makes it challenging to acknowledge our complicity with it.
And this wasn’t the first time it smacked me in the face.
I had moved in political circles for many years with a reputation as a progressive voice for equality and justice. As a former state legislator who also was a statewide candidate for higher office, my liberal bona fides were firmly and publicly planted.
I was inspired to explore a potential partnership with a Black woman (who we will call “Norma”) whom I respected and knew to be similarly dedicated to social justice action from an ethos of love. I got excited about the potential transformational changes we could accomplish by putting our skills and talents together in a more defined way. But I failed horribly in how I reached out to her to propose exploring the collaboration. And she let me know it.
This is a partial rendering of Norma’s response:
As a white woman, you have the advantage of thinking it’s ok to tell a black woman (who doesn’t know you) that there’s an urgent conversation she needs to have with you. You don’t see how a black woman might flinch at that… and if you saw it… you didn’t see it enough to avoid doing it. You have the privilege of thinking that it’s ok to propose this life changing situation to a black woman, on the sole notion that “we are One.” You didn’t see how this looks like a dangerous warning flag to a black woman, because while she knows we’re One, the political arena does not operate that way.
As a black woman, it takes much wisdom to decide how to move in this world, while honoring Spirit. Whenever black women have jumped off cliffs with white women at the last minute, or gotten swept up in white women’s visions for “everybody,” it has not gone well for black women. When I’ve done it, it has never gone well for me, because it doesn’t include “what about the fact that whiteness is a thing, and I’m not white?”
I was gob smacked. Not only did this rebuke sting, but it landed on me with some confusion. At the time, I was entirely unaware of any world view that saw well-intentioned liberal white women as warning flags for Black women to proceed with caution (this was way before the internet helped out with the invention of “Karens”). And I definitely had not spent time reflecting on how “whiteness is a thing.”
Clearly, I had work to do.
It was this interaction that shifted the foundation on which I stand.
Because of my level of respect for Norma and the truth talk she was giving me, I chose to go inward to see things about myself that I did not understand. I knew that my whiteness was a part of that and it was time to invoke some serious self-examination and rigorous study. This is disruption of racism.
I spent the better part of an entire year in various trainings and retreats, coupled with a deep literature dive to understand aspects of whiteness, white fragility, and structural white supremacy and racism. This external educational process was woven into an equally demanding internal review, full of hard questions, inquiry, and investigation into myself.
In raw, non-defensive honesty, I could now see how my sense of urgency in that failed communication with Norma was a hallmark of my whiteness along with a healthy dose of being self-absorbed, disconnected, entitled, and arrogant all without realizing it. Good intentions with negative impact.
It was a long journey to get to the place where I could accept her criticism and put in the daily labor necessary to see when my whiteness is sneaking up on me.
It is much easier to see the less flattering parts of someone else’s behavior than looking at our own.
Which brings us back to the retreat word salad on whiteness.
This list, it is Donald Trump.
Donald Trump IS the President of Whiteness.
I was so quick to see those words and pivot to labeling someone else with them.
However, if I truly want racism to be dismantled, it requires more than naming and rejecting this behavior in Donald Trump. I must see it, know it, and refuse it a home inside of me.
White people are either being dishonest or lazy if we have not searched to find a flash of Donald Trump’s unbecoming behavior within each of us – of our own allegiance to whiteness. It is secretly imprinted deeply within, encouraging our perpetuation and protection of whiteness when certain buttons get pushed – like when we perceive a threat or experience scarcity, fear, or insecurity.
We must embrace this mission to be curious about ourselves in a new way and find pleasure in the mystery of discomfort’s teachings if we have any hope for undoing racism. This work is an individual and collective calling.
Please do not be lulled into the fantasy that it will magically disappear with the 2021 inauguration. Racism is bigger than a president.
We were inflicted with this cancer well before Donald Trump was elected to office. If there is any upside to the cleaving of this nation that occurred under his Administration, it was how it functioned as a biopsy to show us how severely our disease had metastasized.
Although Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will help calm the waters and are more likely to focus efforts on addressing underlying issues, we should look to neither of them as our ultimate saviors on this complex issue (and not just because Biden has his own complicated history with his whiteness over a long public career).
We cannot default the responsibility for our racial transformation or our racial upset into the hands of our chosen political leaders. The last four years have been a painful reminder that we were naive to believe that electing our first Black president would lead us into a post-racial world.
This core wound of our nation cannot be fixed by osmosis through a political figurehead – no matter who he or she is.
Dismantling racism is more complicated than who we choose to helm the nation and how we decide to divide ourselves politically. Racism lives in Republicans and Democrats; in rural and urban settings; in conservatives and liberals; in men and women; within every faith. The common bond that connects the presence of racism is whiteness.
Our struggle is not solely with Donald Trump and his supporters. Our solution is not solely with Joe Biden and his. This collective moment asks us to move the finger we like to point outward in our condemnation of racism and shift its gaze within.
Our healing will not come solely through external acts of good will and the promotion of equal justice – even though we must continue to courageously speak out, march, canvass and vote our values. Our civic engagement is critical but incomplete if we do not wrestle with the inner change necessary to deprogram our unwitting collusion with racism.
The burden of this journey is on white people to unite across the spectrum to end racism by observing the (sometimes subtle, sometimes overt) racism that gains refuge inside each of us. Whiteness is a thing. And we must unlearn it.
That inner-pointing finger can be a calling in, rather than a calling out. We can do this work with courageous hearts full of love, kindness, and compassion rather than blame, shame, and guilt. We must be gentle on each other and on ourselves. This is hard work.
Building stamina for difficult conversations about racism is the calling of these times and Soul Force Politics uses radical love as a teaching tool to facilitate this growth.
If we start from the premise that people are racist – not from a desire to be, but because our culture grooms us to be without our awareness or consent – then we spend less time justifying our intentions and more time listening and learning about the impact of our actions; we give up concerns of being accused or attacked and give space for reflection and apology; we abandon the shame and umbrage and soften to better understand, engage, believe, and change.
Can you feel the expansiveness in this? It is the feeling of freedom. We trade guilt for liberation. We trade the mind’s illusion for the heart’s wisdom. We trade false narratives for the truth that sets us free. And we trade our politics of separation for unity consciousness.
After the past four years of chaos, we may have never felt more divided in our lifetimes; and yet, we have a pathway for becoming more connected than we have ever known. Embrace this possibility. We can make it happen. Together.
Written by Heather R. Mizeur
agitator for mindful social action and transformative change | teacher & author of radical love and heart wisdom | courageous speaker of uncomfortable truths |
CEO + Founder, Soul Force Politics, a non-profit organization that envisions how the world would be different by putting radical love into action.