Two Things To Do to Begin Seeing Whiteness

May 31, 2021 | Whiteness

It’s not uncommon to hear people of color express exhaustion about repeatedly trying to explain the impact of racism and white supremacy to white people. Not only are BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) folks oppressed by these systems, but they’ve also carried the burden of trying to dismantle them. 

If white people were the primary progenitors, and now the primary purveyors of whiteness, then it can only be us who take responsibility for ending it – no small feat, given how it also advantages us in almost every aspect of our lives. 

In 2019, Venita Blackburn described the scale of the challenge in The Paris Review:

“It is not the marginalized people, the black and brown bodies under assault, who carry the burden of saving this nation; they carry only the burden of seeing the flames first. When I say “save the nation,” remember that America was born in cardiac arrest. The great experiment has never truly risen to sustainable levels. The cognitive dissonance necessary to profit off of gruesome human suffering and yet remain happy is too great. And perhaps all civilization works this way, in a state of eternal adjustment. But when every attempt at a correction is met with deviation and denial, implosion is very much a possibility. White people must save themselves from whiteness. They must meet every test of whiteness with more than silence or a plea for civility. To do so is to awake fully into one’s body for the first time.” 

How, in fact, will we save ourselves and people of color from the oppression of whiteness? First, we must understand what it is and the myriad ways it shows up in our world. Second, we must take responsibility for it, even though those of us alive today were also born into it. 

We have in many ways embraced Black culture, but without fully embracing Black people. Trauma therapist, healer and writer Resmaa Menakem asserts that the question of racial equity is still sadly a “species question” in America, meaning that as a culture we have not accepted Black people (and people of color in general) as fully human. 

This fundamental human inequality shows up not only in the derogatory comments hurled at people of color in person and online –  it also shows up in all of the ways we don’t see people of color and in all the ways we do communicate our bias and naive assumptions about who they are. It shows up in the now widespread news stories about white people calling out, killing or calling police on Black people who are birdwatching, drinking coffee at a Starbucks, or jogging. 

This list only scratches the surface. What is most important is that we stop seeing racism as a series of individual incidents, and instead as a pervasive system of harm that manifests in every aspect of our society – the economy, education, health care, public safety and on and on. 

Doing so requires, yes, the intellectual insight gained through new information that leads to support for policy changes, but it also requires more than that. Blackburn asserts that meeting this challenge  is “to awaken fully into one’s body for the first time.”  This is because living in a racist culture leaves us disconnected from ourselves, our bodies, emotions and deeper patterns of our psyches. We need to see and know racism and whiteness, and the associated harm they cause, deeply enough that we can feel where it hurts us too, viscerally.

All this is to say that after 400 years of indoctrination and violence, we cannot end white supremacy just because we now finally accept its immorality and intellectually understand some of its consequences. We must also deprogram ourselves from the habits of body, heart and mind that are a part of our indoctrination – the knee-jerk fears, assumptions, and stances of superiority ingrained in our beings. Doing so requires constant vigilance, openness and humility. If we could uproot the harm of whiteness and racism in our society today, it would ripple forward to future generations. 

It can feel daunting, but we can break it down into more tangible steps. Here’s two things that have been helpful to me – one that is super easy and one that requires some space for reflection from time to time:

1. Diversify your social media feeds – Take a look at who you’re following on social media. I’ve added many more diverse voices to my feeds on Twitter and Instagram, in particular. I now have the opportunity to hear many more perspectives on a range of topics (not only racism) than I did before. I don’t always agree or even understand all the opinions I see, but the diversity broadens my thinking and pulls me out of the white bubble that tends to be our cultural default.  Also, it is not uncommon for the people I’m following to point out ways whiteness and white supremacy show up in our culture that are new to me. 

2. Explore your irritation – Next time you find yourself irritated by someone you don’t know – in a store, at work or even on TV – stop and take a deeper look at why you’re irritated:

I. Is this person triggering a sense of entitlement? 

II. Is there a deeper instinct of superiority in you (i.e. How dare they!) that drives the irritation? 

III. Ask yourself honestly if you would have responded differently if the person were a different race or gender? If so, explore why this is the case.

IV. Finally, identify what feelings are at the root of the irritation (anger, shame, etc.) and feel where those reside in your body. Do the feelings surprise you? Next time you feel this kind of irritation, try to bring the sensation of your feelings in your body to your awareness faster – not so you can respond from the feelings, but so you can get better acquainted with a process of thinking-feeling-sensation that happens automatically. This kind of exploration is where we discover our deeper conditioning that may normally be outside of conscious perception.