The Conscience of White Identity

I recently started a tinyletter at my cousin Bonnie’s suggestion. She used to keep reminding me that she was my cousin-in-law, but since she’s been in the family for over twenty years and she’s one of my favorite people, she’s family, whether she likes it or not, so I dropped the in-law thing a long time ago. Her suggestion to start a tinyletter was just from a communication standpoint, she said she missed me on social media (I dropped almost all social media a couple of years ago) and wanted to know what was going on with me. After researching it a bit and reading an article she sent me from the NY Times about the form, I thought, “What a great way to examine white identity in a semi-public forum.”

The tinyletter is about white identity and in particular, my inner work around whiteness and navigating my default role as an aggressor, the loss inherent in being assigned such a role and having to unlearn/unravel/unpack all of that. I think my first real awakening around whiteness started when I attended my first Undoing Racism workshop. I wrote an article about it, in fact. Please ignore my clumsy red pill analogy, I didn’t realize that was an MRA thing at the time. But it started me on the path to looking at white identity and to connect with others doing the same thing. Obviously, making it to my early forties without having had a real analysis on race and white accountability is what white privilege is all about. So I’m not expecting kudos for that at all. I know that I’m way behind when it comes to anti-racism work as a white person.

It’s a little messy, this work. It’s embarrassing, it’s confusing. In the last couple of years especially, many white people have seen for the first time the inequities inherent in the system, and have seen that they have a responsibility to actively dismantle the system.

The only thing is, white people are scared shitless of this work. Not only are we afraid of our complete newbiness, we are afraid of doing it wrong and being deemed racist. For those of us who don’t claim membership to white supremacy groups, this is one of the worst things to be called, and we would do almost anything to avoid it.

Including nothing.

I’ve made many missteps in doing this work, have had many blind spots exposed, and continue to question both my motives and actions at all times. I also try to pay attention to latency periods. Am I doing inner work that will inform my participation in anti-racist efforts, or am I just coasting? In what ways am I suffering due to the oppression of people of color, and how can I free myself from it? How am I still perpetuating imbalances in equity or taking advantage of a power dynamic, both interpersonally and institutionally? Am I involved in this particular effort to manage my image as a “good white person” or am I actively supporting the work of people of color? Examining white identity and white anti-racism work is first and foremost conscience work. Where are we in our stratified society and why? How have we benefited and what are we or should we be doing to change that?

I think about this stuff constantly, and here’s the thing. I don’t really talk about it to many people. I haven’t seen too many white people who do, actually. Most of us are either positioned as experts with less of an emphasis on self-exploration or growth narrative, as in the work of Tim Wise and Robin D’Angelo. I appreciate their work and think that we do need experts. And I get it, no one wants to be the clueless white person who splatters their personal growth around race and white identity all over the place. It has high humiliation potential and very little reward. Only an idiot would intentionally put themselves out there like that. Sharing lessons in humility is probably one of the hardest things to share. Our egos are way too fragile and the social cost seems too high.

I can see how it wouldn’t be wise to talk about stupid shit we’ve done as white people. I can see how it could actually be a terrible idea. I’ve given it some real thought over the years, and I’ve made my decision: I’ll be that idiot.

So if you want to hear my thoughts on white culture through story and self-interrogation once per week, head on over to my subscription page. I’ve had mostly good response so far but I’m down with whatever. Getting called out on blind spots and having a dialogue with people on white privilege is something I’ve come to value instead of fear.

You may have seen in the news recently a very thoughtful and relevant essay by a white NBA player, Kyle Kover, about his growing understanding of systemic racism and white privilege, including an analysis of ways that he failed to support his Black teammates and friends. I highly recommend reading it. And I highly recommend continuing to examine your own ways in which you’ve come up short, and sharing those stories with people. It’s better to get it all out in the open.

Personal growth is a part of this process, as is humbling oneself and taking ownership. I hope we can strive to do that work together as well as on our own.

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