Like many people, I have been challenged by the past six years since the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown catapulted questions of anti-Black racism back into the public spotlight. These years and the messy discussions they have involved have been a constant hard lesson in understanding the problem of race and how race and racism continue to function in my society and in my own life. And as strange as this may sound to some of you, probably the most difficult part of this journey for me has been understanding that I am white.
Allow me to explain.
Obviously, I’ve always known I was ‘white’, but it was always more of an adjective (and a poor one at that) than an identity marker. ‘White’ was little more than something to check off on government forms. It wasn’t something I thought about or cared about. ‘Whiteness’ in itself had no content, and by extension, race had no meaning for me. It simply wasn’t a helpful category to help me understand my life and my place in the world, or who was and who was not ‘like me’. (I remember as a kid thinking that the television family that reminded me most of my own was the Huxtables.)
Other identities were certainly important: I knew what it meant to be Canadian, and, growing up in a culture that officially valued multiculturalism, I understood that my English heritage was different from my classmates’ Ukrainian or Southern Tutchone or Somali or Métis or Korean heritage. In comparison to culture, which was filled with language and religion and food and dress, race seemed silly and empty to me — the idea that the amount of pigment in one’s skin actually meant something. What could be more ridiculous?
Besides, the only people I knew or heard about who cared about ‘whiteness’ were people who used it as a way to see people who weren’t white as fundamentally ‘other’ and ‘less than.’ And I wanted no part in that. Those ideas were contrary to everything I had been taught, in my family, in my church, in my schools, and in my culture.
As I’ve learned about the history of the concept of race, this actually makes sense. As an idea, it seems that race was created in the early days of European colonization of the Americas as a way of deciding who was ‘in’ and who was ‘out’. (The evidence I’ve seen suggests that it was actually a ploy by wealthy land-owners to divide and conquer the working classes.) And since the values I was taught without exception wanted everyone to be ‘in’, it would make sense that this marker that only seemed to exist to exclude others would cease to be meaningful.
Therein lies the whole problem, and why I had to learn that I am white.
Because, no matter how silly or meaningless my experience of ‘whiteness’ was, the idea was alive and well. It was deeply embedded in the centuries-old systems and structures of my society, and though it was largely invisible to me, it continued to operate in ways that negatively impacted the lives of tens of millions of people, including friends and neighbours. And to paraphrase Albus Dumbledore, just because something is a mental or social construct doesn’t mean it isn’t real. Especially when it’s a construct that gets people killed.
It wasn’t an easy thing to accept or live into. I remember talking to a Black friend shortly after the election of Donald Trump; my friend basically asked me to account for this disaster, why so many of ‘my people’ had thrown in their lot with this man. I was dumbfounded. Not only could I not answer — I simply could not and cannot imagine why anyone would choose someone like Trump as their champion — but I couldn’t comprehend the question: how could I be expected to account for, identify with, and to some extent take responsibility for decisions made by people whose only connection to me is a similar skin tone, and whose decisions demonstrated the complete opposite of my values and beliefs? He pressed on, insisting that it was a white problem that white people needed to fix.
This conversation left me feeling frustrated and powerless. But, I was convicted of the truth of that last sentence. Racism was not a problem that Black, Indigenous, and other People of Colour (BIPOC) could fix. It wasn’t their problem. They were, as Bishop Jennifer Basker-Burrows recently put it, “bearing the symptoms of white illness.”
At the same time, my problems with identifying with whiteness remained. I hated the divisiveness, the entitlement, and the false superiority ‘whiteness’ stood for. The very concept disgusted me. But as soon as I articulated that to myself, the warning bells started to go off. “I can’t identify with that;” “that’s what I hate;” “that disgusts me” — those are quintessential expressions of what Jung called the Shadow.
The Shadow works like this: As we go through life, we make decisions, conscious or unconscious, about what is ‘us’ and what is ‘not us’. The problem comes when, through messages from our culture or families of origin, or because we don’t have the resources to manage them on our own, we push away things that are a part of us as being ‘not us’. In doing this, those things are still in fact a part of us, but we cannot see them — they are part of our ‘Shadow’. And this makes them dangerous. If we leave our Shadow unexamined and un-dealt-with, it ends up making itself known in dysfunctional ways. Take for example something like anger. Every single human being gets angry from time to time. But if we are taught that anger is a ‘bad’ emotion or aren’t taught healthy ways of expressing it, we can try to disown it and thereby push it into Shadow. And when it’s in Shadow it can come out either through a complete inability to deal with situations that require anger — for example, when we experience or witness injustice — or to dangerous, uncontrolled outbursts of anger that seem to have a life of their own and not be ‘us’.
The Integral theoretical model posits that this rejection of parts of ourselves into Shadow is an unhealthy attempt to grow: We don’t want to be ‘bad’ and anger is ‘bad’ so in order not to be ‘bad’ we can’t be angry. In place of “transcend-and-reject,” an Integral approach insists that we can only grow healthily if we don’t leave anything behind: We need to transcend who we’ve been by including, by integrating, the Shadow into who we are becoming. And so, in place of rejecting anger (“I don’t get angry”), we acknowledge it (“Sometimes, I become angry”), and then learn to integrate it (“I am not defined by my anger; I have tools to manage and express my anger without harming others”).
This, basically, is the process I realized I needed to go through with whiteness. As long as I couldn’t identify with it, I couldn’t deal with whiteness as a concept that still had power in the world. I could read and love African American literature. I could stand up for Indigenous rights. I could say “Black Lives Matter.” But I couldn’t do much else and I was deeply uncomfortable talking about it. I’m not an expert in these things, but I wonder if this is actually the source of what is being called “white fragility” (i.e., progressive white folks’ inability to talk about race without shutting down). A recent study by Pew found that 47% of white Americans said their whiteness was “not important at all” to their identity. By contrast, this was true for only 10% of Blacks, 12% of Hispanics, and 9% of Asian respondents. I wonder if, ironically enough, our collective desire to reject the horrors that the idea of whiteness has wrought upon the planet and its peoples has contributed to our inability to deal with its legacy.
So, what does a ‘healthy’ identification with whiteness look like?
For me it means this:
- I acknowledge that the social construct of whiteness has done and continues to do great damage to the Earth and its peoples.
- I acknowledge that I am white in a culture where whiteness conveys privilege. This privilege does not mean I have had an easy life or that I have not had to work hard. It does mean that I am at times given the benefit of the doubt where others are not, in both big and small ways. It also means that, while I may or may not be successful, my skin colour is unlikely to be a factor in that outcome. (If you struggle with the idea of privilege, I encourage you to read about it in reputable sources. Here’s a great start.)
- I am not defined by the damage the idea of whiteness has caused. (This is important because white shame keeps a lot of people from doing this work.)
- I have a responsibility to use the privilege my whiteness affords me to dismantle (in the long term) and mitigate the impacts of (in the short term) systemic racism wherever I can. This includes, but is not limited to:
- Ensuring BIPOC colleagues are given credit for their ideas (At least once or twice a year I find myself having to say something like, “I wish I could take credit for that great idea, but it was _____ who proposed it.”);
- Promoting the work of BIPOC authors and artists (As a bookish person, I know that Black writers are absolutely killing it right now, writing the best science fiction, romance, mystery, and horror out there; so imagine my surprise when I discovered that only 5% of published books in the United States are written by Black authors — and Black authors are doing well in that metric compared to other visible minority groups.);
- Supporting local, small businesses, particularly those own and run by BIPOC;
- Using whatever platforms I have to promote anti-racism;
- Being willing to be uncomfortable;
- Not wanting or expecting praise or props from BIPOC;
- Accepting that I will not always or even often “get it right” and having the humility to listen when challenged.
None of this is easy. It feels a bit like finding out that your family’s wealth was built on dumping nuclear waste, and now you’ve inherited the dumping site and it’s up to you to clean it up because the radiation is killing the people who live around it. It’s a huge mess not of your own making (though you have unwittingly benefited from it). And it’s a huge job you haven’t been given the skills to do. But you’d better learn them fast because people are dying.
The great mid-century writer James Baldwin wrote, “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Can the structures of systemic white supremacy in our culture be changed? I sure hope so. Only time will tell. But I do know they will not be changed until and unless white people do the work of facing our whiteness. We can’t defeat a monster by hiding from it or pretending it isn’t there. We have to become ‘white’ to stop whiteness from killing our neighbours.