This post builds on concepts from my previous post “Racial development: a proposal for white people”.

I grew up in the suburbs of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the child of a teacher and an engineer. My parents, my sister, and I lived on a winding street near the top of a hill, close enough to Milwaukee for my dad to work there but far enough that there was a farm at the bottom of our hill. Our house had three bedrooms — one each for me, my sister, and my parents — and a large yard where my sister and I played with other children from the neighborhood and from our school. We rode to school on a yellow bus, arriving in the morning to socialize with other children before entering the building. I was a shy child, but always found ways to make friends. As I grew older, I went to a private high school in Milwaukee, then on to college. I worked on my shyness, trying to reach out to other people, and always finding people with whom I had something in common. Often, that thing was intellectualism. Often, it was a kind of seriousness leavened by silliness. Almost always, it was our whiteness. From the time I started to make friends as a toddler to my time in college, I had two friends of color — two Asian boys who worked on the newspaper with me in high school. Otherwise, every single friend I had was white. Truthfully, almost every kid I saw was white. This fact seemed utterly unremarkable, and in fact, no one remarked on it — not the kids, not the teachers, and not our parents. It took on, like so many facts, not just the air of truth, but the air of inevitability, the air of correctness. This was not just the way it was, it was the way it was supposed to be, and the way it had to be.

There was no single moment where I looked on these facts and I saw them crumble before my eyes, where I had a revelation of how deeply abnormal it should have been for me to live in a multi-racial, multi-ethnic country and experience whiteness and white culture almost exclusively. There was more evolution than revolution in my thinking. But slowly, I started to see and understand the oppression Black and Brown people experience in this country, and how white people had created and continue to create that oppression. I moved beyond a cursory understanding of slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, and discrimination. And I felt a horrible sense of guilt at what white people had done, at what my own ancestors had likely done and failed to do, and at what I had done and failed to do. I fell into the common trap of wanting to save people of color, without truly understanding the trauma that they have experienced and continue to experience and, more importantly, without understanding the wells of strength, resilience, and brilliance they have to draw from. Even now that I have learned more and developed my understanding, in my work against racism I mostly feel as if my own whiteness is something to battle against, not something to draw from. And maybe that is as it should be, given history in general, and specifically the history of whiteness. But the question remains — how do I fully comprehend and process whiteness so that I can recognize, embrace, and help build an integrated identity of true antiracist whiteness?

To construct such a racial identity, I must learn and apply the history of whiteness, and a history of race more broadly, to our lives today. Part of this learning lies in understanding how race was constructed and why. Ibram X. Kendi recounts in his book How to Be an Antiracist how the biographer of a 14th-century Portuguese prince called Henry the Navigator developed some of the initial stereotypes about what became the Black race to justify the theft and enslavement of those people. “Prince Henry’s racist policy of slave trading came first,” writes Kendi. Then, the prince’s biographer sought to justify this crime “through the construction of a Black race, upon which he hung racist ideas. This cause and effect — a racist power creates racist policies out of raw self-interest; the racist policies necessitate racist ideas to justify them — lingers over the life of racism.” In considering this history, I must examine how self-interest lies at the root of racist beliefs and actions today, and how the route to an antiracist society must move both through changing beliefs and changing practices – transforming mindsets, yes, but also policy, and not always in that order.

To give myself a roadmap for that work, I must learn about those white people who, in spite of perceived racist self-interest, worked to take antiracist action from the first moment race was created — people like Benjamin Lay, Anthony Benezet, and William Lloyd Garrison. Historian Henry Mayer writes of Garrison in his book All on Fire, “Because his vision was rooted in the idea of racial equality, it was socially more radical than any American had dared propose before him, and because his vision was rooted in the idea of political transformation, it was politically more radical… than any process contemplated by the Framers.” Garrison embodied and drove a vision of racial justice that contradicted the white supremacist assumptions of our nation’s founding, while at the same time feuding with Frederick Douglass, a Black abolitionist who had escaped slavery. Garrison could have worked with and supported Douglass, but struggled to step back and lift up Douglass’ leadership in the movement. Garrison’s legacy, like so many of ours, is complicated. But by learning from the successes and failures of other white people who have worked to take antiracist action in the past, we can inform our own choices about how to do so in the present.

Studying the past, as well as analyzing our present, helps us see how we white people do harm with racism and are also harmed by racism, although this harm is of a different kind and degree than that suffered by people of color. We white people must always acknowledge that whatever pain or loss racism causes us, it pales when considered next to the bodily harm and mental anguish that people of color have suffered and still suffer. But still, Jo Brownson, a coach and educator who has supported and pushed my thinking about antiracist whiteness, emphasizes that we white people must process the harm we are also suffering if we truly want to sustain our motivation in this struggle. Racism causes us this harm because race as a concept exists to strip cultural distinctions from people and replace them with racial distinctions and separation. The purpose of this erasure is to give all white people a sense of superiority, regardless of their actual financial or social position, and give all people of color a sense of inferiority. As President Lyndon B. Johnson once said, “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.” Zeroing in on the harm this does to white people, this erasure means that we and our ancestors have given up our previous cultures, and all the richness that those entailed. My own family was primarily German and Irish, and my paternal grandparents spoke German all their lives, but I have almost no trace of those cultures left in my own family’s practices. Without this cultural history and these traditions, I am unmoored from a basic aspect of humanity, and all I have to replace my ancestral German and Irish cultures is a general American culture, which at its lowest common denominator means a capitalist, consumerist culture. If I stop to consider it, I experience a great sense of loss — a loss of traditions and history to pass on to my daughter, and a loss of grounding in something bigger and far older than myself. This cultural loss makes it imperative that we continue to examine what it would mean to build a culture of true antiracist whiteness, and that we start that process with our own identities.

As we accumulate knowledge and wisdom from teachers in the past, we can distill these lessons to inform our own antiracist white identities today. As I attempt to transform racist white identity into antiracist white identity, I integrate my white identity with my desired identity as an accomplice to people of color. Developing and growing our identities is a lifelong journey which can take many paths, but the starting point needs to be our vision of who we want to be in this struggle for racial justice. Our visions will have similarities based on the history of race, the history of antiracism, and the cultural loss white people have undergone as a result of race, and they will also have differences based on our individual personalities and skills. For myself, I envision: 

  • Learning, holding, and acknowledging the history of racism and antiracism 
  • Reflecting on, speaking publicly about, and reforming my and others’ racist aggression and abuse against people of color in our communities
  • Opening myself to, acknowledging, and celebrating the brilliance, resilience, and humanity of people of color
  • Holding space for, communicating, and valuing emotions
  • Sitting in radical love and empathy for my fellow human beings — racist and antiracist; white, Black, Latinx, Asian, Native, Middle Eastern — and allowing my loving and empathetic self to push me and others to grow in antiracism

I assure you that I am not currently living this vision – and I will never fully live it every day. I envision this way of living because it helps me to grow into the racial identity I want to make real, even if I only ever reach this vision temporarily.

Imagining and aspiring to this antiracist white identity, as challenging as that may be, is also only one part of our transformation. We must also develop our sense of antiracist agency, building our sense that we can have an impact on our own and others’ racist thoughts and actions. And we must develop our antiracist competencies, the actual skills that we will use to do that work. It is to agency and competencies that I turn in my coming two blog posts. 

Please check out next week’s post for my thoughts on building racial agency, and the following post on antiracist competencies.

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