We Cannot Have Honest Discussions About Racism if We Refuse to Confront Whiteness
From the October 2015 PNL #846
Racism is not about blackness. It is about whiteness.
The question [earlier this summer] should not have been, “Is Rachel Dolezal black?” or a question of “What is blackness?” The question should have been, “Why doesn’t Rachel Dolezal want to be white?”
The Charleston 9—Reverend Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, Tywanza Sanders, Reverend DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Reverend Daniel Simmons Sr., Myra Thompson, and Reverend Sharonda Singleton—were not murdered because of their blackness. They were murdered because of Dylann Roof’s whiteness.
Whiteness is described by Marilyn Frye, as “a socially and politically structured ideology that results in the unequal distribution of power and privilege based on skin color.” bell hooks adds that it is “a state of unconsciousness, often invisible to white people, which perpetuates a lack of knowledge or understanding of difference, which is a root cause of oppression.”
We continuously examine racism by its effects on black people, instead of its roots in whiteness. As convenient as this is for white people, especially those who pride themselves on being “color-blind,” it continuously lays the burden of resolving racial issues at the foot of the very people it devastates. The result is a conversation where both black and white never create a solution to the root cause of systemic racism: Whiteness.
But isn’t this the conversation we claim we want to have? The conversation that is long overdo even after Barack Obama has been elected…twice?
Yes. It is the honest, straightforward conversation sidestepped by mainstream media, avoided by white people, and mumbled in the privacy of black homes. It is the conversation that challenges white people to evaluate, “Do I benefit from being white? Why am I resistant to owning the history of my ancestors and how has it impacted people of color all over the world? Is it possible that I unconsciously harbor racial bias?”
The choice to avoid discussing whiteness is a matter of life and death. The reasons we avoid conversations about whiteness are: One, conversations about whiteness makes white people feel uncomfortable; and two, most black people are not comfortable with making white people feel uncomfortable.
Historically, giving up our space to ensure the comfort of white people has been a necessity to ensure self-preservation. Today, not much has changed. Black people still allow and even support shifting from significant conversations about white violence and privilege to headlines about black-on-black crime and whether hip hop is to blame for white kids saying the N word. Trayvon Martin’s murder became a story about how black youth dress. McKinney became a story about why black people don’t know how to swim. The story about the Charleston 9 became a story about mental illness and gun control. We, black people, actually spent an entire week arguing over whether a pathological liar and clearly white woman should be entitled to define herself as a black woman because she picked up a brown crayon, at age five. Really?
White people being uncomfortable is a part of the healing process, and it is the pathway to developing authentic alliances. Many self-proclaimed white allies are perfectly comfortable pitying blackness and interjecting their opinions into conversations about the black experience, until you mention whiteness. Mentioning whiteness unearths the infected parts of their identity, and the unexamined narrative that is edited out of every single story about race. It often reveals a well intentioned, yet privileged human being with no framework for how to use their whiteness to address and attack systemic racism.
So long as issues of race are centered on blackness, whiteness will show its dangerous face in our organizations, our churches, in uniforms, and in our untested allies. It is our responsibility to make whiteness the focal point of race-centered conversations, to allow white people to learn from their discomfort, and to remember that our blackness is not the reason that racism exists.