How Whiteness as a Societal Construct Has Ensured My Isolation as a Racist
Cover photo by Rye Jessen
I am the typical White woman living in the paradox of self-pity and self-aggrandizement. I’ve likened myself to Beyoncé. I have talked in African American Vernacular English (AAVE).
I have attempted to be “spiritual,” and studied Zen Buddhism under my White literature professor in college who also happened to be an “ordained monk.” After college, I consumed information about Indigenous cultures to the extent that I felt “connected” to them while living in Moab, Utah for a short time as I taught “environmental education” to Indigenous children through my brief gig with Canyonlands National Park. I was teaching these kids about their own history and culture, imagining myself a “good White person” for spending time with these kids from the reservations. As someone who is not Indigenous, how could I position myself as a teacher of Indigenous culture? This incredible degree of offense was pushed down and repressed - something that I was capable of doing only because I plastered reality with the White-washed sentiment that I was a good person doing good things. My Whiteness allowed me put a smokescreen over reality and not think about the implications of my White womanness.
I am the typical white woman who sobbed into my glass of red wine as I watched the results of the 2016 election, woke up the next morning to Trump’s face all over the news, and found consolation in my individual, self-proclaimed non-racism. I was desperately not like those other White women. Those White women who voted for him. That wasn’t me.
I don't want to admit that I am no different than any other White woman. I don't want to admit that my attachment to myself as a non-racist is only concocting a reality that is totally false. I actively repress how my actions aid and abet White women to make decisions like voting for Trump. My disdain for these other White women is simply a reassurance to myself that I am different, woke, and special. My non-racism isn't doing anything. It requires no action or energy on my part. But it makes me feel better and virtuous. Trump rose to power as the emblem of Whiteness that I am most definitely, and self-assuredly, not. I see myself as exceptional. As more aware. But oh, I am so wrong.
In truth, I am merely and wholly committed to the construct of Whiteness.
Because white supremacy is worship of the written word, which I have exuded in my obsessive consumption of Black feminists and writers following the election. White supremacy is thinking that I'm always right and everyone else is wrong, going around finger-wagging at White people not “doing it right.” White supremacy is a sense of urgency, and this I felt most deeply after reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, a text I read a few months after the election. In the midst of me reading, I called my parents in a rage about how White people are doing nothing to end racism and oppression. I mean, why was I just finding out about systemic racism at 26 years old? Something must be done right now! WHY ARE WE ALL JUST SITTING AROUND! We must DO SOMETHING!
I avoid considering my own complicity in this equation - how I have an active hand in living in the comfort of whiteness. This means building slim to none intimate relationships with people of color, and living in predominantly White neighborhoods - to name just a few examples of my insular life. My “either/or” mindset has also contributed to my commitment to Whiteness: you’re either a “good” White person, or “bad” White person. Not “both/and.”
As a rock climber I am invested in the outdoor industry. After being unsatisfied with the male-dominated narratives in outdoor magazines and literature, I started Terra Incognita Media. What was “a feminist response to the outdoor industry” is now “a social justice lens to the natural world" -- the evolution having to do with me examining my commitment to the construct of Whiteness, and the many hard lessons and pitfalls that come with this ongoing process.
For example, last winter I put my White saviorism on display for a big audience. I attended Outdoor Retailer, the bi-annual conference where representatives, sellers, and buyers get together to talk about the state of the industry. I was invited to be on a stage with twelve other women to talk about the need for more women representation in the industry. Coalition Snow, a woman’s ski and snowboard company, organized the event. They invited some women of the outdoor industry to give a two-minute speech about what tools they were using to dismantle the patriarchy of the outdoor industry inspired by Audre Lorde’s quote, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”
Some may know that this quote is also the title of an essay Lorde wrote about the way White women separate themselves, and are suspicious of, Black women. All up in my finger-wagging, White womanness I was appalled at how the organizers had completely erased the point of Lorde’s essay in favor of their own agenda of strictly focusing on patriarchy. I was going to save the day and interrupt this heinous crime.
My actions were standard White woman behavior. I saw that someone was doing something offensive and because I was so “woke” I felt that it was my duty, my responsibility, to expend the time, energy, and money to go forward on this crusade to stop the horrible actions of these other White women from staining the reputation of Audre Lorde. Whiteness means self-appointing yourself as the savior. Whiteness means feeling the urgency to do something without first examining your own behavior, intentions, and mindset.
I wish I would have paused and looked closer.
If I had looked closer at myself, which wouldn’t have taken much, (because whiteness is at the surface, I’ve just learned to repress it all my life), I would have faced the fact that I was going to Outdoor Retailer for my own selfish reasons to be the “wokest”, “good” White. I was an “ally” after all, right? But that word is not for me to claim. It’s not an identity. Allyship is action you take when you are asked to take it. I was not requested to do anything. I was acting out of the supremacist belief that I knew better than these White women and that I needed to stand up for Black women, Indigenous Women, and all womxn of color (BIWOC), as if they needed my help. I believed myself so superior that I infantilized BIWOC in this way.
This infantilization is called paternalism. Paternalism is the belief that Whites know what is best for people of other races. I appointed myself as care-giver and protector of BIWOC, which was an active and racist rejection of BIWOC as autonomous beings. Through this act and mindset I was actively asserting that BIWOC needed my “help.” But Black, Indigenous, and all people of color have always been fine without my “help.”
Paternalism can come out in a myriad of ways, like when I am overly friendly to POC just to make sure they feel really comfortable. However, this is never about the other person. All this does is center myself and how I want to appear to be not racist. See look at me, I’m soooo friendly I couldn’t possibly be racist! I’m one of the good Whites! You don’t have to worry about me! Not a drop of racism in my bones! Maybe in my blood since I come from a lineage of Irish and German White supremacists, but nevermind that!! It’s 2018 and I’m not racist! My mom campaigned for Obama! I swear!
White man’s burden – the duty of whites to help the lesser races. Used to excuse imperialism.
White savior films – where a white hero saves people of color.
Western imperialism – which seeks not just control of land, trade and taxes like most empires, but goes beyond that to remaking subjects in its own image – Westernization.
American and Australian policy on Natives – separating children from their parents to make them White; controlling what little land they have left.
Whites adopting African children – like Madonna and Angelina Jolie.
White allies – when they go beyond merely helping anti-racist causes to telling people of color what to do, trying to take over.
It was for my own benefit to take the stage and call these “bad” White women out. I took up space in true White woman, colonizer fashion. And on top of that, my anger for something that didn’t directly impact me, meant that I was co-opting Black rage. Instead of sending an email or having a conversation, which could have led to necessary discussions among White women, I chose to isolate myself.
What Coalition Snow did, and how I went on a crusade to interrupt the event, is really no surprise because historically and presently this is what White women have always done and continue to do. We will fight for our rights and what serves us. It’s easy and comfortable to rage against patriarchy, or in my case, point the finger at other White people. In this way, I was upholding oppressive structures in which I claimed I was fighting.
It is safe and satisfying to scream about patriarchy.
It is safe to point the finger at other White people instead of looking at my own racist behavior and mindset. Focusing on patriarchy has been a huge, dangerous distraction. As a White woman, I benefit from patriarchy and supremacy because I can position myself as a victim, center myself, and ignore my racist mindset and actions. I have gotten credit and pats on the back from other White people for “caring” when really I was tightening my grip around the construct of Whiteness.
Karen Fleshman from Racy Conversations spoke about how White women benefit from patriarchy and supremacy in an interview:
“We, white women, are very comfortable in our privilege because we maintain the social order, we run the schools, we run the religious institutions, and we’re active in non-profit organizations, we’re active in philanthropy. And in the workplace White women are not kind to other women in the workplace, and they are not kind to women of color and to men of color. I would say the great irony being that the folks that have done the most to advance White women are Black men, specifically Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, Barack Obama, all did tremendous things to help White women achieve where we are, which is the number two position in our society. But we don’t have any knowledge of that history and we certainly don’t have any compulsion to return the favor.”
A few months ago when my friend asked me about my experience with and commitment to Whiteness I was baffled. I couldn’t describe what my experience with Whiteness had been, let alone fathom what she meant by commitment to it. I am quick to identify racism and its impacts on others, but blind to how racism and the construct of Whiteness impacts me. If Whiteness is a social construct, who am I outside of Whiteness? I realized that I have built my identity within this construct.
My very identity, the way I think of myself, is dependent on the construct of Whiteness. This examination has terrified me because I realize that I don't know who I am outside of this imaginary and false construct. This means that I have built my identity inside a lie.
For the entirety of my life I have imagined myself as genuine and vulnerable, when in truth, this is a projected image of how I want people to see me. I am not genuine, vulnerable or humble. I am the epitome of Whiteness: thinking myself as grand, woke, above, and pure in mind, heart, and intention. I also think that I am justified in everything I do. I took feminist courses in college and learned about how patriarchy functions. This allowed me to piece together all of the instances and encounters I had with sexism growing up. It felt like a relief to know that there was a cause as to why I was being treated in dehumanizing ways, and that I wasn’t just imagining things. But the vital part that the course left out was how White women uphold and perpetuate patriarchal systems. And White supremacy wasn’t discussed at all.
After spending time looking at my commitment to Whiteness, I have come to realize that blaming patriarchy is a desperate and comfortable explanation that suits my White fragility quite well. I can blame men. This is a convenient way to avoid looking at my own racist and problematic behavior. Before I began this lifelong examination, I believed myself as outside of those other White people who voted for Trump. I saw myself as different from Trump. But those White people, Trump, and myself are of the same cloth. We are all White supremacists. Our commitment to the construct of Whiteness just looks and sounds different.
My commitment to the construct of Whiteness affects my ability to connect with people of color and other White people in a genuine, real way. It keeps me from knowing myself, and from loving myself. It has kept me from my knowledge of my own Irish culture because the bargain of Whiteness means cultural deprivation: cutting myself off from the culture of my ancestors. It means cutting myself off from natural rhythms and from pleasure. It means a constant fear that I’m not good enough, so I have to constantly put others down to make myself feel better.
To achieve Whiteness means a constant and impossible battle of proving myself worthy of this White skin. The rigidity and limitations of Whiteness means that I have been constantly failing to achieve the standards of being White. It’s clear to me now how sick this is - to be fighting for a constructed identity, one that is false, and completely impossible.
Whiteness is grounded in fantasy, exploitation, global harm, alienation, annihilation, and fear -- most of all fear.
Working towards detaching from Whiteness as a construct, which is a lifelong practice and process, allows me to value Black and Brown folx in ways I was not before. Previously, I have envisioned myself as waging war for freedom and liberation on behalf of those who I perceived could not fight for themselves. But I am in no position to fight for anyone. It is necessary to appreciate those who have and do, disrupt and wage war for their own freedom and liberation.
I am working on building a sense of self outside of this construct, while also always acknowledging that I will never not have privilege, and never not benefit from being a White-skinned person in this world. I’m doing this to save myself and to try to encourage other White people to save themselves too. It has been to my detriment to lack genuine connections with White, Black, Asian, Latinx, Indigenous, and Middle Eastern people. Through the process of detaching from Whiteness, I am becoming capable of noticing the underlying implicit biases I hold. I’m also developing an awareness of when I am actively engaging those biases in my interactions with people. I understand that I am not infallible and that I will make mistakes going forward. Over the weeks it has taken me to write this essay I have messed up multiple times already, but I am committed to learning how to live a life through an equitable lens.
Currently, I am working on building real relationships with people who I once assumed I had nothing in common with due to my Whiteness and their lack of Whiteness. I am working on being transparent through this process with my friends and family. It is not necessary to isolate myself as a racist. Whiteness is not rooted in color, but in superiority, and I am attempting to create an identity outside of this construct. This is a process revealing to me the inherent value in myself and all people.
I am deeply indebted to the women of color who have brought me to this part in my process, particularly Kenya Budd, an equity, inclusion, and diversity consultant in Portland, oregon. Without the emotional and intellectual labor of these women, I would not be at this point in my understanding. I recognize that there is still so much work that I need to do. My behavior has been problematic and a source of pain, and to those who I have impacted, I am truly sorry. I am working to heal this harm that I have caused, as well as making steps towards change.