On the need to make whiteness visible in white anti-racism social work

One of the beginning tasks of white anti-racism work, I am learning, is to “make whiteness visible.” In order to make whiteness visible to oneself, one must answer the question, “What does my white racial identity mean to me?” I have learned that in order to do racial justice work effectively, we have to be in touch with our own white racial identities. Specifically, we need to be in touch with how we want to reframe our white identities into positive ways of being white that supersede the impacts of white supremacy.

I’d like to start by modeling my own cluelessness for you around this issue when first confronted with this question of what my white racial identity was. In the movie “Making Whiteness Visible,” there is a scene where a white woman recounts a black woman waking up every morning to the realization that she was black. The white woman says something along the lines of “I don’t wake up every morning and realize that I am white.” I could very much relate to this.

The first time someone asked me to talk about my white identity I drew a complete blank. A complete blank! I immediately thought about friends who spoke about their black or latinx identity with great meaning, pride and detail – but me? I just came up empty.

With a little reflection time I could talk haltingly about the Spanish food my grandmother taught me how to cook or my Scottish grandfather’s love of the poetry of Robert Burns but this seemed pretty milquetoast to me. I knew I needed to dig deeper. I was pretty sure I was avoiding the ugly stuff about being white. Ya think? So, after some digging around about what I needed to do, I started to read more about white racial identity development.

As scholar Janet Helms reflects along with the folks at Racial Equity Tools “As white people, many of us want justice and an end to racial oppression. We want to live our full humanity. We want to live in right relationship with all people. But it is difficult for us to live our full humanity when the unearned privileges of white skin color come at the expense of others. So it is in myself interest as a white person to find a different way of being white in the world.”

Further, Helms says that “historically whiteness and white supremacy pervade our culture, our institutions, and our personal relationships with people of color. We are socialized by white institutions and we internalize white superiority. One of the difficult challenges we face as white people is to identify a positive way of being white while recognizing we live in a culture based on white supremacy.” So here is our task as white people interested in anti-racism work.

For us to affirm our whiteness while living within this culture of white superiority we may end up affirming or supporting white supremacy even if we reject all it stands for. We can’t reject our white skin because we can’t remove that very white skin. And all the while the white dominant society will bestow upon on us our unearned privileges as a result of having that white skin. So our challenge is to work on feeling OK about being a white person without being oppressive to others consciously or unconsciously. It’s a tall order, but this is the work that we must do.

So, I invite you to think along with me about what your white racial identity means to you. I suggest three guiding questions:

  1. What does your white racial identity mean to you?
  2. How do you internalize your white superiority?
  3. How can we move beyond the shame of our white racial identity?

So let me take a crack at answering these questions a little bit.

What does your white racial identity mean to you?

I really struggled to answer this question. Beyond some basic ethnic pride answers, what I keep coming back to is a sense of shame. Shame for what whiteness has wrought in our culture, or more correctly, for the culture of oppression whiteness has wrought. My identity is all caught up in that. My whiteness has allowed me to fit in and sail through life’s institutions with ease, landing wherever I wish without as much effort as many other people (even though I have put in effort). What I want is usually at my fingertips, easily accomplished. My white identity means not having to try as hard and not even knowing that that is what is happening most of the time. As I get in touch with that reality, I am really ashamed of that and I don’t even know how to circumvent it.

How do you internalize your white superiority?

Here’s the only way I know how to start answering this question. I grew up in an upper middle class white suburb with parents who became professors at ivy league universities that catapulted them into a different world from their immigrant and working class family households of origin. Class privilege and white privilege were slathered over me growing up – I can see that in retrospect. It was always super important to follow the rules of etiquette from “Miss Manners” for example, someone I imagined as a nice proper blonde white lady in a 1950s dress. There was just a right way to do things, the way “people like us” do things my mother always said. People like us was rich white people, I have since learned, upon reflection. “How we do things” is a white default, and this is internalized white superiority – any other way of being is considered less than, other, wrong.

I have seen this “how we do things” hegemony play out in how people speak or present themselves, for example, such as when some of my black students used African American Vernacular English, something I have since come to accept. I used to worry that they would not be accepted or that they would be looked down on, and now I see that language use as a symbol of resistance and/or just plain old cultural expression instead. I see my instinct to correct or guide someone to use white English as my internalized white superiority complex. This is just one of many examples.

How can we move beyond the shame of our white racial identity?

This is the hardest of the three questions to answer. Before we can move beyond the shame of our racial identity, we have to name that shame, face that shame. And we have to name the pride points, too. 

And I guess when it comes to moving beyond shame, that is where allyship comes in – engaging in the action of allyship. A wise friend said to me that we should focus on using the word ally as a verb, versus as a noun. Never think of yourself as an ally, where your work is done, think of yourself as engaging in continuing allyship, work that is never done.

According to the website RacialEquityTools.org some of the other ways we can do this include:

  • Being an accountable ally to People of Color.
  • Working to change racist institutions.
  • Learning to live as multi-racial people.
  • Taking responsibility for our own racial identity journey.
  • Learning the truth about the racist history of our country.
  • Nurturing a positive anti-racist white identity in children.
  • Building a White anti-racist collective.
  • Honoring our heritage of white anti-racist resistors.

So, as you work towards identifying your own white racial identity, what steps will you take?