Learning Module: Whiteness

Awakening: what is whiteness?

When we talk about whiteness at The Body Is Not An Apology, we’re not talking about individual white people. We’re instead referencing the complex history of how ethnically European people, who originally understood themselves as English or Scottish or Irish or French or Italian (and often waged wars amongst themselves) increasingly decided it was to their advantage to unite against Black, Indigenous, and other people of color to exert racial supremacy. As the idea of being white came into being, whiteness as a concept was used to enforce what Sonya Renee Taylor calls white supremacist delusion at every level in society, from government to education to health care to media and so on. For white people to buy into the ideology of whiteness today is to commit to maintaining a collective, strategic amnesia that refuses to recognize white people have an immigrant, refugee, and/or colonizer origin story in settler colonial countries; that they’ve profited from their ancestors’ genocidal violence, land theft, and/or enslavement of other humans; and that they continue to benefit every day in a deeply unequal society that rewards them at the expense of people of color.

For white people to buy into the ideology of whiteness today is to commit to maintaining a collective, strategic amnesia…

Part of the work we’re interested in doing around whiteness, in addition to dismantling it as an oppressive, violent, and needlessly hierarchical way of organizing societies, is also for white people to heal themselves from the fictions and lies of whiteness, reclaim their ancestors (both those who committed grave evil and those worthy of veneration), and rediscover what it means to live a life with radical self-love at the foundation rather than whiteness’ ultimately unsatisfying delusions of grandeur. In that spirit, we invite folks from all racial backgrounds to explore the meaning of whiteness, with a particular ask that white folks commit to the abolition of whiteness over the course of this lifetime. 

As Sonya Renee Taylor puts it, “Whiteness is not you as a human being … [i]t is … the construct that is rotting the material and spiritual and economic and political realities of Black and Brown people around the world — while at the same time, rotting the internal, spiritual, emotional, and mental lives of those assigned whiteness at birth.” Sonya adds, “Start experiencing it as something that you were assigned that is not serving you, that you wish to remove elements of from your life on a regular basis. That way you can get out of your guilt and your shame.”

Learning Invitation #1: Watch Sonya Renee Taylor’s Video “Labeling the Pickle Jar: Are You Ready to Be Rid of Whiteness?” (2020)

Reflection questions:

  • What do you think it means to be “assigned whiteness at birth”?
  • Name some values you’d like your soul or highest self to be aligned with. What qualities resonate with you “on a soul level”? How might those differ from the values underpinning whiteness?
  • As Sonya asks, what rotting containers of white supremacist delusion are you refusing to deal with right now? If you’re white, what would it look like for you to be white while working to dismantle whiteness as an oppressive structure?

Historical background

As referenced above, the concept of whiteness is not timeless. It has a history, and that history is bound up with other systems of oppression, especially colonialism, Christian supremacy, capitalism, and misogyny. There are reasons why various groups of European settlers in the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and so on decided to work on putting aside their own centuries-long conflicts to forge a new identity, one of whiteness, where they could unite in their superiority to Black, Brown, and Indigenous people.

Where ethnic Europeans were stratified in the past based on class (king versus serf), religion (Catholic versus Protestant), or nationality (English versus Irish), now they could invent new hierarchies of power and domination in “The New World” to justify their colonization of Indigenous people and enslavement of African people. “Manifest Destiny” became the American doctrine to make it okay to push West while terrorizing, killing, and displacing Indigenous people, as doing so was their white Christian duty. After the British began colonizing India, Rudyard Kipling, the famous English writer born in India, wrote about the “white man’s burden”, encouraging white Americans to “civilize” the so-called heathens (whom he called “half devil and half child”) of the Philippines. 19th-century racist pseudo-science like phrenology, meanwhile, gave Europeans justification for treating everyone else as inferior: it just so happened, white male “experts” claimed, that white men were the smartest and most evolved!

There are reasons why various groups of European settlers decided to work on putting aside their own centuries-long conflicts to forge a new identity, one of whiteness, where they could unite in their superiority to Black, Brown, and Indigenous people.

Over time, whiteness became viewed as something entrenched and obvious, as if it never had a history at all. White Americans became able to conveniently gloss over their own ancestral immigrant stories (and the nativism and xenophobia many of their ancestors faced) as they demonized immigrants of color. While erasing the history of white violence against Indigenous, Black, Latine, and Asian people, many white Americans even unconsciously continue to perceive “American” as synonymous with “white”. Learning the unvarnished history of whiteness helps us understand how we got here and how we might get to other, freer futures.

Learning Invitation #2: Read Robert P. Baird’s “The Invention of Whiteness: The Long History of a Dangerous Idea” (2021)

Questions to consider as you read:

  • How did race become a stand-in for social class in the US over time? How did whiteness become a privileged status associated with more freedoms and humanity?
  • What is the connection between European indentured servitude and the enslavement of Black folks?
  • What is the historical connection between Christianity and whiteness?
  • How has (pseudo-)science been used as a tool to advance white supremacist delusion?
  • What does this piece teach us about how ideas of whiteness have shifted over time?
  • What might it look like for white people to “change their minds” about their investment in whiteness? Can you see examples of this happening out in the world?

…Whiteness means something different from other racial and ethnic identities because it has had a different history than other racial and ethnic identities. Across three-and-a-half centuries, whiteness has been wielded as a weapon on a global scale; Blackness, by contrast, has often been used as a shield … The religion of whiteness had 50 years to reform itself along non-supremacist lines, to prove that it was fit for innocuous coexistence. Instead, it gave us Donald Trump.

Robert P. Baird
Learning Invitation #3: Read W.E.B. Du Bois’ “The Souls of White Folk” (1910), making note of particularly illuminating, unsettling, and/or discomfort-provoking quotes and passages to reflect on. (*Content note: article contains use of the N word and some other racial slurs in the context of critiquing whiteness*)

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Free write questions for “The Souls of White Folk”:

  • What do you think of Du Bois’ definition of whiteness as “the ownership of the earth forever and ever, Amen!” (page 924)? How have we seen this play out in history? How does it relate to present struggles, such as the climate crisis?
  • Du Bois describes the depth of white Americans’ anti-Black cruelty, rage, and violence in daily life — an “ungovernable lust of blood” — on pages 925-926. What does this description have to teach us about what we’re seeing in the US today?
  • What does Du Bois mean when he writes, “A true and worthy ideal frees and uplifts a people; a false ideal imprisons and lowers” (page 926)? What is he arguing about white US society here? What is the relevance of this insight to our present day?
  • Why, according to Du Bois, is white Christianity “a miserable failure” (page 927)?
  • Has Du Bois taught you anything about colonialism that you didn’t know? What is one topic or reference he makes that you’d like to research more about?
  • How does Du Bois foreshadow the growth of global capitalism on pages 932-933?
  • What is “the doctrine of the divine right of white people to steal” (page 935)? How does this reframing challenge racist stereotypes of Black people as criminals?
  • World War I, writes Du Bois, “was primarily the jealous and avaricious struggle [between European nations] for the largest share in exploiting darker races” (page 936). What did Du Bois say would naturally follow from this? How does his analysis stack up to what you know about colonial freedom struggles around the world in the 20th century?
  • Toward the end of the article, Du Bois discusses the hypocrisy of America claiming to stand for freedom and democracy when it denies those things to people of color. In what ways are we seeing this hypocrisy over 100 years after Du Bois wrote about it? (Example: voting rights)

I hear his mighty cry reverberating through the world, ‘I am white!’ Well and good, 0 Prometheus, divine thief! Is not the world wide enough for two colors, for many little shinings of the sun?

W.E.B. Du Bois

Jim Crow laws passed in the US South after the Civil War ensured that white people were a superior legal class deserving of preferential treatment in housing, employment, public accommodations, and all other aspects of society. Even as Black civil rights activists and some white accomplices have vociferously challenged this legal racism for decades and made some progress — as have people of color around the world, from the colonial wars of liberation fought in Algeria and India to the long struggle against apartheid in South Africa — so too has whiteness shifted with the times.

Whiteness has reared its ugly head over the 20th and 21st centuries in the US with lynchings, Indian residential schools, Japanese internment camps, mass incarceration, environmental racism for corporate profit, police murders of Black people, deportation and detention camps for Latine immigrants and refugees, the racist backlash against Barack Obama’s presidency, and all that the Donald Trump years have wrought, launching a resurgence in giddy, unapologetic white terrorism at the highest levels of office. In so many ways, the violence of whiteness has left the world in perpetual crisis and terror. So how do we exorcise it?

Learning Invitation #4: Watch Sonya Renee Taylor’s video “Whiteness Is A Death Cult White Folks NEED to Get Out Of” (2020)

Reflection questions:

  • What do you think Sonya means when she says that whiteness isn’t built for survival?
  • What are some ways we can understand whiteness as a death cult?
  • Give a few examples of how whiteness can and is being dismantled (including internalized whiteness for folks of color), whether in your own psyche, within your family and/or friend group, at a collective level, or all of the above.

Reflections for white folks: how are you implicated?

Learning Invitation #5: Read Lorena Jasis-Wallace’s “White People Have No Culture” (2018)

Questions for reflection and/or journalling:

  • Looking back on your own life, do you relate to the author’s realization that they lack a connection to a meaningful cultural heritage that is authentically their own (e.g., isn’t taken from people of color)? Why or why not?
  • How have capitalism and consumerism become a substitute for meaningful culture in many white families, according to Jasis-Wallace?
  • What does Jasis-Wallace mean when they write that the culture of white people is “the culture of death”? How does this concept connect to what you’ve learned in other activities in this module so far?
  • Do you know who your ancestors are (their names, what countries they came from and when, where they lived in their countries, why they left, what their cultural, political, and/or religious traditions were)? Do you feel a sense of connection, grief, and/or loss when thinking about this question?
  • How do you think your life might be different if you had grown up in one of the countries your ancestors came from? How might your sense of self and identity be different and/or the same?
  • What about this article did you find the most emotionally difficult to grapple with?
  • What are some steps you could take to get back in touch with your ethnic origins? What are some ways you can reclaim your ancestral lineage to honor the distinct cultures that existed before assimilation into whiteness?

There is a profound level of fear inherent in white people and the way we desperately grasp that which is not ours. This hole cannot be filled by our self delusion, and it represents generations of isolation and grief.

Lorena Jasis-Wallace

Dreaming and doing: building new worlds

To come to terms with what whiteness is and how it operates in the world gives us a powerful opportunity to commit to strategizing for its demise so we can all live fuller, freer, more just lives. At the same time, white people doing this work often run into a lot of deeply-ingrained emotional reactions that serve as stumbling blocks to dismantling whiteness. Sonya discusses this phenomenon below and offers advice on how to work through it.

Learning Invitation #6: For white folks: watch Sonya Renee Taylor’s video “Get Your Damn Toddler and Other Anti-Racist Work” (2020)

Reflection questions for white folks:

  • In what ways are you developmentally “little” when it comes to understanding and dismantling whiteness? Where do you need to re-parent yourself? What scares you, overwhelms you, or triggers past trauma?
  • Can you think of a time you have acted from your toddler self and asked someone (especially Black folks) to teach you, guide you, or parent you for free / without a clear understanding of the person’s boundaries? What could you do differently next time?

Doing the inner work, while crucial, is only half the battle of dismantling whiteness. Without action, we won’t build the better futures we need. Thankfully, folks have been doing the work on the ground to dismantle whiteness and white supremacist delusion in a variety of ways, from global #BlackLivesMatter activism to educators advocating for truth-telling curriculum to the Indigenous-led #LandBack movement to white folks with resources — especially resources gained from intergenerational wealth-building through colonization, enslaving, and benefiting from preferential legal treatment — committing to wealth redistribution. Sonya Renee Taylor has launched her own initiative in this endeavor: #BuyBackBlackDebt. Using the principle of right relationship as a starting point, #BuyBackBlackDebt is an offering for not only dismantling whiteness but for demonstrating how acting in true solidarity manifests liberatory futures for Black folks and, ultimately, all of humanity.

Learning Invitation #7: Watch Sonya Renee Taylor’s video “White Tenderness Might Mean You’re Growing and Why You Should #BuyBackBlackDebt” (2020)

Reflection questions:

  • Why is it important to understand the intersection between “where hard work meets opportunity”? What do you think Sonya means by this and how does it connect to whiteness and the racial wealth gap?
  • If you’re white, in what ways might you be able to reallocate your resources in a way that advances racial justice and undermines whiteness? What are other examples of how you can make changes in your daily life to support liberation?

As you begin to integrate the lessons from this module into your daily life, remember that it’s a life-long process and that progress isn’t linear. Focus on watering your inner empathy and cultivating the humility to understand that you will never stop being a student of the transformational work of liberation. As you do so, never forget that none of us is free until all of us are free.

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