The Body Is Not An Apology
Radical Self-Love for Everybody and Every Body
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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.”
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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.
Questions to consider as you read:
…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
…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.
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Free write questions for “The Souls of White Folk”:
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
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?
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?
Questions for reflection and/or journalling:
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
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.
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.
Reflection questions for white folks:
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.
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.