“One of the things that most afflicts this country is that white people don’t know who they are or where they come from.” ~James Baldwin
In the fall of my senior year in high school, one of my classmates hosted a Halloween party. For some reason, I thought it would be funny to get some of my other friends to join me in dressing as Klansmen. No one balked at the idea. We parked a few blocks away and arrived at the party on foot, carrying burning torches. It seemed to us, at the time, like innocent mischief. The other party-goers, though surprised of course, seemed to think it was clever, too. No one expressed offense or even called out our poor taste, let alone the violent history our costumes evoked. The moment passed, and the party went on. There were no consequences. The year was 1981; the community was, for all practical purposes, 100% white.
This episode is embarrassing to write about, but I’m not trying to seek absolution or expunge guilty feelings. It was a disgusting display of white privilege for which I accept responsibility. But, to me, accepting responsibility means looking at the larger story of which this episode was just a moment. The larger story, the story of who I am and where I come from, was a mystery to me in 1981, and that in itself is part of the story.
In a sense, I am the product of a quasi-accidental social experiment. By way of a sordid alchemy of Federal Housing Administration guidelines, restrictive covenants, and a host of other institutional practices, marinated in racist terror, a lusus naturae was spawned: white suburbia, a sanitized realm of cars, consumerism, and easy credit, where those of us seen as white could enjoy the spoils of plunder without having our dreams sullied by reality.
Needless to say, the full truth of that plunder was excluded from my whitewashed history lessons. So my white classmates and I felt free to see ourselves as just “normal Americans,” living “normal” lives in a “normal” town. Racism, to the extent that we thought about it at all, was something that existed elsewhere or in the distant past. It had nothing to do with us. At the same time, we were never unaware, on some level, of the vital geographical and psychic borders of our middle class whiteness. We knew implicitly both which neighborhoods and what questions were off limits. We may have had no idea who we were or where we came from, but we knew who we weren’t.
Of course, ignorance can be a privilege.
As a white person, I can choose to imagine that my wellbeing, material and otherwise, is due completely to my own hard work and talent, which is exactly what I did for a long time. It’s comforting, which is why it’s so effective as a tool for keeping white supremacy in place. Having given up ignorance, however, it now feels like a cruel hoax. It turns out that we were conned in order to gain our collusion in an ongoing historical crime. The realization that I was lied to is infuriating. But where can I direct my rage, and more importantly, how can I unhook myself from the criminal conspiracy that is white supremacy?
I began with James Baldwin’s diagnosis that white people don’t know who we are or where we come from. I would clearly need to study history, critical race theory, and whiteness studies in order to make up for what I had not learned from school or life. And the more I learned, the more I saw the footprints of white supremacy everywhere. Its ubiquity is, paradoxically, integral to its invisibility. So a second challenge quickly arose. I needed to prepare myself to awaken others. I was convinced that if I just loaded myself up with enough knowledge, I could force everyone to see what was now obvious to me. I was excited because I felt like I had a mission and a channel for my outrage.
Pretty quickly, though, I began to suspect I was still missing something. The project I was engaged in felt familiar in a way that was disconcerting. It gradually dawned on me that I was setting myself up as an expert so that I could fix other people. Setting aside, for the moment, whether fixing people is effective as a strategy, I was alarmed to realize that I was grasping for a feeling of superiority. In placing myself above and apart from others and pursuing a perfect analysis of white supremacy, I was actually participating in the quest for domination that characterizes white supremacy culture. Parenthetically, as my perspective becomes more intersectional, I continue to use the term white supremacy culture as a shorthand for the overall culture of domination that includes capitalism, imperialism, and heteropatriarchy, along with racism.
And so once again I returned to Baldwin, looking inward this time, in search of deeper insights into who I am and where I come from. I began to recognize that I was acting out of an unhealed wound, that my impulse to separate and control is rooted in fear and self-judgment. Behind my fragile sense of superiority was lurking an implicit belief that I am somehow malformed in a way that I’m not able to see. I was therefore terrified of being fully seen by anyone.
Of course, like most liberal white folks, I had my anxiety of having my racist conditioning exposed, but that was not the root of it. There was a deeper dread of being seen that was actually an emotional remnant of a more personal shame that had stalked me well into adulthood. I am still embarrassed to admit that I reached my mid 30’s before I was able to acknowledge and embrace my queer body. Up until then, terrorized by external and internal homophobia, that part of myself cowered in the shadows of my consciousness. My hyper-rationality was my cloak and my armor. The illusion of control it gave me made me feel safe.
I think this is one of the ways white supremacy culture works. It teaches us that who we are at the most fundamental level is shameful, so that we learn to apologize for our very existence. This sense of unworthiness leaves white people vulnerable to white supremacy’s promise of higher status in its contrived human hierarchy, if only we agree to adopt and enforce its standards.
While ordinary white racism is about accepting this contrived social rank in exchange for authentic human connection, as I have discovered for myself, the habits of separation and domination can also play out in anti-racist work. Regardless of how it is expressed, losing one’s sense of basic worthiness is a profound wound, which afflicts many of us, as white people. We don’t know who we are, in part, because we’re disconnected from ourselves and each other. My experience has convinced me that healing this wound is integral to dismantling white supremacy.
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I now realize that I cannot do battle against white supremacy culture because I am not separate from it, or from my fellow white people. Moreover, programs like the UNtraining and Beyond the Culture of Separation have shown me the importance of white folks doing this healing work in community. Indeed, given that white supremacy is a culture of separation, it’s not a good idea to try to do this work alone.
I am therefore committed to cultivating spaces where white folks can investigate how white supremacy culture lives in our bodies, while connecting to each other through our hearts and our vulnerabilities. If we can (re)learn radical love for ourselves and each other, perhaps we can begin to re-member that who we are and where we come from are ultimately beyond separation.
[Feature Image: Black and white photo. A person is sitting on the ground, leaning against a ledge. A guitar is on the ledge behind them. They have short dark hair, dark sunglasses and are smoking a cigarette. They are wearing a scarf around their neck, a short-sleeved shirt and jeans. Source: Joakim Berndes]
Gregory Mengel, PhD is an activist, educator, and writer exploring personal, social, and ecological healing. He holds a PhD in Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness from the California Institute of Integral Studies. Gregory is co-founder with Angela Sevin and Elana Isaacs of Beyond Separation, an organization that offers anti-racism classes and workshops. Together they developed and co-lead Beyond the Culture of Separation: Whiteness and the Embodiment of a New Story, a class for white-identified people offered in collaboration with Impact Hub Oakland. Gregory is also a teacher/facilitator with the UNtraining, the East Bay Meditation Center, and the Pachamama Alliance. He sometimes shares deep thoughts on his blog at http://cosmologyofwhiteness.blogspot.com.