As an alcoholic, I am prone to obsessive thinking. In fact, it’s my default mode. Whiteness is one of the things—–I obsess about . When left unchecked (which is most of the time minus the ten minutes I spend meditating every morning), my thoughts about white privilege just kind of swirl like angry gusts of wind and thunder that never produce rain—“Trump is a fucking racist pig. Here are 10 ways to be a white ally. Why can’t I manage to finish reading that book about race and environmental education? Cue footage of the latest, horrific police shooting or white supremacists mowing down protesters with their cars.” That’s a small window into the tempest that is the alcoholic, anxious mind of a white gal attempting to organize her thoughts about her experience of white privilege.
Admittedly, I have been scared to take on this topic—in part because it’s so vitriolic. There is this part of me that is afraid that I’ll say some ignorant shit and get slapped by some troller out there on the internet for being an ignorant ass. (But let’s face it, only about 20 people read this blog; so the risks of getting my feelings hurt by some stranger out there in internetland are quite low. Alas, we alcoholics also suffer from delusions of grandeur, so this threat has been real to me at times. So, now that I have confessed this, I will put my irrational fears aside and continue typing.)
I have avoided writing about my own whiteness, because there is also a part of me that prefers to traipse around the land of intellectual arguments while keeping my own privilege and experiences of race at a distance. This is, in fact, how I spent most of graduate studies—writing about all the racist shit that what was going on “out there” in the world, quoting scholars, reading bell hooks, Foucault, Audre Lorde, James Baldwin, etc., talking about “historically situated” subjects, but never really telling my own story (and feeling slightly sheepish and half hearted, because of it.) Never really looking in the mirror and asking the question, “how has your melanin deficiency shaped you, Crashley?”
This type of critical, deeply personal reflection was perhaps never encouraged, because for the most part, the people who structured by post-high school studies were white dudes. White dudes who are into social justice like to hide behind their intellect. Hyper-intellectualization seems to be an easy way to side step conversations about our own racial experiences and still demonstrate that we “get it,” because we are able to drop the right names and concepts at the right times. It’s like we can prove that we “get” privilege if can nail down the right arguments, quote the right scholars or seamlessly slim in comments about the slave rebellion of 1833 while sipping a latte or slamming a beer.
But what about “us”? Not the big, capital letter, concept of Whiteness, but the whiteness you see staring back at you as you brush your teeth in the morning. The whiteness you slather sunscreen all over wondering if the chemicals in the lotion or the sunrays are worse for you. That reflection, the skin we live in, I think, can be harder to look at, harder to understand, harder to see, than the arguments eloquently espoused in a masters thesis.
So, other than the fact that seeing our own whiteness is hard and I like doing difficult things, here’s some of what is motivating to me to write about my whiteness right now.
First, as I read more Facebook posts about “how to be a white ally,” I find myself feeling unsatisfied with the way conversation is framed. Much of the conversation focuses on specific strategies like “seek diverse media sources,” or “find white ally friends” or “education yourself on the history of race and oppression in America” and leaves out personal experience. I am assuming that lots of white folks are readings these lists, because they are short and trend worthy and the topic of being a white ally is probably starting to resonate with more people given the whole Nazis carrying torches in the street thing. I guess it’s my own naivete—and perhaps my alcoholic mind that always seeks an easy, immediate solution—that is expectantly clicking on a ten-point list hoping to feel like, “ahhh, yes, this is what I was missing all along. A ten point program that will finally help put my obsession with race and privilege at peace.” Needless to say, that has not been my experience with the whole “be a white ally” conversation.
What I have been craving is not a list, but a more nuanced look to how privilege and power derived from white skin shaped the trajectory of my life. I’d like to dive heard first into the complex, messy, irrational ways whiteness has shaped by own experience. So, I hope by embarking on this racial autobiographical blog posting adventure, I’ll be able to take an honest and transparent look at myself.
Lately, I feel like I have gotten some small cues from the universe that it is time to take on this topic. One reason is because I am bored as shit at work and need something for my monkey mind to focus on, so I don’t self destruct. Also some wise voices that have thought about this shit for wayyyy longer than I have are pushing me to just start writing my story.
Specifically, there are three quotes from racial justice thinkers that have deeply resonated with me and pushed me to start writing..
First, a professor I know from graduate school recently posted about developing a Critical white Consciousness (CwC). Her post outlined eight ideas for white folks, like me, to consider. She wrote about CwC in a way that didn’t feel like a didactic set of commandments, but rather, a set of principles that can help white people learn how to live in their own skin in a way that feels authentic and honest.
While her whole list is worth reading, here are her first two points:
- Equity starts with autobiography. If we are to interact authentically with people who are often different from us, we must actively reflect on our own stories, biases, privileges, and assumptions. As much as we might not want to admit it, we are the embodiment of our ancestors; the blood on their hands in the name of Americanization, settler colonialism, and whiteness runs through our veins.
- As genuine allies, we cannot scapegoat racism by denying or hiding from our identities. To consider even a slight possibility that we can be colorblind in a racialized society is like claiming a fish in an aquarium might not be wet. It is what it is—we are all wet—so let’s deal with ourselves with integrity and empathy. And when these dynamics get intense or the information is too much to bear, try not to get defensive, for it is the surest way to miss the lesson.
So, what this professor has shown me is that justice starts with understanding our own whiteness. And not in a way that dismissively acknowledges the existence of soooo many white people at a rally or event or in some distant, sterilized or intellectual way, but in a way that acknowledges our own, imperfect, limited and complicit ways we understand ourselves. This type of autobiographical understanding demands we go beyond the general and dive deeply into the specifics. So, hence, the autobiographical blogging adventure will help me tell my own, messy, vulnerable story.
Second, Ta-Nahesis Coates once again shook the world with this incisive, in-depth and extremely dense critique of the First White President, Donald Trump. Everyone who thinks about race posted that shit on Facebook. His brilliant piece ended with this thought—aimed specifically at white journalist and political analyst who had failed to see Trump’s ideology and tactics as white supremacy. He writes: The first white president in American history is also the most dangerous president—and he is made more dangerous still by the fact that those charged with analyzing him cannot name his essential nature, because they too are implicated in it.
White folks can’t name what white folks don’t see. So if we, white folks, can’t name the way whiteness had shaped our own lives; then can we ever really claim to see it somewhere else? Like while we are waiting in line at the grocery store or cringing as we walk past the black homeless man talking to himself? So, I think as allies, we start by making our own whiteness visible—first to ourselves and then to others.
Third, one of my sponsors in AA is an elderly, alcoholic Catholic nun. Her presence and words are the antithesis of overly neurotic, hyperactive brain. We were having dinner last night to celebrate Sugar and my nuptials. I started waxing on about Coates work and race and all the other links and articles I had read that week while bored at work. I was spinning around in circles in my head and she said something that cut through the noise. “We have to listen. We want to understand these things.”
Ahhh yes. We have to want to listen. That’s it. I want to write a racial autobiography, so I can listen to myself, because I never really have.