Addressing Whiteness: Healing the Shadow of our Culture

22 July 2020 – Michal Osterweil

I. Revealing the Depth of White Supremacy

A request/ invitation: If you are someone who feels discomfort arise in you in hearing the term white supremacy, please don’t turn away. Please read anyways. Please let yourself feel the discomfort, be with it, know that you are not alone and that there is important work to do in just feeling this. Please remember that it pales in comparison to the fear experienced on a daily basis by black, brown and other bodies whose nervous systems are always on high alert, always ready for attack. For those of us with white bodies, we must learn to be with the hard truth that we live in a white supremacist society. That even if we believe ourselves to be conscious and aware, we have to contend with how deep this white supremacy goes, and how each of us is affected and even constituted by it—whether we see it or not. I promise you, sitting with this discomfort, getting curious about it, has a lot of potential for healing.     

As I have said a number of times since this pandemic began:  this virus is not simply something to be defeated. It, like many illnesses is a teacher, a teacher, whose main method, at least at first is to force us to pause, to look, and hopefully to see. If it feels apocalyptic, remember that etymologically apocalypse comes from the words to un-cover, to reveal. This moment of revelation requires us to take a hard look at what is, and one of the things that is, is a devastating history and present constituted by white supremacy. And white supremacy is not only tied to the KKK, police brutality, etc; it is fundamental to this nation. I will go so far as to say that unless we start to understand and grapple with white supremacy as it really is, embedded in the soil of our culture, we stand little chance of surviving as a species (and sadly we will keep taking many other species down with us). 

We can and should decry the horrific police violence that has led to this latest moment of uprising and rebellion. We should feel hope in the courageous activism and in the possibility that this time there might be some change. Perhaps the police will be defunded, which could result in money and resources being re-allocated to help support thriving communities to have their basic needs met.[i] I hope so!! These would all be very powerful and meaningful changes. However, unless we start to contend with the messier and more deeply entrenched levels where racism and white supremacy operate—common cultural values and our embodied experiences, I believe we will not get far enough.  

In his famous 1962 essay, The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin wrote: 

White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this—which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never—the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.

While I am hesitant to make this about white people, I cannot help but continuously return to the fact that the problem is at its core a problem of whiteness.  (Historically, the invention of race, itself was originally about creating the “us” (whites) to exclude “them” in order to keep poor whites and blacks— indentured servants and slaves— from finding common cause and successfully rising up against their bosses).[ii] In other words, whiteness was first. 

As I sit feeling the pain and horrors we are facing, Baldwin’s prophetic words keep resounding in my ears. Until we can name and then address whiteness—as an illness premised on disconnection and lack of self-love—we will continue to have to put out the fires it causes. 

 II. Getting more curious about whiteness

Last Saturday, like many, I attended a protest against police brutality. As I was marching in downtown Chapel Hill with my three-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Laila Sol, she kept asking questions about the things people were chanting and saying: 

Laila Sol: “Why are people saying Black Lives Matter, mama?”

Me: “Because black lives should matter as much as anybody else’s, but in our country right now they don’t.” 

Explaining racism and this event to a three-and-a-half-year-old was not easy, and yet as I did so, I also realized how useful an exercise it could be. Taking on the stance of a mother talking to her three year old helped me to get less judgmental and more curious about how and why people have so much trouble understanding some of these basic things. 

In all honesty, I have long been perplexed by how annoyed some— mostly white—people get when the “Black Lives Matter” statement is asserted.  People come back with, “police lives matter, too,” “all lives matter”, or last week the amazing “buildings matter too”!? Of course no one is suggesting that other lives don’t matter. And no one would scream it if it wasn’t evident that in this country even in 2020, black and brown lives are often treated as expendable.3 Whether we are speaking about police brutality, or the fact that while blacks make up only 13% of our population, they constitute almost 25% of the deaths from Covid,[iii] or the fact that mothers of black and brown children in the United States face a near constant fear that their son will not come home the next time they go out. 

In the past I would have gotten impatient or irritated with people who didn’t get this, but in reality that impatience and irritation did little. Now as I talked to Laila Sol, I was prompted to ask with more curiosity how/why can this be the case. How can it be that people don’t see that this is not about their life not mattering, but other lives ALSO mattering AS MUCH?

It actually reminds me of how in my classes some students think it is unfair if someone gets a chance to do a rewrite when they got an excellent grade and the other student didn’t. I know these students aren’t bad or mean, they are simply products of our culture. A culture that is steeped in a zero-sum scarcity mentality. Instead of recognizing that we can all get A’s, people feel that their getting an A is necessarily dependent on others NOT getting one, that if we all got As, the A would be worth less, or something. This is the illness of whiteness and white supremacy (which is inextricably linked to, and constitutive of Capitalism). As I continue to study and witness the depth of the illness that plagues our country (an in different ways other countries), I am repeatedly brought back to this. At the heart of the dominant culture, perhaps best exemplified by the American Dream and the economic myth it depends on, is an almost childlike insecurity and immaturity. And this insecurity goes hand in hand with the erasure of our fundamental interconnection with all that is, and with this, the invisibilization of where true wealth and abundance lie. 

Perhaps if we start to understand this more like an illness, more like a wound that freezes one in a childlike immaturity, we will get farther in addressing it. At the very least our ways of doing so could shift. 

III. Healing the Shadow of Our Culture[iv]

Said slightly differently, what I am speaking about is contending with the illness that allows for the degree of disconnect and dehumanization that is required for someone to do what

Chauvin and so many others do to black bodies. How deadened must a heart be to not hear the pleas of a human under your knee? How did it get that way? Sure, we can probably find causes in the personal biography of Chauvin that can help us understand this, however that would not explain the larger phenomenon. The deadening of the heart—at times for self-protection—is part of the illness.

White supremacy is a phenomenon that we cannot simply attribute to ignorance, bigotry and evil. All of these might be involved. But it goes much deeper, and yet that depth is also its ubiquity, the water we swim in, the air we breathe. Something so familiar that we often don’t even recognize it is there—until it is disrupted. Whiteness is a construct premised on domination, separation, objectification, extraction, and creating a classificatory schema for the world in which there is essentially only one right way to be. These concepts are not unique to how we treat Others and if you take a step back, you might recognize them in supposedly less destructive—even supposedly positive— parts of our culture.

Whiteness and white supremacy are both historically and substantively fundamental to the United States and its dominant culture. In fact, they are inextricably linked with many things we think of as good. You see, white supremacy is itself part and parcel of the Western Enlightenment project. We can understand it as a part of its shadow. Meaning, it is not simply that racism and the Enlightenment developed around the same time, but rather that they are inextricably linked, intricately woven together and, at times invisibly, part of the same worldview that we may hail as progressive. As Bayo Akomolafe might put it, the soil that grows white supremacy is the same that grows science, rationality, law, order, education, development, progress, growth, even justice. [v]

Given this, and the deep entrenchment of white supremacy in everything,  I have come to prefer the notion of “healing the shadow of our culture”- to borrow a phrase from Rachel Naomi Remen—over the terms eradicate, destroy or even dismantle. When we start to recognize that at the heart of whiteness is an illness, a painful insecurity and lack of self-love, perhaps we can go about this as the work of healing or tending to a garden. As a healer your main goal is to restore the body’s capacity to find its own balance. As a gardener your goal is to cultivate healthy soil for growing diverse and healthy crops. You don’t want to use pesticides to kill off what you don’t want, because pesticide is poison and has serious side effects. You also don’t want a mono-crop, because having just one thing, always leaves you in danger of blight. You do want to plant in a way that creates the conditions of possibility for diverse things to grow and flourish. You want to inhibit or at least contain the growth of weeds and repel destructive pests, but you do this by learning to crowd them out with beneficial plants.  That being said, you want to be clear about what it is you want to grow, and actively work to sow, propagate and care for those. This is not a laissez-faire event. In other words, there is a lot of intentional work to do. 

So much of our public and social media discourse is tinged with a judgmental and shaming language. If you aren’t already completely clear on what to say and do, you are attacked. While I understand where the frustration comes from, and respect the right of  those bearing the brunt of these inequities to feel frustrated and even angry, I believe the shaming and judgment are both keeping us stuck, and obscuring the ways we are all mired in the cultural baggage of white supremacy. We have to let go of the shame and fear of making mistakes associated with this work. There is a crucial difference between taking responsibility for whiteness, for doing our work, and the kind of white-guilt or shame, that actually makes matters worse. Again, this does not mean condoning or shying away from calling out white supremacy, or forgetting its urgency, it just means doing so from a more compassionate and curious place.

 IV. What to do?

In that vein, and while the above might have seemed quite abstract/heady, there are so many things that we can do—in addition to supporting and participating in the important activism, taking place throughout the country.

Here I will just touch on a few that are on my mind at the moment: 

1. At a rally in Chapel Hill held Saturday June 6, one of the speakers, a brilliant poet CJ Suitt, gave some very clear directives to white people in particular that I think are crucial to amplify. He challenged white people in particular to NOT cut off relations with loved ones or relatives who do or say racist things. When white people do that, he argued, then we leave them as possible perpetrators of one of these heinous acts, or simply as people who continue to support white supremacy. 

2. This relates to committing ourselves, (again particularly white people), to having difficult and uncomfortable conversations especially with people we love, when they participate—at times unintentionally and unknowingly—in the kinds of discourses that perhaps unintentionally perpetuate violence against black people. 

In this moment this means calling out very destructive narratives, including in particular the narrative of bad protesters/rioters/looters, (in other moments it refers to calling out dog-whistle politics, the racialization of crime, etc). This is not to say that you have to “condone” "looting," but I would hope that we can all see that the “violence” against property being perpetrated is not comparable to the violence by the police against black people, both during and before these uprisings.

One of the best explanations of the comprehensibility of looting that I have seen came from comedian Trevor Noah, who flips the question on its head saying, given what this country—and police in particular— have done to black people, it is actually amazing that there isn’t looting more regularly, and that for the most part people peacefully accept the social contract implicit in our country. In other words, when people condemn the riots without considering why people who have been violently exploited and treated for close to 400 years, it is itself a form of violence. When we spend more time criticizing the protestor’s tactics rather than the system, police and politicians, it is very damaging.[vi] I have studied protests for more than 20 years, and I have learned that the maligning of protestors as “bad” is one of the main tactics used to distract from the root causes. I have also witnessed first-hand, how in many cases protests that intended to be peaceful were forced by police not to be. I would also point out that—for better or for worse—in many cases, people only pay attention to protests when they involve property destruction.    

Similarly, I have heard people confused by statements of activists pushing to abolish the police, dismiss the protests or activists outright. First, it is important to understand that the history of policing and prisons is intimately linked to oppression and repression of black and brown people, and other poor or marginalized Others. Not coincidentally, not because of a few bad apples, but historically and structurally.[vii]  Second, it is important to understand that the vision behind abolition is not one meant to just go into effect immediately, but one that pushes for building a world where there is no need for prisons or police, at least not as we know them today. Abolition is actually a phenomenal social change project precisely because it recognizes that in order to get to that possibility, we need to radically rethink our economy, our notions of justice, and so many of the tenets of liberal capitalist modernity, as well as centering a new world on love, kindness, forgiveness, healing and other principles not often included in political discourse.9                                      

3. To anyone who has been praying for things to go back to normal during this Covid pandemic, please stop. I totally understand, especially if you are hurting financially, if you have been ill, why you might. But as streets burn and people mourn, we have to realize THIS is normality in the United States of America. A black man being killed for just being somewhere. George Floyd. A 26 year old woman, Breonna Taylor, shot dead in her apartment because she was black. I am not sure how many people saw the video of Amy Cooper— a white woman in Central Park knowingly using her whiteness to threaten a black man who simply asked her to put her dog on a leash, by calling the cops and lying that he was threatening her. I could go on and on. Any return to normal implies more black death, fear and inequality.   

4. Now perhaps the most challenging: We need to be in this for the long haul. Several times at the protests I have attended, black speakers spoke very frankly to white folks. They thanked all the new (white) people who have joined them, but requested that this not be a fad. That people commit to the work of achieving racial justice and dismantling white supremacy for real, as long as it takes, and assuring them that it won’t be fast. Too many times in the past when the protests die down, white people who have the privilege to do so, simply go about their normal lives. This can’t happen. 

5. From my perspective, one of the most important and real ways to do this work sustainably, is to start investigating the ways in which we embody racism. That is, exploring in a safe, humble but honest way, how our bodies and nervous systems are involved in racialization. In fact there has been an invitation for people to get together in “racial affinity groups” – so white people to get together to explore and study whiteness, both as a construct/concept, but also, as an embodied set of experiences and sensations.10 Black people work on their own study, separate at first from bodies that may be threatening—even if on a sub-conscious level. We study and do practices with these sensations, much like we meditate. First we just do our practice and notice. Then we begin to have the possibility to transform. 

6) Finally, and perhaps this is a given, it is really really important to take responsibility for our level of awareness and consciousness. It is crucial to learn about the history and reality of race and racism in this country—a history that involves police and our criminal justice system-- a history and reality that is our history. Believe me, what most of us learned in school was … well if not outright lies, it had A LOT missing. My college students often reflect back to me how blown away they are by the history they were never taught.

There are  A LOT of resources for studying up – one great website to start is:

https://www.dismantlingracism.org/. I also cited several throughout this piece—and tried to include links where I could. If you want more please reach out! I will work on getting something organized. 

I also teach on this material. If there is enough interest, I am happy to organize some version of a short course or something, or share some course material—especially over the summer when I have more time. (Probably via zoom). 

Finally, I just wanted to say that these short essays are part of a larger blog/web project I am working on that I hope to launch by the end of the summer. I am very interested and open to feedback! And will keep you posted on when the website itself is up! If you would like to stop receiving these, please let me know as well!

[i] For the past several decades most public services in cities throughout this country have been defunded and privatized—public education, public health, libraries, many many things that make communities thrive. The only public sector that has seen increased funding is the police—and this has happened under democratic and republican administrations. For more accessibly info on this, you can check out John Oliver, Last Week Tonight’s recent show (6/8), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wf4cea5oObY, or Democracy Now, https://www.democracynow.org/2020/6/1/keeangayamahttataylordefundus_police

[ii] For those interested in this history, there is a great short piece by Audrey Smedley

https://www.understandingrace.org/resources/pdf/disease/smedley.pdf, and a must-see documentary series on PBS, Race: The Power of An Illusion, available for rent on Vimeo—I recommend episode 2: Race: The Story We

Tell, for history, but the whole series (3 episodes) is well worth a watch. https://vimeo.com/ondemand/race 3 The deep irony here is that in reality, our country was built by black people, and their labor is actually essential to everything. Whiteness (and capitalism) are about making all that wealth is dependent on invisible, often violently so.

[iii] https://covidtracking.com/race

or the fact that one in three black men go to prison, while only 1 in 17 white men do, and while black men make up 6.5% of the population; they make up 40.2% of prison population. 

[iv] This is a phrase from Rachel Naomi Remen. Remen, Rachel Naomi, “EDUCATING FOR MISSION, MEANING, AND COMPASSION. The Heart of Learning: Spirituality in Education, pages 33-49. Edited by Steven Glazer (1999)

[v] Whether these things are in fact good is another matter, for another post. See https://radicaldiscipleship.net/2018/06/03/beyond-counting-bad-apples

[vi] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v4amCfVbA_c, the whole thing is good, but if you’re in a hurry, just go to 8:20- 12:08.            

 [vii] See Alex Vitale. 2017. The End of Policing. London: Verso. 

9  An excellent documentary on abolition is Visions of Abolition https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x4kpni4

(free). 

If you haven’t seen 13th ,  available onNetflix, you should. And Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and Angela Davis are EXCELLENT abolitionist authors. 

 

10                       Ruth King and Resmaa Menakem both have great stuff on this. Check them out: King, Ruth. 2018. Mindful of Race: Transforming Racism from the Inside Out. Or in this interview: https://resources.soundstrue.com/podcast/ruth-king-mindful-of-race/

Menakem, Resmaa. 2017. My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized trauma and the pathway to healing our hearts and bodies,  or check out his interview: https://onbeing.org/programs/resmaa-menakem-notice-the-rage-noticethe-silence/

**For anyone interested in this work, please reach out, and maybe we can coordinate some groups.