Witnessing Whiteness

My wife and I are participating in an educational exploration group designed to help participants “rewire” their visible and hidden racist tendencies. Our involvement in the group arose from a presentation about racism that caused us to acknowledge that, despite our best intentions, most white people harbor racist attitudes and exhibit racist behaviors. Beyond that, systemic racism continues to flourish. I recognize, as I think most people who think about it do, that individual and systemic racism do exist, but I am learning that it retains far more power than I thought. And, as much as I had hoped that I personally had overcome my own racism, the evidence suggesting otherwise is strong.

First, I took an online Implicit Association Test designed to measure racial preference. I assumed my result would indicate I have no racial preference. Instead, my results read as follows: “Your data suggest a strong automatic preference for White people over Black people.” That was a real shock.

Second, I’ve just completed the first two chapters of a book entitle, Witnessing Whiteness: The Need to Talk About Race and How to Do It, by Shelly Tochluk. In the first two chapters, Tochluk discusses how white people, even those (who I believe are in the majority) who really want racism to be a thing of the past, fail to adequately confront how their own identities impact racism. She suggests we have what she calls a “dis-ease” with our own whiteness and we respond in one of several ways: 1) assuming equal protection laws have solved racial inequities; 2) deciding that, because race is not a real but, rather, just a social construct, we don’t have to confront our whiteness; 3) shifting our attention to ethnicity, replacing race; 4) claiming to be “color-blind;” or 5) claiming to be trans-racial or post-racial. Tochluk goes on to say that white people face their whiteness and what it means; she suggests that only by facing our “dis-ease” with our whiteness can we truly work toward rooting out racism.

Though I’m only part way through the book, I see a lot of promise. In the second chapter, she discusses some of the forms of dealing with the “dis-ease: with whiteness can take: 1) the savior complex; 2) the superiority complex; and 3) uncontrollable sympathy/pity. She then suggests two approaches that push people beyond being a racist, an unconscious racist, or a guilty white person. One is to be an abolitionist, who understand that race is a social construct and can, therefore, be deconstructed. The problem with that approach, she says, is that it provides for an end-point, beyond which we no longer need to worry about the problem. The alternative model she suggests is to become a white ally, a person who becomes comfortable with their white identity while helping others identify and correct both individual and systemic racism.

Though I think Tochluk’s approach has very good potential, I will wait to judge until I finish the book. That having been said, I question relying exclusively on the writing of a white woman to adequately address questions of racism and how to deal with it. From my perspective, I think conversations with black people who have given the matter similarly deep thought and study would be required. However, I gather that Tochluk has worked extensively with people of color. In her writing, she readily admits to making all manner of mistakes in her early career as counselor and teacher and gives credit to black co-workers and friends who educated her on how her perspectives had to change to give her credibility in those communities. She is a leader of a group called the Alliance of White Anti-Racists Everwhere (AWARE); I looked them up online and found an essay by S. Pearl Sharp, a black woman. I could not tell from the essay exactly how Sharp felt after attending an AWARE meeting as the only black woman in a room full of whites seeking to heal their own attitudes.

Back to my own racial issues. I discovered in reading the first two chapters that some of the flawed approaches to “fixing” racist behaviors described some of my own behaviors. And several of her comments caused me to question how I could miss realizing how my attitudes and behaviors might come across in my interactions with people of color.

From my reading of the book so far, I think it’s safe to say I have a lot more to learn.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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