“I am white. I am a white cis male. I am a white heterosexual cis male. I am a white, heterosexual able-bodied cis male. I am a white, lower middle class heterosexual able-bodied cis male.”
These are utterances, all true, that I might mention to people in certain instances, certain spaces and during certain conversations. They feel quick and easy to say, filled with less and less discomfort as I repeat them more over time. Despite the words coming from my mouth having a specific intention, as I continue to grapple and engage with subjects and positions of whiteness, domination and power, I am starting to realize that perhaps I’m being counter-productive. I’m not digging deep enough. My intentions when I make these statements are irrelevant. The only results that matter are the discursive meanings behind the statements, without the knowledge of which, come across as forced, trivial, superficial; or worse, disingenuous.
There’s meaning behind the declarations. Reflecting on the meaning behind these declarations, I am struck with the realization that as I’ve progressed along my academic and professional career so far, I’ve been extremely quick to point out to other people around me, especially people of color, that I am a white person working in social justice education. I am quick to point out that I am actively working to end racism and working to reverse the impact that oppression holds for all of us.
As I’ve learned much about the nature of race, racism, identity, whiteness, hegemony and white supremacy in the last few years, I felt comfortable in the declaration that I was a white anti-racist, comfortable that although I felt as if I always had more to learn, my self-position in regards to other white people around me, my self-professed (and sometimes ascribed) white-anti racist status would give me the benefit of the doubt. With that, I could be viewed positively as a white person in a broken society where whites perpetuate physical, emotional and psychological violence towards people of color on a daily basis. That was a safe position to occupy, a safe position borne out of a desire not to be seen as racist. “Me, racist?” I shuddered at the thought.
There’s nothing worse than to be white and called “racist,” especially if you’re a white person working for social justice and trying to end racism. The much better position to be in is as a self-identified white anti-racist, making sure to point out that you’re continuously aware of your own whiteness, white privilege and dominant oppressor identities so that there’s no doubt in people’s minds when they think about your name. “Jacob, racist?” “Nope. He’s working to end racism.”
Over the last few years my ability and thoughts about whiteness and white privilege have changed. It’s obvious to me now that I never would have been able to consider myself as racist, despite my best efforts not to be, to be an active anti-racist when I started my graduate work in my masters program over five years ago. Although I felt that I had some knowledge on whiteness, white privilege and white supremacy, I really didn’t even know what I didn’t know about the subject. What I did know I thought about in moral terms. I’m a “good white person,” I told myself; “I’m trying to make a difference by fighting racism and learning more about my identities as a white oppressor.”
When I look and think about how my attitudes about whiteness have changed, I realize that it’s much, much more complicated than that. My body provides me with white supremacy resulting in power whether I like it or not. My body is raced, able, classed, gendered and ascribed sexual orientation. As Michel Foucault and other philosophers have noted, power is produced and works through bodies.
In terms of my body, my identities, I engage with the very real struggle of actively working to understand and examine my whiteness, what it means, what ramifications it has for others around me, what my racial position occupies and what sort of impact it has on my students, my family, myself. What social force does my whiteness occupy, how does my being physically “white” add to the social power and construction of white supremacy and racism?
Getting back to the problem that I’ve had with wanting to occupy a “safe, comfortable space” while I grapple with the ideas and theories about whiteness, about white supremacy that I’ve contributed to for twenty-eight years without knowing, is it problematic to use the term “white anti-racist?”
I’ve found myself wanting to use the term and indeed have to identify myself internally and to other people around me. Is it another defense strategy to prevent whites from constantly feeling uncomfortable? It is a label so that we may position ourselves along the side of the “good whites” we hold in our mind. What exactly does it mean and whom does it serve when whites brand themselves as such? What attitudes about ourselves as whites are we considering when we use this language? Are we really considering the discursive power of whiteness as power and performance?
This attitude of claiming to be a “white anti-racist” goes back to the individual again.
It re-centers whiteness.
As Margaret Andersen relates, “Antiracists do not own the inevitability of their racism…antiracist racists know that even in the practice of the confrontation of injustice, they are still racist…it (antiracist racism) embodies an honest experience of the complexities of racism occupying one’s psyche mediated with a profound commitment to the lifelong confrontation and attempted eradication of it from one’s psyche”
It’s finally starting to come clearer to me why it’s been problematic to focus on my personal growth in terms of whiteness. It’s easy to re-center whiteness when your biggest anti-racist efforts are to work on yourself, learn about your whiteness, educate others around you and start within. It’s much easier to see positive change in yourself. Indeed as the saying goes, true change starts from within. It’s good to start from within, but the problem is that it’s comfortable to only work on oneself, without taking the steps necessary to seek to combat white supremacy throughout. It’s a double-edged sword. I want to feel some sort of positive feelings for working on my whiteness, considering it and trying to share my awareness with others. I want to feel that I’m making the world a better place, yet at the same time that focus on myself enables white supremacy to continue.
I struggle with my whiteness every day. I struggle not to re-center my struggle into part of the greater conversation about my own anti-racist behavior and education. I acknowledge that the path is long, hard and sometimes blind. I find comfort in the fact that I am improving myself as a human being and will become more whole as a carrier of whiteness in a society that still oppresses others through the violence of white supremacy. I try not to find comfort and pleasure in being a “good white person,” and try to make the pleasure come from what I inherently gain as a human being from studying whiteness, not how others may view me, or how morally good I will possibly feel about myself.
Sometimes I take a step forward, sometimes I take two back. It’s part of the struggle. I’m learning to accept the uncertainty, yet I don’t ever want to be comfortable with my whiteness.
Margaret L. Andersen (2003). Whitewashing Race: A Critical Perspective on Whiteness. In Ashley ‘Woody’ Doane & Eduardo Bonilla-Silva (Eds.), White Out: The Continuing Significance of Racism (pp. 21-34). New York, NY: Routledge
Jacob Bartholomew is currently a PhD student in Social Justice Education at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He received his B.S. in Sociology and Public Relations at Syracuse University and his M.S. in Cultural Foundations of Education with a C.A.S. in Women’s and Gender Studies, also at Syracuse University.
His academic, professional and personal work have offered experiences as a Resident Director, Student Conduct Case Manager, Intergroup Dialogue co-facilitator and Social Justice educator and trainer.
His research and professional interests include: intersectionality, whiteness and masculinity, and working with dominant/privileged groups.
He can be reached at Jacob.Bartholomew@gmail.com, followed on Twitter @JacobArthur, or connected with on Facebook at facebook.com/jacob.bartholomew