Unlearning “whiteness as the norm”

As many white people in the US these past couple of weeks, I’ve been taking a hard, hard look at who I am, how I behave and let myself be influenced, and what aspects of white supremacy I currently enable through my ignorance or desire to stay comfortable.

It’s not pretty.

One of my biggest failures is that I have hid behind my desire for (and talent for bringing about) peace. I have hid behind comfort and a desire for harmony, and in so doing sacrificed radical reform and radical justice. “Peace” provides a deceptively easy out behind because it’s a very, very worthy goal. No one should want to go to war, no one should want conflict. (Those who do are struggling under the weight of far more baggage than I want to unpack here.) So the label of “peace” provides a certain cover and is easy to hide behind.

But peace does not equal conflict-free. Or should I say, peace is rarely (never?) won by peaceful means. Ironically, peace needs to be fought for. Not with guns (though perhaps sometimes?), not with rocks (though perhaps sometimes?), but with hard, uncomfortable, difficult work. Systems work. Interpersonal work. Because lone individual acts of cruelty can be addressed individually; if a system allows widespread racial profiling, brutality, and murder, it’s not enough to address individual instances with guns and rocks and social media (we simply don’t have the energy or time): what we need is large, complex, sustained, laser-focused work to dismantle systems of injustice and oppression. Peace cannot be coexist with injustice. The calm of an unjust system is not peace; it is suppression, a quiet violence, and a suffocation.

The reality is, I wasn’t maintaining or promoting true peace, the kind of peace that is the result of justice and equality. It was a white-centered peace (not just a me-centered peace). What I considered “peace” was quiet violence and suffocation (who have I not allowed to breathe?). I have maintained harmony with my white community at the expense of the well-being of people of color — some of whom are my beloved friends.

There are other questions around “comfort” and the false norm of whiteness that challenge and grieve me because of what they show of my own failures. What friendships with people of color, and Black women in particular, have I not pursued because they challenged me more than I liked? Friendships that challenged me by the very fact that they (the people and the relationships) would make my white privilege more present to me, would make me need to confront things in myself that were deeply uncomfortable? In many ways, I love challenges. I love reading difficult texts and the challenge of constructing a good argument, the challenge of learning something, the challenge of figuring out what I’m feeling and what beliefs are giving rise to those feelings. These kinds of challenges are inspiring in an empowering, freeing way. But the friendship challenge goes deeper. It doesn’t challenge the way I behave (though it does also do that): it challenges me to be a different person, it challenges me to see myself as a person who has been ok to maintain and enable the white supremacist status quo. It’s also the challenge of bigger differences. More differences require more care, I think. More intentional care to work to understand the other person for what they mean (rather than how I take their meaning) and care to intentionally communicate in a way that is responsive to the kinds of harms inherent in our casual communication styles and phrases. That’s hard sometimes. It’s inherently good, valuable, deeply worthwhile work any time it’s done, but it is certainly work.

Why did I consider easy friendships with other white people to be the norm, or the standard? (Even unconsciously.) Why should whatever I find in white-with-white friendships be considered by me to be better than what I find in relationships with people of color? There is no reason other than those bolstered by anti-POC biases. Why should the familiarity and comfort of being friends with people who look, act, and have backgrounds like me be more valuable than the experience of being friends with people whose differences challenge me, throw me off-balance, force me to unlearn and newly learn some things? Don’t I love unlearning and new learning? I do!! It’s one of my favorite things about being alive, about being human. It’s unfortunately more “pleasant” (read: easy) to grow where we are on top of the ground we’ve already packed with certainties than to dig up some of that ground and cultivate and care for new values, behaviors, and beliefs. White-with-white friendships are not the only good kind of friendship, nor are my experiences in white-with-white friendships the bar for judging my friendships with people of color. Why have I let them be so?

This is not necessarily a new realization on my part. I’ve struggled with what to do with my idolizing of the Potemkin village of “peace” over real peace-bringing change, and struggled with how to make my relationships and my life more inclusive. But I also desperately wanted to avoid tokenism. I didn’t want to befriend a Black woman just because she’s Black. Black people are not means to my ends. So in an attempt to avoid token-ism, I resisted seeking out people of color. Then, in my consumptive and academic lives, I resisted specifically seeking out Black-owned businesses or Black scholars for topics that were not wholly race-related. Under the umbrella of “I’ll seek out the work itself and give voice or business to what I like, to the best work, whoever produces it”, I conveniently ignored the fact that systemic anti-black biases on all levels (education, access, funding, etc.) have kept Black-owned businesses and Black voices from being “visible” and heard in the same way as those of white people. I conveniently ignored the fact that anti-black systems were what shaped my evaluative metrics, my tastes, and my preferences in the first place. I have been trained to see Black works as lesser-than, and the systems in place for seeking out ideas are set up under algorithms that give us not what is best, but what they think we want to see (or they show me what has already been deemed as “the best” by evaluators who are themselves working – unconsciously or consciously – under anti-black biases). Anti-black systems and biases have kept Black products and voices from being “felt” or seen or heard as worthy, of high quality, and desirable in and of themselves.

In trying to keep race from being a factor in my material and intellectual consumption (in trying to avoid tokenism and in trying to treat all voices the same), I was perpetuating and operating within a system that has made whiteness the norm, has made whiteness the baseline, has made whiteness the measuring stick for what counts as “good,” “fair,” “just,” “desirable.” The norm I operated comfortably in (precisely because I’m white) is inherently racist, exploitative, privileged, and non-self-interrogative. I let myself float unresistantly within a white-centered system that suppressed and drowned Black contributions and gave myself a pat on the back for just seeking out what rose to the top “on its own merits.” There is no such thing as “on its own merits.” EVERYTHING is touched, shaped, decided through political, biased lenses. There is very little objectivity possible (as much as I wish with all my heart that it is possible). It is not tokenism for me to specifically seek out the contributions of Black people, because seeking them out is part of me pulling aside the racist curtain, confronting and working against my unconscious “whiteness is the norm” beliefs, and challenging and interrogating the inherently racist systems that would allow me to remain a blissfully ignorant oppressor if I weren’t to work hard for their dismantling.  

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