“Whiteness” is a dangerously misunderstood term, often used to equate a “white race” to “racist.” This misuse of the term betrays our historic effort to tackle racism, and instead increases racial tension in our culture. What does “whiteness” really mean?
‘Whiteness’ is not a reference to a ‘white race’
‘Whiteness’ is not as a reference to “race”, but a construction of “race” — a hierarchical structure to which ‘elites’ demand conformity in order to maintain power.
Anti-racists go wrong when they equate ‘whiteness’ to ‘white people’, scapegoating a ‘white race’ as the source of rac- ism. This wrong-headed approach legitimizes the construction of race versus analyzing race construction and toxic culture as tools that elitists use to maintain power.
The dominant antiracist narrative of anti-’whiteness’ plays into the political game of racial division, redirecting our attention from abusive elitist structures to a ‘white race’.
Anti-racist narratives haven’t ignored the fact that ‘whiteness’ does not reference a ‘white race’, nor that ‘white’ people can also be victims of ‘whiteness’, but conflating ‘white people’ with ‘whiteness’ is, unfortunately, the dominant theme in pop culture.
Monica Williams, in Psychology Today affirms, “Rejecting the construction of Whiteness has nothing to do with whether or not a person likes their actual skin color. You can like light-colored skin and still dislike Whiteness.”
Her colleague, Mikhail Lyubansky also tried to expound on the ill-defined term:
“In contemporary progressive circles, it is generally assumed that a group should be able to define itself, but whiteness has historically been defined by non-whites…though self-identified white supremacists and anti-racism activists are notable exceptions, many white Americans much more strongly prefer to identify as ‘American’ or as a humanist than as ‘white’.”
Indeed, the ‘white race’ is a made-up term, as are all proclamations of “race”. The effect of racializing ‘white’ people, vilifying them as the cause of ‘evil’ (racism), ‘white culture’ as ‘white supremacist culture’, and excluding ‘whites’ from acceptance in society, has the same effect as negatively racializing any group — radicalization. Thus the rise in ‘white’ power, ‘white’ rights, and ‘white’ supremacist groups in recent years. Our national narrative is so far down this path of racial polarization that people are being beaten and killed in the streets by collective violence — “one side” being ‘anti-racist’ (popularly aligned in with Democrat, and ‘non-white’) and the “other” being ‘racist’ (popularly aligned with conservative, rural, ‘white’).
It is beyond tragedy that during our historic opportunity to purge racism from our culture we are instead increasing racism with our approach — scapegoating a made-up “race” of ‘white’ people.
The political manipulation is obvious — ‘elites’ using race as a wedge to divide people for their own benefit. Instead of our modern civil rights movement holding leaders accountable, we are distracted by attacking the scapegoats — ‘rural whites’, ‘white men’, ‘white culture’, ‘white people’.
“Give the people someone to look down on…”
Deep in the chaos of our modern civil rights movement, echoes of past sentiments are rising again:
“Give [a person] somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.” — LBJ, 1960
“…uniting the Negro and white masses into a voting bloc threatened to drive the Bourbon interests from the command posts of political power in the South. To meet this threat, the southern aristocracy began immediately to engineer this development of a segregated society.” -MLK, 1963
‘Whiteness’ never included all ‘white’ people. ‘Elites’, whether religious, political, academic, or popular (media/wealthy), excluded anyone they saw as “less than”.
The elitist label of ‘white’ didn’t mean white skin, it represented “clean-cut,” Christian (the right kind), “civilized,” wealthy, “proper,” etc. Plenty of people with white skin were not considered ‘white’.
A great cultural illustration of this is Ken Burns’ documentary, Country Music. Lumped in with “race” music, country music’s roots grew from mixing slave, immigrant, and Mexican cultures.
Elites could not bring themselves to respectfully enjoy the music of “the races”, but found a way, through ridicule, to have their cake and eat it too — vaudeville. Vaudeville allowed elites to enjoy “race” music while it cemented fallacious racial narratives of the backwoods, uneducated, poor ‘hillbilly’ and ‘negro’ cultures — demeaning characterizations both groups still struggle to break free from.
In response to “elite’s” condescension and exclusion, “country” folks created the Grand Ol Opry in 1925 to celebrate ‘hillbilly’ culture. By then ‘blacks’ and ‘whites’ were forcefully separated by Jim Crow laws. Country music, however, couldn’t help but break racial boundaries out of pure authentic cultural truth — “The Rub,” as southern culture calls it. There was no ‘black’ and ‘white’ culture, but a beautiful and persistent amalgamation of all sorts, living, hurting, and loving together.
The goal of anti-racism is not to take down ‘white’-ness, ‘white culture’, or ‘white people’. The goal is to hold leaders accountable for equitable distribution of resources and opportunities, and to end fallacious racial narratives that legitimize some groups as less acceptable or worthy of equal respect in our culture.
‘Whiteness’ is a euphemism for elitism and toxic culture
‘Whiteness’ and its more radical synonym ‘white supremacy culture’ are ill defined, counterproductive terms, and we don’t need them to address anti-racists’ concerns.
Perhaps the most visible illustration of the ill-defined and wrongheaded racialized framing of anti-’whiteness’ is the Smithsonian’s display White Culture in their installation Talking about Race.
The Smithsonian defined racism as a function of ‘white culture’. Their graphic was full of fallacious racial narratives — oddly crediting ‘whites’ with such fundamental principles as hard work and science, while ridiculously claiming ‘bland is best’ as a ‘white’ cultural aesthetic.
The Smithsonian’s graphic created rather than stopped fallacious cultural narratives. Their approach, using the ill-defined terms of ‘whiteness’ and ‘white supremacy culture’ to frame racism, failed notoriously while creating more misunderstanding and racial tension in society. They apologized and took the graphic down.
Behaviors labeled as ‘whiteness’ or ‘ white supremacy culture’ — unrealistic demands for perfection, stealing credit for other people’s work, management that gives no voice to subordinates, abuse of power to silence criticism, valuing profit over mission, and in-group/out-group behavior — directly line up with behaviors of toxic culture:
Instead of counterproductively scapegoating a “race” of ‘white’ people, we can effectively change racist behaviors (toxic, abusive, elitist behaviors) by adopting healthy community culture — agency for individuals, transparency, and accountability. This approach can work in our organizations, businesses, and communities.
It isn’t ‘whiteness’ the Smithsonian and similar anti-’white’ activists are after to change, it is elitism and abusive, toxic culture — behavior carried out by every culture and skin-tone, behavior that cannot be addressed as long as we frame the source of the problem as ‘white people’.
Reframing racism as ‘whiteness’ puts the focus on a fallacious ‘race’ of people, instead of the ‘elites’ who use and exclude people for their own gain (no matter their ethnicity or skin-tone). This is textbook toxic culture. As famous psychologist Philip Zimbardo, who explores why good people do bad things, explains it — toxic cultures use individuals as scapegoats to distract from ‘elites’ corrupt behavior, and to keep ‘elites’ abusive power structure in place.
What is the value of the term ‘whiteness’?
Shining the Light on “Race” Construction
There is positive and rational use of the term ‘whiteness’ as a reference to the construction of race.
It is pivotal to examine how elites manipulate people by racializing them and pitting one group against an “other” group. Racial wedging is an age-old political tool that has caused countless massacres.
In examining the construction of ‘whiteness’ the most important factors are who is doing the constructing, and why?
The global construction of anti-blackness originated with the church. Interpretation of the Biblical story of Ham declared dark-skinned people to be cursed as servants. This religious narrative supported the Atlantic Slave Trade, anti-miscegenation laws, and Jim Crow laws. Fallacious racial narratives that support this structure have been cemented into our culture over time.
Many churches have joined the modern civil rights movement, but like the anti-racist movement in general, many focus on ‘whiteness’ as a “race”, versus a construction of race that they help to create and perpetuate.
Take the following examples of church leaders speaking out against racism in our culture:
“The Rev. Dale Grandfield, a canon at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, introduced himself to about 100 people, many of them fellow clergy, at an Allentown rally Thursday and confessed that he’s “addicted to whiteness. I love it and I have swam in it my whole life,” he said. “It has been treasured and nurtured in me and by me.”
He acknowledged that the white culture he loved — his lineage, values, the architecture, homes and museums — came from a history of oppression and slavery. He called on others to recognize their own privilege and dedicate their lives to ending injustice.” — The Morning Call
This church defines ‘whiteness’ as ‘white culture’, and equates ‘white history’ to oppression and slavery. He calls on others to recognize ‘white’ privilege and end injustice.
The report noted that some black churches viewed the event with skepticism, saying that they will hold the ‘white’ churches accountable, demanding community services to black communities:
“We’re holding you accountable,” said the Rev. Benjamin Hailey, of Union Baptist Church in Allentown. “We’re holding the white churches accountable.
Will you go from marching to fighting for significant change?” he asked.
Hashann Baats, executive director of Promise Neighborhoods of the Lehigh Valley, said white churches shirked their responsibility to speak out against white violence toward people of color throughout history, from slavery to police brutality to advocating for communities of color.
It’s not just police brutality that leads to the death of black Americans, he said, but also politicians who don’t invest enough in education and community programs that can save black youth from the violence in the streets.
“Our legislators are killing us with their budgets,” he said.
It is not clear that the ‘white’ church leader will stop perpetuating racism by disavowing his history and culture, nor that the ‘black’ church leader will get community resources from the state by holding ‘the white church’ accountable.
Contrast Bethlehem’s approach with the 2013 Mormon declaration against racism:
Today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects unrighteous actions in a premortal life; that mixed-race marriages are a sin; or that blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else. Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form.
The Mormon church addresses their complicity in the construction of race that dates back much farther than slavery.
To deconstruct racial hierarchies, we have to address the source where the hierarchies are constructed, right where the narratives that carry fallacious stories start.
The Bethlehem church did not address the structural norms they themselves have programmed into their members, but instead disseminated the blame among the people, and specifically ‘white culture’.
Whether ‘black’, ‘white’, ‘brown’, Native American, Irish, Italian, Polish, Hispanic etc. false narratives about “race” abound in our culture. The challenge is to identify and erase these fallacious narratives — to stop them from perpetuating in our culture.
Racism in Relief, A Cry for Justice — ‘White’ vs. ‘Black’
Those racialized as ‘white’ people and ‘black’ people have been swept up in the same game of racial construction, pitted against one another. The elites hierarchy of ‘whiteness’ intentionally cast ‘black’ people as the bottom rung of “the races”. As the elites fallacious racial narratives permeated culture and time, black people found themselves systematically oppressed, and on the bottom of nearly every societal outcome, from education to employment.
Focusing only on a ‘black’ vs ‘white’ paradigm ignores the world-wide phenomena of anti-blackness, and racism among any other groups. It distills the issue into a matter of clear, stark relief. From the bottom of rung of racial hierarchy — ‘blackness’ — in a historically majority ‘white’ United States, there is a clear majority of ‘white’ people negatively affecting ‘black’ lives. Even though black Americans experience racism from every skin-tone and ethnicity, including their own, the ‘white’/’black’ relief paints a clearer, more effective target — ‘white’ people.
‘Black’ Americans have risen up and asked ‘white’ people, as a “race”, to carry the mantle of ‘whiteness’, take responsibility for racism, and change behaviors to stop the perpetuation of racism in our culture, and ‘white’ people have responded. ‘White’ leaders have given up their positions and given them to ‘non-whites’ as an offering; ‘white’ people willfully admonish themselves in a pool of guilt agreeing, “We ‘whites’ are the problem, and we ‘whites’ need to fix it!”
Indeed, getting a majority of society to reflect and stop racist behaviors is an effective strategy. ‘White’ people can lead by example to change culture, but only if we can accurately identify the problem and come up with effective solutions.
The modern scheme of racial wedging benefits ‘elites’
We have reached another historical opportunity to refine our culture, to erase fallacious racial narratives, elitism, and toxic behaviors.
The problem is, as we have reached this point, ‘elites’ have flipped the ‘white’ vs ‘black’ dynamic on its head, replacing anti-blackness with anti-whiteness as the dominant narrative, ignoring the elitism and toxic behavior that is truly at the root of racism in our culture. Suddenly what was once a privilege — ‘whiteness’ — has become a disdain, and ‘elites’ are quick to pin the ‘white’ tail onto ‘hillbillies’, erasing elites’ guilt and transposing it onto the “rural, stupid, hick, white folk”.
As LBJ so boldly stated, give people another to look down on and they won’t notice they’re being abused.
Elites have effectively created another scheme to segregate the “races” — again pitting the poor ‘whites’ against the poor ‘non-whites’, convincing urban and rural people that they are each other’s enemies, even though they scarcely interact.
What the modern civil rights movement is asking for is equal opportunity and resources, and accountability from their leaders. By reframing these issues to disseminate blame onto ‘white’ people, elites escape accountability, and the people are left sparring in a set-up fight, believing negative fallacious racial narratives that will haunt us for decades more.
Recently in the news:
On the emerging DEI industry:
“…the random discussions, the we need more mentorship” rather than “we need to stop the toxic environments that hinder us from progressing” the constant fighting and education at your cost, they don’t matter. Because there is zero accountability.” — Timnit Gebru, recently fired from Google
On election integrity in poor urban areas:
“MCL 168.733 says “the election inspectors and other election officials on duty shall protect a challenger in the discharge of his/her duties”. Shall protect is not an option — it is never done in the urban areas — never, never, never in the urban areas in the 34 years that I’ve been working for the state of Michigan….It also says a person shall not threaten or intimidate a challenger while performing an activity allowed. You shall not threaten or intimidate…it is a misdermenor…it has been going on too long. 71% of Detroit precincts cannot be recounted, as always expressed as minor clerical errors. These are not minor…This has always been done in communities of color — it needs to stop.” — Linda Lee Tarver, former Michigan Civil Rights Commissioner and Election Integrity Liaison
“Philadelphia Democrats resorted to their decades old playbook of corruption during yesterday’s special election. I’ve personally witnessed voter fraud as a Republican Committeeman — illegal electioneering in Philadelphia is a real problem and it must stop,” said Val DiGiorgio, chairman of the state GOP, in a statement…
On Tuesday, less than three hours after voting commenced, the Honkala campaign sent out a news release detailing alleged irregularities at multiple polling places, including the following claims:
Misleading literature from the Democratic candidate, Emilio Vazquez, implying that Green Party candidate Cheri Honkala, who has lived in District for years, is an “outsider” and a “Republican.”
At multiple polling places, Democratic poll workers and committee people are located inside the polling place, handing out the Vazquez stamp and literature; not 10 feet from the entrance to the polling location as required by law.
At the polling place at 17th & Lehigh, located in an unspecified office, the Democratic committeepeople are telling people to vote for Democrat Emilio Vazquez inside the polling place as they check in to vote.”
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On “Defunding the Police”, or providing basic community services in poor areas:
“Many of these neighborhoods where violence is common have high rates of poverty, unemployment, underemployment, high levels of decay, and long histories of structural discrimination. We’re talking about concentrated disadvantage in many of these neighborhoods, and so, not surprisingly, crime takes place. We need to get to the root cause of crime by reducing concentrated disadvantage and investing in resources that create safety for Black people and people of color, including high-quality public schools, clean and affordable housing, mental health care, the creation of living wage jobs with health care and other benefits, after school programs, youth services, and trauma healing centers.”
Defunding police to build stronger social services in communities
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“Society over the last 25 years has delegated its social problems to the criminal justice system, and the criminal justice system is insufficient to the task…Our most challenged neighborhoods are populated by folks are suffering from generations of poverty and unemployment…Public space violent crime is one of the many symptoms of endemic intergenerational poverty, and the problem is that for the last 30–40 years we have disinvested in mental health services, disinvested in social services, disinvested in virtually everything that folks in these conditions need, except the police. 80% of our work, even in our highest crime neighborhoods, is fundamentally social work. And I need to add something else as well, obviously the criminal justice system is coming under a lot of scrutiny right now, as well it should in a free society, but I would simply as that as we cover the needs about possible changes in the criminal justice system, we stop ignoring the fact that the biggest disparity in the criminal justice system is criminal victimization. In my city, if you’re an African American, you’re 18 times more likely to get shot than you are if you’re white; you’re nine times more likely to get murdered. The levels of crime within these challenged neighborhoods are extraordinary, and it’s that disparate victimization to which the police respond, and sadly too often are criticized for being there in the first place.” (@4min30sec)
“I’d really like to know where all this money is for all these services,” said Honkala, a longtime Kensington resident who entered the political stage in 2012 as Jill Stein’s vice-presidential running mate. “If I was in charge, I’d be out on Kensington and Allegheny when people are going through withdrawal asking them if they wanted to go and get long-term hospital detox and into a recovery program. But that doesn’t happen.”
Instead, Honkala sees reporters, academics, and feel-good philanthropic types swarming the neighborhood, more often than not with a camera in hand.
“A lot of people come out with sandwiches and food and they pass it out,” she continued. “I think some of that stuff is more about making themselves feel better than really addressing some of the issues that the neighborhood faces.”
Originally published at https://www.klbwriting.com.