On Whiteness as a social System
This post examines my observations on whiteness, and particularly how it moves through and is employed by white people and predominantly white communities. I challenge the defensive individualism of white communities in order to move the conversation toward something more fruitful. This is not intended to be comprehensive.
In his book After Whiteness, Black theologian and scholar Willie Jennings addresses the pervasive, scarring individualism of Western institutional culture.
He describes this environment as one of “white masculinist self sufficiency, a way of being in the world that aspires to exhibit possession, mastery, and control of knowledge first, and of one’s self second, and if possible of one’s world” (Kindle Loc 495).
He sees this will to control as linked back to the horrifically violent colonial project of English settlers. These English settlers, by the way, escaped violent political persecution in England only to reenact it in the Colonies. He then traces it to the ways White plantation owners reinforced brutal mastery of enslaved Africans, setting up a system of racial hierarchy that continues to this day.
For Jennings, whiteness is all about who controls and orders society: who builds it, polices it, and benefits from it.
What is whiteness?
When I first heard someone use the term whiteness to describe racist violence and acts of white supremacy, I have to admit that I felt offended. It seemed to me that they were implying that, by virtue of my white skin, I was incapable of transcending racism. That I was somehow, in essence, a racist individual.
But I have come around to the use of the term whiteness because I think it describes something more broad than individual action. Instead, it describes a social system in which all participate.
Whiteness is an ideology that shapes American life in public and private ways.
- It is a system of exclusion, sorting people according to perceived alliance with the goals of the system.
- It is a practice of formation, toward individualism, mastery, and power, that is constantly renegotiating who’s in and who’s out.
- It is not merely skin color, though it is easier for those with lighter skin and Northern European features to assimilate into it.
- It is antithetical to thriving, for every single person on this planet.
I believe it is essential that we understand whiteness as a permeating social construct, first and foremost, because we must understand that it cannot be eradicated on an individual level. We all participate in the project of whiteness, which means that we share culpability with others. Without an acknowledgement of its role in society, none of the personal work we do can achieve the desired ends.
With that in mind, I want to unpack whiteness a bit further…
Whiteness is a system of Exclusion
“The goal manifested in every colonial site was to move people slowly but clearly from any kind of group thinking about their wants and needs to thinking like an individual…” (Loc 2218)
Whiteness thrives on dichotomy. Within this system, some people are in and some are out. Some are worthy and some are deadbeats. Some people are inherently more deserving of social benefits. It uses a divide-and-conquer framework to make it more difficult for people to work together. We are told to put ourselves first at any cost.
For many white people, this has become increasingly apparent. Our anti-racist work over the past year has consisted primarily (if not exclusively) of “educating ourselves” through books, movies, talks, and seminars. This is good in that it illuminates the tangible history of racism in our society. We have been able to enter the stories of others, and trace the lines of racist action and policy back to the country’s founding. This kind of education has revealed to us that there is a problem, and that there’s always been a problem.
Through historical study and personal narrative, we can see how some people are allowed into the project of whiteness and others are excluded. But for too many of us, the education stops here. This means that we fail to take the kind of action that would lead to societal change.
Whiteness is a Practice of Formation Toward Individualism and Control
“Desire rooted in control is disordered desire that inevitably forms social prisons that drain life. Too many well-meaning people who have been formed in social spaces constituted in and by whiteness perform that malignant power in the way they touch, hold, and envision the social” (Loc 2304).
Jennings is very clear that whiteness is not fixable through knowledge alone. In fact, he thinks that Western society uses knowledge as a kind of weapon or barricade. If you have enough book knowledge in this country and can say the right things, you can basically write yourself out of the condemning narrative. You can avoid complicity.
But the truth is that I can know all the right things to say about anti-racism without changing my orientation toward others.
Even if my vocabulary changes, whiteness encourages me to retain control at all costs: I can’t just be doing the work, I must *be seen* doing the work. I can’t just quietly move toward a less supremacist point-of-view, I have to publicly lament my failings in an attempt to garner clout. I can’t just be anti-racist, I have to be *the best* anti-racist.
But any urge to be the loudest voice or the best ally reveals that I have not let go of the project of whiteness, because I have been unwilling to fundamentally change my orientation toward others by letting go of control.
Whiteness is Not Just Skin Color
Whiteness is Fickle
“That social world…does not need a presence of peoples of European descent to be active, strong, and destructive. It only needs desire deformed by colonialist urges to control bodies, aimed toward objectification and exploitation” (Loc 2331).
Did you know that Irish and Italian immigrants were not considered white when they first immigrated to the United States? Rather, they “earned” whiteness by choosing to oppose the rights of African Americans and Asian immigrants. They became white through a complex social negotiation of power.
Whiteness at its most pure is built to protect the white, Northern European, land-owning male, but it is a fickle defender. Because it is about power and control, some white people may not qualify as fully white if they push back against the norms of whiteness, or if something – like language or tradition – marks them as “too foreign.”
Meanwhile, some people of color will be conditionally considered white for political purposes. The Myth of the Model Minority in the case of Asian Americans is an example of this. Asian Americans, who have historically faced violent discrimination in the U.S., were “made white” by white politicians in the mid-twentieth century in order to try to critique the liberation movements of other people of color. By pitting minority groups against each other, whites thought they could retain a bigger share of societal power while being seen as becoming more racially progressive.
Whiteness redefines itself to retain control. This means that even white people must see themselves as being harmed and betrayed by whiteness.
Whiteness Impacts Everyone
“They entered the language, thought forms, and cultural sensibilities of their colonizers and masters, aware but not fully aware of the price that would be paid to build freedom from the master’s tools of bondage” (Loc 1658).
The system of control that whiteness sets up impacts all people within the system, not just white people. While it is easier for white people to assert power in most settings, the urge to be seen as the master of oneself and one’s world impacts people of color, as well.
This is because there are real consequences to defying the system, and one way to survive is to play by the rules. This is also because we are all educated in a society that claims success can be measured by how productive, clever, and self-possessed we are.
No one is free from whiteness in a society that allows it to fester.
Whiteness Divides Us
“We urgently need a new vision of edification informing our daily work that builds people toward each other” (Loc 1625).
Whiteness makes very few the perfect masters of society at the expense of suffering for the majority. But for those who perceive ourselves as capable of becoming the image of “white masculinist self sufficiency,” the allure of power and prestige keeps us on the path of death. We yearn for an impossible treasure.
As long as we believe there is something valuable in the project of becoming “great” in a material and intellectual sense, we will be willing to push down our fellow citizens as we climb the ladder to success.
This is why Jennings says that the only way to destroy whiteness is to reclaim our reality. In truth, we are a social people living in a robust society. In truth, whiteness itself is a myth built to privilege only a few. In truth, whiteness is a system that reinforces trauma-thinking.
And if I, as a white person, continue to enforce it by passively living within its story, I am limiting my own freedom.
“Critique must aim at communion” (Loc 2004).
The antidote to whiteness is a commitment to the collective. It is an active willingness to remove myself from mastery, and to stop insisting on perfection. It is a reminder that the perceived benefits of whiteness are a poison meant to pit me against my fellow humans.
This means that, as far as it is possible, my commitments to anti-racism must be inclusive. They must defy the desire to sort people into two distinct categories. They must understand that the farther I move from the center of whiteness, the more dangerous my life becomes. And that this is good, even holy.
In defying whiteness, I place myself in service of the whole. This is a place where accountability comes not through carefully-worded press releases but through mutual, prolonged commitments to one another. A place where trust is built through humility and honesty. A place in which each person is seen for their inherent worth.
Whiteness cannot be resolved in a context in which some are still determined to be masters. Only in true solidarity can we find the vision to upend the system of death.
To My Fellow White People
Whiteness both is and isn’t about you. The sooner white people realize that there’s nothing to get individually defensive about, the sooner we can work to confront the violence and dehumanization whiteness enacts in our world.
While some may frame white supremacy in individualistic terms, they’re responding to their own embedment in the story of whiteness. They’re under the false impression that the tools of whiteness can deconstruct the system of whiteness. In contrast, I would suggest that we have the power to individually name, and decry, white supremacy, but that it would be a mistake to think that this ends with individual action. This work is not self-improvement; it is world-improvement.
Anti-whiteness and anti-racism openly defy whiteness by becoming communal acts. There are no magic words or perfect excuses that can justify our removal from the work of anti-racism, because it’s impossible to opt out of a social system. This means that we must work to sustain messy, multi-opinionated communities committed to true thriving for all.
If you’re interested in After Whiteness, you can purchase it here.
If you’re interested in more theology pertaining to this topic, I recommend Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, & Being by M. Shawn Copeland and Mujerista Theology (esp. Ch. 5, Solidarity) by Maria Isasi-Diaz
More in Social Justice