I recently led a racial equity training for progressives where it became clear that people of color needed a separate space to freely discuss racial disparities within the organization and create action steps to combat institutional bias. I split up the group so I could work with the POC and my white co-trainer could work with the white people to understand the concerns raised and identify their next steps to foster equity.
We came back together and I asked each group to share their next steps. Each time I said “white” anxiety filled the room. These white progressives struggled with being named as white. When I said “What did the white caucus discuss?” or my co-trainer said “We as white people...”, they were visibly uncomfortable.
In my experience, white people seem unaccustomed to being racialized. Simply naming their race causes many to squirm or get defensive. In fact, I’m amazed at how often I’ve seen white people respond to the word “white” as though it were a slur, and not just a descriptor.
I asked my friend Susan Raffo, a Twin Cities healer and anti-racist activist who was raised white, why so many progressive white people balk at being called white. She shared the following essay with me. The words from here on out are all hers.
You think it’s not a big deal. You’re talking pragmatically about something, not even a lot of emotion when you speak. You’re even saying what feels like the most obvious inconsequential thing, “well, you’re white…” and it stops there. Because you can feel it. That rise in the other person’s body temperature, that gathering storm, and then, depending on the gender, class, age, culture and night before sleep of the other person, you either get shock, rage, defensiveness, woundedness, or that deadly super-charged stillness as the blood drains from their very light face.
White people on the left often hate to be called white. Much of the time, progressive or liberal white people experience this naming as a direct attack, something to get away from, fight back against, or something they just can’t handle, all jittery and anxious, trying to DO something and just making it worse. Sometimes they stand there, bodies all braced and waiting for the moment to pass. And sometimes they completely disappear, ghosts in front of your eyes. This discomfort—even hatred—only increases in times like these, where white nationalism is hyper visible.
From the moment that egg and sperm meet, each of us is becoming a specific kind of person based upon where we live, the cultures we are raised in, and our experiences. This is our conditioning. Those raised to be white are conditioned from birth to accept the glaring contradiction between everything they are taught about love and how to treat people, and treating or witnessing people of color be treated as exceptions to these rules. White people are taught, indirectly through experience and directly through words, that this contradiction is normal, justifying their comfort, even as others suffer. This is what I mean by whiteness. I don’t mean culture. Whiteness is not culture. Whiteness is absence.
Whiteness is a suppression of humanity. Whiteness is a collective agreement which evolved among those who descended from Europe on the best way to survive. Whiteness is an infestation with roots in European histories of violence which then reimagined itself when it colonized the lands below our feet.
Whiteness is wily. It exists to survive and replicate. It is not carried in the genes of those who pass it on to their children. Instead, it is taught, directly and indirectly, to every Euro-descended child so that they become, even before first breath, white. And this teaching is about what it means to put your own life and comfort first, your own guaranteed survival, automatically, overtly and subtly, and to do this without feeling any contradiction with your most basic values.
To feel the contradiction between your values and something you are doing or witnessing is to feel unsettled. Uncomfortable. Everything about whiteness is a deep contradiction to the values that many white people are raised with as well as to the basic biological forces of human connection and empathy. Feeling unsettled or uncomfortable is important for human development. Struggling, dealing with this unsettledness is how we learn. It’s where wisdom comes from. It is what whiteness protects against.
Whiteness is not just a conditioned way for individuals to be in the world, it is also a system. White supremacy is what happens when systems are constantly communicating that this muted state is normal and that when your white body does not have what it is entitled to—safety, security, comfort, enough energy, a strong sense of purpose and connection—then either you are not working hard enough OR it’s someone else’s fault and must be eradicated. They must be eradicated, controlled, made to go away so that your comfort returns.
For the body, comfort is about survival. Discomfort cues the body to start looking around to see if everything is okay, if there is any threat that will interfere with our lives. If a threat is perceived, then the body launches the survival responses of flight, fight, and freeze. Once launched, the survival responses play out until the body perceives that the threat has passed and it is safe again.
Why do white people hate to be called white? Because living with contradiction can only happen if it is never made visible. The minute this contradiction is given a name, whiteness hijacks the body’s survival responses in order to ensure its own survival. Having someone see you, name you as white, name this deep life-contradiction, feels like an attack on the body. When the body feels attacked, it uses the tools that evolution has given mammals to find safety under threat. Fight. Flight. Freeze. Fold.
Gaslighting. White fragility. Whitesplaining. Microaggressions. White consolidation of power. Nepotism amongst those with power. Bystander silence. Scapegoating and targeting. White supremacist action. White folks not seeing, not believing, not feeling the impact of racism, thinking that somehow those impacted by racism must be overstating it, making it up, creating it. These are all examples of white survival responses.
Flushing the body of whiteness means allowing a part of who you are in the world to die. There is no other way. And there is no removal of the norm of whiteness without having it fight back hard to return to a muted state. It takes a lot of energy to believe you are a deeply compassionate person while, at the same time, ignoring or not seeing or explaining away the hundreds of people hurting or angry right in front of you.
This is not something a single white person can do alone. If it were that easy, whiteness would have ended. Whiteness is elegant and smart. It has been figuring out how to survive much longer than the span of any individual life. It has systems embedded in U.S. history that can hold out longer than a single generation of white indignation.
Why do white people hate to be called white? Because to actually face this contradiction, to truly know as intuition as well as information that every aspect of your protected life rests on top of another’s pain—too many white bodies are still held fast in the middle of their survival responses of freeze or fight or flight. And that is what keeps getting in the way of liberation.