“The problem with being at home in whiteness is that it goes hand-in-glove with the presumption that everything whiteness does must be best, right, noble, beautiful, moral, and productive.”
Those words, by Jasmine Syedullah (in Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation, coauthored with angel Kyodo williams and Lama Rod Owens), come out of an autobiographical account in which Dr. Syedullah describes growing up surrounded by white people, among whom she become a “model minority” and exceptional “Black sidekick” to white friends, but increasingly unhappy until finally she confronted the problem of how to become fully her own self, fully human,in a Black body — no longer erased by whiteness. “As soon as I started getting good at being human,” she adds, “I was increasingly perceived as a threat.”
When I first read her words a few days ago, I knew, in a way more urgent than ever before: I, too, must cease being at home in whiteness.
I’m not new to examining racism and my own participation in it as a white person, unconscious or not. Most especially since 2015, when Edward Baptist’s ‘The Half Has Never Been Told’ reminded me unequivocally that the U.S. was build on the twin foundations of genocide and the theft of lands from indigenous Americans, and the theft of the bodies and labor of Africans and African Americans. I’ve gone on from there.
Recently Ibram X. Kendi’s books ‘Stamped from the Beginning’ and ‘How to Be an Antiracist’ taught me — oh, a lot. But crucially, this: racism begins not with hatred and ignorance that leads to discrimination; rather, racism begins with nasty behavior engaged in for personal advantage, and only later are the ideas created to rationalize that nasty behavior, even to claim it virtuous. Need more land? Kill the people whose land it is, or otherwise force them off it, and justify it in the name of their “savagery,” their customs, their skin color. Need cheap labor to work that land? Go to Africa, kidnap people, put them on ships and take them far from their families never to see them again, extract their labor with whips and chains, and justify it because of their “savagery”, their customs, their skin color. Hey, you’re only trying to civilize them and bring them to Jesus, after all; all the while proclaiming your own virtue, testified to by the color of your own skin.
That’s white supremacy. And hand in hand with it, the assumption of whiteness as neutral, as normal, along with all the cultural attributes that accompany it. As for those of other colors — yellow, red, brown, black? None of them…quite good enough. At least not since the invention of “white” and the rest of the racial color spectrum in the 15th and 16th centuries — foundational ideas designed by racists to rationalize these nasty, these cruel, these evil actions.
Nowadays most of us decry anti-Native genocide and enslavement and try to distance ourselves from that history, though we just as much as Native and Black people live with that legacy. Because we weren’t personally responsible, we’re eager to say “I’m not racist.” Ibram Kendi replies: part of his work, he says, is to remove the phrase “not racist” from the vocabulary. One either upholds racism, or one challenges it as an antiracist. How do you be an antiracist? You work to replace racist policies — and racist policymakers — with policies and policymakers that are antiracist.
But white racism is insidious in that behaviors and cultural values associated with white people have come to be understood as the cultural values, the behaviors to emulate — and people who don’t behave in those supposedly “neutral” and “normal” ways (you know who: people of color) are viewed, whether consciously or unconsciously, as lesser than.
That’s whiteness. It is, to me, not merely a descriptor of the color of my skin: it’s a political and social ideology that prescribes how a white person like me is supposed to behave in order to continue to reap the (supposed) benefits of white supremacy — and having actually nothing whatsoever to do with the physiological fact of how much melanin I have in the cells of my skin. So why should I wave this “whiteness” banner? Why should I not feel at home in my skin without my skin being waved about as a signifier of an ideology of oppression that I abhor, as a set of behaviors — including racist behaviors — that I’m supposed to adhere to in order to “conform”?
Even without being aware of it, when I’m at home in whiteness I act as a racist policy maker who, in my everyday life, enacts racist policies against people of color. So do other people who are at home in whiteness, all around me — no matter how much they might protest that they’re “not racist.”
For an example, go no further than the Anchorage Assembly chambers in the past couple of weeks, as argument after argument against AO-2020-66 rails against “those people” — a majority of whom are Alaska Native — who are experiencing homelessness. Homelessness resulting, one must add, from a litany of racist policies enacted by Russian, then American racist policy makers from the very moment they arrived in this great land.
Another example: I know of two homeless shelters in Anchorage, one serving adult women, the other serving youth of both sexes. Both serve many Alaska Natives and other people of color (as well as LGBTQ people, who also suffer disproportionately from homelessness), and both have formal policies against racial discrimination. But many of the people actually managing these shelters are at home in whiteness, and implicitly understand their own cultural manners, religion (Christianity), and styles of communication to be inherently “superior” to how their clients and employees of color, behave, believe, and talk. Based on firsthand accounts told to me by former clients and employees of these shelters, the result is rampant racism, ranging from subtle shaming and intimidation, to overt discrimination and retaliation. Challenged on their discriminatory behavior, these managers reveal themselves with racist rationalizations: the person discriminated against didn’t smile enough, wasn’t nice enough, didn’t talk the right way, had the wrong mannerisms, refused to work harder for lesser pay, and — worst of all — had the effrontery to assert full humanity: to speak up and call the racism out. “As soon as I started getting good at being human I was increasingly perceived as a threat,” Dr. Syedullah writes.
Leaving the home of whiteness — as best I can, as mindfully as I can — doesn’t mean I hate myself or other white people. Nor will it change the color of my skin. But it does begin to change me from the inside, help to remove me from the cast of racist policymakers enacting racist policies on people I care about, and give me a home as someone fully human, as fully myself: a human being who treats other human beings with respect, compassion, and justice. Without any whitewashing.
I’m on my way out the door.
Melissa S. Green recently retired from 29 years at UAA, leaving her plenty of time to write.