In this piece, activist and blogger Abe Lateiner turns the lens of race inward, grappling with the emotional and spiritual effects of growing up white (and affluent, heterosexual, cis-gendered male) in a white supremacist society. Even though he was born into a family of progressives, Abe didn’t fully understand the reality of systemic racism until he was grown. This awakening has led to questions such as: How can I continue to live in the world, knowing that my mere presence is destructive? What is the absence of humanity inside of me created by Whiteness? What would it mean to fully grieve that absence?
The product of this inquiry is the realization that: “We need to help ourselves. We need to heal ourselves.” This article is the first two sections of a much longer piece that was originally posted on Medium here.
“I stood to my feet in the midst of the cosmos. I discovered that all were intoxicated and none were thirsty. At the moment you are inebriated, but free from the effects of wine, you too may turn and stand.”
— Yeshua, Saying 28, Coptic Gospel of Thomas
I am heir to the great American tradition of East coast White liberal ideology. I was raised to believe that Republicans were the problem to which Democrats were the solution, and that change in America happens at the ballot box. My political education happened around the dinner table, where we would talk politics, history, and literature and rail against the societal problems that conservative ideology reinforced.
I learned that although our American system was malfunctioning, it was a fundamentally righteous and free system, and the job of Americans of conscience was to fix it. Looking back, I had no lived experience to tell me differently. After all, my experience with the systems that came together to shape my life did seem to be working just fine for me as a White, upper-class, heterosexual male.
And yet, I had the nagging sense that something was fundamentally wrong with this system. I sensed it in the anger inside me and other White children, especially those who were working class and poor. I sensed it in a friend’s casual use of the N-word as an exclamation of general frustration at a situation that had nothing to do with race. I sensed it in my own inexplicable resentment of the Black students who sat together in the cafeteria, creating a space in which I perceived that I was not welcome.
I had no language for what I was experiencing, only shame. I was a conscious, left-leaning, intelligent, and compassionate White person. How could I allow the casual racism going on around me to continue unchecked? How could I, too, be host to that parasitic racism?
In 1990, Professor Janet E. Helms presented an illuminating model of White racial identity development. According to Helms’ framework, after White people discover that race really does matter and that its effects directly contradict narratives of equality and freedom that are deeply ingrained in White American culture, many of us go through what’s called the “reintegration” phase:
At this point the desire to be accepted by one’s own racial group, in which the overt or covert belief in White superiority is so prevalent, may lead to a reshaping of the person’s belief system to be more congruent with an acceptance of racism. The guilt and anxiety may be redirected in the form of fear and anger directed toward people of color who are now blamed as the source of discomfort.
I think that our gravitation to the reintegration phase makes sense. The denial of racism helps us to erase the contradiction between the White racial brutality that is all around us and our deeply-held belief that we are fundamentally good White people.
Denial is a feature found in another facet of the human psychological experience: grief. When I compare the famous Kubler-Ross model of grieving to the stages of White racial identity development, it appears that these two processes, while overly generalized and linear, resonate with one another, and generally match my own life experiences.
The parallel between these two processes has been highlighted in passing by anti-racist educator Jane Elliott, who proposes that White people who confront racism are forced to grieve the loss of power that comes with ending racism. I believe that Elliott is right, but here I would like to explore a different, more profound kind of grief — the grief of a person who was not allowed to develop into a full human being.
Grief is usually thought of as a product of losing something or someone. But what happens if parts of myself were tied off at the stump with the fine threads of White culture, never allowed to develop in the first place?
What is the absence of humanity inside of me created by Whiteness?
And what would it mean to fully grieve that absence?
The story of my experience growing up White in White supremacist culture is mine alone. I live at the intersection of many different privileged identities, including Whiteness. What follows is not an attempt to describe the experience of all White people, but only my own. I only hope that this articulation of my truth will inspire other White people to tell theirs.
White supremacy has always protected me and benefited me materially while simultaneously killing me on the inside by crushing my spirit, my intellect, and my social self. This internal death is invisible. It’s especially easy to miss in a materialistic society that gives lip-service to holistic well-being, yet typically worships material abundance over everything else.
In my life, the primary effect of Whiteness (and other supremacist mindsets) has been separation, the construction of walls between all sorts of aspects of my life, from the micro to the macro levels. As a European-American child in a mostly-White community, I was raised with walls between my heart and my head, and walls between myself and other people, particularly those whom I did not see as “White.”
It took a great deal of work for me, as a White American, to finally accept the reality of racism as real and ever-present. I stayed in denial for many years as a liberal White American, trying to cope with my complicity in the vast story of White supremacist violence. I was able to break through that denial thanks to the cumulative teachings of hundreds of individuals, writers, speakers, artists, friends, and students who, consciously or unconsciously, chose a risky investment in me through sharing their truths.
But before I began to break free from denial, I spent years trying to bargain my way out of Whiteness. I sought out opportunities to “help” people of other cultures. I felt that they needed my White help, while I needed their non-White culture. I believed that somehow, if I helped “poor” people of color, I could be invited to embrace their culture, which, I could sense, offered a chance to fill the void at the center of my Whiteness.
I took African dance classes. I learned to play the Chinese fiddle. I taught children of color, most of whom were living in some degree of financial poverty. I thought that through this bargaining I could be saved, but in reality, I was desperately flailing to fill the yawning White void.
Despite all of my well-intentioned work, I was far from understanding what White supremacy had done and was still doing to me. I thought it was a problem for people of color. I thought that “they” were the ones who needed support in coping with reality. My inability to see my own stake in ending White supremacy fooled me into working to address racism as though it were a moral dilemma, an optional experiment on behalf of unfortunate, downtrodden people of color.
But now I know that race was invented to justify turning the world on its head. As European settlers committed atrocity after atrocity against Native American and African people, they needed ways to justify their terrorism. The illusion of separation based on skin color and facial features set the stage for the grand lie of race, which enabled Europeans to sustain the blatant contradiction of ongoing genocide and enslavement in the name of freedom and progress.
Today, race continues to operate by flipping the world upside down. Because White people stole two continents and two hundred years of the backbreaking labor of millions, race reassures us that Blackness is related to thievery. Because White men have raped Black and Brown women with impunity for more than 400 years, race comforts us with the lie that it’s Black masculinity that is defined by hypersexual predation. Because White people penned Black people in the “ghetto” through the practice of redlining, race tells us that that “ghetto” is an indictment of Black pathology.
And while race tells me that racism is a problem for people of color, it turns out the origin of racism is within White families and communities. People of color weren’t the ones who created Whiteness or violated my spirit with it. That was my own people who did that…and I do it right back to them.
In perhaps the most violent world-flipping performance of Whiteness, even our tears, which should be inherently sacred as expressions of our inherent humanity, are defiled. The tears of White people under the influence of Whiteness become weapons of mass destruction, offering a thick blanket of justification to nearly any act of racial violence in which a White “victim” can conjur the image of a fearful, threatening brown-skinned person in the minds of our fellow White people. These metaphorical tears can turn Mike Brown into a “demon” and can justify the murder of 12 year old Tamir Rice for playing with a toy gun in the park.
This is how race turns the world upside down. And now it is our White work to turn our world rightside up again.
At first, this realization felt like the greatest burden — it felt like I was Cyclops of Marvel’s X-men, or the medusa, bearing a gaze powerful enough to destroy everything in its path. How could I continue to live in the world, knowing that my mere presence was destructive? I wished to return to ignorance, back to the time when I wasn’t aware of how much harm my existence caused.
But with the support of the teachings of my peers and those who came before me, I came to realize that this knowledge is not a burden, but instead the greatest of gifts — the gift of work that is mine to do, which is what I’ve been looking for my whole life. Like many well-intentioned progressive White Americans, I spent so much time and energy trying to figure out just what my work in the world was — where could I go to do The Most Good? Africa? Haiti? The “inner city?”
It turns out that my “Most Good” is right here within me, and in the White relationships and communities that are closest to me. We need to help ourselves. We need to heal ourselves. I am all I need, and there is nowhere I need to go.
Abe Lateiner is an organizer of White people for racial justice with Community Change, Inc. and of wealthy people for wealth redistribution with Resource Generation. Inspired by the movement ecology work of groups like Movement Netlab, Abe works to create alternative communities in which people with privilege fight for their own freedom by working to undo systems of privilege that benefit them in material and superficial ways. Abe lives with his partner and two children in Cambridge, MA and documents his journey towards collective liberation at www.risksomething.org.
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