If we want to abandon the thoughts and belief systems of an oppressive racial hierarchy we will need new ideas and paradigms upon which to build a more accurate understanding of ourselves and of society.
What follows are the basic understandings upon which White Awake is based.
Race is not biologically “real”, but it is a real social construction with real social impacts.
Modern, genetic based science has proved without a doubt that there is no biological foundation for race – we are one species, with differences in appearance that are (literally) no more than skin deep. However, as a social construct the concept of race, and the hierarchy of racism this concept makes possible, is a real force in each of our lives and society at large.
White is a racial identity.
In a racialized society, everybody has a race. When white people think of race as though it is something only people of color have we are able to see racism as “somebody else’s problem”. When we understand ourselves in racial terms, we begin to take responsibility for our part in a system that awards us unearned privilege at the expense of another.
We can experience both privilege and marginalization – in fact, most of us do.
Our inclusion in the social category of “white” warrants us privilege, but race is only one part of our identity. Gender, sexual orientation, economic class, educational background, body size and physical ability … these are some of the other factors that affect our relative privilege or marginalization in society.
Racism is not a personal issue – it’s a social hierarchy.
For decades following the Civil Rights period, white people tended to think in terms of “racist” or “not-racist” categories, focusing on individual behavior and downplaying the presence of systemic racism. We are now living in “Black Lives Matter times”, and it is harder to deny that racism is “a system of advantage based on race.” Despite this, social conditioning that focuses on individual behavior and downplays systemic racism is still very active within white cultural expression and thought. This conditioning will need our attention each time it comes up.
Racism is a “divide and conquer” strategy, created to protect the interests of a small, ruling class.
Anti-black racism is a divide-and-rule strategy developed out of the very legitimate fear of the former U.S. Slave society’s ruling class that indentured Europeans and enslaved Africans, when united, could overthrow the slave society. For a brilliant overview of this history, and the implications today, see this edition of “Decoded.” Understanding the function of racism is important if we want to disrupt and dismantle it.
Racism is part of an interlocking system of oppression that can be called white supremacy.
“White Supremacy is an historically based, institutionally perpetuated system of exploitation and oppression of continents, nations, and peoples of color by white peoples and nations of the European continent, for the purpose of maintaining and defending a system of wealth, power, and privilege. The term White Supremacy gives white people a clear choice of supporting or opposing a system, rather than getting bogged down in claims to be anti-racist (or not) in their personal behavior.” (Elizabeth Martinez, “What is White Supremacy?”)
White supremacy is inextricably linked to the birth of the United States as a nation, and as such it is founded on three things:
1. the enslavement of African peoples, and corresponding anti-black racism
2. the theft of land, exploitation of resources, and attempt to annihilate Native peoples and their culture
3. international imperialism, beginning with the takeover of half of Mexico by war
White Awake is here to support white people in both understanding and coming to terms with this history. This includes placing ourselves, our families, and our “coming to America” story within this history, and dealing with the grief and pain that – when unresolved – could prevent our ability to see or work with others to change the present day expression of these historical roots.
The United States is a “settler-colony”.
The majority of “Americans” are settlers (forced or voluntary) on stolen land. The United States of America is a continuous, colonizing force. If we don’t ground our analysis in this reality, we run the risk of trying to create a society in which the spoils of war are divided more equitably rather than one in which we actively dismantle the destructive forces of empire and colonization at all levels. A decolonization lens encourages us to align ourselves with indigenous nations who, according to historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, have a central role to play in “life after empire.”
White supremacy and colonization are rooted in European problems.
Phenomena such as the British colonization of Ireland, the Crusades, witch-burnings, and the privatization of commonly held land illuminate ways in which a culture of conquest was refined in Europe before it was exported abroad. White Awake affirms that the exploration of these deeper, historical roots of supremacy culture empowers white people to better understand ourselves, including our own loss and pain, and engage in deep, ancestral healing that strengthens our commitment to end the current cycle of destruction.
Human exploitation and environmental degradation go hand in hand.
White supremacy exploits all things without check. This includes “the earth” or ”the environment” – aka, the network of life upon which we all depend. Notable activist and educator Chris Crass refers to white supremacy as a “death culture”, drawing attention to the multiple dimensions of destruction that white supremacy makes possible.
White privilege comes at a cost.
Regardless of our income or social status, membership in an oppressing class comes at a cost. This cost includes the restriction of emotional expression; disconnection from our cultural/ancestral roots; internalized violence in our own families and communities; a sense of emptiness or moral hypocrisy; sometimes even nihilism. For poor and working class folks, and other white people with severely marginalized identities, the immediate stakes are high. Given the urgency of climate change, the stakes for all of us – sooner or later – are very high.
It is in our self interest, as white people, to join with others and dismantle white supremacy.
White Awake centers the call for collective liberation, a call flowing from the observation that all of our freedom is bound up together. Connecting with the cost of white supremacy to ourselves as white people is a significant step in unwinding the false sense of superiority that prevents us from joining with others as comrades in the struggle for collective liberation, and collaborators in the creation of a life sustaining society.
We are living inside a historic moment in time.
The Movement for Black Lives has established itself as an ongoing force for change; representatives from hundreds of sovereign, indigenous nations have come together in support of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s stand against the Dakota Access Pipeline; the Trump campaign is shedding light on the racism, misogyny, and xenophobia in our national consciousness; the climate justice movement is gaining international momentum; imprisoned people across the United States are conducting an unprecedented, coordinated strike … The energies gathering around us amplify our decisions and actions.
May we act with future generations in mind, and may the objects of our contemplation serve life.
“A good deal of time and intelligence has been invested in the exposure of racism and the horrific results on its objects. … [Understanding] the mind, imagination, and behavior of slaves is valuable. But equally valuable is a serious intellectual effort to see what racial ideology does to the mind, imagination, and behavior of masters.”
– Toni Morrison