Skip to content Skip to footer

Clinging to Whiteness Offers False Safety — True Liberation Requires Upending It

Racism must be understood as systemic to challenge white people’s claims to being “innocent” in a racist society.

In 1962, James Baldwin wrote “A Letter to My Nephew.” The letter communicates Baldwin’s anger, his frustration, his commitment to radical change, and his indefatigable love for his nephew. His critique of white people, who he refers to as his “countrymen,” is piercing and demanding. Indeed, at one point he writes, “To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger. In this case, the danger, in the minds of most white Americans, is the loss of their identity.”

I have read this passage many times to my students and to white audiences. I can only imagine what it is like to be white and to desire racial equity and justice without understanding Baldwin’s point about the loss of one’s white identity, which implies upending a set of white racial coordinates that sustain them materially, psychologically and ontologically. To lose one’s identity may be perceived as threatening, especially if one perceives that there is nothing about white identity that needs to be lost.

To think through some of these ideas, I decided to engage in dialogue with white anti-racist educator Tim Wise, who is the author of nine books, including Dispatches from the Race War, Under the Affluence, Dear White America: Letter to a New Minority, Colorblind, White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son, Speaking Treason Fluently and more. The interview that follows has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

George Yancy: In Speaking Treason Fluently, when speaking to white people, you make an important distinction between “being in this skin and of this skin.” You write, “We are in it, to be sure, and over that we have never had control. But we are not of it. We are made of more, and better stuff, than that.” Your distinction, I think, speaks to Baldwin’s emphasis on loss. Not being of this (white) skin opens a potential space for the loss of white identity. What does the loss of white identity mean to you? What does it look like in terms of being committed and being in danger? This last point, by the way, recognizes the threats that you have personally received because of the work that you do.

Tim Wise: The loss of white identity means the loss of the glue that has held together the self-concept, material advantages and worldview of so-called white people. That’s a hard thing to let go of because it provides a kind of safety, just like fundamentalist religion can, because like fundamentalism, it rarely questions itself. Of course, that safety is the safety of the straitjacket. It only protects you to the extent it limits you and your ability to be truly free.

To work towards relinquishing it puts one in danger, sure: first, because it means risking, as Baldwin also put it, being turned away from the welcome table of white society, meaning friends, colleagues, even family. And second, because those who are committed to the overt maintenance of white dominance will view your efforts as literal warfare against them, since any diminution of white supremacy is, to them, tantamount to “white genocide.” When you’re used to hegemony, pluralism feels like oppression.

But what I’ve learned in challenging whiteness and speaking out for something more meaningful — a bigger, more concrete humanity — is that the dangers of relinquishment pale (pun intended) in comparison to the benefits. Working to make whiteness an anachronism opens us to new ways of learning and being and loving. It allows us to rediscover who our families were before they were white. What were their struggles? How did they survive before they were handed this coat of arms and armor known as whiteness? Because there’s a story there and it matters.

And finally, whatever dangers one faces by working to render whiteness meaningless are clearly outweighed by the dangers of clinging to it. We can see those dangers now — the opioid crisis, elevated suicide rates, and all these so-called deaths of despair, which are the logical fruits of the tree of whiteness: a system that makes promises it ultimately can’t keep even to those for whom the promise was invented.

So too, the rage of the Trumpists comes from a sense of betrayal. Of course, they think they’ve been betrayed by liberals or leftists and critical race theory (CRT) or feminism or whatever, rather than a capitalist order intended to immiserate the masses for the benefit of the few. But it was whiteness that betrayed them: a racial contract, in Charles Mills’s terms, whose fine print they should have read more carefully. Because the masters of the universe who crafted it never gave a damn about most of them either, and will let them suffer for their own profit, especially so long as they keep scapegoating Black and Brown people for their pain.

In my philosophy courses, I include philosophical explorations of whiteness. After critically interrogating racism as limited to discrete acts that are committed by white people (say, the KKK) who intentionally desire to hurt Black people or people of color, my students are often confused. They’re confused because now they must rethink the meaning of racism as systemic, as a network of white power relations that are bestowed upon them, where, positionally, white privilege gives them an important advantage vis-à-vis Black people or people of color. Deep down they are asking, “Does this mean I’m a racist?” Of course, they immediately reject such a question. I think that even posing it to themselves is, in a Baldwinian sense, dangerous. Truth, after all, when exposed, can be dangerous. I have heard some white people even say that being called “racist” is worse than a Black person being called the N-word. Perhaps such a problematic response is partly a post-civil rights phenomenon, where some white people see themselves as “racially innocent” now that so-called racial equity has been achieved. Of course, it is also a way of deflecting a more rigorous and complex understanding of racism. In your own work, how do you critically explore the fear that white people have when faced with the reality that white racism is systemic and that this means that they are imbricated within that system, and thereby not “innocent” of racism?

On the one hand, that realization is daunting for white people, yes. One invests a lot of energy in the maintenance of innocence. So, coming to terms with one’s implication in the system is jarring. That said, there is something freeing about framing racism as systemic, by which I mean, it frees the white person from having to think of themselves as a bad person who is personally to blame for the way things are. Being implicated in a bad system is not your fault, after all. Doing something about it requires taking responsibility, but at least by understanding the problem as larger than interpersonal bias, one can realize that they aren’t consciously choosing to oppress people, so much as going along with things the way they are because they don’t know another way to go along. So that provides an opening.

The challenge is that we aren’t taught to think systemically. Individualism is so ingrained in our way of thinking that we tend to locate both blame and responsibility for fixing things on the solitary actor, doing harm or doing good, when it’s deeper than that. I happen to think most people are pretty decent folks. But good people can get caught up in bad systems.

I frame it as analogous to what you learn in therapy. As someone who is in therapy for a lot of trauma and drama from my childhood, and the way those things have misshaped me, I’ve come to realize two things: first, I am not to blame for the dysfunction I inherited from my parents, and they from theirs. But it happened, and it hurt me, and because I didn’t get clarity about it a long time ago, I’ve hurt others, including my family. That part is on me, but I have a choice. I can confront the system here — meaning the family which is the first system any of us experience — and make different choices, for the benefit of others in my life, and for my own. Confronting whiteness is similar. We inherited it. It’s not our fault, but we have to deal with the trauma it’s caused.

Getting white people to move from thinking of racism as interpersonal to systemic is critical. Of course, the challenge is that, once convinced, they still need help figuring out how to challenge systems of injustice. Having not been taught to think systemically, we often don’t know how to challenge systems, even when we see them. But at least by refocusing on systems rather than individuals, we can remove some of the shame that paralyzes well-meaning white people from thinking about what resistance might look like.

As we move toward an uncertain future (and I mean this politically and existentially), there are forces within the U.S. (largely white and right-wing) that are galvanizing to make sure that the questions that I’m asking you and the conversation that we’re having are deemed “undemocratic.” The unabashed mobilization of white nationalism and Trumpian dictatorial aspirations have placed this fragile experimental democracy in peril. The January 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol is just one manifestation of this Orwellian nightmare and potential catastrophic collapse of the U.S. as we know it. Donald Trump’s discourse — which is one that refers to others as “vermin,” and the fact that he openly talks about seeking revenge, and being a dictator for the first day if he is elected — is something to fear. The language of “vermin” is straight out of Adolf Hitler’s playbook. Add to this the reality of Orwellian book banning; the blocking of diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives in universities; the misrepresentation of CRT; and so much more, reflects the toxicity (and I would say, pathology) of fascist ideology and practice. Some will claim that the U.S. has the necessary democratic checks and balances to prevent an authoritarian figure from ruling with an iron fist. Personally, I’m not convinced. Given what I’m suggesting in terms of where the U.S. might be headed, how do we keep resistance alive? Indeed, what should the language of resistance look like? More specifically, within a context where white nationalism and white supremacy abound, how do you suggest we effectively awaken and sustain white race traitorous identities (that is, white people who believe in abolishing the structure of whiteness), white dispositions and white racial formations?

I agree, we are not exceptional. Plenty of advanced and so-called civilized nations have given themselves over to autocrats and dictators. There is no reason we should presume ourselves above the same. But because people are so quick to believe in the U.S.’s unique goodness, I think we have to take advantage of that, however naive, by framing our resistance as the special obligation of Americans, who’ve set ourselves up as this beacon of freedom and democracy and are now being asked to prove it. I know it might sound corny, but we need to frame our resistance to authoritarianism and fascism and Trumpism as almost a patriotic duty — a thing that is the quintessential work of freedom-loving people. And trust me, it’s hard for me to speak like that. I once wrote an essay called “Patriotism as Pathology,” so speaking in such ways is not my default. But one uses the arrows in one’s quiver, and as Americans, some of those are about appealing to this ideal, however much it’s been regularly vitiated. Because people are attached to those things. And I think the left, broadly speaking, has to learn how to “speak American,” as Tom Hayden once put it, back when he was helping to establish Students for a Democratic Society in the early 1960s. That means using the language of the “normies” — as far right folks refer to those not steeped in their particular lingo and memes — rather than the language of graduate school seminars or post-colonial theory.

We can pose resistance as the equivalent of national service, military duty, whatever. This is about becoming a new “founder” of the nation if you will. It’s the opportunity to be a founder of a new nation, a multiracial democracy. Because that’s the choice now: we’ll either be a multiracial democracy or no democracy at all. It’s pluralist or fascist, no middle ground. So, we should be speaking to white folks from a place that says anti-racist solidarity is the real 1776. This third reconstruction is about finishing the job and doing it right for once.

Sustaining anti-racist identities is more challenging. One of the problems is that white folks are so used to our own efficacy that I’m not sure we’re ready for how hard this work will be. When you’re used to getting your way, you aren’t always prepared for the long haul. White folks have been raised to think agency is enough: if we want to be rich, by God, we can do it with some hard work. If we want the 2.5 kids and the yard and the good job, it can be had with a bit of pluck and effort. So, when white folks decide to challenge racism and find that it’s harder than starting your own successful Etsy store, I’m sure some will find themselves flummoxed. Sustaining resistance means creating real community around resistance: support systems, clubs, online and in-person opportunities for creating connection with one another, and with folks of color, to learn, struggle and bond. It requires the same intentionality that many put into faith communities, and for the same reason. Most people who go to church do so less because they want to please God and more for the community it provides. Anti-racist resistance will require something akin to that.

I would like to ask another question that is linked to the idea of policing thought, of criminalizing dissent. This is what Trump does, this is his modus operandi. In a recently engaging interview and discussion with Judith Butler, we critiqued the idea that to be concerned for the lives of Palestinians in Gaza (many might say their genocide) means that one is ipso facto antisemitic. You have defined yourself as an anti-Zionist Jew. As you know, that is a dangerous position to hold. There are those who would see you as a “self-hating Jew,” as if you can’t critique hegemonic violence or forms ethnic cleansing. How do you hold these two identities constant? This question is also linked to what we’ve been discussing in terms of resistance, danger, and refusing hegemonic structures (ideological, nationalistic, military). How do you remain steadfast in your conviction given the backlash that is circulating in the U.S. regarding a critique of Israel? For those of us who desire to speak truth to power now and in the future, what is necessary? How do we avoid being silenced?

I hold them constant because I know Zionism is not Judaism. Judaism is thousands of years old and includes among its principles this notion of universal human worth. Zionism as we know it has been around for about 130 years and is premised on the notion that Jews should have special rights and privileges over and above non-Jews in a particular geographic space. It is antithetical to Judaism. And it was seen as such by most Jews, including prominent Jewish figures, for the first 30-40 years of Zionist activism.

I hold them constant by remembering my great-grandfather, who was subject to pogroms in Russia, but who never wanted to go to Palestine. He was a Bundist (labor activist) and universalist, who was very connected to Yiddishkeit (Jewish diasporan culture), but had no interest in a Jewish state. There were many like him, and to label those who feel as they felt then as “self-hating” or antisemitic is perverse. It insults my family and their struggles, and those of so many others.

I remain steadfast also by taking heart from the many younger Jews who are saying these things now. There is a definite generational divide among American Jews. The older one is, the more one clings to Zionism I think, and I get that. These are folks, Boomers for instance, who really do remember a time when Jews were underdogs, and perhaps their own parents were survivors of the Nazi regime. For them, the idea of a Jewish state and projection of Jewish power is ennobling. But for younger Jews, they look around and see that we really aren’t underdogs anymore. Yes, we face antisemitism, but not in the systemic ways we once did in this country. And so, they’re saying that we have to stop thinking like perpetual victims.

I try to also keep in mind that trauma underlies all of this. Zionists who attack any criticism of Israel are operating from a place of unexplored trauma. It’s a kind of PTSD ingrained in we who are Jews from an early age, even if we didn’t experience the trauma ourselves. We were raised to see ourselves as permanent victims. Theodore Herzl, the founder of political Zionism, said explicitly that we would always be hated in the diaspora, and that we actually deserved it. He blamed Jews, his own people, for “carrying the seeds” of antisemitism into the nations where it had emerged. Talk about self-hating! And once you’re taught this, it only stands to reason it will over-determine your reaction to those who challenge this nation-state project you were taught to identify with.

All of which means we need to open up space to explore the trauma of antisemitism, past and present. It’s real, but until we sit with it, and the shame it has engendered in us — the shame of being marched to our deaths in the camps, the shame of being expelled from dozens of nations by Jew-haters — we will never relinquish this inchoate desire to go from bullied to bully. It is a response to shame. The desire to be tough, resolute, and to kill them before they kill us. None of it is healthy though. And in the name of a healthy Judaism, Jewish folk have to be the ones to stop it.

A critical message, before you scroll away

You may not know that Truthout’s journalism is funded overwhelmingly by individual supporters. Readers just like you ensure that unique stories like the one above make it to print – all from an uncompromised, independent perspective.

At this very moment, we’re conducting a fundraiser with a goal to raise $13,000. So, if you’ve found value in what you read today, please consider a tax-deductible donation in any size to ensure this work continues. We thank you kindly for your support.