In a video promoted prominently on the website of The Washington Post, titled, “Why is White racial identity important,” whites are told that white supremacism is “structural” among white people, that “understanding your whiteness is integral to becoming self-aware as a white person,” that an “anti-racist culture does not exist among white people,” that white people in “white accountability groups” are “unpacking wrong things that we have been taught in history class” and have experienced “a period of deep shame,” and finally, that “white people don’t really understand racism.”
The video, which the Post states revolves around “why understanding your whiteness and the ways that white supremacy benefits you is an important part of becoming self aware,” begins with a black man opining, “Racism, racialization, white body supremacism, is not episodic; it’s structural. Remember that there were thousands of George Floyds before the one that you saw. Your bodily response to this horror, right, is not the same thing as you dealing with the structural aspects of this.”
Host Nicole Ellis then pontificates: “George Floyd’s death became a deeply personal and racial tragedy for many Americans. For the first time, white people were becoming aware of their whiteness and the systemic ways that white supremacy affects all of us.”
Professor and psychologist Rebecca Toporek chimes in: “White people in particular get aroused, get upset, say this is unjust, this isn’t right, this shouldn’t happen, here’s like an awakening that happens. And so part of their racial identity development is seeing that awakening. What they do with it is really the next piece of it.”
Ellis explains, “In this episode, we’re tackling white racial identity, and why understanding your whiteness is integral to becoming self-aware as a white person.”
Kelsey Arias, crisis interventionist, claims, “I am originally from a small town in Oklahoma; whiteness was the default and whiteness was the comfort.”
“Part of the structure in racism and the way that it’s maintained is to keep us from recognizing that racism is a part of our daily lives, and so it’s a longer-term process of looking at your understanding of yourself in the world; both historically but also contextually: the family you live in, the community you live in, and what role whiteness plays in that,” Toporek lectures.
“The more you dive into that, the more I’m really realizing how deeply rooted racism is into, like, my everyday thought process,” Arias laments. “No matter how much you work at that there’s still even almost work to be done.”
“A living, embodied, anti-racist culture does not exist among white people,” says the African American man. “White people gotta start getting together specifically around race.”
“White accountability groups are really helpful in terms of having a place to process, having a group of people whose responsibility it is to call me on things or to challenge me,” Toporek enthuses.
Ilyse Kennedy, trauma therapist, laments: “We’re unpacking wrong things that we have been taught in history class. I realized that I needed to back and unpack and reorganize everything that I had learned because it was completely through a white lens. Most of us, in doing this work, have experienced this, where there’s a period of deep shame for being white and acknowledging the harm that our ancestors have caused. And that is a very legitimate piece of this work. And — we can’t ask people of color to hold our hands through the shame piece; that needs to happen with other white people.”
“When you do that for one, two, three, four, five years, right, you end up with actually a community that is aligned with each other,” the black man intones.
Ellis asks, “In theory that sounds like a good idea, but I guess I’m curious to hear, like, what are some of the pitfalls or risks that you run if that’s the only step you take? “
Toporek says, “The biggest answer is white people don’t really understand racism. (laughs) Hence, so if I’m relying on other white people to teach me about racism that can only go so far. … I only best understand racism by talking to people who are directly impacted by racism from different perspectives. So in addition to having white accountability groups and white accountability buddies, it’s also really important to have sustained and meaningful relationships with people of color.”
Arias, lamenting again: “I don’t have the ability, to like, inherently name things as upholding white supremacy or being racist. My whiteness is going to show up at different points in my life and at different points in my relationships.”
Ellis presses, “But is it fair or healthy to be seeking out relationships with people just to have a diverse network? For I feel like, for people of color, you’re kind of constantly trying to gauge whether or not it’s worth it to be vulnerable or share how someone hurt you when your white colleagues or coworkers or friends mess up.”
“There’s a different cost for my friends of color to be in a relationship with me,” Toporek concludes. “So I think one of the things that’s really important is ongoing, being a friend on an ongoing basis for lots of different things, not just like, thinking about racism as a part of our friendship when there’s something horrible that happens. Those relationships are, number one, for me to be there for them as them for me, it’s a relationship, and so it should be reciprocal, but also so I have a broader understanding of the world.
Kennedy admits, “Everything I thought about how I existed in my white body in the world was very wrong and I needed this new lens to see the world through. So I think that been a big piece of my own work.”
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