One of toxic whiteness’ greatest successes is convincing white people that any discussion of racism is taboo and, ironically, racist. You’ve heard President Obama call him racist because during his tenure he talked about race. So white people like me don’t talk about race or racism. We don’t develop skills or comfort in talking about race and racism.
Another success of toxic whiteness is to indoctrinate white people that the worst thing that can happen to a white person is to be accused of racism. In some ways, I think that’s presented as worse than taking action that directly hurts black people. There were politicians who listened to hours of testimony from black people about negative and blatantly racist interactions with police, then voted against the police accountability bill that black voters said they needed. to feel and be safe in their communities. They were outraged when commentators called the position they took “racist.”
This account of toxic whiteness and the mindset it creates is grounded in the idea that racism is just something easy to define and recognize – overt, personal or systemic action, clear and blatant in its intentional purpose discriminate. In reality, racism is deep, broad, sneaky, and embedded so deeply in our structures, our lives, and we believe that we white people generally don’t see it and rarely intentionally perpetuate it. When black people or others impacted by these structures and thoughts point racism to us – underline the difference between our intent and our impact – we don’t believe them and instead accuse them of “playing the race card” or to “do everything”. on race.
Everything in American Culture East on race. It was designed that way. Housing, education, policing, incarceration, banking, recreation, economic mobility, health care, all rooted in racially motivated philosophy and intent.
We are a country that declared in its founding documents that black people were only 3/5ths of a person. It took me a long time to realize that the fraction was not just a matter of the mathematics of legislative constituency and political representation. In making this statement, our nation’s foundation document stated that black individuals were only 3/5 human, just a little over half. When a country builds itself and all its institutions on the belief that only some of its individuals are fully human, using skin color as a metric, there is no way those institutions will ever turn into “colorblind”. and racially neutral. In fact, color blindness or racial neutrality are not the goals. We need individuals and institutions to recognize their story, then listen and engage the community most affected to lead the work needed to imagine and create new ways of being that give everyone the chance to thrive.
It’s hard work for white people to recognize the sea of privilege and the toxic culture of whiteness that we grew up in and benefit from. It’s frightening. It shakes our foundations. It makes us question everything we’ve been taught, how we’ve developed our own value systems. All of this is true. It is also true that the pain of recognizing complicity with toxic whiteness and racism cannot be compared to the pain of being the target of racist actions, policies and institutions, whether implicit or explicit, intentional or inflicted in ignorance.
Asking for help is not valued in our society, no matter who you are. We value rugged individualism, honoring those who pull through. Hardy individualists don’t ask for help. (By the way, “robust individualism” is also a great marketing tool of toxic whiteness – perpetuating the idea that things beyond one’s control have no impact on one’s ability to succeed.) I had to pass by complete exhaustion resulting in a three month furlough before I recognized that asking for help is a leadership strength, not a symbol of weakness. Our culture promotes individual leaders, presenting them as the faces of work, with philanthropic, shareholder and campaign fundraising funds channeled to personalities rather than missions.
Take an environment where asking for help is personally and organizationally discouraged and add a message of toxic whiteness that white people talk about and inevitably make mistakes, race and racism is a bigger issue than racism itself, and you going to have a situation where white people call each other and say, “Let’s talk about how we do this race job and wrestle with the tough questions about how it affects us as white people” is rare.
Again, being a victim of racism and the resulting short and long term trauma and lack of access to opportunity is something I cannot understand. I will also repeat that understanding, dealing with and undoing internalized white supremacy is hard and painful work for white people. These two things can be true and not concurrent. White people should not prioritize or center their pain and struggle on that of black people and others who have been oppressed. White people should not explicitly or implicitly ask black people for sympathy, understanding or pity, because undoing our toxic whiteness takes hard work. It’s inappropriate. White people can and should speak with each other to validate and normalize that the work is difficult, deeply uncomfortable, and requires time and emotional energy.
If we as white people do not name the difficulty and the challenge, we continue to keep the work silent, in the dark – underground. Toxic whiteness, racism and all “isms” love darkness. They thrive on fear of white people, whether it’s fear that other white people will see them as a traitor to their race, someone who pushes too hard for change outside the comfortable norm for white people, or fear that black people and other traditionally oppressed people will get angry or name our mistakes and missteps on the way to eliminating toxic whiteness. Here’s the truth: Both of these things will happen. White people who talk about undoing whiteness anger other white people. Some complain loudly or make threats. Others will quietly take you aside.
White people working to undo toxic whiteness will make mistakes. We will speak badly, misunderstand the ally, advance at the wrong time, unintentionally offend and harm. Black people and other people from marginalized groups will call us. Sometimes they will do it gently, calling us. Other times they will respond with anger and resentment, tired of giving way to another white person’s educational process.
This is the question we white people need to ask ourselves: Are your fears of experiencing the legitimate discomfort of these situations greater and more important than repairing the harm that racism and oppression inflict on human beings every day? Are these fears more important than creating a world based on fairness?
The work of dismantling white supremacy is systemic. Personal decisions and actions will not get us all the way. But, this decision point that white people face is personal. We have the privilege of deciding whether to deal with this discomfort, this guilt and this fear. Black people cannot choose whether racism will impact their lives.
Once you’ve made the choice to enter the unlearning space of toxic whiteness, calling it hard work is okay. Discussing your successes, failures, ongoing issues, fears, and burnout with other white people is okay. My conversations with white people I knew would hold me back while I cried and hold me accountable to do better have been my lifeline as I “get the job done.” It’s not the only part of the job. It’s part of the job. This is a room that can no longer be underground.
Abby Anderson has spent more than a decade as the executive director of a statewide nonprofit and is the founder of The march of justice