Several times before on separate occasions, we have heard white anti-racists use this argument: “This isn’t about white people, this is about whiteness.” It’s not that only white anti-racists use this argument, but this post will only address those who do. The phenomenon of PoC making this argument or practicing whiteness does exist, but this is not something for white folks to fully expose or comment on. Our responsibility is to address the problematic actions, thoughts, and states of privilege of white folks, not to call out PoC. In terms of white folks who use the argument that white privilege or white supremacy is not about white people, but is exclusively about the concept of whiteness… we disagree. It is not the abstract concept of whiteness that benefits from white privilege, it is white people who benefit. It is not whiteness that commits lynchings, hate crimes, or shootings, it is white people who concretely carry out these acts of violence. Because white people and folks with white skin privilege are writing this blog, we won’t get the backlash PoC would get for “hating white people” with this entry. Even if we are speaking critically of whiteness, we maintain our privilege as people with white skin. Whiteness exists in us and in our skin color as much as it exists beyond these things. Owning this privilege and admitting its existence can’t be equated with “hating” ourselves or other white people.
Whiteness is a combination of social ideas, forces, systems, and actors—all of them inseparable and interconnected. Whiteness is where we have grown up, the privileges we have enjoyed, our media representation, our social and public security, our racial politics, wealth and comfort from prior generations, and it is all of us as people who can only truthfully identify as white or identify as biracial but have white skin privilege. When white anti-racists, or white folks in general, distance themselves from being white they place whiteness in an abstract state and make it seem as though, with enough education, we can escape it. This is not so. It is ridiculous for white folks to say things like “Ugh I HATE white people” or “This is only about whiteness,” because both statements suggest the speaker has somehow “moved on” and is no longer white. Our minds and hearts can change, we as people can change, but regardless of these possibilities, our skin will always be white and we will therefore always benefit from white supremacy/privilege as long as this system is still in tact.
This particular debate is why we said in a previous post on white privilege that Peggy McIntosh’s idea of the Invisible Knapsack isn’t a good place to stop in terms of critically examining whiteness. While her list is accurate and overall holds true in the contemporary moment, its central focus is on individual privilege and freedom, not on networks of oppression and the brutality of power. Whiteness is not just an experience, a social state, or a system of advantages, it is also an expression of violence. White folks thinking of and/or seeing PoC as less than human is violent, denying the experiences PoC have with racism and oppression is violent, refusing to admit we have privilege over PoC is violent, housing segregation is violent, hate crimes are violent, racial language is violent. Why are these events and structures violent? Because they cause material harm and damage to PoC. White folks might disagree or disapprove, but we aren’t any less powerful and we can’t claim to be victims.
The point is not to take every argument about white privilege personally, meaning finding ourselves individually guilty for every white aggression/atrocity ever committed, but to understand how we can’t logically claim to be completely separate from whiteness. White anti-racists should not feel the need to comfort white folks (and possibly themselves) by saying “this isn’t about us as people,” when whiteness undoubtedly involves white people and our actions—we are comforted enough by white privilege anyway. If a white person calls an Arab person a “sand n*gger,” do they get to turn around and say “oh, that wasn’t me it was just my whiteness”? If we’re being real about the situation, it’s both. It’s the person and the privilege, the racist and the racism, that are equally accountable. What about the white folks that marched and organized during the height of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s? Sure they did good work with their politics in the right place, but their freedom to eat in segregated restaurants, their safety in going home to white neighborhoods, their ability to escape harassment outside of protest scenes, demonstrated the continued existence of their skin privilege. The system can’t exist without people to run it, people to reap rewards, and people to oppress.