One of toxic whiteness’ greatest successes is convincing white people that any talk about racism is taboo and, ironically, racist. You’ve heard President Obama called a racist because, during his term in office, he talked about race. So, white people like me don’t talk about race or racism. We don’t build skills or comfort around talking about race and racism.
Another success of toxic whiteness is indoctrinating white people that the worst possible thing that could happen to a white person is to be accused of racism. In some ways I think this is framed as worse than taking actions that directly hurt Black people. There were politicians who listened to hours of testimony from Black people about negative, blatantly racially motivated interactions with police and then voted against the police accountability bill those Black voters said they needed to feel and be safe in their communities. They were outraged when commenters called the position they took “racist.”
This narrative of toxic whiteness and the mindset it creates is grounded in the idea that racism is only one easy-to-define and recognize thing — an overt, personal or systemic action clear and blatant in its intentional purpose to discriminate. In reality, racism is deep, wide, sneaky, and baked so deeply into our structures, lives, and thinking that we white folks mostly don’t see it and rarely perpetuate it intentionally. When Black people or others impacted by these structures and thinking point racism out to us — point out the difference between our intention and our impact, –we don’t believe them and instead accuse them of “playing the race card” or “making everything about race.”
Everything in American culture is about race. It was designed that way. Housing, education, policing, incarceration, banking, recreation, economic mobility, health care, all of it is rooted in racially-motivated philosophy and intent.
We are a country that declared in its founding documents that Black people only counted as 3/5th of a person. It took me a long time to realize that fraction wasn’t simply about the math of legislative districting and political representation. In making that statement, the bedrock document of our country stated that Black individuals were only 3/5th human, just a little more than half. When a country builds itself and all of its institutions based on the belief that only some of the individuals in it are fully human, using skin color as a metric, it is impossible for those institutions to one day transform themselves to be “color blind” and race neutral. In fact, color blindness or race neutrality aren’t the goals. We need individuals and institutions to acknowledge their history and then listen to and hire from the community most harmed to lead the work needed to imagine and create new ways of being that give all people the chance to thrive.
It is hard work for white people to recognize the sea of privilege and toxic whiteness culture we are raised in and benefit from. It’s scary. It shakes our foundations. It makes us question everything we were taught, the way we’ve developed our own value systems. That is all true. It is also true that the pain of recognizing complicity with toxic whiteness and racism can’t be compared with the pain of being the target of racist actions, policies, and institutions, whether those are implicit or explicit, intended or inflicted with complete ignorance.
Asking for help is not valued in our society, no matter who you are. We value rugged individualism, honoring those who pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Rugged individualists don’t ask for help. (By the way, “Rugged Individualism” is also a great marketing tool of toxic whiteness — perpetuating the idea that things outside of one’s control have no impact on their ability to succeed.) I had to go through a full burn-out resulting in a three month leave-of-absence before I recognized asking for help as a leadership strength, not a symbol of weakness. Our culture lionizes individual leaders, holding them up as the faces of the work, with philanthropic, shareholder, and campaign fundraising dollars funneled to personalities rather than missions.
Take an environment where asking for help is personally and organizationally discouraged and add toxic whiteness’ message that white people talking about, and inevitably making mistakes around, race and racism is a bigger problem than racism itself, and you’re going to get a situation where white people calling each other in and saying, “let’s talk about how we are doing this race work and wrestle with the hard questions about how it impacts us as white people” is rare.
Again, being victimized by racism and the resulting short- and long-term trauma and lack of access to opportunities is something I cannot understand. I will also repeat that understanding, processing, and undoing internalized white supremacy is hard, painful work for white people. Those two things can both be true and not in competition with each other. White people should not prioritize or center their pain and struggle over 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 requires hard work. That is inappropriate. White people can and should talk with each other to validate and normalize the fact that the work is challenging, deeply uncomfortable, and requires time and emotional energy.
If we as white people do not name the difficulty and challenge, we continue to keep the work quiet, in the dark — underground. Toxic whiteness, racism and all of the “isms” love the darkness. They thrive on white people’s fear, whether that be the fear that other white people will see them as a traitor to their race, someone pushing too hard for change outside of the comfortable -for-white-people norm, or fear that Black people and other traditionally oppressed people will get angry or name our mistakes and missteps on the way to undoing toxic whiteness. Here’s the truth: both of those things will happen. White people talking about undoing whiteness angers some other white people. Some will loudly complain or make threats. Others will quietly take you aside.
White people working to undo toxic whiteness will make mistakes. We will misspeak, misunderstand ally-ship, step forward at the wrong times, unintentionally offend, and do harm. Black people and other individuals from marginalized groups will call us out. Sometimes they will do so gently, calling us in. Other times they will respond with anger and resentment, tired of holding space for yet another white person’s educational process.
Here’s the question us white folks have to ask ourselves: Are your fears of experiencing the legitimate discomfort of those situations bigger and more important than undoing the harm racism and oppression perpetrate on human beings every day? Are those fears more important than creating a world rooted in equity?
The work of dismantling white supremacy is systemic. Personal decisions and actions won’t take us the whole way. But, this decision-point white people face is personal. We have the privilege to decide whether to face that discomfort, guilt, and fear. Black people do not get to choose whether racism will impact their lives.
Once you make the choice to walk into the space of unlearning toxic whiteness, naming that it is hard work is OK. Discussing your successes, failures, ongoing questions, fears, and exhaustion with other white people is OK. My conversations with white people, I knew, would both hold me while I cried and hold me accountable to doing better have been my lifeline as I “do the work.” It’s not the only part of the work. It’s one piece of the work. It’s a piece that can no longer be underground.
Abby Anderson spent over a decade as executive director of a statewide nonprofit and is the founder of The Justice Walk