GRIEF AND THE WHITE VOID
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“I stood to my feet in the midst of the cosmos. I discovered that all were intoxicated and none were thirsty. At the moment you are inebriated, but free from the effects of wine, you too may turn and stand.” — Yeshua, Saying 28, Coptic Gospel of Thomas
I am heir to the great American tradition of East coast white liberal ideology, raised believing that Republicans were the problem and Democrats were the solution. My political education happened around the dinner table, where we would talk politics, history, and literature, and rail against conservative ideology.
I learned that although our American system was malfunctioning, it was a fundamentally righteous and free system, and the job of Americans of conscience was to fix it. This made sense to me. My life did seem to be working just fine (as a white, wealthy, straight man).
And yet, I had the nagging sense that something was wrong with this system. I sensed it in the anger inside me and other white children. I sensed it in my own resentment of Black students who sat together in my school’s cafeteria, creating a space in which I didn’t feel welcome.
I had no language for what I was experiencing, only shame. I was a conscious, left-leaning, intelligent, and compassionate white person. How could I allow the casual racism going on around me to continue unchecked? Was that racism inside of me, too?
Confronting White Denial
Professor Janet E. Helms offers an illuminating model of white racial identity development. According to this model, after white people discover that race does matter and that its effects directly contradict American meritocracy stories, many of us go through what’s called the “reintegration” phase. This is characterized by racial denial, blaming people of color for the problems of racism.
Denial is a feature found in another facet of the human psychological experience: grief. When I compare the Kubler-Ross model of grieving to Helms’ white identity development model, the similarities are striking.
Grief is usually thought of as the product of losing something or someone. But what about a white grief that is rooted in absence, parts of oneself that were tied off at the stump by whiteness, never allowed to develop in the first place?
What would it mean to fully grieve that absence?
Race Turns the World Upside Down
A caveat: this story of my experience as a white person is mine alone. I live at the intersection of many different privileged identities besides whiteness, and so I hope that my story will inspire other white people with different identities to tell their own.
White supremacy protects me and benefits me materially while simultaneously stunting the growth of my spirit and my intellect. This internal death is invisible. It’s especially easy to miss in a materialistic society that worships material abundance over everything else.
In my life, the primary effect of whiteness has been to create invisible walls. I was raised with walls between my heart and my head, and between myself and other people (both white and people of color).
It took a great deal of work for me to accept the reality of racism as real and ever-present. I stayed in denial for many years, trying to cope with my complicity in the vast story of white supremacist violence. I was able to break through that denial thanks to the cumulative teachings of hundreds of people who risked investing in me through sharing their truths. In many cases, I resisted hearing what they had to say.
I spent years trying to bargain my way out of whiteness. I believed that somehow, if I could help people of color, I could embrace their cultures, hoping to fill the void at the center of my whiteness.
I took African dance classes. I learned to play the Chinese fiddle. I taught marginalized children of color. I thought that through all this I could be saved, but in reality, I was desperately flailing to fill the yawning white void.
And I was misunderstanding the problem. I thought that people of color were the ones who needed support in coping with reality. My inability to see my own stake in ending white supremacy fooled me into working to address racism as though it were an optional experiment on behalf of unfortunate, downtrodden people of color.
But now I know that race can only exist in a world turned upside down. Because white people stole two continents and two hundred years of the backbreaking labor of millions, race reassures us that Blackness is related to thievery. Because white men have raped Black and Brown women with impunity for centuries, race comforts us with the lie that it’s Black masculinity that is defined by hypersexual predation. Because white people penned Black people in the “ghetto” via redlining, race tells us that this “ghetto” is an indictment of Black pathology.
And while my culture tells me that racism is a problem for people of color, it turns out the origin of racism is within white communities. People of color weren’t the ones who created whiteness or violated my spirit with it. That was my own people. That is my peers. That is me, too.
At first, this realization felt like the greatest burden — how could I live with the understanding that my existence is built on a foundation of death and destruction? I longed to return to ignorance.
But with the support of the teachings of my peers and those who came before me, I came to realize that this knowledge was not a burden, but instead the greatest of gifts — the gift of work that is mine to do. Like many liberal white Americans, I had spent so much time and energy trying to figure out just what my calling was — where could I go to do The Most Good? Africa? Haiti? The “inner city?”
It turns out that the answer is right here inside myself and my white communities. We need to help ourselves. We need to heal ourselves. Most importantly, there is nowhere we need to go.
Braving the White Microscope
For 400 years, the power structures of this country have silently centered the white experience, while people of color have been put under the microscope (for example, think of minstrel shows and yellowface theater).
So as I realize that I’ve been intentionally prevented from understanding my white absence, it makes sense to center the experience of people of color, while putting whiteness under the microscope.
Now, peering through that microscope, I see that my programming is so deep that I can only understand the lie I’ve been living in through the lens of that lie itself. There will never be a moment of final awakening.
The only road towards integrity leads me back through the delusional stories my identity was built on. I must surrender to grieving my intentional malformation.
I’ve been living wrapped up in a velvet strait jacket, force-fed rich food, laid down and shackled to the softest of cushions next to a picturesque and comforting fire. The persistent, comforting, and silent white acculturation process never allowed me to develop into the full human that I have the potential to be.
I grew up intellectually stunted, perceiving myself to be superior in the arts of logic and reason, but unable to see the barrage of data right in front of me that implicated me in systemic oppression. I grew up socially stunted, unable to figure out how to connect with people I perceived as different. I also grew up spiritually stunted, professing democratic values of equality, freedom, and justice, and yet unable to see the ways in which being “white” put me out of integrity with those values. Meanwhile, the assimilation of my European ancestors disconnected me from their faiths and traditions, who had to shed so much in order to “integrate” into American society.
White Guilt is a Trick
Many people hear me and roll their eyes, triggered by what they perceive as “white guilt.”
No. If I know anything, it’s white guilt. I spent most of my adult life deeply motivated by white guilt. That was an important phase of my journey, but it was not the end.
Why? Because guilt is rooted in regret about our actions, and my original sin was not my fault. In the womb, I did not choose whiteness. Privilege was chosen for me by the dominant culture. I never had a chance.
We, the people who labeled ourselves “white,” could live in integrity. We could live unfragmented lives in which we could be accepted for who we are, along with our radically diverse ancestries and experiences. And I believe that it is our right and our duty as human beings to fight for that wholeness.
Choose: the Comfort or the Flames?
In most situations that are grieved, such as losing a loved one to cancer, the loss is clear. Other people understand the reason for the person’s grief, and understand on some level what has been lost.
But the stunting of my humanity as a white person is an absence, not a loss, which makes it invisible. Nearly every facet of American society conspires to hide my white absence from me. It’s a near-perfect brand of mental programming because it covers its own tracks, and I can quite easily spend my entire white life in denial of racism’s existence.
I stand on a bridge over the abyss. On one side, a return to the feast, the soft pillows, the warm bed. On the other side, a wall of flames.
Is it a surprise that I tend to take the easy way out?
Because who am I to imagine leaping through the fires to confront the fact that I am not who I think I am? To accept that I’ve been tricked with cheap, shiny rewards into service as an unwitting stormtrooper, used as a tool to support a system of violence against people of color that goes against every one of my deepest values?
I cannot face those flames if I’m fighting on behalf of someone else. Comfort and safety await me the moment I turn back. Why abandon that? Only faith, a belief that beyond the veil of whiteness, I can be forged again, can steel me for that leap.
Once burned and recast as a fighter for my own freedom, I will no longer retreat when the struggle becomes risky. When I see the fight against white supremacy as a fight for both the lives of people of color and white souls, retreat ceases to be an option.
We will know we are really winning against white supremacy when the police guns turn to point at us.
What will we, the newly-targeted, do then?
Mutual Healing Through Reparations
This is a love note to myself and my white siblings already in the struggle. We are swimming in a sea of unacknowledged white grief. When we witness ourselves and other white people acting out that grief in unproductive ways, anger and superiority are not helpful. Instead, we need to hear the desperate cries for white healing spaces that are grounded in accountability to and support for organizing led by people of color. This is the work we must do to be a part of the multi-racial coalitions fighting for collective liberation.
As I have learned to begin grieving, I have begun to see that people of color are better positioned to understand the insidious ways that whiteness operates than I am. That doesn’t mean that they can’t also be deluded by white supremacy, nor does it mean that I can’t develop my ability to see more clearly. But it does mean that people of color have been forced to confront the contours and implications of whiteness that have been deliberately hidden from me.
Given this realization, I am no longer going to waste time and energy trying to be the “exceptional white person,” the one who — magically — isn’t complicit in systemic racism. Instead, I can close my eyes and breathe in my complicity. I was born into this mess and it is my responsibility to fight for freedom from it.
I will never be able to live in integrity with myself as a white person until people of color are free. The intentionally-deprived material existence of people of color, especially Black and Native people, is a direct reflection of the contorted spiritual condition of white America.
I can let go of the idea of leading people of color on the road to freedom. I lived for my first 30 years of life unaware of the existence of my own velvet restraints, and I’m only just now beginning to see clearly. So I have plenty of work to do to figure out my own liberation as a white person, and I can trust people of color to lead their own struggle.
One primary reason Black and Native people haven’t been able to get free yet is that the white power structure has intentionally denied them the material wealth necessary to collectively envision and carry out their liberation. So I see three ways I can “help” Black and Native people:
- Moving material resources to Black and Native organizing efforts
- Speaking up in white public spaces about white supremacy
- Building community through working with other white people to reforge our identities as white people
Instead of framing reparations as a moral obligation to historically marginalized people, I see it as everyone getting what they need to heal from white supremacy. To create a foundation for their healing, people of color need the material resources they’ve historically been denied. Meanwhile, my work to support that struggle materially allows me to channel my white grief into work, transforming it into strength, joy, and freedom. In this way, reparations are not only about helping people of color — I benefit from wealth redistribution just as much as everyone else.
There is no roadmap for this work, although there are many who have blazed trails before us. So I stumble forward, honoring those who came before me, committed to learning and trusting that my relationships will help me to correct my course.
By stepping fully into my white grief, I get to move forward in my quest to break free from white supremacy alongside people of color and my white siblings. I am able to see how I get the chance to live toward integrity, the opportunity to be a part of the age-old story of people struggling to be free. Thus I stand to take up the battle, alongside millions of other people, to fight the only opponent I’ve ever really had, the only opponent I could ever fight, and the only opponent that stands between me and my own freedom.
If my writing resonated with you, please consider clicking the ❤ button below and sharing. Thank you to Martha Collins, Johnny Lapham, Ukumbwa Sauti, Jason David, and Sandra Kim for editing.
Note: this is a shorter version of a longer essay called “Grieving the White Void.”