Towards a Concept of White Wounding

Rather than turning our focus to finding ways to "heal" ourselves and build a more positive self-image, white people need to sit with our "wounds," which in reality simply means acknowledging and empathizing with as much of the pain that is inflicted on our behalf as possible.
08/14/2015 02:18 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017
TORONTO, ON- JULY 27 - Uranranebi Agbeyegbe screams into a microphone during a Black Lives Matter protest that marched from G
TORONTO, ON- JULY 27 - Uranranebi Agbeyegbe screams into a microphone during a Black Lives Matter protest that marched from Gilbert Avenue to Allen Road on Eglinton Avenue. The protest shut down the southbound Allen Road for around 30 minutes, causing traffic to reverse and exit through Lawrence Avenue. (Melissa Renwick/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

(This is addressed to white people, from white people. The use of "you", "us", "we", "our", etc. are used accordingly. It is also written in the context of how race operates in the United States, though the impacts of whiteness are global).

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Artwork: "Save us From Ourselves" - Kelly Pickering, 2008

Whiteness was designed to exclude, and to simultaneously offer those of us classified as white certain comforts, privileges, as well as political, economic, and cultural supremacy. Because of this, whiteness harms those it excludes and classifies as others. Importantly, it does so on our behalf.

Owning up to and acknowledging the inherited benefits of whiteness, and encouraging other white people to do so as well, is an integral aspect of working toward racial justice in white spaces.

Yet, when confronted with the depth of sins whiteness has and continues to commit to the benefit of all white people, many of us--even those who claim they share in the desire to work toward racial justice--are scared away.

And so, often, white people working toward racial justice do so with an eye toward creating a new version of whiteness, rather than dealing with whiteness as it exists. Now let's be clear, working toward a healthier version of whiteness is an important normative ideal. But not when it comes at the expense of dealing with the unjust, and immoral system of white supremacy as it exists, in favor of focusing on idealistic versions of whiteness designed to make us individually feel better. Put differently, we need philosophers, scholars, engaged citizens, and thoughtful actors imagining the world as it could be--but when the subject at hand is literally a matter of survival for black people and/or People of Color, it's our belief that the focus of white anti-racists should tilt heavily toward honestly dealing with the injustices in front of us.

As such, tearing down the system of white supremacy much of the world operates on is a prerequisite to forming any meaningful healthy version of whiteness. This is work that will not be accomplished in our lifetime. It simply isn't possible. This must be intergenerational work, not intragenerational work.

The primary question for white anti-racists then, should ask how we can accelerate the break up of white supremacy, rather than what type of whiteness should come next--or if we can rid ourselves of whiteness altogether.

Importantly, the effort to break up white supremacy posthaste requires a diversity of tactics, efforts, people, organizations, opinions, and so on. What's suggested here is hardly meant to encompass that range, and it is not meant to demean or necessarily render an opinion on most of the tactics other white people are using in this fight. It is to critique a misguided focus on creating a version of whiteness that seems more akin to escapism than a realistic possibility, and one that we believe diverts us from the real work at hand.

More than anything it's a thought. A notion. One that's being worked out on these pages as it's typed. As such, it will be missing key pieces. It will likely be wrongheaded in certain (hopefully not all) aspects.

At its core, our proposal is simple. White people need to open ourselves up to a particular type of wounding to genuinely understand and then work toward racial justice. Our comfort and privilege generally keeps us from incurring these wounds naturally, and thus they must be sought out, disseminated, and used to motivate action.

In its historic and current function, whiteness wounds others on our behalf. Understanding this is critical to anti-racist work in white spaces. But learning about and acknowledging this reality often disrupts white comfort, conjures senses of guilt, or shame, and thus, white people often then selfishly turn to address and alleviate these sources of personal discomfort.

How can whiteness be better? we ask. How can we create a healthier feeling whiteness, one that doesn't produce or perpetuate harm? One that is welcoming and encourages other "good" white people to join in the struggle for racial, social, and economic justice that we've committed ourselves to. A whiteness that can offer an alternative to the painful reality of what whiteness really is--oppression, exclusion, undue harm, undue benefit, privilege, and supremacy.

While good-natured, what these questions aren't asking is how we can tear down white supremacy and problematic whiteness. They're really asking, how can I feel better about my whiteness. As a result, they effectively help white people evade culpability in the system of white supremacy we remain draped within, rather than challenge it.

This doesn't deconstruct white supremacy. If anything it exemplifies it by centering and prioritizing white feelings.

Beyond this, if the goal is dismantling a system of white supremacy, changing our personal sense of whiteness misses the mark. Systems of power can and will exist regardless of the individual or even group mentalities or feelings of those operating within them. By educating ourselves on the damage caused by whiteness, and the system of white supremacy that undergirds it, and then turning to find a version of whiteness at-odds with this system, we don't tear the system down. Instead, perhaps counter-intuitively, we create actors within that system who no longer believe they are perpetuating it, which does exactly that.

Rather than turning our focus to finding ways to "heal" ourselves and build a more positive self-image, white people need to sit with our "wounds," which in reality simply means acknowledging and empathizing with as much of the pain that is inflicted on our behalf as possible. A good friend, artist and educator Charlena Wynn, recently reminded us of the old adage: white people talk about racism, black people and/or People of Color live it. So the least white people can do is to sit with as much awareness as we can muster, to talk about it, and try to truly revel in the heaviness of that pain without looking to excuse ourselves from its burden.

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Surely, at this point, some readers might be wondering what good this tactic would do. Won't it just scare off "good" white people? Won't white people refuse to engage in this work if it's painful?

Maybe. Shit, probably.

But working toward racial justice cannot be about white people feeling better about our whiteness. If anything it should be about the opposite. And no, this doesn't mean you shouldn't be proud of who you are, or your heritage/ethnicity--but these are not the same as your whiteness.

People marked as non-white walk around with visible and invisible scars, deal with the opening of new and the reopening of old wounds, and face constant reminders of the harm done at their expense on behalf of whiteness. The job of white people working toward racial justice needs to involve opening ours and the eyes of other white people to these injuries, insisting we share or understand the pain as much as we can, and subsequently using this awareness to motivate and inform our fight against the system of white supremacy that perpetuates said harm.

Quickly, let's digress to note this fundamental way white wounding differs from white guilt. Guilt stems from awareness combined with inaction. White wounding is a call to action. White people who bemoan learning about or discussing racial inequality, and suggest it's an effort to make them feel guilty, are really only admitting their unwillingness to do anything to change the unjust status quo. If you ask us, they should feel guilty.

Today, it's the people who absolve any guilt by opting for racial euphemisms rather than slurs, who pretend they can't see color--erasing the differing realities of our experiences and histories that either come with or are applied to us based on color--and the moderates, who seem more detrimental than the overt racists using racial slurs, wearing hoods, and burning crosses.

It is the silence of the moderate, or the would-be anti-racist, that helps allow the victories of the overt racists to continue to oppress through mechanisms and stereotypes that we pretend are of the past, but have only become less overt, more difficult to quantify, and consequently harder to correct.

An injury is harder to ignore, though. And pain can be quite motivating. Hence, the need for white wounding.

It's time for white people to share in the hurt. To sit with the reality of what's been done in our name and to our benefit. And to allow this to inspire our work toward dismantling this system of racial hierarchy, oppression, and supremacy, that's existed and benefitted us for centuries.

This is a system that isn't broken, but is immoral. A system that isn't broken, but is unjust. A system that isn't broken, and thus, must be torn down before anyone should truly feel comfortable and healthy within it.

And in this sense, the only way to fix this unbroken system is to break it. To do that, those of us it protects and benefits must no longer sit immune from the pain caused by it. Comfort breeds inaction. When we are all uncomfortable, we can all work toward rebuilding. Toward healing. Until then, white anti-racists should sit with, and share our discomfort over the wounds exacted on our behalf with other white people, helping them to better understand and share these wounds of whiteness. And we must speak to other white people around us about this bluntly, forcefully, and without regard for white comfort or fragility.

Briefly, let's consider what this means, and what it doesn't. Or, vice versa.

First of all, it doesn't mean we're suggesting anti-racist whites should be angry or impatient with other white people we engage in discussions regarding race. Our anger isn't just unconstructive, it's comparatively unjustified in this discussion, and centering it embodies problematic whiteness.

When we say white people should be wounded, we're not suggesting white anti-racists should go around, angrily trying to make other white people feel bad for being white. Indeed, making someone feel bad about being white is different from helping them understand the wounds wrought by whiteness, and encouraging them to sit with those wounds without console or relief.

What it does mean is taking the time to engage, doing so patiently, and bluntly, without letting problematic white behavior slide (including our own), beating around the bush, or trying to make white people feel better about our whiteness when conversations get difficult or uncomfortable.

It also means we should make sure white people, including ourselves, are aware of the harm whiteness has and continues to inflict on our behalf. Rather than focusing on healing whiteness, we suggest white anti-racists should focus on sharing the wounds it's caused with other white people who would normally remain oblivious to them. In order to begin any process of healing these wounds, we must first be familiar with them. In a true testament to our position of privilege, this requires a deliberate process of personally seeking out and empathizing with these wounds. For this to be productive we must use that awareness to motivate our racial justice work.

White wounding means dedicating yourself to bearing witness to and learning about racial inequality and oppression, opening the door to understanding these issues in ways white comfort and privilege generally shield from our view. Understanding the context, history, and some of the calls to action being made to address these issues is a vital component of white wounding.

A basic example of this might be learning the stories of Rekia Boyd, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Jessie Hernandez, Tanisha Anderson, Yvette Smith, Sandra Bland, and the countless other Black people/People of Color who fall victim to our brutal, racist police state, and then sharing their stories with white family and friends who might otherwise never know their names.

Going a little further might mean taking the time to learn the histories and contexts behind slavery, voting rights, redlining, the school-to-prison pipeline, disparities in unemployment rates, prison sentencing, the racial empathy gap and other manifestations of racial oppression, and then talking to and educating white friends and family on these subjects. What you learned in public school or during most college educations won't suffice.

Understanding the ways race impacts our lives is something white people need to be seek out and talk about for some of us to even become aware of. This is white privilege. White wounding seeks to disrupt this privilege by forcing these topics into our lives. This isn't a task that should be left to Black people and/or People of Color, it should be on us.

Sadly, the basic need for awareness among many white people regarding the realities of how race impacts lived experience remains a necessary step for the white community to take writ large.

Thus, white wounding is a call to action. It's time to put our friends, family, co-workers, bosses, partners, social media connections, and our own comfort aside. The problem is real, and it is killing people. At this moment one of the most important and rudimentary things white anti-racists can do is spread awareness among other whites about racial inequality and oppression. It's time for white wounding.