Wanted: a healthy anti-racist white identity

IssueFebruary 2021
Anti-racist rally in Sydney, Australia, 2005. IMAGE: M.e, CC BY-SA 3.0, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/ via Wikimedia Commons
Feature by Shelley Tochluk

Speaking to a public meeting on white nationalism in Los Angeles in August 2019, white anti-racist educator Shelly Tochluk said: ‘I have to be honest and tell you that I don’t think white anti-racist people have been paying enough attention to how savvy and effective white nationalists are at taking advantage of the shame that continues to be a foundation for many white anti-racists’ approach to conversations about our racial identity.’

Shelly pointed out that white nationalists target young white males who lack a sense of power, self-esteem and community; who are trying to form a sense of self; who don’t know the history of racial oppression (because they haven’t been taught it); and who don’t know that some people think of ‘whiteness’ as a system of domination, rather than just a colour.

Shelly asked the activists at the meeting to consider how some common white anti-racist messages might sound to those kind of young white men:

  • There is no ‘us vs them’ with ‘us’ being decent, non-racist white people and ‘them’ being bad racist people. We’re all racists, enacting racism all the time.
  • We need to stop worrying about whether or not we are ‘good’ people. No matter what we do, the idea of being a ‘good’ white person is a lost cause.
  • We’re all perpetuating white supremacy culture. Every one of us is complicit. There’s no escape from this reality, as long as we’re white.
  • Our intentions don’t matter. Our impact is what counts, and our impact is generally harmful because we’re white, and therefore racist.
  • We should be working to dismantle whiteness, undo whiteness, disrupt whiteness. Pick your verb. But the message is that whiteness is bad, it needs to be eliminated, and we should focus on being less white.

Shelly wrote the following text shortly after the meeting:

The issue of white racial identity is one worth arguing over, and I’ve spent years engaged in the discussion. 

Many people I know and love have landed on the side of it being far better to follow the, quite understandable, logic that, because race is an invented concept meant to divide people, and whiteness was created specifically as part of a system to oppress people of colour, then it’s best for us to build our identity on something, anything, that provides a more solid and healing ground upon which to stand. 

In this approach, the suggestion put forward is that we should stop identifying as white.

I sometimes feel pulled in this direction myself. I feel the truth in it. 

And then I observe the consequences of what happens when we do not move through the racial identity process. It’s generally not pretty. 

We tend to beat up on ourselves, as well as each other, and we distance ourselves from those who aren’t ‘on board’ with our analysis. 

Our investment in empathy is often reduced, and this limits our effectiveness in bringing more white people into anti-racism.

Ultimately, I believe that if we’re going to dismantle whiteness [as a system of domination], we need to understand not only the economic and political construction of race, but the social construction as well, and this involves the identity development process.

It’s been my experience working with Alliance of White Anti-Racists Everywhere – Los Angeles (AWARE-LA) for the last 15 years, that AWARE-LA’s model of creating a healthy anti-racist white identity has been quite useful in helping people build and enact a more effective anti-racist practice, one that pulls more white people toward investing in racial justice. 

It’s this outcome that is my primary concern. Please notice that I said anti-racist white identity. I always use the ‘anti-racist’ part. 

It is essential that I distinguish that the intent is not to replicate the same old dominant form of white identity. 

Five new messages

About that list [of five common white anti-racist messages]: In my experience, those who bypass the inner, healing work needed to resolve identity questions are more likely to speak and act in ways that betray unresolved guilt and shame, which leads to conveying those unfortunate and muddled messages [above] listed in the presentation. 

What I know to be true is that healthy, white anti-racist people become skilful at imparting messages that both tell the truth about our racism and uplift people at the same time. 

This is what I hear within my anti-racist white community:

  • Each of us has been conditioned by a system steeped in racism, and each of us has the opportunity to join a community of people who recognise this and collectively work against it.
  • We can be good people and conditioned by racism at the same time. It’s a both/and kind of thing.
  • We’ve inherited a society that has had white supremacy baked into its systems and cultural norms for so long that none of us is immune. It isn’t our fault personally. What we are responsible for is choosing to take action to change things.
  • When we are told we’ve hurt someone, we often say our behaviour could not possibly be connected to racism because we didn’t intend it that way. In doing this, we fail to recognise the harm done. If we focus on the impact instead, we learn something new and avoid harming someone in the future.
  • Whiteness is a system of dominance. Whiteness is not white people. The effort to undo whiteness is about recognising how racism has conditioned our psyches, relationships, institutions, systems, and culture for a very, very long time, and then trying to unravel it. White people can choose how we relate to dominant cultural norms and systems. We can work collectively to change society.

These are all messages I find encouraging.

About my focus on white people generally, some will say that a focus on white nationalism is not a racial justice priority, as racial justice is about focusing on the needs of people of colour. 

To this, I would respectfully suggest that disrupting the recruitment efforts of white nationalists is intrinsically related to racial justice because the spread of white nationalist rhetoric results in dangerous conditions for people of colour. 

Whether those conditions involve a mass shooting, hate-filled graffiti in a neighbourhood, or aggressive rhetoric on school campuses, disrupting the spread of white nationalist ideology is a part of creating equitable and inclusive environments for people of colour. 

I recognise and take responsibility for the fact that this is white people’s work.

It is also work that must continue in solidarity with people of colour, LGBTQ+, immigrants, Muslims, and Jewish folks, those who are most impacted by white nationalist violence.

“White anti-racist people have not been paying enough attention to how savvy and effective white nationalists are at taking advantage of the shame that continues to be a foundation for many white anti-racists’ approach to anti-racism.”

About my concern for the emotional lives of white boys specifically: I have been looking closely at this issue for two years. That’s not a long time. It’s more than most who run in anti-racist circles, though. 

Losing a generation

And I am convinced that we are in danger of losing a large percentage of the next generation of white youth. 

They may go all the way down the rabbit-hole to adopting white nationalism. 

Or, they may stop midway and land on the alt-light, less overtly racist versions of misogyny, jokes about social justice warriors, or advocating more strongly for free speech than against hate speech. 

Either way, pulling them back from these positions of conscious hate is far harder than stopping them from going down that road in the first place.

White people have an opportunity to interrupt the harm that could result, by offering young white boys:

1) a sense of community that encourages exploration of how toxic masculinity boxes them in,

2) purpose and meaning in joining the fight for justice, and

3) a pathway toward an anti-racist white identity that supports them to stand tall and proud.

To make this a reality, these young people will need an accepting and understanding community to join, and that’s what we as anti-racist white people have no choice but to create for them.