PRRAC Poverty & Race Research Action Council
Home About PRRAC Current Projects Publications Newsletters Resources Contact Us Support PRRAC Join Our Email List

"Digging Out of the White Trap,"

by Marian Groot & Paul Marcus March/April 1998 issue of Poverty & Race

In a recent TV. interview with Toni Morrison about her latest novel Paradise, Charlie Rose asked whether Morrison thought she would ever stop writing about race. His question seemed to assume that books written about black people are about race while books about whites written by white authors are not - an assumption Rose shares with the dominant white culture that white is generic and that white people's experience is universal. It is this assumption that is finally being recognized by a growing number of white people, though it has been understood by many people of color for as long as racism has been around. Morrison's response: there is no writing that isn't about race.

There is a growing body of literature and analysis (see accompanying Resources box) that can help white people see that whiteness, though made to appear invisible to whites, is in fact a dynamic force that is used daily to oppress those who are not white and to privilege those of us who are. This invisibility is in large part what locks racism in place. As long as we do not have to see and acknowledge that we are given benefits and privilege simply because we are members of the dominant group, we can name racism as "black people's problem" or "Native Americans' problem" or the problem of some "Other." And as long as we can each assume an identity as an individual rather than as a member of the white race, we do not have to take any responsibility for racism.

Let us define a few terms. For us, race is not a biological category, but rather an economic, social and political construct. Racism is the institutionalized power held by white people and kept in place by the authority whites have to make and enforce decisions, to set standards of acceptability, to name reality and to access resources. Because it promotes the belief that white people and white culture are superior to all others, racism is the institutionalization of white supremacy.

As educators and organizers who have done anti-racism work for many years, these definitions provide a useful analysis for our work. This definition of race allows us to talk about a white race, and the definition of racism allows us to talk about a white problem. But what is whiteness?

This question has become a subject of interest to an increasing number of activists, educators, scholars and artists. That 300 people from cities around the US, Canada and Europe came to the second annual National Conference on Whiteness: Exploring Whiteness to End Racism (held last November In Cambridge, Mass.) evidences the growing interest.

As we planned the second conference, we began to see something of the range of perspectives on the meaning and relevance of whiteness. The question of who the conference was for came up often and in different ways. Some of the conference planners believe that since racism is a product of whiteness, it is white people who need to confront it. Others believe that racism will only be eliminated when we create multiracial spaces that are truly multicultural. Some of us believe that the world is not ready for multiculturalism and wont be until white people deal with the legacy of whiteness. Others or us find no problem with mono-cultural spaces and communities. provided no community has the power to impose its way on others.

We believe that in terms of addressing issues of race and racism, white people and people of color have different work to do. Though it is important for us to check in with each other and to come together for some of our work, whites must wade through the layers of our racism in order to learn not to monopolize power and privilege, while people of color must wade through the layers of internalized racism to learn to claim power.

In our experience, whiteness as a topic is not particularly attractive to many people of color; it was no surprise that they represented only 10-15% of participants at our conference.

In terms of class, we agreed that the conference needed to be accessible to people from all socio-economic backgrounds. This was much harder in deed than in word. Conferences tend to attract those who have the luxury of time and space to think, talk and write about their experience or the experiences of others. It isn't clear how thinking, talking and writing change the daily lived reality of people
most marginalized by racism and poverty. Conferences, by their very nature, do not attract working-class and poor people. Furthermore, in terms of class, it is hard to imagine why poor and working-class white people would be attracted to a discussion of white-ness, since typically there is the perception that only "trashy" white people need to claim their whiteness. The stereotypical white supremacist is a poor, uneducated white person. This stereotype allows middle- and upper-class white people to see racism as a problem of poor whites. This excuses middle- and upper-class whites from their own racism, and further stigma-tizes white poor people as being 'beyond help." It is easy for us to accuse whites living in segregated housing projects in such places as South Boston, for example. of being racist, yet we do not typically make the same accusation of whites living in highly segregated wealthy suburbs such as Wellesley or Newton.

Schools of Thought

The group known as New Abolitionists wants to completely eliminate whiteness as an identity, since it is based solely on not being black. While they acknowledge that much of the work being done in whiteness studies comes from an anti-racist perspective, they are concerned that by keeping whiteness as a category, we provide legitimacy to white nationalists.

Multiculturists tend to come in two categories. There are those who ignore power differences and believe we can solve our problems by bringing everyone to the table and having them get to know each other's cultures. They believe that in this process, prejudices and stereotypes will break down and disappear. Multiculturists with an anti-racist perspective believe that multicultural space can only be created when all groups have equal access to power. Therefore, issues of institutionalized power and privilege for whites must be dealt with.

Critical Race theory. White Racial Identity theory and Feminist theory on race are all academy-based examinations of race, racism and racial formation. Critical Race theorizers are interested in how white supremacy is written into the nations Laws. We are a nation of laws, and therefore examination of the ways in which racism is infused into our laws and legal institutions provides a deep understanding of how we as a people believe we ought to behave. White Racial Identity theory comes out of counseling psychology. It focuses on the stages whites go through in developing a positive white identity that includes confronting racism and oppression in daily life. Feminist theory is grounded in an examination of inequality between men and women but also examines power differences among women because of differences in race, class, sexuality. etc.

While it is useful to list these various perspectives, our interest in them is the degree to which they help us as white people to recognize our whiteness as well as its attendant privileges and to create and follow through on strategies that seek to eliminate racism. While we believe that much of this work must be done by whites for whites, we also believe firmly in maintaining that whites get feedback from communities of color for the work we do and remain accountable as we push forward any agendas that have implications for all of us. Creating the systems whereby we do this with integrity is one of the major challenges before us as this movement swells.

Losing One's Identity

While we are trained to believe that the elimination of racism is something we do for people of color, it is also about what it does for us. Maintaining privilege at the expense of truth, integrity and connection harms us as spiritual beings. In The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin writes to his nephew: "They [white people] are in effect still trapped in a history they do not understand; and until they understand it. they cannot be released from it. They have had to believe for many years, and for innumerable reasons. that Black men are inferior to white men. Many of them, indeed, know better, but, as you will discover, people find it very difficult to act on what they know. To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger. In this case. the danger, in the minds of most white Americans, is the loss of their identity."

Losing one's identity is very scary. Much of the psychological violence of white supremacy can be described as targeting and creating a loss of identity among people of color. White people fear this and will take risks only if they can see the promise of a new identity to emerge from the old loss. We may not have to say what that identity is at this point; we simply assert that it is something we need to reach for.

Risking the loss of our identity as whites will take nothing less than spiritual transformation. This cannot be a head thing - though we will need our heads. The anti-racist perspective we bring to our work is vital, but it is not enough. Each of us will have to find whatever spiritual resources will allow us to accept equality, or die" (W.E.B. DuBois).

Marian Groot Marian (Meck) Groot, a Dutch-Canadian who has lived in the US for the past 10 years, is Co-Director of the Women's Theological Ctr. (P0 Box /200, Boston. MA 021/7-1200, 617/536-8782. E-mail:
Paul Marcus Paul Marcus is director of programming & special projects for Com-munity Change (14 Beacon St., #60S, Boston, MA 02108. 617/523-0555, a 30-year old nonprofit focused on issues of institutionalized & systemic racism. The 3rd annual conference on white-ness will be held in Chicago next November. lnf. from the Or. for the Study of white American Culture. E-mail:

Join Our Email List
Search for:             
Join Our Email List