Over the course of my time in higher education, I, along with many, have learned to navigate white spaces while maintaining my sense of individuality and self as a Black person. This experience in itself is radicalizing, but as I increased my Black revolutionary education I discovered how proximity to whiteness as an idea and a practice can stunt the growth of Black liberation movements at all levels.
Whiteness is a pervasive concept that controls anything from how people are paid for their labor to the appropriation and adoption of Black aesthetics for commercial use. Whiteness killed Emmett Till and incarcerated the Exonerated Five, but it also violently disrupts the life of Black people everywhere. It is a tool of the oppressor to maintain white supremacy and Western hegemony; and its presence in one’s daily life must be evaluated as a commitment to Black revolutionary ideals.
Whiteness can effectively transform Black people and people of color in positions of power into agents of its perpetuation. The status, influence, and wealth that can come with aligning oneself with whiteness is often enough to compromise a commitment to revolutionary principles of Black liberation. A common manifestation of this mindset is “we can’t get anywhere if we don’t include white people” rhetoric.
This narrative operates under the assumption that Black people need their oppressors to achieve their own liberation. It is key for all people committed to the total liberation of Black people to understand how and where whiteness allows itself to compromise their commitment to the total freedom of Black people. Excusing one instance of whiteness can facilitate the violent exertion of whiteness in the future.
Whiteness is directly antithetical to the core of Black liberation principles, and its role in one’s life should be carefully examined.
What does excusing whiteness look like? It can be defending racially ignorant actions of white people in any context, allowing white friends to adopt Black features, aesthetics, and culture for their own gratification, or adhering to standards of whiteness to put down Black folks (bonnets shouldn’t be worn outside, talking “proper” instead of using AAVE, etc.). Participating in the commodification and mockery of Black people and culture is also an extension of whiteness.
Excusing whiteness can also be allowing spaces exclusively for Black people to be opened to all. Whiteness mandates an inclusion in all things, even when something is not created as a white space. An example of this entitlement is white people attending Historically Black Colleges and Universities, joining Black professional, social, or greek letter organizations, or being “invited to the cookout.”
Whiteness views Black people as objects to serve the goals of white supremacy and hegemony. It gives our oppresses the power to victimize themselves in all situations and do whatever is necessary in the name of self preservation. In doing so, it repeatedly puts Black people in danger. Whiteness is directly antithetical to the core of Black liberation principles, and its role in one’s life should be carefully examined.
Late into my high school years and early in my college career, I examined the role whiteness played in my own life. When we live in a world constructed by whiteness and white supremacy, it’s difficult to know what facets of our conditions were thrust upon us and what we have control over. A key question to ask is: where does my proximity to whiteness serve as a tool of self preservation, and where am I compromising my own beliefs to maintain this proximity?
It is important to remember that whiteness is inherently self-preserving; but this does not serve the oppressed. When things get dicey and tensions rise, whiteness will not save you. As Black people engage in the fight for liberation, it is imperative to evaluate how one holds on to whiteness as a myth of self-preservation.
As I enter my last year of college, I have learned not to give whiteness access to me or my energy as my own form of self-preservation. There are, of course, strategic benefits to incorporating white people into the existing efforts put forth by oppressed peoples in the name of class solidarity, as the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party demonstrated. However, it is essential not to conflate white people with whiteness. All white people benefit from whiteness; they can operationalize their whiteness to the detriment of Black people and our work, or they can choose not to.
What is important to note, however, is how uncommon it is for that choice to be made. Even the most “woke” will weaponize their whiteness for their own benefit. In the same way, Black people and people of color who have been granted access to some degree of whiteness can weaponize it to maintain oppressive structures.
Evaluating one’s proximity to whiteness is a key step in working toward Black liberation. “Sleeping with the enemy” can compromise the integrity of Black revolutionary work and drill cracks in the foundation of decades of organizing. One must remember that Black liberation demands not only critical thought of the system, but of the self.
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