Racism is a matter of Whiteness

In recent years, I’ve thought about race and racial discrimination in our world. I’ve written about racism in the American criminal justice system and how it continues the legacy of slavery; how movies vilify characters of color; the indifference towards refugees of color and growing Islamophobia within Europe and the United States; and hostility of white society towards racial justices movements like the Black Panthers and Black Lives Matter. By reflecting on the consequences of racism, I have been able to turn the corner racism and see how my white identity is central to the problem and solution.

White people need to realize that racism is a White issue. We–white European people–live in a world of racial ignorance. I lived in a world of racial ignorance growing up.

As the political theorist, Barnor Hesse, explains, the idea of race is fundamentally about the creation of a division between Europeans and non-Europeans, both internally, beginning with the Spanish expulsion or forced conversion of Jews and Muslims, and externally within systems of colonial rule, and of course in the transatlantic slave trade across the Americas.

Take the example of the StoryCorps film Traffic Stop. In this short film, Patsy, a white mother, tells Alex, her black adopted son–who is two years younger than me–that “skin color really didn’t matter.” Like Patsy, my family, which lived in a small, almost exclusively white Canadian town, “never talked about race.” The naïvety of white people about race and racism isn’t unusual. It’s built into our society.

White people never see racism. We never feel it. This is one of the many privileges of being white. This is whiteness and it’s a problem.

The differentiation of results seen in Traffic Stop is but one example of how people of color are treated differently in society. It speaks to how schools and workplaces treat people of color differently. How they are talked (down) to, how they are shown (and not shown) in TV and magazines and how they are told to see themselves. All of these daily instances add up to a societal structure of racism that people of color are not allowed to leave and are told to be thankful for.

So, what would happen if this world was reversed? What would happen if white people were forced, even if is was for a few hours, to experience a society that treated them differently because of how they looked? Would you be happy to receive the same treatment as a person of color in society?

This is exactly what educator Jane Elliot has done with her Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes exercise, which substitutes eye color–a non-controversial part of the human body–for skin colour. Skin and eye color are both dictated by melanin, our biological pigment determined at birth. We don’t have any control over either, yet we continue to use one as a means of discrimination.

This ingenious exercise was first implemented inside Jane’s all-white classroom, after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Although it’s impossible to experience the effect of racism (particularly white supremacy) as a white person in a room full of white people, Jane was able to have her all-white students experience either superiority or inferiority based solely on which eye color group they were placed in.

The cruelty of the “superior” group and the under-performance of the “inferior” group were felt nearly instantaneous. Although the “superior” and “inferior” groups were chosen randomly and shouldn’t change academic results, the internalization of each group led to real-world results. This exercise proved that racism is a learned behavior based on arbitrary characteristics. It also means that it can be unlearned.

Although I never participated in a Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes exercise, watching videos of Jane facilitating these workshops has had a lasting effect on me and changed my perception of society.

I can now admit that I’m a racist. Not a racist by choice, but a racist made by society.

Like her students, I was raised in a country–Canada–that puts white people in positions of power; just look at all those faces of Prime Ministers that are the same as mine. I was raised in a country, whose land was colonized by Europeans from its aboriginal inhabitants. I was told about the seemingly infinite accomplishments of white European and settler societies, while never hearing about the accomplishments of minorities. This racial ignorance about the lives (and worth) of people of color continue today, all around the world.

It exists for white university students; some of whom may feel attacked if labeled a racist and have the freedom to walk out:

It exists in Britain, the home of white Empire:

Whiteness and racial ignorance exists everywhere that white people are made and told that they are superior than other people of color. We–white people–need to first accept the racism that has been ingrained in us and then second work to change the systems around us.

Classrooms need to change so that kids stop seeing

We–white people–need to start in childhood education to overcome the stigma that white as good and black/brown as bad. We need to see the injustice in our criminal justice and immigration systems. We need to see how media perpetuates white supremacy and negative portrayals of people of color. We need to question why businesses and universities cater largely to white people. We need to find the truth in our history and seek reconciliation with those who have been harmed. We–white people–need to do a lot more.

This forces one to ask: Should you feel guilty about being white?

No. As Jane Elliot says, “I didn’t choose it. I can’t lose it.”

I was born white. I didn’t choose it. I can’t change that fact. But I can change how I act.

So: Should you do something about racism and whiteness?

Yes, I think every white person should.

Once you admit to yourself that society is based on a foundation of white supremacy, you need to recognize which group your actions benefit.

On one extreme of whiteness, there is a small group of white people fighting for racial injustice, spreading messages of hate. This include neo-Nazis, the alt-Right, Ku Klux Klan members, people who support travel bans on a certain color of people, and anyone else who vocally identifies as a white supremacist. These are the active, proud racists who are fighting to keep whiteness alive.

Now, if travel to the other end, you have another small group of white people. This group, however, fights for racial justice and against white supremacy. They were white people in the civil rights era, who took the Freedom Ride and protested segregated lunch counters. They are people who stand with BLM and kick the door open to discuss modern racism. These are anti-racists.

Who’s left?

Like a magnet, whiteness has two active parts, described above, and a larger neutral part, where all the other white people sit. These are teachers, doctors, politicians, artists, plumbers and business owners who neither join hate groups nor join racial justice protests. These are the people who say things like “I don’t see race” or think they aren’t racist because they “have a black friend.” (Both of which are deeply racist.) What average white people need to recognize (and I hope Jane Elliott’s work points out) is that we–white people–are all racist. You don’t need to feel bad about your white identity, but you also can’t be neutral about your place in society. As Howard Zinn said, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.”

That moving train is our racist society. We are conditioned from birth, through our actions and behaviors, to be racist and we benefit from it everyday. It’s time you recognize your privilege and work to better this world. If you do nothing, you are unfortunately playing into the hand of the vocal, proud racists who would like to see you move silently through life and not stand in solidarity with people of color.

If you start to admit that racism is a problem, then you can move into other spheres of identity, biology and power. Seeing how how society turns us into racists allow one to recognize other forms of discrimination you may hold, including:

  • Sexism.
  • Homophobia.
  • Ableism.
  • Xenophobia.

These are just some of the ways that identity and biology are used by people in power, who often are straight white able-bodied men. Ignorance of how discrimination originated and why is lingers is the greatest tool they have to divide and rule. Politicians, media personality, business leaders, and others then use fear as a tool to support their stature and harm to minority groups.

When ignorance combines with fear, the result is hate. An example of this took place last year, when Sikh politician Jagmeet Singh was confronted by a white woman who feared that he was going to implement Sharia law, a Muslim tradition that isn’t part of his faith. Her ignorance of Jagmeet’s beliefs and her fear of Muslims lead to hate speech towards him and other people of color. This incident isn’t unique even if it was broadcasted widely in the news. People across Canada, the United States, Australia, Europe and other white communities hold racist beliefs either consciously or unconsciously. They sometimes express their ignorance about the lives of people or their hatred for the other. It is up to all white people to speak up against racism and to act to stop it.

As a straight white, able-bodied man, I can admit that I was completely ignorant about most inequality that exists in the world. The single greatest cause was a lack of exposure. I grew up in a patriarchy community (small rural town) without discussion of inequality of injustice. I didn’t have conversations with people of color. We didn’t talk about differences.

So, when I later discovered books on the subject, I felt awakened. Knowledge is the cure to ignorance and something all privileged people should excitedly rush towards. White people should learn about race. We should explore differences in sexuality and genders. Europeans should learn about cultures from around the world. We should learn about all religions and believes in the world. We shouldn’t be afraid of what we find or learn.

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge

A recent book I found quite helpful in explain these topics is Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge. This books documents, in great details, the history and current manifestation of racism in white societies, like the United States and United Kingdom. Reni discuss her childhood story and the unique challenges of being a young girl of color in societies ruled by white men and women. Her own childhood showed her that:

“White children are taught not to ‘see’ race, whereas children of colour are taught–often with no explanation–that we must work twice as hard as our white counterparts if we wish to succeed.”

When we understand the unique intersections of identity, we can also look at the unique challenges some men face. As Reni notes:

“Men inhabit different spaces. Some face racism. Some face homophobia.”

But maybe, the most important thing we can learn is the role of white people and the need for us to no longer be neutral. As Reni summarizes, it’s time for white people to examine whiteness and their contributions to a racist society. It’s time to stop telling people of color to solve this problem and begin listening to them so that we may be part of the solution:

“The perverse thing about our current racial structure is that it has always fallen on the shoulders of those at the bottom to change it. Yet racism is a white problem. It reveals the anxieties, hypocrisies and double standards of whiteness. It is a problem in the psyche of whiteness that white people must take responsibility to solve. You can only do so much from the outside.”

What I hope changes is that the majority of white people come to terms with whiteness and the racism they grew up in and perpetuate everyday. I hope white people will become less reactionary when told about racism or labeled racist for their words and actions.

The fight for racial justice has been long and hard-fought. It’s time that white people take a side: either with those who spout hate, or those who express love.

In June 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail. In it, he defends the strategy of nonviolent resistance but also criticizes white moderates and all their “goodwill”:

First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.”

Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

If you’ve made it this far, I applaud you for your open mind. If you want to hear more about whiteness, I highly suggest listening to this episode of ABC’s The Minefield:


Living with Anxiety and Depression

Today marks my 30th birthday. As I begin a new decade of my life, I hope to write more and improve myself. This blog post is an attempt to achieve both and to speak openly about an important part of who I am.

Six years ago I was extremely depressed and sought help. This was something that was building for years, if not my entire life.

Large parts of my childhood and early adulthood were saturated by depression. Growing up on a farm meant geographic isolation and limited social interactions. When my parents were away or working, I was often left with my brother, who had a habit of being rough with me. One reminder of this is the pencil lead that is forever cemented in my right knee. In response, I acted powerlessly to avoid future harm. This feeling of powerlessness deprived me of my voice and confidence–two pieces of my life I am still struggling with today. This was the start of feeling isolated mentally in addition to geographically.

I was unable to talk to my parents or anyone else about this or anything else I was experiencing. So, around my parents and family, I repressed my emotions and was left alone. Even when I was surrounded by family or friends, I always felt isolated, talking to myself rather than to others. I was often told to stop being “so shy”, to do what everyone else was doing. Except I didn’t have the tools to socialize. I was interrogated for being different. This lack of emotional connection made me unsure of who I was or what I was meant to do.

Being a child in a household that doesn’t discuss emotions was extremely stunting for me. Most of my memories as a child revolve a single sensation: numbness. This made interacting with others, especially strangers, extremely difficult and stressful for me. For example, I sometimes would stay at my grandma’s house, sleeping in her living room. If she had a guest over in the morning and I woke to hear them, I would often force myself back to sleep to avoid meeting whoever it was. This habit of extended sleep, first used as a coping mechanism, remains with me today.

Even at school, I never felt comfortable in social situations. I watched the world pass by but I never felt a part of it. Everyone seemed to be enjoying life, making friends, having relationships and growing up. But not me. I was angry at the world for my fate and would lash out at others to cope; I never had an outlet to solve my underlying mental health needs.

When I moved to Edmonton at age 17 and started my new life at university, my depression followed me. Going my teenager years without a single romantic relationship left me with a deep emotional scar; a scar that would haunt me for a further 5 years of university. I would often be at home and convince myself that this would be my life forever: alone. Living by myself, away from campus, during these years is one of my biggest regrets. (I have many regrets in life thanks to my depression.) One of the consequences of having depression for so long and having few positive memories from those years is that I now have a stunted ability to recall memories.

I was lucky to have great friends during my childhood, many of whom stayed with me through early adulthood. They helped me to feel normal, even though I never truly did. Unfortunately, as the years went by, they moved on–as people do. They gained new friends; I didn’t. They made lasting relationships and eventually got married; I didn’t. They created lives for themselves. I was trying to figure out mine. Alone.

I graduated in 2010 and started working at a typically office job. My depression lingered. I had some friends who I played soccer with but that eventually stopped and, in late 2011, I found myself alone. More alone than I’d ever been before.

I spent weeks going home to an empty, cold box. I spent entire weekends indoors, talking to no one but myself.

At the age of 23, I had reached my worst mental state. I felt like I had no friends. I had no relationships. No feeling of engagement.

I had to do something.

So, I made an appointment at a psychologist’s office. It would be the single most important decision of my life.

Through weekly counseling sessions over many months, I would eventually learn about a condition that explained everything about me: social anxiety.

I never knew about this condition growing up. I never met with any mental health professionals before then. I never knew that there were other people in the world like me. It was a painfully difficult and liberating revelation.

I now had a condition for why I thought the way I did and why I acted the way I did. And also a way to frame my depression.

I could now explain why I often lied as a way to avoid interactions. For example, saying I was going to the gym (which I wasn’t) to avoid going to a party. It was a way to avoid future social anxiety.

It explained why even when I worked up the courage to do something, like join a group, I would escape at the last minute, as I often do today.

It’s difficult to explain how powerful my mental health therapy was, but I can try to explain by the results.

After the first few months, I started dating for the first time. This alone creating a level of confidence that was missing from my entire childhood and university years. I finally felt like I could be loved and that I could find a partner.

The second big change was that I finally was able to express myself. I could talk about all of those emotions I had buried away collecting dust. I cried more in those sessions that in my entire life. Talking to someone, without fear of judgement, freed me to think about who I am and what I wanted to do in life. I was very unhappy with my job and wanted to do more. These thoughts led me to sign up for a volunteer abroad scheme with Engineers Without Borders–a group I always thought was too adventurous for me. But I was selected and went abroad in 2012 for the first time under my own choice. It was further liberating to travel and make my own path in life.

Because I went away travelling, I stopped visiting my therapist. This meant that I was left to return to my own thoughts again. But even without a therapist, I have been able to better express my state of mind, to explain my social anxiety to others and to recognize my depression.

It has taken me six years to return to therapy, which I started for the second time last month. In those past six years, I visited new lands, joined new groups, made new friends and studied abroad. More importantly, I met Sarah, who had become my best friend and the person I hope to spend my life with. Meeting her is thanks to my improved mental health and all that it was able to help me achieve.

One ultimate truth I have learned is that I will likely always have anxiety and depression. They are conditions I can manage, similar to diabetes, but conditions that can not be cured.

Although I have some tools for improving my mental health, I am trying more to look at what others have done. At some point last year, I came across an essay by Dr. Steve Bearman titled, “Depression, Anxiety, and the Mismanagement of Aliveness”. This short piece was able to unite the two parts of me–anxiety and depression–and explain them in terms of a single spectrum.


Uniting My Two Conditions

Dr. Bearman explains anxiety as “more aliveness than you can handle” and depression as “aliveness shut down”. This creates a spectrum of “aliveness” which spoke directly to me and my condition.

I could now see each day as a balancing act between between high and low aliveness, between anxiety and depression.

Dr. Bearman further describes the manifestation of these through five components: Energy, Emotion, Meaning, Engagement and Relatedness.

Before, during and after any group situation, my mind races with the sort of anxious thoughts that Dr. Bearman describes:

“You might get hurt, hurt someone else, be rejected or excluded or humiliated or abandoned or yelled at, get sick or injured or killed, or someone you love might. You might fail, make the wrong decision, make a fool of yourself, miss an opportunity. You could get lost, or fall off something, or get trapped in a tight space, or be attacked by a snake, or a clown, or your plane could go down. You might be found out, or lose it in public, or have another panic attack, or a heart attack.”

Social anxiety disorder is sometimes referred to as an “illness of lost opportunities” and these types of self-deprecating thoughts have prevented me (and likely many others) from achieving happiness through socializing.

On the flip side, when I’m home alone, I sink in depression often thinking about my past regrets in a similar way to one of Dr. Bearman examples:

“Though people around you seem to be in touch with their desires, perhaps there has never been room in your life for you to discover what you want, or what you like, or what’s worth pursuing. Or perhaps you know what you wish you could have, but you can’t seem to get it, or you think wanting it is unacceptable. If what you want is unknowable, or unattainable, you can always settle for a comfortable, if empty, place to wait out your days.”

I found this spectrum of “aliveness”–moving between anxiety and depression–helpful in explaining why I always feel like I’m moving through highs and lows. When I go out and socialize, my mind is filled with anxiety about what I’m saying, what I’m doing, or thinking about what others might view of me. When I return to an isolated, I often have to manage depressed thoughts about my past, present and future–often focusing on regrets. This see-saw effect has been with me my whole life and I expect I will only be able to manage both states to a more comfortable level.


My Hopes

I am hoping that sharing my story will reduce my shame about my past and allow me to grow into the person I know I can become.

I am hoping that sharing my story may lead to others doing the same so that, together, we can eliminate the stigma around mental health and those who suffer. I’m not alone. You’re not alone. Anyone can live with depression.

Finally (and most importantly) I am hoping that other people seek help from mental health professionals. We all have regrets, unique conditions or things we wish were better. It makes sense to go to the doctor when we have an injury. But if we live with an injured brain, we are afraid, unable or without help to get better.

It saddens me to think of the people that could be helped with easily accessible health care. If I would have had some as a child, my emotional scars could have been healed at a much earlier age. And I could have done so much more and been happier in my earlier years.