I joke that I’m a “recovering” academic because I see how the language that many academics use — including myself, at times — isn’t relatable. Folks are right to critique academia for dense terminology. What’s the use of knowing this stuff if we can’t storytell it enough to help our colleagues?
So I’m trying to simplify for you.
For example, I thought about calling this article, “Equality is to Equity as Whiteness is to White Supremacy.” But not everyone wants to debate relational ontology over their morning coffee. I get it, I’m busy too, and far more distracted than I’d like to admit. Life…the world… and for that matter, my own mind, all move at shockingly fast speeds … sometimes I just want to catch my breath.
And people tell me all the time to dumb it down, make it a quick read that someone can glance through while waiting in line at Trader Joe’s.
“People don’t want to think” … “People just want a few pointers” … “People just want the highlights” …
But I don’t buy that everyone wants to be pandered to, that everyone is looking for a listicle or quick fix. Maybe I’m an idealist, but I don’t buy that great minds want to be dulled with soundbites. And we’ve got centuries of history to show us that race and ethnicity won’t ever be a quick fix. Social equity is one of the key ingredients to a functional planet, and clearly dumbing this stuff down isn’t working.
Probably some people just don’t give a sh*t. But I don’t buy that’s everyone or even most people. Listen, I’m a proud nerd and am honored when someone partakes of my work. (THANK YOU!) But I don’t pander. And I hope you don’t either. Because we need you. We need all of us to help. Because there are 8 billion of us now and most of us aren’t PhDs or C-suite, yet we all created this. So most of the world’s change agents will inherently not be fancy on paper. And we can all create something much, much better.
So no pandering, OK?
Nor do I buy that everyone is looking to bash, cancel, or call out others. So let’s get into it, shall we? Let’s really hash out some of these details.
What on earth is whiteness?
Whiteness is a term created in the Western, North American academy to indicate power flows that originate in institutional, structural, narrative and inter-relational patterns. White-NESS is not about “having” DNA originating in caucasian geographies. Whiteness is partly related to phenotype — aka physical appearance — because on a conscious and unconscious level, physical appearance is a kind of aesthetic, and aesthetics relate to composition, senses, comportment, and curation.
Everything “has” an aesthetic. For example, websites have an aesthetic. So does a grocery store or a neighborhood. So does your afternoon snack, computer desktop, and bathroom. Some aesthetics are meticulously curated, others are byproducts of peripheral circumstances. Aesthetics are integral to power because senses are used by the mind as a shortcut to assign values, including
and many others. If our minds couldn’t designate quickly, we’d have a problem — basic decision-making and functionality would grind to a halt.
So rest assured, you’re not broken. We train our minds’ attention and patterns with everything we do, which means we can train it to see its own value-creation system. But it takes every bit as much effort as training muscles. You’re not going to get jacked after 1 week at the gym.
But let’s pause to notice the difference between whiteness and implicit bias. Because so far I’m just noting brain patterns, which are indeed related to bias. Whiteness originates in internal conscious and unconscious value-based narrative, but it’s dangerous because its outward impact is material.
Whiteness stems from the unavoidable phenomenon of consciously and unconsciously assigning value inside our own minds. And then whiteness activates outside of our brains as we enforce or interrupt our values via institutional structures. This gets real material real quick because conscious and unconscious patterns inside translate directly to patterns outside, including all sorts of capital, from financial to social to spatial.
The best write-up, in my opinion, is called “Whiteness as Property,” which spells out not just what whiteness is conceptually, but how it functions on a day-to-day and long-term basis. Cheryl Harris, the author, is every bit as critical to understanding how race functions as Kimberlé Crenshaw who coined the term “intersectionality.” Crenshaw’s term and voice have become more popular in the Western zeitgeist, and while I certainly won’t make any unfounded claims, I can’t help but wonder if the word “whiteness” itself sounds scary or taboo.
I’ve wondered at times if it would help to replace terms like whiteness, racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia with some version of the word “power.” But whiteness is about more than policies, money, and institutions — whiteness is how these structures are thought about and, in turn, behaviorally reinforced. It’s the whole inward, outward cycle. Like that quote from Jung: “Until you make the unconscious conscious it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” We all have that friend who keeps doing the same thing and can’t understand why they’re stuck.
Our institutions and social norms are subject to similar patterns because institutions are designed by humans and social norms are the byproduct of humans.
For example, if we say this person wasn’t hired because they don’t have a Bachelor’s degree and our company requires a Bachelor’s to even be considered… but we don’t stop to ask what about the credential prepares a prospective employee for the job… then we’re pre-assessing on auto-pilot. Now, it could be that a certain degree is required by virtue of policy. Say, a Certified Public Accountant who has to have a certain credential to even take the CPA exam. We can also ask if those credentials are helping the person become a better CPA or if they’re just a stand-in for hours of practice. I know very little about that skillset, so I’ll refrain from assumptions.
But what if the Bachelor’s requirement comes from wanting a set of applicants who are a little older, maybe with a few internships or some work experience under their belt. If you’ll allow me a pun, in this case, it’s a degree of maturity rather than a degree of Bachelor. Another way to put this is that we’d all like to work with people who have been around the block a few times and come with more focus. So if it’s maturity we’re after, why don’t we skip the Bachelor middle-man (middle-person? middle institution? middle degree?… reader’s choice for gender-neutral translation!) and look for the actual qualities we seek.
How whiteness plays out:
Whiteness is the narrative that the degree and the institution that conferred it are more valuable than the lived human experience of the applicant without knowing details or context.
And whiteness is relying on the credential to guarantee attributes, such as life skills, competence, grit, character, and the other qualities we’re hoping to hire for.
And whiteness is when we say that it’s too complicated to change even when that system of hiring is replicating who gets seriously considered and who doesn’t.
Harris wrote “Whiteness as Property” in 1993 and stimulated other examinations of how nebulous narratives have a tangible, material impact. (She released a follow-up in 2020 and I’ll finish a summary of the update soon — stay tuned). But you don’t need to nerd out like I do to see how the mind assigns values and the ways that our values immediately give or withhold resources.
Harris talks about whiteness as a function of law because she’s trained as a lawyer, but our thoughts dictate how we behave and by extension who we become in every field. So if we don’t re-train our brains to have different responses to value, we get stuck with the cultural norms we’re swimming in. Where our brains are concerned, in Western culture we’re all the fish in the water of whiteness.
Whiteness is clearly a big part of the anti-racism conversation. That’s important. But isn’t this all a far cry from white supremacy? Isn’t white supremacy what backward rednecks do while waving their rifles around?
I’ll break down the differences between White Supremacy and White Nationalism another time. That’s not just me being finicky about words — it’s the difference between how the mind makes patterns vs. how specific military and paramilitary groups train, fund, and violently uphold ethnocentric ideology. For now, let’s stick to white supremacy.
Why white supremacy is related.
As we know, racism is perceived to be an inflammatory accusation rather than an observation about how Western institutions are designed and how we (often unconsciously) reinforce those designs with our individual behaviors. Noticing poor design is required to update and improve any system so it can function better.
Supremacy is an almost inherent part of any value system and values require our minds to segregate out that which we prefer and prioritize, as I discussed in the first portion. Example: The Golden Globes just happened… Consider someone winning an award; no one is saying “everyone who didn’t win an award is a lousy director.” We’re simply saying that, if we had to pick a director to celebrate with accolades and money and press and esteem, we pick this one. Piking isn’t bad. Again, our minds and our institutions have to make decisions in order to function. But we need to be realistic about who and what we’re picking because it’s the patterns that create overall meaning and results.
White supremacy is about patterns, whether they’re overt or not. Yes, we can have adult men storm the US Capitol building — In addition to making a headline, that’s a pretty easy form of supremacy to recognize. But not every supremacist ideology announces itself with such gusto. If we had a pair of AR glasses to strap on our heads to point out instances of economic, spatial, and aesthetic supremacies, we might become more cognizant on a day-to-day basis. (I’ve begun researching how to do so, but Any VR or AR folks reading this who want to collab — I’m all ears!)
In other words, we’re not doing ourselves any favors when we wait for bellowing wannabe vikings to announce themselves during a riot. Because we’re all living in it. Again, the fish-in-water thing. To be anti-racist, I have to see myself as an actor in all of this. To drive the point home that it’s not about living with a particular phenotype, I have to notice how I make choices because choices relate to every supremacy.
Here’s an example that I’ll cop to. I have a thing about teeth. I’m not proud of it, but I catch myself making assumptions about people with crooked teeth. I’m very aware that I have a dental supremacist mentality. I’ve tried to work on it. So far nothing I’ve tried has seriously improved my bias. But I’m not giving up because teeth are made of bone, dental care is expensive and complicated, and smiles are the stuff of human experience.
At the end of the day, it’s idiotic on my part to respond to human beings with crooked teeth differently than I respond to others. It’s not just an observation that I happen to do XY and Z. It’s interpersonally rude and on a foundational level, it’s simply incorrect.
If this seems silly, good! Crooked teeth are no more or less OK as a way to judge, respond, react than any other attribute. And being a straight-teeth-supremacist doesn’t make me evil. It gives me a helluva lot of homework, though. My problem with being a straight teeth supremacist is just that: my shortcoming. It’s not my fault for having learned it, but it is my fault for not having trained myself out of it yet.
Frankly, no one has The Answer. In fact, it’s easier to rule things out. For example, let’s not go full Black Mirror or Clockwork Orange. Sticking my eyeballs in front of 24/7 pro-crooked teeth propaganda isn’t the way to go. Policing people’s brains is totally ineffective from a science of learning standpoint. And shame is emotionally arresting but also emotionally constipating.
So we’ve got rules and frameworks and infrastructures: We can design much better policies and procedures to keep me from letting my problem with crooked teeth harm people, irrespective of how inadvertent that harm may be.
And we can get deeper into DEIB discourse: Harris and Crenshaw’s observations — whiteness and intersectionality, respectively — are precursors to anti-racism because both relate to how power creates a tangible impact on specific people. “I’m not racist” is a self-dismissal from a conversation that exists whether you pay attention to it or not. “I’m not a white supremacist” is a self-dismissal from mental habituations that exist whether you pay attention to them or not.
We need curricula from age 3 (when humans start showing value preference) and coaching for everyone of voting age about how to learn better. I need long-term, high caliber practice to respond to people with crooked teeth better. I need to train both my mind and my actions, whether I like it or not. I need to go to the mental and behavioral gym.
Training one’s mind around whiteness is like world-class executive performance coaching. But this isn’t an either/or. Don’t be that person who doesn’t work out at all because you don’t have time to train for the Olympics. Working out 20 minutes a day is better than not at all!
That said, I promised not to pander. We don’t get gold stars for not being racist. We don’t even get gold stars for being anti-racist. Whiteness is a process with a legacy, and unwinding from it is a process too. There’s no finish line or LinkedIn skills badge. So in the spirit of not pandering, I’ll assume you don’t just want the headline or listicle. Instead, I’ll keep at it and invite you to, too…. I’ll meet you back here soon.