Module 10: Unpacking Whiteness

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Module 9: Racial and Ethnic Identity Development
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Module 10: Unpacking Whiteness
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Module 11: Confronting Colorblindness and Neutrality

After working through this module, you will be able to:

  • Define whiteness and describe the privilege/advantages attached to it in the United States.
  • Describe the impact whiteness has on individuals and systems in the United States.
  • Identify ways you can work individually and collectively to challenge white privilege and transform the systems of oppression it perpetuates.

Introduction

As you begin this module, it is important for you to know that I am white. Why am I telling you this? Because the fact that I am white has impacted, and continues to impact, how I experience the world. Because with my whiteness comes privilege and advantage. Because, as Dr. Robin Di Angelo argues, the first challenge white people face in working toward social justice, in working with Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) to create an inclusive and equitable world, is naming our race.

Many white Americans do not recognize white as a race. When asked about their race, they often focus on their ethnic heritage and respond with “I’m Irish” [or English or German]. (For a refresher on race versus ethnicity, see Module 3). Because they don’t see white as a race, many white Americans have never thought about what it means to be white, about how being white advantages them, or about how whiteness negatively impacts the lives of BIPOC. These are the topics we will explore in this module as we unpack whiteness.

If you identify as a BIPOC, this module may elicit strong emotions. Because you have been dealing with the consequences of white privilege your whole life, working through this module might intensify the emotions of anger, frustration, impatience, and incredulity that you feel on a daily basis. You may find it helpful to work through this module with a colleague or friend. You may also find it helpful to actively engage in self-care as you interact with the materials we have provided here.

If you identify as white, this module might elicit strong emotions such as anger, denial, shame, guilt, and embarrassment. But rather than allowing your feelings to overwhelm you, to stop you from examining your unearned privilege, or to prevent you from listening to and learning from the experiences of BIPOC, it is important to get used to the uncomfortable feeling, to sit with it, and then to harness it in positive ways that allow you to begin to dismantle it. Before you begin this module, you might find it helpful to revisit the Agreements introduced in Module 1a.


What is whiteness?

As you’ve worked through the previous modules you’ve learned that:

  1. White is a socially constructed category of “race” with no biological/scientific foundation;
  2. The racial category white only exists in relation to other racial categories;
  3. The racial category white was created by white power holders to codify the superiority of white people over others; and
  4. The definition of white has changed over time and has been (and continues to be) determined by the people in power.

For a refresher on these concepts, see Module 2.

Whiteness too is a powerful social and political construct.  In her book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, Robin Di Angelo identifies three dimensions of whiteness:

  1. Structural advantage – a privileged position within society and its institutions for whites. For example, did you know most of the CEOs of major corporations, political leaders, and heads of large organizations are white?
  2. A standpoint from which white people look at [themselves], others, and at society – one that allows [them] to see [themselves] as individuals, as “just human.”
  3. A set of cultural practices that are not named and acknowledged – norms and actions that consistently create and perpetuate advantages for whites and disadvantages for BIPOC (2018, p. 27).

Di Angelo argues that these dimensions of whiteness, each of which benefits whites, are usually invisible to whites. She writes: “[Whites] are unaware of, or do not acknowledge, the meaning of race and its impact on [their] own lives. Thus [they] do not recognize or admit to white privilege and the norms that produce and maintain it” (2018, p. 28).


Icon_watchWatch

To learn more about each of these dimensions watch Dr. Di Angelo’s talk, Deconstructing White Privilege. As you watch the video, think about how each of these dimensions impacts your life either as a BIPOC or white person and institutions like libraries and schools. Note the six pillars that DiAngelo argues work to maintain white privilege. What is your experience with each of these pillars? How have they shaped your world view?


How does whiteness privilege or advantage whites?

In her 1988 essay “White Privilege and Male Privilege,” Dr. Peggy McIntosh introduced the concept of white privilege. McIntosh argues that white people are born with an “invisible knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, code books, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks.” These privileges are given to white people by the institutions of society solely because of their race. In other words, these are unearned privileges or advantages – privileges they experience because they are white. These privileges make their lives less stressful, give them a competitive edge, and result in the unequal distribution of resources and rewards.

Here are a few examples of the types of advantages McIntosh says are in the “knapsack of white privilege”:

  1. White people can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of their race widely represented.
  2. White people can choose blemish cover or bandages in “flesh” color and have them more or less match their skin.
  3. Whether they use checks, credit cards or cash, white people can count on their skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.
  4. White people do not have to educate their children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection.
  5. If a traffic cop pulls a white person over, they can be sure we haven’t been singled out because of their race.
  6. White people are more likely than BIPOC with comparable credit histories and income to have loan applications approved and less likely to be given poor advice during the application process (such as being steered to predatory lenders).
  7. White people can see people of their race represented in positions of power and authority in the government, corporations, universities, and other organizations in disproportionally high numbers.

After reading through this list you might be thinking that some of these things, like being able to buy a bandage that more or less matches your skin or seeing people like you widely represented on television, are no big deal. In the Teaching Tolerance article, “What Is White Privilege, Really?“, Cory Collins reminds us that even the simplest forms of white privilege need to be recognized for what they represent. He writes, “These privileges are symbolic of what we might call ‘the power of normal.’ If public spaces and goods seem catered to one race and segregate the needs of people of other races into special sections, that indicates something beneath the surface. White people become more likely to move through the world with an expectation that their needs be readily met. People of color move through the world knowing their needs are on the margins.”

At this point, it is important to acknowledge that we are not saying that whites ask to be privileged. As Potapchuk [PDF] and her colleagues point out, “many [white people] are oblivious that this system exists, which is one of its successes” (p. X).  Since their race, their whiteness, is invisible to them, they assume the way they are treated, the benefits they have, are the norm.  When asked to reflect on their privilege they often become defensive and rationalize why BIPOC are treated differently.  They might point to a BIPOC who has been successful as a counter-example – “If they can be successful, why can’t all BIPOC?” Or they focus on times they’ve been treated differently because of our identities as a woman or an LGBTQ+ person, or their experiences growing up in poverty, rather than reflecting on how they are treated differently because we are white. When white people find themselves rationalizing, Robin Di Angelo suggests that they stop and ask themselves this question: “I am white and I have had X experience. How did X shape me as a result of also being white?” (p. 13)

It is also important to note that white privilege does not mean that whites don’t face hardships or have to work hard to succeed. White privilege doesn’t mean that there aren’t white people who are poor, less educated, or who receive poor healthcare. White privilege gives whites advantages over BIPOC, not over other whites; in other words, white people still compete with other whites. some of whom have additional advantages such as financial wealth or connections within the larger system. They are also still impacted by the systems that are set up to oppress BIPOC, for example, minimum wage levels that don’t provide a living wage or a healthcare system that denies insurance to people with preexisting conditions. As Potapchuk [PDF] and her colleagues point out, there are also times when a child of a wealthy family of color may have advantages over a child of a poor white family, but overall as we saw in Module 1b, race gives whites an advantage. The New York Times article “Extensive Data Shows Punishing Reach of Racism for Black Boys”  is a good example of the pervasiveness of white privilege and how it advantages whites in our society. Part of understanding white privilege is knowing how just having white skin has resulted in accumulating so many advantages like those presented in Module 2.


Reflect

In your journal:

If you identify as BIPOC, reflect on how you’ve seen whiteness advantage whites. How did the advantages whites receive impact your life? Now think about your other identities – your gender identity, sexual orientation, disability status, religion, SES, etc. How have those identities either privileged or disadvantaged you? How has your racial identity worked alongside those other identities?

If you identify as white, reflect on how white privilege operates in your own personal life. What advantages do you experience because of your whiteness? How do those privileges contribute to your opinions and actions?  Now think about your other identities – your gender identity, sexual orientation, disability status, religion, SES, etc. How have those identities either privileged or disadvantaged you? How has your whiteness worked alongside those other identities?


Icon_watchWatch

Now that you’ve reflected on white privilege, watch this video by Sonia Gupta in which she discusses the responses of BIPOC and white people to this statement: White supremacy is _______________.


How does white privilege marginalize BIPOC?

The flip side of white privilege is that the advantages whites receive marginalize and negatively impact BIPOC. As Ijeoma Oluo points out in her book So You Want to Talk About Race, “a privilege has to come with somebody else’s disadvantage – otherwise, it’s not a privilege (p. 64).” We’ve shared many examples of how BIPOC are oppressed in this country in this module and in others. For refreshers, refer back to Modules 1b, 2, 4, and 5.


Explore & Reflect

Spend time exploring this comic “Race Matters: A Story About White Privilege” created by Sachi Feris and Kayan Cheung-Miaw to illustrate how white privilege systematically advantages whites, while marginalizing BIPOC.  As you interact with the cartoon, record the answers to the following questions in your journal:

  1. What other examples of how white privilege marginalizes BIPOC have you observed?
  2. If you are white, how do the advantages you receive merely because you are white make it difficult for you to understand the struggles of BIPOC?
  3. How might you use this comic to start conversations with your family, friends, or colleagues at work?

What can white people do?

The reality of the invisible knapsack created by whiteness and white privilege is that white people can’t take it off – they can’t simply say “I am not going to be privileged anymore.” As long as the institutions of society are designed to provide whites with privilege, they will get these privileges whether they want them or not. That said, while individual white people may not be responsible for creating the system, they do benefit from it, and they have a responsibility to respond to it and to actively work to address the oppression and interrupt the discrimination that it engenders.

What can white people do to counteract white privilege and to transform the systems that perpetuate it? How can they work to reflect on their privilege? What can they do individually and collectively to undermine and transform the systems of oppression that hurt us all?

  1. Listen to and believe people of color and Indigenous people. Their experiences make them experts in seeing and understanding the impact of white privilege in their lives and on our society. Never shut down or invalidate someone’s experience. Never assume that your experience is the same as other people or project what is “normal” onto others. Instead, appreciate and affirm the perspectives of BIPOC – center their voices and their experiences.
  2. Explore your white racial identity. In order to transform the systems that perpetuate white privilege, those of us who identify as white must come to terms with the realities of whiteness and develop positive, nonracist, and authentic connections to white racial and cultural identity.
  3. Take on the role of educating other white people about racism and asking tough questions on a regular basis. Our colleagues of color are already asked to carry too much of the burden. They are often asked to be the “diversity” representative on equity committees and hiring committees, their pictures are often used to fill up the library or school’s website to show the institution’s commitment to diversity, and they are often mentoring other BIPOC  both formally and informally. The hypervisibility of our colleagues of color also “makes them more likely to endure more emotional mentoring work on top of the outward abuse and daily (or hourly) microaggressions” (DeLong, 2016). It is the responsibility of white people to educate other white people.
  4. Actively resist taking on the role of “white savior”. White savior narratives are found throughout equity work, where whites are framed as benevolent actors toward people of color or Indigenous people, who “lack the agency necessary to enact positive changes in their own lives. The underlying assumption is that people of color, on their own, fail to enact resilience, resistance, and success. Any achievements in these areas seem to result from the initiatives of the white savior” (Cammarota, 2011). To learn why this stance is inaccurate, disrespectful, and even harmful watch this short video developed by the editors of Everyday Feminism.
  5. Use your privilege to confront and challenge people, policies, and systems that maintain privileges and power for white people. To identify concrete ways to do this, explore the following resources highlighted below.

Icon_watchWatch

In module 9, we talked about the development of racial identity.   This TEDx Talk, How Can I Have a Positive Racial Identity? I’m White!, by educator Ali Michael introduces white racial identity development and emphasizes the importance of white people exploring their whiteness as a racial identity.


Explore

Terry Keleher and Hatty Lee created this Racial Transformer infographic [PDF] for Colorlines.com to show how white people can use their privilege to become a powerful force for racial justice.


Icon_watchWatch

In this video from the series Cracking the Codes, Joy DeGruy shares how her white sister-in-law used her white privilege to stand up for DeGruy during a shopping trip to the grocery store.


Read

Emptying the White Knapsack  – In this article, Jaime Grant offers 17 proactive steps white people can take to dismantle racism in their communities.


Review

The website Opportunities for White People in the Fight for Racial Justice provides a list of ways that white people can act as actors, allies, and accomplices to confront and challenge people, policies, and systems that maintain privileges and power for white people.  This website is a great tool for moving from understanding to action.


Reflect

At the beginning of this module, we indicated that it may elicit strong emotions. Now that you’ve completed it, spend some time reflecting on how you feel.

If you identify as a BIPOC, what has come up for you? What would justice look like for you? What do you want to learn more about?

If you identify as white, what were you introduced to in this module that was new, surprising- maybe even upsetting or disorienting? What do you want to learn more about?


But Wait!

In this section, we address common questions and concerns related to the material presented in each module. You may have these questions yourself, or someone you’re sharing this information with might raise them. We recommend that for each question below, you spend a few minutes thinking about your own response before clicking the arrow to the left of the question to see our response.

How do I use my privilege to dismantle oppressive systems without succumbing to the 'white savior complex' - (without trying to 'fix' communities of color?)

At its core, the “white savior complex” involves centering whiteness; as activist Teju Cole wrote, “the White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.” Popular media is rife with examples of well-meaning white people who “save” communities or individuals of color and learn about themselves along the way (for example, The Blind SideGreen BookFreedom Riders, etc.). In all of these examples, white people are the heroes of the story.

Yet, many activists and BIPOC have pointed out that white people, no matter how well-meaning, will never know as much about the struggles of BIPOC as those who have experienced it firsthand. And while white people certainly have a role to play in dismantling racism, that role is not as the hero who swoops in to save the day. Instead, University of Mary Washington professor Shawn Humphrey suggests that outsiders who want to engage in social justice work position themselves as sidekicks. Humphrey published a “sidekick manifesto” that lists ten commitments that outsiders should make when attempting to work for justice. While developed within the specific context of economic development, these commitments apply equal well to racial equity work. Click the image below to access a PDF of the “Racial Equity Sidekick Pledge,” adapted by Project READY from Dr. Humphrey’s original work.

Racial Equity Sidekick Pledge

 

If you have another question you’d like us to address in this section, please suggest it using the form below.


additional Resources

Dear White America – In this letter written by George Yancy,  a professor of philosophy at Emory University, Yancy challenges white people to think about their whiteness and its impact on the lives of BIPOC.

Di Angelo, R. (2018). White fragility: Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism. Boston: Beacon Press.

Howard, G. R. (2006). We can’t teach what we don’t know: White teachers, multiracial schools, (2nd ed.) New York: Teachers College Press.

Oluo, I. (2016). So you want to talk about race. New York: Seal Press.

Podcast – White Fragility 101 – an interview with Dr. Robin Di Angelo

Harris, C. I. (1995). Whiteness as property. In Kimberlé Crenshaw, Neil Gotanda, Gary Peller & Kendall Thomas (eds.), Critical race theory: The key writings that formed the movement (pp. 276-291). New York: The New Press.

Irving, D (2014). Waking up white: And finding myself in the story of race. Cambridge, MA: Elephant Room Press.

Roediger, D. R. (2005). Working toward whiteness: How America’s immigrants became white. New York: Basic Books.


References and Image Credits

Cammarota, J. (2011). Blindsided by the avatar: White saviors and allies out of Hollywood and in education. Review of Education, Pedagogy & Cultural Studies,33(3), 242-259.

Di Angelo, R. (2018). White fragility: Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism. Boston: Beacon Press.

Oluo, I. (2018). So you want to talk about race. New York: Seal Press.

Potapchuk, M., Leiderman, S., Bivens, D., and Major, B. (2005). Flipping the script: White privilege and community building. Silver Spring, MD: MP Associates, Inc.

Coleman, T. J., DeLong, R., DeVore, K. S., Gibney, S., and Kuhne, M. C..  (2016). The risky business of engaging racial equity in writing instruction: A tragedy in five acts. Teaching English in the Two-Year College, 43(4), 347-370.

Go Back:
Module 9: Racial and Ethnic Identity Development
You Are Here:
Module 10: Unpacking Whiteness
Next:
Module 11: Confronting Colorblindness and Neutrality