If you have about 500 bucks, a few days off this spring, and live in Washington DC, New York City, or Oakland, then you can participate in Everyday Feminism’s training, titled, “Healing from Internalized Whiteness.” According to its website, this training will help you, “stop arguing with white people about racism and discover how to invite them into racial justice work for their own healing and liberation.”
The natural conservative reaction to this kind of thing is to roll their eyes and mock it. Maybe it should be mocked, but it must also be engaged with — not so much so that conservatives can defend their own ideas, but so they can interrogate progressive ideas, asking questions that progressives won’t ask themselves.
So what does “healing internalized whiteness” mean? According to the website, internalized whiteness is “…the trauma of people of European descent being turned into white people by white supremacy – and then being taught that whiteness is good, but it doesn’t exist.” There’s a lot of unpack here.
The concept of being turned into white people stems from a theory that whiteness, or being white, was a concept invented as recently as 400 or 500 years ago, and that it was invented by those in power to maintain their power. If the rich white Brits told the poor white Irish they were better than blacks, then the two fair-skinned groups would work in concert to oppress blacks. This did in fact happen.
However, in classic postmodernist Marxist fashion, this definition of whiteness reduces the entire concept to a capitalist, patriarchal power struggle. It essentially ignores the myriad cultural influences on what being white means contributed by art, books, philosophy, religion, pseudoscience, actual science, and a thousand other elements of daily life. Some invisible hand of white supremacy, apparently, has guided these other elements.
The final part of the definition is also important. It suggests that white people are taught that being white is good, and that it does not exist. The idea here is that white power structures fill our society with messages that white norms are the best norms. Not only that, but they aren’t really white norms: they are the universal norms. The bottom line here is that (mostly) through no fault of their own, white people have internalized a belief in white supremacy (what they think are objective standards for behavior), and they must realize and correct that for progress to be made.
We saw reference to this last month in The Root, where Michael Harriot responded to an article I’d written here about how Americans define racism. In addressing concerns of white people who think there are double standards regarding racism, he writes: “ While it might feel hurtful to hear white jokes or anti-white sentiment, the disconnect that Marcus and all white people who present the ‘reverse racism’ argument are never willing to acknowledge is that their premise is rooted in white fragility and the subconscious belief in their supremacy.”
For Harriot, as we see above, the premise of the “reverse racism” charge is an unconscious belief that white people are superior and timid at confronting this evil inside us. If it is true, if white people really do walk around with the trauma of this original sin, then one can see why training to release oneself from this possession would be a good thing. But how will we know when we have rid ourselves of this belief in white supremacy that we weren’t even aware we had?
Progressive organizations are full of white people who have realized and confessed their privilege and unconscious belief in white supremacy. Yet these are the same organizations that stress their need to police themselves for racism and take positive actions to correct it in their own group.
Obviously, progressives really do understand that recognizing privilege is only a small first step. But too often it is also the second step, and the third, and the tenth, and so on. It is almost as though realizing your privilege is a spiritual state more than a rational one. It is to be perfected, not understood.
In this respect, it makes sense that Sandra Kim, the leader of the training, “draws on over a decade of her own Buddhism based healing and spiritual journey…” What she promises is a kind of exorcism or spiritual cleanse. The toxins of white supremacy will be sweated out.
The reasons these ideas matter is that they are increasingly the primary pedagogical tools in addressing anti-racist education. The postmodern concepts of critical race theory — privilege first among them — have become the only concepts acceptable to use. They are used on college campuses, in high schools, in corporate training, and almost everywhere else that racism is addressed.
All other approaches to anti-racism education, such as a model that focuses on similarity rather than difference or that examines the distinction between disparity and discrimination, are invalidated because under the postmodern rubric, they themselves are fruit of the poison tree of white supremacy.
The very concept of healing internalized whiteness means that whiteness itself must be a sickness, or wound. Now, proponents would argue that they are not saying that being a white person is in and of itself a sickness, but they are saying that every white person has a condition, called whiteness, that is making them sick. It’s hard to see the real difference.
It is also hard to see how this approach to “healing whiteness” can address the racial issues facing our society, or how white people are going to be convinced to go in for treatment. Is it possible that some white people being told they are sick might take offense and become targets of extreme groups who tell them they are healthy? The bottom line is that conservatives have to get more engaged in anti-racism efforts. Too much ground is being ceded and, left unchecked, progressive approaches are becoming more radical.
It is not enough to laugh at this stuff. It’s out there, it’s pervasive, and almost nobody is offering an alternative. This is in part because progressives sometimes try to shut down speech that challenges their orthodoxies on race issues, but also because conservatives are too willing to turn a blind eye to racism to avoid the fray.
When we roll our eyes and laugh at this stuff, we are also ignoring it. We do that at our own peril. What we have to do is understand it, question it, and offer solutions that we think are better.