Sunday, February 25, 2018

Letting Go of Being White

So how do we respond to this notion that the white identity is based on the Big White Lie and that it was birthed in greed, dominance, theft and exploitation

I must admit, that it has taken me a while to write this post as it is a painful and messy topic. 

We have to acknowledge how deeply we are attached to our identities. Even identities that we haven't chosen for ourselves, but have been given to us by society. Based on my own journey, I have come to see that processing the injustices inflicted by the Big White Lie and the white identity has been similar to processing a major life loss

I hope that we can have an authentic conversation about our psychological response to the challenge of our identity. For too long, the focus has been on "not being racist" and this had led to surface-level political correctness. I am inviting fellow, pale-skinned folk to a deeper journey to freedom and healing which will truly allow us to live and engage justly with our society and folk with darker skins than us. Let's start by honestly looking at our emotional response to the revelation that our identity was created to oppress others. 

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross's 5 Stages of Grief Model is a helpful tool to give us language to describe what might be happening inside ourselves as we process the "loss" of our identity.  This model depicts grieving as a linear journey, but we all know that life is messy and complex; and we are likely to return to stages in different ways over time. We also know that arriving at the final stage does not signify total healing. That said, let's start by exploring this model. 

The above diagram is found at this blog where the Grief Model is explained in more detail and has been applied to how humans process new ideas: 

"From an epistemological point of view we can notice that these stages of grief are very similar to the structure we use when we gather new information that contrasts the old information we believe in. It seems that our thought patters are constructed to resemble the stages of grief whenever we learn new, leading more or less, to an emotional roller-coaster. Even if the stages of grief have been criticized by scientists who consider that there is no patter similar to most people, but there is evidence that points to the fact that most people have the same way of integrating traumatizing or controversial information while experiencing some or all these stages."

Here is what have I noticed in myself and others as we respond to the Big White Lie: 


Denial is our coping mechanism as we deal with the overwhelming loss or threat. Denial of the Big White Lie usually includes this statement: 

"I don't see colour, I'm colour blind"

and the question:

"Isn't it racist to talk about "white and black", I thought we were a rainbow nation where the colour of our skin doesn't matter any more?" 

as well as this notion: 

"There is no race, only the human race.So all this talk about the Big White Lie/White Privilege and Black Pain/Racism is somehow "made up" by people with a chip on their shoulder." 

The concept of the Big White Lies is especially threatening to any white person who holds to a moral standard, as we feel that if we admit that we have believed in Big White Lie, then somehow we are morally bad humans. Denial guards our sense of moral integrity. 


I have noticed two types of anger responses to the Big White Lie concept. The first response is anger at being challenged about racism. This includes finding anger rising in oneself when a black person is sharing about their experience of racism. In South Africa over the last couple of years we have seen a growing number of moments when black folk have started pointing out racism in people and institutions, and there is always a strong backlash with the following statements "Why are people still living in the past?"; "when can we just move on?" and "someone always has to make it about race!". Here we see anger functioning as a defense mechanism to prevent someone from facing the challenge to their identity.

The second anger response is by those who now "get" that The Big White Lie is a real thing, and is aimed towards those who still don't acknowledge it; in other words, those who are still grappling in the denial stage or early stages of anger. I have experience that it is much easier to be self-righteously outraged at others, rather than to do the personal and internal work of uprooting the Big White Lie from my own thinking. I have had to work through feeling angry with the previous generation for colluding with the Big White Lie or not fighting against it enough; anger at my neighbours living in the suburbs who seem oblivious to the pain of those living in the townships; and of course anger at those who display extreme views of racism, especially on social media. There is a fine balance that needs to be struck between holding fellow white people accountable in order to end the normalcy of the Big White Lie; whilst not forgetting that our own hearts and minds need to be set free from this thinking too. 


This stage is around the "hope that the individual can avoid a cause of grief " (Quote from Wikipedia). It is about a desperate need to stop the discomfort that one feels when one hears about the injustice, and thinking that simple actions can be done to "make that feeling go away" so we can carry on with life as normal. Giving charitably can often be done so that we feel like we are not so bad because we give sandwiches to the hungry, sponsor a child's school fees or give away our second hand clothes. It's is about the things we do to make us feel better without really dealing with the historical and structural injustices linked to the white identity. 

I am wondering how much "white guilt" is fed by this bargaining stage too. For a long time I struggled to understand the term white guilt. I have come to see that it is when a white person is so overwhelmed with the revelation of how much black folk have been oppressed that they want to make themselves feel better by doing something redemptive. This act is not done in the interest of the black person but rather to stop the internal pain that a white person experiences when they see the injustice. Sometimes this "redemptive" act can cause more harm, and it certainly doesn't work towards dismantling the structural injustices that keep the Big White Lie alive. 

Bargaining also has to do with regrets and "if only" type thinking. You may find yourself thinking back over your life or your family's life and wishing different decisions were made. 
My schooling was in a white only girl school where all I knew was children who looked and sounded just like me. As I looked back with shame over the lack of diversity in my school years, it led me to a season of pursuing friendships with black people. My bargaining thinking was : 'If I have a black friend I can somehow make up for the past injustice of only white friends" Now having a black friend is a wonderful thing, however if you are only being friends with someone so you can make yourself feel better psychologically, and somehow convince yourself that you are not as bad as "those other white people" then it speaks to being in the barganing stage where your healing is incomplete; and sadly this can be hurtful to those black folk you've "targeted" to be your "black friend". The friendship is all about your need to feel better, and about not your friend. 


As the anger and bargaining subsides, we start to realise that there is very little we can do to make things right. We start to see our small actions towards justice as being a drop in the ocean. Our eyes are now open to the Big White Lie in all areas of society and we see how many are complicit in maintaining it. We start to see how damaging all of this is to our black friends, and we start to get an inkling of the pain they live with. Our empathy grows and so does our internal pain. We also realise that we can do very little to heal this. Defeatist thinking becomes dominant: "Even if I gave away all my money and lived in poverty it would not make a difference" or "Every black person who I engage with sees me as white and untrustworthy at best or a monster at worse - I can never have a uncomplicated friendship with black folk again." 

We feel hopeless in the light of the messages we get from some black folk saying that white people should not have a say in building this country. We see that they have point since our forefathers caused only harm. We wonder if we do indeed have a place in this country. We want to distance ourselves with whiteness and are not sure who we are anymore. We may feel paralysed, and trapped by a sense that "we are doomed if we do and doomed if we don't". 

Hopelessness and despair convince us that there is no point, and we should disengage, draw inwards, and retreat to our own small lives. 

Acceptance or Integration

I feel like I have only visited this stage momentarily; and then slipped back into the other stages. Hence I am hesitant to write too much about this, as most of it is what I hope for, rather than what I am fully living. 

Here are some glimpses of what acceptance and integration might look like in the context of the Big White Lie:

I have accepted that it would be almost impossible for any white folk who have lived in South Africa to not have believed the Big White Lie, that this lie is the damage that Apartheid did to us and to believe it does not make us morally bad, just contaminated. Just as a person who develops cancer after being exposed to radiation is not morally bad; the Big White Lie thinking happens when we are exposed to Apartheid.  

I have embraced vulnerability and humility so I can face (and possibly talk about) the spaces and places where I have believed the Big White Lie. 

I have developed a separate identity from whiteness that allows me to be critical of white identity without taking it personally.

I have accepted the concept of the Big White Lie and that we need to dismantle the affects of this lie in all levels of society; even though I might not know how this needs to be done. 

I have made peace with the fact that I can't fix the impact of the Big White Lie on my own, but that this work is done in community, being led by Black folk who are finding ways to dismantle structural racism. 

I invite you to join the conversation. Let's throw off shame and talk about how our thinking has been affected by the Big White Lie. Please share examples of what the different stages might have looked to you, or are currently looking like to you as you as you journey towards integration and acceptance. What has helped you move from one stage to the next? How are you putting down roots to tether you to the acceptance stage? 

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