This summer has been one of self-discovery, growth, accountability, and learning. I have been grappling with what my white identity means and how to have a white identity that is not unhealthy and destructive, both for the sake others and for my own well-being. Part of my white privilege is not having to think much about what my white identity means. Thus, I can articulate what my Mennonite or student or female identities mean, but I am still figuring out how to articulate what my white identity means.
This summer was an abrupt awakening to the violence my white self commits against People of Color. I quickly realized the importance of understanding what my whiteness means in society. It is violent and steeped with advantages. It became clear that other identities I have for myself have been immensely shaped by my whiteness and the advantage that comes with it.
There have been many difficult lessons about white identity that I have learned, but one in particular stands out as especially challenging to grapple with: Learning about the things that I like about being white on the social front (social because race is a social construction, not genetic construction). All the things I like about my whiteness (safety, representation in media, good treatment in health care, knowledge of how to navigate the school system, etc.) are directly in contrast with things other groups of people may not have access to. Plus, the reasons those groups may not have access to these things is precisely because of whiteness. I am certainly grateful to have those things, but it feels icky (a strange word, but certainly how I feel) that me having those things has been at the expense of others. I have begun to understand how harmful my whiteness is, and that feels quite discouraging.
I know that this realization is incredibly important for the understanding of my own identity and history, as well as for anti-racism work. However, to maintain a healthy self-image I cannot only have my identity be based in something that is harmful. I need some other options. I know that the first step is to form an identity based on learning about the history of harms my ancestors committed, recognizing the benefits I receive for being white, understanding how racism is within me, and having accountability partners who are willing to call me out for mistakes I will inevitably make. However, I still do not feel like that gets to the heart of my white identity.
Maybe I need to take all of that into account, then form a more fully-encompassing identity. Maybe I need to accept that I may not like certain parts of my identity because of the harm it causes others (and myself). That does not mean that I should despise my entire identity, though. I am proud of other parts of my identity, and maybe I should allow those parts to keep me in a healthy mindset. However, I am realizing (as I write this) that my white identity needs to keep me uncomfortable. I need to feel a constant nudge and discomfort because that will keep me motivated to fight racism. Maybe part of having a healthy white identity means accepting that that part of me has done harm. I don’t like that feeling or knowledge. But allowing myself to sit with that discomfort is necessary to become more whole and fully present in a society that has for so long told me that my whiteness is the norm. Perhaps disliking my white identity is not such a terrible thing but is a necessary feeling to keep me moving forward.
All of this sounds internal, which is important because that is where all of this starts. However, I have learned that it cannot only be internal. My thoughts and feelings and identities must cause outward action. Otherwise, I continue to uphold racism. This work certainly requires a balance of critically looking at oneself and acting in ways that support undoing racism work.
One of the most important lessons I have learned this summer is how incredibly important it is to recognize that this is all a journey that each of us are on together. I will mess up, and so will you. We need to give ourselves grace with that. But knowing we will mess up is part of what being in accountability with others is for. For me this means asking those I am in relationships with to challenge me when my words or actions are harmful. We can lovingly and compassionately challenge each other to further anti-racism work and further the holistic health of ourselves.
My white identity (and all my other identities) have not been formed by myself. I have had a community and society around me that assisted in those identity formations. If our unhealthy white identities were formed with one another, then we must seek to find a healthier way to be white together, too.