Though it is still a relatively new area of thinking, there are now many books, articles, thinkpieces, and movies about the toxicity of masculinity and the fact that men- in addition to cis women and trans and gender nonconforming folks- are also negatively impacted by sexism and misogyny. Though I wish people with privilege were ready to commit to movements for social justice that don’t address them, it is an extremely important and powerful message that puts the responsibility for emotional, psychological, and intellectual healing from sexism on everyone, regardless of gender. Men, in addition to those marginalized by gender, have to negotiate the harm that has been done to them by sexism, and then together, no longer victims, we will move forward into a new, better era (we hope).
Collectively, we don’t talk about whiteness the same way. Some people do name whiteness for what it is (toxic and dehumanizing, for whites and non-whites), and even more theorists talk about the dehumanization that oppressors in general impose upon themselves when they dehumanize others (so what I’m about to say is not really a new idea). But when the mainstream liberal conversation about race focuses on how people of color are hurt by racism and what white people can do to help. Not only does this put the majority of the emotional labor on people of color by positing that they are the only ones hurt by racism, but it also positions white people as potential saviors. No matter how many articles about “how to be an ally” reiterate that white people should not view themselves as saviors of people of color, how can white people avoid thinking of themselves that way unless they also start to think of themselves as being negatively affected by racism?
And yet, we don’t consistently talk about what white people gain from racial justice movements. Simply Googling “Why Men Need Feminism” and “Why White People Need Racial Justice ” (I also tried it with Black Lives Matter and anti-racism) shows the differences in the ways that we discuss race and gender. Almost all articles under the search about white people are related to the topic of allyship: how can white people be good allies? In contrast, there are pages upon pages of articles specifically pointing out the ways that men benefit from gender justice (to be perfectly frank, most of these articles are pretty much political garbage; however, the point remains!). Sometimes, the differences in the ways that we discuss race and gender are good; specificity of language can be very powerful in social justice movements. But in this case, I think that the lack of thought on what white people can gain from unlearning racism is unfortunate and ultimately, stymies the coalition-building capacity of movements for racial justice.
I want to address a few things, because if I read the above paragraphs written by someone else, someone anonymous, I might feel uncomfortable, or even angry. I am coming both from my own experiences as a person of color who was radicalized in a mostly white environment. I learned about race theory in a place where, because the whole school was extremely white, many of the politically radical communities included white people. (This isn’t to say that most white people at the school were involved in social justice activities, just that, by the numbers, I knew quite a few white people who were woke.) I was able to see, from white friends and classmates, exactly how little they had addressed their own racial pain, even though they were better than most white people at hearing people of color talk about their racial pain.
I do not think it is possible to overestimate the pain- psychological, emotional, physical- that racism inflicts on people of color, and by saying that white people are also hurt, I do not mean to diminish the hurt that POC face. They are different kinds of hurt, but nonetheless, I do think everyone is hurt by racism. My point is not that the hurt people of color face is exaggerated or overanalyzed, but that white people ALSO need to deal with their own shit. They need to look their racial baggage in the face and try to reconcile.
Whiteness is a myth (and has been redefined countless times throughout history), much like manhood/masculinity, that is sustained by an ideology that values violence and competition rather than compassion and coalition. Whiteness requires something else against which to define itself; whiteness requires an Other, and to maintain distinct boundaries between the concept of a white person and a nonwhite person, false differences have to be created, and it always ends up as a hierarchy with whiteness on top. And deep, abiding pain in all people is the primary product of the long history of whiteness. White people need to understand just how deeply they have been hurt by racism. They are hurt every time they define power as the ability to dominate another person physically or financially or linguistically; they are hurt every time they feel unsafe because they are surrounded by brown and black faces; they are hurt when they feel entitled to economic prosperity they never achieve; they are hurt every time they look inside of themselves and find they cannot empathize with communities who are being systematically murdered by the state; they are hurt when they cannot even cry over the murder of a child.
That is my point.
As much as we need to emphasize to white people that they have dehumanized people of color for centuries, we need to emphasize that at the same time, they have dehumanized themselves. Racial justice movements shouldn’t hesitate to say that white people need this too. White people would also be liberated in a world that is free from white supremacy. It is hard to walk the line between asking white people to deal with their own pain caused by racism and telling them that racial justice should prioritize people of color, not them, but I think it is possible and necessary to walk it. We all need to heal, and we all need racial justice to do it.