The Unbearable Whiteness of Being: The Permanent Vacation from Race

landscape photo of white living room
Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

Over my spring break last week, I made a trip to IUPUI in Indianapolis to present as part of a series spanning their academic year, White Racial Literacy Project Speakers Series, addressing whiteness as part of their diversity and inclusion initiatives.

One controversial aspect of this approach has been providing separate spaces for white faculty, staff, and students as well as people of color to investigate whiteness. That sits inside a larger paradox of this series—an effort to center whiteness as a process for de-centering whiteness.

During the session for people of color, I addressed how I often navigate issues of race from the context of my own life, specifically framing my discussion of race by self-identifying as a redneck (see my PowerPoint here).

This racial identification, I note, is important because I have the privilege of stepping into a racial discussion of whiteness indirectly, using “redneck” and still not actually saying “white.”

A woman in that session responded by acknowledging my privilege in controlling the narrative of myself—I can ignore (or as I say, take a vacation from being white) my whiteness almost all the time, and even when I confront it, I can maintain some level of invisibility (normalcy). She added that both race and gender are imposed on her, leaving her no option for similar vacations from race or gender.

This woman’s response spoke directly to the video in my presentation of author Toni Morrison calmly checking Charlie Rose’s question about her writing about something other than race since her writing is designated as racial because she is a black author writing about black characters.

Morrison poses to Rose if anyone ever asks a similar question of Tolstoy, or any white authors who tend to write exclusively about white characters but are not framed as writing about race.

Here is the essential problem with centering whiteness, as being male or heterosexual is also centered.

Centering is the result of characteristics correlated with power, dominance, becoming both normal and invisible/unspoken.

In literature, as Morrison explains, white male authors are allowed to produce literature that avoids being racial or gendered through claims of being universal or allegorical (see Cormac McCarthy).

F. Scott Fitzgerald is no less writing about race (whiteness) than Morrison is about race (blackness), or Ernest Hemingway, no less about gender (being male) than Kate Chopin or Alice Walker about gender (being female).

Fitzgerald and Hemingway, however, are allowed permanent vacations from race and gender by virtue of their privileges while Morrison, Chopin, and Walker exist always under the burden of being writers of race and gender—unless they achieve the lofty status of being themselves writers of universality or allegory (in other words, writing like Fitzgerald and Hemingway).

As DiAngelo details (see below in resources):

White people in North America live in a social environment that protects and insulates them from race-based stress. This insulated environment of racial protection builds white expectations for racial comfort while at the same time lowering the ability to tolerate racial stress, leading to what I refer to as White Fragility. White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium.

Interrupting the centering (making invisible, unspoken) of whiteness is interrupting the vacation-as-normal for white people, and that disruption is often met with anger and resistance since whiteness means a permanent vacation, unlike the permanent burden of race (or gender, sexuality, etc.) for those rendered as “other” against the centered whiteness, often so-called people of color.

White fragility reveals itself in microagressions that seem reasonable, not offensive, and even rational (another veneer for privilege) to white people: “I don’t see race,” “All lives matter,” “There is only one race, the human race,” “How about black-on-black crime or the absent black father?,” “Why does it always have to be about race?” (see below in resources).

That final question is a powerful example because white people are always existing in unacknowledged/unexamined whiteness—their lives are always about race—but the centering of whiteness means whiteness (race) remains invisible and unspoken (how I can identify as a redneck as a code for “white”).

For example, historically, Miss America pageants produced only white winners, and as a consequence, Miss Black America was born in protest of the centering of whiteness, for example. Until the fact of whiteness was confronted by Miss Black America (or consider Black History Month as a recognition that U.S. History is mostly white history), white fragility was not triggered, hibernating; whiteness was allowed its permanent vacation.

James Baldwin faced a parallel experience with Morrison’s, being interviewed as a black writer. In that interview from 1984Julius Lester asked James Baldwin about “the task facing black writers,” and Baldwin replied:

This may sound strange, but I would say to make the question of color obsolete….

Well, you ask me a reckless question, I’ll give you a reckless answer—by realizing first of all that the world is not white. And by realizing that the real terror that engulfs the white world now is visceral terror. I can’t prove this, but I know it. It’s the terror of being described by those they’ve been describing for so long. And that will make the concept of color obsolete.

Whiteness in the U.S. created racism as much as it spring from racism, and then whiteness rendered itself invisible—the manufacturing of the permanent vacation from race.

And thus the paradox confronting initiatives such as the one at IUPUI: Centering whiteness by naming it in order to de-center whiteness.

As someone with tremendous privilege who has the luxury to worry about equity—often in abstract ways, too rarely in ways that change policy or structural dismantle privilege—I am left uncomfortable with the fact that white people must do the work of equity and de-centering whiteness and that this fact means a different sort of centering whiteness.

One of my luxuries is I can be a different kind of reckless than Baldwin voiced; one of my privileges is I can choose to work through awareness to allyship and then to abolitionist, the delicate recklessness of dismantling privilege—centering myself and my whiteness as levers for de-centering whiteness.

Recommended Resources

White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo (essay)

White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, Robin DiAngelo (book)

Examples of Racial Microaggressions

Good intentions are not enough: a decolonizing intercultural education, Paul C. Gorski

Racism Scale