An essay title card in black and white reading: Can we just get down to the conversation about whiteness? by Ruby Nell Sales
This essay was published to accompany the premiere of Help, a new play by Claudia Rankine.

I see whiteness as a culture that seeds and fertilizes spiritual malformation and social perversion everywhere. It malforms us because it calls out the worst in us rather than the best. This is particularly true for white men who are encouraged to conform and repress their deepest feelings in order to hold the line on whiteness by not breaking rank. They are encouraged and rewarded for standing over and against Black and Brown people which they believe is essential to their survival as individuals and as a community. The preservation of their collective identity is inextricably tied into power and domination over Black and Brown communities and, yes, even over white women. Any loss of absolute power feels like a socio-spiritual death.

Despite their rhetoric extolling democracy, their commitment to absolute power makes them foes of democracy. White men’s opposition to the practice of democracy is the watering hole for systemic white nationalism and state-sanctioned violence. This way of being is not natural. Rather, the guardians of whiteness socialize white boys and men from the cradle to the grave to see and fear Black rights as a threat to white rights, safety, and power. Instead of seeing themselves as part of a larger community, white men are trained to separate themselves from Black and Brown people out of fear of being contaminated by race mixing and what they perceive as impure and non-redemptive Black and Brown bodies and lives.

The culture of whiteness not only isolates white men from the largeness of God’s creation, it disconnects them from the truth of their lives by creating historical lies and narratives that obscure the brutal nature of their deeds. Their disassociation involves them in a constant cover up. It allows them to both morally justify and to abdicate any socio-spiritual responsibility for the world that they create and the harm that they do to themselves and others.

In short, white men see themselves despite the outward manifestations of a history of social perversity and social death as good and kind men. Their image of themselves conflicts with how people of color know and see them. Rather than grapple with the ways that the acts of whiteness dehumanize them, they celebrate whiteness as a privilege and gift. Devoid of the ability to reflect, white men distance themselves from the meaning and truth of the dehumanizing legacy of violence and oppression that are requirements of their identity and the source of so much human carnage. They overlook the moral nihilism that is the source of barbaric acts such as lynching, mob violence, state sanctioned violence, and chemical warfare with lead in the water of indigenous and Black communities.

Further, it is not a privilege for the guardians of whiteness to murder all of our multiple identities and reduce us all to the emptiness of skin color. Whiteness disconnects us from our gender, class, religion, sexuality, and ethnicities. It melts all of us down into a pot of whiteness where the guardians recreate us in their image. This stripping down is a dangerous act of soul murder that disconnects and alienates us from our individual and collective stories. It separates the I from the We and the We from the I.

In this melting pot of whiteness, we lose our voices as subjects in history, and we confuse the official history with our own. It creates in us a false consciousness that makes us identify with the guardians who are the parents of our suffering and fragmentation. This false identification with the guardians is especially true with white men who operate from the illusion that all white men enjoy the same power and place in society. The guardians use this lie of sameness to erase the dangerous reality of classism which always lingers beneath the surface as a clear and present danger to the false unity of white men.

We live in a technocracy where neither our lives nor our labor is significant. As it is with all of us, white men are displaced by technology. They feel anger by the betrayal of the guardians who promised them that their white skin and gender guarantee them a first-class ticket and the best seats in the house. Because white men believe that these perks and benefits form the core of their identity, they are fighting for their lives. Rather than dismiss their hurt and anger, we must name and to speak to these emotions. It is work that helps white men identify redemptive pathways out of moral nihilism as Claudia Rankine does in Help. If we do not open new doors, white men will continue to internalize their hurt and anger with destructive behavior such as alcoholism, opioid addiction and high suicide rates. Not only will they continue to harm themselves, they will also transfer their rage onto people of color.

History teaches us that the guardians of whiteness when confronted with white anger at classism adeptly pull the race card. They manipulate the ingrained white belief that Black people are enemy combatants from whom they must protect their lives and benefits.

If we are to curtail the dangers of whiteness, we must speak in tongues in the 21st century about whiteness. It is important to acknowledge the rights that white men receive that others do not. Simultaneously, we must ask, is it a privilege to inherit a death driven system that predicates itself on the decimation of the potential and possibility of white men to reach the fullness of their humanities? Contrary to calling out the worst in them as the system does, we must see the good in them that they do not see in themselves. Our work must enable them to find new meaning in their lives and provide relief from their brokenness and fragmentation. No longer must our analysis reaffirm the mythology that material possessions and power are the evidence of a good life despite the smallness of white men’s inner lives and self-esteem.

This work is a redemptive eye-to-eye effort which requires all of us to claim both our status as targets and predators. It is important that we face the positive and negative status as both carriers and objects of the culture of whiteness. White Americans should no longer ask how they might fix the fallout of racism for Black people without looking at their community as the socio-spiritual geyser that spews it outward. If white Americans focus on this task, the problems will begin to disappear.

I believe that no one is entrapped in bad history. Because of grace and agency, we can begin new stories for ourselves and with others. Because I believe in our ability to change, I invite white people to “wade in troubled waters and become brand new.” This is exactly what Claudia does in her offering with Help. She takes white men into the dehumanizing culture of whiteness with grace, intellectual precision, and moral clarity while leaving intact the hope of redemption. Hers is an act of restoration rather than one of retribution. Help is an act of courage and love in these fractured times when the nation reels with hatred coming from the highest seat of power and trickling down to ordinary white people. Although Help focuses on white men, it provides a mirror for all of us to dislodge the bone of whiteness from all of our throats. It allows us to breathe deeply and freely without choking the life out of us.

Contributor Bio

Ruby Nell Sales is a highly trained, experienced, and deeply committed social activist, scholar, administrator, manager, public theologian, and educator in the areas of civil, gender, and other human rights. Sales has preached around the country on race, class, gender, and reconciliation and has done groundbreaking work on community and non-violence formation. Sales is the founder and director of the SpiritHouse Project. Presently, she is building racial justice cafes in North and South Carolina.
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