The toxic, masculine white power displayed from the nation’s Capitol for the world to see started from a young age, within their families. Our homes are breeding grounds for this kind of white entitlement and violence. White people must investigate our complicity. Those who stormed the Capitol are regular, everyday, white people we greet on the sidewalk and invite over for the holidays.
White women, where and how do we enable and join with white male supremacy in our homes, relationships, workspaces, grocery stores, etc.? In which ways do we co-sign violence led by toxic, masculine, cisgender white men? Do we hold the men in our lives accountable for daily acts of white supremacy, or are we more concerned with pleasing them and being agreeable?
I learned from Ericka Hart and Ebony Donnley through their podcast “Hoodrat to Headwrap” that President Donald Trump and President-Elect Joe Biden are just two different brands of white supremacy, and that so-called progressive white people need to stop scapegoating Trump. Biden won’t be any better, because what corrupts the white people wearing MAGA hats, corrupts all of us white people.
We are all insidiously corrupted by white supremacy, and unless we are challenging that actively and daily, we’re letting it run unchecked on its regularly scheduled programming, and unchecked white power is an irresponsible and violent choice. Hart reminds us, “White people, this is NOT a time to separate yourself from THESE white people. All of this is whiteness and includes ALL white people.”
Isabel Wilkerson opens her indispensable book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents with a photograph taken in 1936, from the era of the Third Reich in Hamburg, Germany. In the photo, a congested mass of shipyard workers is extending a stiff arm, heiling to the Fuhrer, all except one man who stands, arms crossed. In a sea of Nazi allegiance, this one person refuses to comply. Wilkerson writes:
“We might feel certain that, were we Aryan citizens under the Third Reich, we surely would have seen through it, would have risen above it like him, been that person resisting authoritarianism and brutality in the face of mass hysteria. We would like to believe that we would have taken the more difficult path of standing up against injustice in defense of the outcaste. But unless people are willing to transcend their fears, endure discomfort and derision, suffer the scorn of loved ones and neighbors and co-workers and friends, fall into disfavor of perhaps everyone they know, face exclusion and even banishment, it would be numerically impossible, humanly impossible, for everyone to be that man. What would it take to be him in any era? What would it take to be him now?”
Wilkerson believes we learn by exposure over generations that the incomprehensible is the way life is supposed to be. We must decide with conviction instead to become cross-armed in a sea of allegiance, refuse to buy from white people profiting off Blackness, risk “ruining the holiday” by discussing the genocidal roots of whiteness, forego the need to be liked by everybody, prioritize accountability over “keeping the peace,” develop radical empathy, interrupt the silence and taboos of imposed hierarchies.
Breaking from white solidarity is an absolutely essential component of our white responsibility in this trauma vortex. When we refuse to talk to our white families about white supremacy and its spidering influences, we enable a spectrum of violence of types and degrees, such as played out in voter suppression, wage inequality, State murder of black people, and recent events at the Capitol. I’ve seen this violence, this unabashed arrogance and entitlement in my own family being enacted by the men and enabled by the women.
The cult of whiteness wreaks havoc when it begins to feel that its social hierarchy is in jeopardy. The unrestricted consumption and endless growth mentality, what bell hooks calls “imperialist-white supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy,” is imploding. The effort to preserve whiteness proves cannibalistic. Death in one place leads to re-birth in another. Wilkerson writes:
“America is an old house. We can never declare the work over […]. When you live in an old house, you may not want to go into the basement after a storm to see what the rains have wrought. Choose not to look, however, at your own peril. The owner of an old house knows that whatever you are ignoring will never go away. Whatever is lurking will fester whether you choose to look or not. Ignorance is no protection from the consequences of inaction. Whatever you are wishing away will gnaw at you until you gather the courage to face what you would rather not see.”
White people, we must build in ways that do not replicate the existing oppressive structures; in ways that reflect our healing from internalized white supremacy, a condition which tethers us to fear of conflict, focus on lack, and tendencies to hoard and protect our white comfort. It’s time to respect, honor, and follow Indigenous wisdom that has always made choices with the health of the collective and the planet in mind.
Down with antiquated structures. Down with antiquated belief systems. We must mitigate damage to this old American house, and no longer accommodate its unjustifiable and uninhabitable conditions.
I used to want to distance myself from “those white people,” but now I understand that any attempt to distance myself is ultimately irresponsible and violent. I can no longer overlook the misshapen floorboards and growing mold in the American basement for which we’re all responsible.
Resmaa Menakem, author of My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies has put forward the wisdom that white supremacy is a trauma response:
“We’ve been dealing with white supremacy as if it’s an attitude, a conviction, a belief system, or a way of seeing the world — as if it lives in the thinking brain. But, in my two decades as a therapist, I’ve come to see that this is a myth. White supremacy — and all the claims, accusations, excuses, and dodges that surround it — are a trauma response. This response lives not inside psyches, but deep within bodies. (In fact, a more accurate term for the affliction is white-body supremacy, since it elevates the white body above all other bodies. The white body is the ostensibly supreme standard against which other bodies’ humanity is measured.) The attitudes, convictions, and beliefs of white-body supremacy are reflexive cognitive side effects, like the belief of a claustrophobe that the walls are closing in. These ideas have been reinforced through institutions as practice, procedures, and standards.”
What are we allowing that keeps us restricted? What antiquated delusions are diminishing our personal power? How can we embrace discomfort in order to create the life and world we truly want to see? We created whiteness. We can unmake whiteness. So, who do we want to become?
Ultimately, Menakem, a therapist and licensed social worker, advises those of us in white bodies to “begin with our bodies, with healing our trauma,” and I couldn’t agree more with this epigenetic premise. I advocate for healing from trauma in whatever way works for you so that we can be better people who fight for a better world for all, not simply to improve our own lives. Our healing as individuals should bring collective benefits. We’re linked in our liberation.
When white people begin the life-long journey of healing our racialized trauma and response, that’s the point at which we must work to persistently guide our friends and family too. This will begin to create what Menakem calls a “cultural container” useful in confronting and unmaking whiteness, transmuting this collective energy into new realities and futures we want to see.
Erin Monahan is a trauma-informed mindset coach, writer, speaker, entrepreneur, and the founder of Terra Incognita Media. She interrupts toxic masculinity and guides fellow #antigirlboss entrepreneurs into their truth and power. Monahan’s work is rooted in racial and social justice.
Find her on Instagram: @erin.k.monahan