A New Narrative of Whiteness Is Unfolding

Thursday, September 7, 2017 - 7:00 pm
Demonstrators participate in a march and rally against white supremacy August 16, 2017 in downtown Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

A New Narrative of Whiteness Is Unfolding

The headlines over the last few weeks have been filled with the worst of whiteness — Nazi knock-offs parading around with Tiki torches and a 20-year-old plowing a car into a multi-racial counter-protest; a police officer caught on tape reassuring a white citizen she doesn’t have to worry because “we only kill black people”; xenophobia bubbling up all over the internet and elsewhere thanks to the president’s announced intention to repeal DACA and send 800,000 young Americans to countries many of them have never even lived in.

But there is a different story starting to take shape. It doesn’t have a coherent narrative just yet. It doesn’t have a title like “white supremacy.” But if you look hard, it’s there. It’s nascent, but it’s critical to the future of this country.

It’s Heather Heyer, the 32-year-old woman killed in Charlottesville defending her belief in racial equality and her mother, Susan Bro, who has refused to become a White House photo op. At her daughter’s funeral she said,

“They tried to kill my child to shut her up. Well, guess what? You just magnified her.”

It’s Pearce Tefft, the father of avowed white nationalist Peter Tefft, who wrote and published a letter denouncing his son and his belief system in no uncertain terms:

“He once joked, ‘The thing about us fascists is, it’s not that we don’t believe in freedom of speech. You can say whatever you want. We’ll just throw you in an oven.’

Peter, you will have to shovel our bodies into the oven, too. Please son, renounce the hate, accept and love all.”

It’s the thousands of Virginians, the majority of them white, who filled the UVA campus in a vigil after all the violence, creating a sea of little united flames, singing and pledging to stand up, unafraid, to their violent, hateful brothers and sisters.

It’s the CEOs and artists, many of them white, who resigned from Trump’s various councils and committees after his refusal to take a bold stand against white supremacy.

It’s the organizing happening all over the country by Showing Up for Racial Justice and other groups formed specifically to help white Americans understand how to be proactive about fighting racism.

Maybe it’s you — attending a vigil in your own hometown, expressing genuine rage or grief on social media, reaching out to relatives that you think may harbor some of the same dehumanizing ideas as those who gathered in Charlottesville or those calling for deportation of young people (95 percent of whom are working or in school) and engaging them in overdue dialogue.

For so long, whiteness has either been invisible — almost like the neutral setting, as Miguel Clark Mallet wrote so eloquently — or it has been irredeemable, something to be ashamed of, something to disavow, something to try to escape through the parroting of black culture or tireless work to be one of the “good white people.” Both mindsets are ultimately unfruitful for real racial progress. One is a comfortable delusion — that whiteness is the norm and always will be. The other is a delusional comfort — that there is some way to earn transcendence from the moral abomination that is American whiteness, historic and contemporary.

But could it be that a third way is being born? Could it be that a narrative of whiteness that feels redeemable, principled, loud, unafraid, intentionally uncomfortable, even joyful, is starting to take shape? Has the white supremacy movement’s palpable surfacing finally allowed for a critical mass of white anti-racist Americans to step forward and declare the dismantling of white supremacy a personal priority?

Only time will tell. But for now we have some serious wrestling to do with our own consciousness and some serious changes to make — behaviorally and systemically. The truth is, even at a moment this galvanizing, the project of reimagining whiteness feels overwhelming. Where does one start? Attending a vigil is a powerful way to signal one’s commitment, a source of collective emotional catharsis, and, potentially, a way to build solidarity with other people who are poised to fight racism. But what does the fight itself look like? Where does it show up? Who are its leaders?

These are genuine, not rhetorical, questions. I don’t know the answers. I do know that we face many paradoxes:

  • While now is undoubtedly the time to condemn white supremacy in no uncertain terms, we must also resist the temptation to split the world into good and bad white people. This false dichotomy suggests that the only problem is the bad white people (i.e. the white supremacists), when in fact, the problem is far wider and more deeply rooted than that.
  • We must take full responsibility for our own emotional and logistical work in dismantling white supremacy, while maintaining constant humility. Not only are most of us nascent anti-racist activists, still learning the ropes of what kinds of personal work or organizing strategies are effective, but we can only do this work with integrity if we are in real relationship with people of color.
  • We must fully acknowledge our own self-interest in fighting racism; we will be liberated by reimagining whiteness, as will our children and our children’s children. But as with so many long-term transformations, it won’t necessarily feel like liberation in the short term. It might feel like losing — losing opportunities, money, advantages, friends, time.

What we have to gain is nothing less than our own integrity, the healing of a moral wound that is at the center of white existence, even when the festering is invisible or called by other names.

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is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Friday.

Her newest book, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, explores how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at Feministing.com.

Courtney has authored/edited five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Her work appears frequently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Courtney has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. She lives with her partner in life and work, John Cary, in Oakland, and their daughters Maya and Stella. Read more about her work at www.courtneyemartin.com.

Share Your Reflection


  • UT Jane

    Thank you for pulling together the strands of light and revealing the hope that is out there. It’s so easy to believe that the darkness will overwhelm us. Very important work.

    • Courtney E. Martin

      Thanks Jane!

  • jollygood

    I would say whites have much more to gain than to lose, particularly in the area of loneliness. White-structured society is so individualized, so commercialized, so exploitative, so machine-like, that even whites who benefit materially from such a system feel a sense of soul-death that manifests itself in addictions, distractions, power and lifestyle competition, depression, and bodily ailments. A system that at its core worships material wealth and financial power at the expense of human connection and social respect hurts not only those it exploits, but even those it rewards. Whites are waking up to this reality, and realizing that as we do unto our brown and black brothers and sisters, we do unto ourselves.

    • Courtney E. Martin

      Beautifully articulated! Thank you.

    • UT Jane

      very true

  • DJ9791

    My wife and I just read a short piece by Clyde S. Kirby. He speaks to the idle ugliness which grows in lives caught up in the everyday existence of “normality”…a society built on assumed whiteness, privilege and exclusion. “I shall not fall into the falsehood that this day, or any day, is merely another ambiguous and plodding twenty-four hours, but rather a unique event, filled, if I so wish, with worthy potentialities. I shall not be fool enough to suppose that trouble and pain are wholly evil parentheses in my existence.” We need to focus on the potentialities of every day when considering what price we pay, what price others pay, to sustain our existence.

    • Courtney E. Martin

      Beautiful. Thanks for sharing.

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