Light for Ashland: White Identity Matters

Words by Kokayi Nosakhere

On the Southern Oregon University campus a sign exists promoting an upcoming series of events entitled: Race Awareness Week.

Let that sink in. There exist in the Rogue Valley such an universal blind spot among (so-called) White persons that the University system is literally expending serious resources to teach (all) the white-bodied students who walk onto the campus they are WHITE.

The great majority of White America lacks guidance on how to navigate this most basic element of the American caste system.

Colorblindness is Not a Solution

Dr. Robin DiAngelo devotes an entire chapter in her book, White Fragility, to naming the psychological constructs which support the ideation inside of white-bodied persons that they are somehow NOT WHITE, or that their race has no influence on how they choose to show up in the world – or how others choose to treat them in American society.

The fourth chapter is entitled: How Does Race Shape the Lives of White People? (pg. 51 – 69)

Dr. Robin DiAngelo and her year long bestselling book.

The first emotion which arose within me when I read this chapter was: fear. I, a Black man, am conditioned to believe white-bodied persons experiencing the reality of their racial identity is a TRIGGER for violence upon my person. I unconsciously projected my living reality onto Dr. DiAngelo, like I do Dr. Cornel West. (He engages in similar work.) 

“Does Dr. DiAngelo have bodyguards?” I asked myself. The answer which arose was: No. She does not need bodyguards to speak this level of truth. She is a white woman. She is going to be seen as brainwashed. She is not going to land in white bodies as an existential threat needing to be eliminated by violence. I, Kokayi, do not have to worry about her safety.

Through 154 pages Dr. DiAngelo explains how she does not face the same consequences Dr. Cornel West, or myself, face discussing white culture and white racial identity.

Dr. DiAngelo does an excellent job pointing out HOW white-bodied persons enter the concept of “racial innocence” and maintain this concept of “racial innocence.” Inside the white-bodied mind, said individual person does not “have a race.” Neither do any of the other white-bodied persons that they encounter. Survey white students on the SOU campus and the answers that you receive will be an agreed pattern that the majority know nothing about race or perceive themselves in racial terms.

Please allow me to quote Dr. DiAngelo on page 62, “Because we [White Americans] are not raised to see ourselves in racial terms or to see white space as racialized space, we position ourselves as innocent of race. On countless occasions, I have heard white people claim that because they grew up in segregation, THEY WERE SHELTERED FROM RACE. At the same time, we [White Americans] turn to people of color, who may have grown up in racially segregated spaces (because of decades of de jure and de facto policies that blocked them from moving into white neighborhoods) to learn about racism. BUT WHY AREN’T PEOPLE OF COLOR WHO GREW UP IN SEGREGATION ALSO INNOCENT OF RACE? . . . Because people of color are not seen as racially innocent, they are expected to speak to issues of race (but must do so on white terms.) This idea – that racism is not a white problem – enables us to sit back and let people of color take very real risks of invalidation and retaliation as they share their experiences. But we are not required to take similar cross-racial risks. They – not we [White Americans] – have race, and thus they are the holders of racial knowledge. In this way, we [White Americans] position ourselves as standing outside hierarchical social relations.” – emphasis mine for clarity.

What does this mean? It means, you and I are taught to read the Declaration of Independence and Constitution as if it was NOT written by slave masters. We are taught to read these documents as if actively practicing slavery did not color the thinking of America’s Founding Fathers. That somehow, they were so smart, so mature, so spiritually advanced George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin could envision universal brotherhood of all mankind, while treating persons of African descent as draft animals, i.e. horses and oxen.

A copy of the Declaration of Independence, where 40% of the signers were slave masters.

Likewise, white-bodied students who attend SOU walk onto the campus and sincerely believe that the Black, Native and Latinx students are treating them as generic human beings and not as if they are White Americans.

When this is pointed out, the fragility Dr. DiAngelo is naming arises. The white-bodied person bristles with waves of shame, blame and guilt. The reaction is predictable because of the messages American society broadcasts continuously. Having a race comes with serious consequences.

Entering a White Racial Identity

Are you scared of me? Immediately, the white-bodied persons seeks reassurance that they are physically safe from the persons of color whom they just learned view them as a white-bodied person and not a generic human being. Why? Because inside of the messages broadcast – literally – by American media being “white” does not mean “good guy.”

Put race into the equation and the Brock Turner rape case no longer exclusively a “rape” case, i.e. the patriarchy reinforcing oppression of women, which, the Women Marches prove, is not universally being applied in America. Brock is very specific white man, who stood before other specific white men and was deemed innocent of being anything other than a white man. He is not guilty of being a Black, Native or Latinx man.

Discussing the Brock Turner case, as if a Black man in his situation can potentially receive the exact same experience as Turner, is to engage in mental gymnastics no different than reading the Declaration of Independence as if the document speaks to universal human rights and was not written by slave masters.

Choosing to not discuss the Brock Turner case in terms the white-bodied person can envision is objective – meaning OUTSIDE of themselves and disconnected to them – generates, according to DiAngelo’s thinking – a level of racial stress the white-bodied student is not used to feeling. The student does not know how to cope.

If a white-bodied person acknowledges themselves as possessing race it means they are connected to other (so-called) white people in a way no one has taught them that they are. 

I, a Black man, have no idea how it feels inside of a white body to view a lynching picture and not have the tools to see it for what it is: White American culture. I do not know what emotions arise preventing white-bodied students from imagining their grandparents, who were alive during the Civil Rights Movement, from asking basic questions.

Basic Questions About the Civil Rights Movement

1 . What did it feel like to see the Colored Only and Whites Only signs? Did you ask great-grandma and great-grandpa why the signs existed? Did you honor the signs, meaning, did you choose to only drink from the Whites Only water fountain? Did you ever verbally command a Negro person to use the Colored Only water fountain? Or, did the adults around you use body language to reinforce obedience to segregation?


2 . How were you taught what a Negro was/is? Were you told by great-grandpa and great-grandma to stop playing with your Negro friends?

3.How did great-grandma and great-grandpa feel about the White Citizens’ Councils?

4 . How did great-grandma and great-grandpa feel about interracial relationships and biracial children?

5 . Did great-grandpa lose his virginity to raping a Black woman with a few of his friends?

6. Were you ever taken to a lynching as a child? Did great-grandma and great-grandpa have lynching experiences? Were there lynching songs? 

7. Did great-grandma and great-grandpa see the trophies from lynchings inside of the homes of their friends? How did it make them feel to see Negro body parts on open display like that? Did they buy and share the postcards made from lynchings?

8. Why did segregation feel so normal? What arguments were you given to justify segregation?

9. What did school integration feel like? Did great-grandma or great-grandpa bully any Negro students? Did it feel forced? What stories did you hear around the idea of being forced to treat Negro children no differently than White children?

10. How did the teachers guide the white students into greater humanity? Did they do like Jane Eliott did with the blue eyed/brown eyed classroom exercise? Or did the teachers attempt to avoid speaking about integration?

11. Did you watch the “I Have a Dream” speech? Was it the first time you ever heard of Dr. King? What was your reaction or the reaction of great-grandma and great-grandpa?

12. How did great-grandma and great-grandpa learn to be non-racist? Who taught them? Was there a workshop? 

Now, after asking these questions, according to Dr. DiAngelo, white-bodied readers of these words I am supposed to, as a person of color, remind you that I view white-bodied persons as full human beings. I am not racist. I hold onto the belief that white-bodied persons can adjust to the ideation that they possess a race – and you are safe from the consequences of being a white-bodied person.

I am not going to choose to do that. I am going to choose to allow you, dear White-bodied resident of Ashland, to define your relationship to whiteness. I have no tools, as a person of color, to assist you, white-bodied student/parent embodying the social position six generations of White American culture created for you. I do not know how to assist you in coming to peace with the culture inherited from the practice of enslaving Black and Brown bodies and three generations of practicing segregation. Such is not my cultural legacy or the material I use for my own identity formation.

In other words, as intergenerational trauma specialist Resmaa Menakem teaches in his book, My Grandmother’s Hands, I have to inspire you to do your own work and seek the answers to the questions posed here. May your awareness of being incarnated as a white body person in 2019 lead you into greater and greater humanity.

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