There is a 12-minute recorded version of this
blog post available on YouTube.
With thanks to Bill Stearman for the suggestion.
Blog Post #185:
‘The invisible white WE‘
Conversations About Racism, Part Two
All good people agree,
And all good people say,
All nice people, like Us, are We
And every one else is They.
- Rudyard Kipling,
“We and They”
It is ironic that I start Part Two of my Conversations about Racism by quoting Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936), the white English author who popularized the term “the white man’s burden.” I loathe the racism in Kipling’s writing, but I do find this quotation, from the final stanza of his poem “We and They”, to be a useful starting point for today’s topic.
In this essay, I’m exploring the power of what I call ‘the invisible white WE’ when talking about Anti-BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) racism.
Please see my disclosure statement about the term ‘invisible white WE’ at the end.
In Part One of this series about racism (21 June 2020 – Link), I wrote about being born white in a predominantly white community. When growing up, I was not aware that I was white. In the same way that to a fish, the water is invisible, the concept of being white was invisible to me. In that essay, I made the connection between this invisibility, white privilege, and white systemic racism, all in aid of confronting my own racism.
Here’s an anecdote to illustrate what I mean by ‘the invisible white WE‘:
About eighteen months ago, I saw a Facebook post that featured the photo of a large sign placed near the entrance of an American Protestant church. It was the kind of sign typically seen in front of churches welcoming non-attenders into the life of the congregation. (Forgive me, but the details of the sign are garnered from memory. Alas, I did not save the photo, nor do I know the church’s denomination or location.)
The sign read something like this:
WE...welcome People of Color.
WE...welcome Indigenous people.
WE...welcome Gay and Lesbian people.
WE...welcome disabled people.
An impressive list, I thought to myself...until I looked at the word ‘WE’. Who, exactly, is the ‘WE’ that’s doing all this welcoming?
It isn’t minority people (whatever that means).
It isn’t disabled people.
It isn’t Gay or Lesbian people.
It isn’t Indigenous people.
And it isn’t People of Colour.
By process of elimination, you’re left with the conclusion that it’s white, straight, able-bodied people who are doing the welcoming. And they’re not identified. They’re way too busy welcoming all the people who aren’t like them.
This is an example of ‘the invisible white WE‘. By not including people like themselves in the list of those being welcomed, they have rendered their whiteness invisible. After all, they are the norm. They consider themselves the ‘normal’ people who are generously welcoming all the ‘other’ people into the life of their church. They have the power to define what constitutes ‘other’. And it’s not them, because they’re already there. The distinguished American journalist Isabel Wilkerson calls this phenomenon “invisible scaffolding.” (“America’s Enduring Racial Caste System”, New York Times Magazine, July 5, 2020, Page 28)
The implication of this racial invisibility hit me hard. It came at a time when I was starting to fathom my own white privilege. The concept that white was so ‘normal’ in my culture that it didn’t need to be named or acknowledged was hugely disturbing.
I posted a (too) hasty reply on Facebook to the church sign, saying something cheeky like, “I guess this church doesn’t welcome white people, because they’re not on the list.” Within minutes, someone posted a comment objecting to the tone of my comment and accusing it – and me – of being racist.
I tried drafting a better response, explaining that I was in fact trying to be anti-racist and that I was grappling with being a racist simply because I had been born white in a white society, but the subtleties were too complex to cover in a brief reply. Rather than risk an online argument about what was – and what was not – racist, I deleted my comment.
A good example of white privilege, don’t you think?
This episode taught me three lessons:
1. ‘The invisible white WE‘ is a powerful force in our society.
2. I hadn’t done enough homework to articulate my point of view and to reply to challenges of it.
3. The term ‘white people’ makes many white people nervous.
Here’s my current thinking about racism: for white people, race and white privilege are normalized and are, therefore, invisible. The sociological term for this invisibility is ‘implicit bias’. The group that has the power to define ‘normal’ is the group that benefits most from that power. The more entrenched that power becomes, the more invisible it becomes. The more invisible it becomes, the more those who benefit from it deny that it exists. To repeat the metaphor I used earlier, “To the fish, the water is invisible.”
(Last-minute addition: Robin DiAngelo, author of White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, adds to this metaphor by pointing out you can’t be untouched by the water you’re swimming in. See below for more information about Dr. DiAngelo.)
I am not saying that all use of ‘We’ when examining racism is bad. There are ‘We’ groups that are intentionally inclusive and anti-racist. What I am trying put into words is the insidious, invisible white attitude that denies racism and white privilege exist.
A good starting point for research about implicit bias is the Perception Institute. (Link) According to the Perception Institute’s website, it is a “consortium of researchers, advocates, and strategists who translate cutting edge research on race, gender, and other identities into solutions that reduce bias and discrimination, and promote belonging.” It is based in Washington, DC.
Another anti-racist resource is Robin Diangelo’s fabulous book, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. It is an excellent guide for understanding white racism. It has sharp edges and is uncomfortable for me as a white person to read – by design. Highly recommended. Diangelo – who identifies as white – believes that white people need some racial humility. She focuses particularly on white people who believe they are free of bias. As she says, “Another way that my life has been shaped by being white is that my race is held up as the norm for humanity. Whites are ‘just people’ – our race is rarely if ever named.”
(Watch one of Dr. DiAngelo’s powerful YouTube presentations here. And listen to Krista Tippett’s On Being interview with Dr. DiAngelo and racial trauma expert Resmaa Menakem here.)
My friends: the above thoughts mark the beginning of a journey for me. I have no easy solutions, but at least my journey has begun. I’ve started writing Part Three of these conversations – a reconsideration of Sir John A. Macdonald, due in early August.
Disclosure: when I searched the term ‘the invisible white WE’ to see if anyone else uses it, Google found only one reference. It is contained in an essay by Sue Shore in Whitening Race: Essays in Social and Cultural Criticism, edited by Aileen Moreton-Robinson (Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, Australia, 2004, page 101). The title of Dr. Shore’s essay is Destabilising or Recuperating Whiteness? (Un)mapping ‘The Self’ of Agentic Learning Discourses. Dr. Shore teaches at the International Graduate Centre of Education at Charles Darwin University, Darwin, Northern Territory, Australia. Portions of the book are available without charge on Google Books (Link).
The photos: They all feature graffiti on railway cars in the Canadian National freight yard in Belleville. Graffiti art can be an elegantly complex world of in-groups, codes, and secret symbols. It reminds me of the equally complex world of ‘the invisible white WE’ : full of in-groups, codes, and secret symbols.
Until next time, my friends, stay safe.
Larry Tayler Photography
Belleville, Ontario, Canada