Why I No Longer Know How To Relate To Whiteness

The National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC.

I am having trouble understanding my place in the world we live in. The election was months ago. The inauguration was weeks ago, and I am still struggling with one primary issue:

I no longer know how to relate to whiteness.

And let’s be clear: existing in America is (and always has been) relating to whiteness and white supremacy. It is difficult to relate to white people while rejecting whiteness.

In the months leading up to the 2016 Presidential election, I had been experiencing a sort of anxiety around integrated spaces. Specifically, integrated spaces where whiteness went unchecked and unchallenged. Spaces where contemporary people were using the worst pieces of historical rhetoric to justify their racism, sexism, Islamophobia and ableism. Spaces where white guilt, white fragility and weaponized whiteness permeated. I was naive. I believed that, after the election, we would return to a sort of stasis where we would hear the valid concerns of the basket of deplorables wishing to make America great again without having to support the hateful parts as a matter of policy. So I put my anxiety on hold because I didn’t know what else to do with it and I felt like I could let go of it soon enough.

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And then America elected its id as President and my anxiety bloomed into full-fledged Weltschmerz. It’s taken me three months to find that word. Three months to be able to put language around the emotional state of being that is my reality post-Nov. 8, 2016. Three months of wrangling with the anxiety I’d repressed. Weltschmerz (“mental depression or apathy caused by comparison of the actual state of the world with an ideal state”) has stalled me.

I didn’t know what it meant to not have words for what I was feeling. My primary means of processing the world is through language. I believe in the power of language so much that I have based a significant amount of my interpersonal relationships on people’s abilities to say the right things. “Words of affirmation” is my primary love language. I work in theater because I believe that the medium uses language in ways that can change how we view the world. Simply, words were my first love and not being able to depend on them added insult to injury.

Photo: Courtney Harge.

My feelings, my language and my country failed me all at the same time and I still haven’t recovered. Which brings me back to no longer knowing how to relate to whiteness. My reality, post-election, feels how I imagine Neo felt returning to the Matrix: everything looks the same but we know that it’s all an illusion. White people elected that man — 53% of white women voted for Hair Gropenfuhrer. Thanks to the Cinemax theory of racism, it’s possible that many of the white people I encounter regularly think that oppression is just the cost of doing business in order to ease their “economic anxiety.” White people opted into whiteness and now want us to “come together as one united people” by opting in, too. And I just cannot. I, in fact, will not.

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For reference, opting into whiteness has wrought the following:

This is nowhere near an exhaustive list, but my spirit grows wearier by the word. Whiteness allowed for and encouraged the destruction of generations of people in service of its existence. Whiteness is a social and institutional plague. It is literally the pox on all our houses and, collectively, white people doubled down on it. And before you “not all white people” me, an increase in post-election bias-related incidents shows that enough people are opting into the worst parts of whiteness to create a critical mass. If your response, white person, is to distance yourself from those instances rather than recognize the forces of whiteness that are at play, then you are part of the problem.

Everyone is part of the problem.

We are told to resist. We are told not to normalize. But how do we exist? How do we operate in our day-to-day lives in a world of “alternative facts” and legitimized hate? How do I trust anyone who views “are Black people needed” as a question worth discussing? How do I engage apolitically with these people to keep the peace? These questions are not simple disagreements. Nothing is apolitical: whiteness has made it so. And I can’t engage with anyone who doesn’t see that. Much like Neo, I no longer wish to fuel the machine.

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I recently visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC. and was struck by this 1734 quote from William Snelgrave:

Tho’ to traffic in human creatures, may at first appear barbarous…the advantage of it…far outweigh[s] all…inconveniences.

Whiteness is willing to trade human lives to gain prosperity and avoid inconvenience. This is not a choice whiteness has made only once. History has shown us that whiteness will make that choice over and over again. It made that choice on June 23, 2016. And again on Nov. 8, 2016. And again all day, every day for the foreseeable future.

I cannot regard the disregard of humanity as mere inconvenience. And I can’t “come together” in polite conversation with anyone who can. I also don’t have answers for what to do in the meantime other than to survive and to practice self-care. I can only hope that others will reconcile their own relationships to whiteness before more people are destroyed in the process.

Whiteness kills. Understand it. Acknowledge it. Dismantle it. Overcome it. Reject it.