White Anxiety

Here’s what’s been on my mind today–bear with me, this might be a little rough and take some time to work through:

Yesterday I saw a lovely post on a Facebook group dedicated to the Women’s March. It celebrated diversity and inclusion and featured a drawing of a Native American woman. The caption was something like “Women of Color taking the lead.” Under the photo was a comment from a white lady (at least that’s what her profile picture suggested) that said, “Are white women allowed to march, too?” The administrator gave an earnest answer to what seemed a snarky question, reassuring the woman that everyone is encouraged to join; everyone is welcome. I’ve been thinking about that white woman’s comment. Perhaps it was snarky. But underneath it was anxiety about being pushed to the margins.

I’ve been working on my novel for most the day today, so I don’t have the energy for smooth transitions. Here’s the next paragraph–I promise I will tie all this together: Whiteness (like any other structure of domination) maintains its power via exclusion. Though the boundaries of American whiteness have shifted in the past century or two, they have never stretched far enough to include people of color. White vigilance about those boundaries is well documented in American history: from the one drop rule to separate but equal, white people have guarded their position by making it impossible for nearly everyone else to occupy it. This isn’t just an American phenomenon—this exclusion of people of color from power and life has happened around the world for centuries. People of color have been stripped of their power in Africa and Asia, Latin America and Australia. They have been subjugated, dispersed, captured, enslaved, and killed. On our continent alone millions of people were killed or enslaved before the first slave ships arrived from Africa. Whiteness operates by domination and maintains that domination by punishment and marginalization. In other words, white people have a history of pushing other people to the margins.

So it stands to reason that this white woman asked her question about being allowed at the Women’s March. She comes from a culture that maintains its dominance by pushing everyone else out. It makes sense that white people are anxious about “identity politics” and about the Black Lives Matter movement because they fear that they will be shunted to the side–they will be treated the same way that people of color have been treated for centuries. Excluded. Marginalized. They wonder: If we make room for other people to have power, then what happens to us? What happens to me? (This is not a defense of white anxiety and of racism; it’s an attempt to understand something that I abhor. An attempt to find empathy.)

Of course, whiteness isn’t the only power position that operates this way–patriarchy and heteronormativity do the same work.

Where do I go from here in this thought train? I’m not entirely sure. I want to find a way to explode such structures of power. I want to find a way to be inclusive, to share the power. To teach everyone that no one has to be pushed away. There has to be a way to make room for everyone.

And here I can’t help but think about a moment in the final season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Fellow fans know what I’m about to talk about. In Buffy’s world there was only one slayer at a time. A new slayer was called only after the current one died–it’s an apt metaphor for what I’m talking about above, really. Only one person at a time has access to her incredible power (except when Buffy dies in season one and Xander revives her, thus creating a second slayer). In season seven Buffy says screw this noise. A group of men decided it should be this way a long time ago. Instead she offered to share her power (via a whole magical thing–seriously, just watch it) with all the young women who had the potential to be slayers when either Buffy or Faith died. I’ve watched that moment over and over and over again and I still cry every time. It’s an amazing moment–and an amazing idea. Power can be shared and in that sharing, the world can be changed.

If you’re still reading, thank you. I don’t have a conclusion. I don’t know how to conclude except to say that I want to find a way to share, to include, to invite everyone to the table. There has to be a way. Even without a magical scythe and a powerful Wicca.

3 thoughts on “White Anxiety

  1. I enjoyed your post! I think retraining the mind-set of the young is a powerful way to promote change—exercises that reinforce sharing and power avoidance. More witches as schoolteachers! While I was reading–yes, I read to the end–I kept hearing in my head that sly song by Randy Newman, “The Great Nations of Europe (in the Sixteenth Century)”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d_IA3stJRoE. In fact, now I have the entirety of that delightful and insightful album, Bad Love, going through my head. Thanks for that!


  2. Rereading this marvelous piece, I am struck anew by your argument: that the practice of exclusion is the foundation for the current white fears of the same. Talk about Occam’s Razor…. Well done.


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