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On Whiteness

Today I want to talk about whiteness.

Why is this clinical herbalist talking about whiteness, you ask?

I see it as my role to help people remember and nurture their connection to the Earth, and to themselves. I believe those connections are vital in the pursuit of health, both for ourselves and for our planet. In my work running a free clinic, I see everyday examples of the ways larger social systems keep us from health and wellbeing. I make it my business to understand, and work to remove the obstacles that keep my clients ill.

Therefore, I spend a fair amount of time thinking about, studying, and observing the larger systems of oppression that keep us from thriving. If you’re wondering what this has to do with whiteness, or if you’re defining whiteness as a descriptor for the shade of someone’s skin, I used to be in those boats too. Over time my definitions have evolved, as the way these things connect has become clear. I’d like to share what I’ve been learning with you.

Content warning: enslavement.

Before I begin discussing such a large topic as whiteness, I need to define the term. When I talk about whiteness, I’m not referring to individual white people, or even groups of white people. I’m referring to a phenomenon, a concept. The concept of whiteness was invented by humans, for the express purpose of justifying enslavement. (Ibram X. Kendi pinpoints the precise historical moment in his book Stamped From The Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.) Before there was whiteness, European people identified as Italian, Scandinavian, Portuguese, etc. People also historically enslaved each other willy nilly, regardless of skin color. Those doing the enslaving have always needed to view those they were enslaving as inferior, in order to defend the act.

Then, in the 1400’s, when Prince Henry of Portugal began sailing to Africa explicitly to capture and sell people as slaves, he commissioned Gomes de Zurara to write a book glorifying his exploits. According to Kendi, Zurara was the first to lump people from diverse cultures into one dark-skinned, “inferior” category. Thus blackness, whiteness, and racism were born.

If you, like me, identify as white, it’s because the system of whiteness has placed us in that context. What we’ve come to view as defining of our identities, in truth only obscures them. Whiteness doesn’t exist because you have light skin, it exists to call you superior.

Sonya Renee Taylor’s recent Instagram video helped to clarify the following for me: Whiteness is only defined in comparison to others. Its origin story reveals that it needs the affirmation of “superiority,” or “power over,” to exist. Whiteness says I’m only worthy when I’m better than someone else. And by extension, I’m only worthy when I accomplish great things, I’m only worthy when I’m successful, I’m only worthy when I’m attractive, etc. Whiteness establishes a hierarchy, and needs constant external validation.

In contrast, and in truth, a different world is available to us. What if we lived seeing our existence for the miracle that it is? What if we knew we were worthy, simply because we’re here? In reality, our right to exist is settled already, because here we are, existing! What if you believed there was nothing you had to do to prove your worth? You’ve made it. You are nature. You are sacred. You are home.

Whiteness is the system of oppression that’s responsible for the cross-Atlantic slave trade, for colonization and its accompanying genocide of Indigenous peoples, for the environmental destruction that’s followed. The notion of superiority inherent in whiteness makes us believe we’re entitled to take whatever we want. Land, resources, bodies. That entitlement will be the death of us all. This unchecked extraction and exploitation are threatening the future of our species, and have already wiped out many others. Whiteness doesn’t mind if it takes everybody else down with it, because at least it dies on top!

We all know people who’re offended by any debate about whiteness, and if you’re squirming in your seat and feeling personally slighted right now, you’re not alone. I’ve been there.

I often see people accuse those of us who talk about race of perpetuating racism, of hating ourselves, of hating white people. No. I can address the issue of whiteness precisely because I love myself, I love my people, and I know my own divinity. I see sacredness in EVERYTHING, including my own body. That makes me secure enough to see the difference between rejection of self, and rejection of whiteness. I’m working to shed the inferiority complex that whiteness bestows on us, I’m working to know my own worth. So I don’t feel threatened by talk of whiteness. Whiteness is a tool of oppression, one that lives in our bones, our worldviews, our histories, our psyches, and our subconscious.

Worldviews and systems like whiteness teach us superiority/inferiority, entitlement, and the idea that we can never be or have enough. These ideas are at the root of so many health problems, for the Earth, and for our individual selves. These things keep us all sick.

If you consider yourself a plant person, or someone who cares about the health of our environment and future generations, then whiteness and all systems of oppression need to be unraveled. Whiteness isn’t an individual, but it is a force that only exists when it’s carried out by individuals. The task of white people is to 1) examine the way the story of whiteness lives inside of us 2) examine the way our behaviors perpetuate its existence 3) work to end it.

We can start by asking ourselves:

In what ways do I require external validation?

In what ways do I hold myself and other people to these standards of “success?”

In what ways do I deny myself inherent worthiness?

How can I see and know my own sacredness? (Hint: spending time in nature might help).

Who/what do I believe myself to be better than, to have power over?

How can I work to repair the larger-scale harms done by whiteness?

If you care to further explore the ways whiteness lives inside of you, I highly recommend Layla F. Saad’s book Me and White Supremacy.

In my next newsletter I’ll talk about how I work to unravel these systems of scarcity and oppression in my herbal medicine practice. I’ll talk about how I see these harmful worldviews playing out in the “wellness” industry, and offer alternatives that are more healing.

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