(What is meant by ‘Whiteness’ for the purposes of this piece: Whiteness is a socially constructed ideology that confers power and privilege on those identified as being of the white race. Such power and privilege manifests itself in whites being able to shape social norms, receive preferential treatment from social systems, and receive these benefits without having to be aware of their race”. – ‘Whiteness and White Identity Development ‘, Megan Lietz)
So much of the work I have done on myself around my own personal trauma, oppression and the systemic harm I have experienced has been about language. About locating the words that most accurately describe what has happened to me, what it is like to be me and to exist as someone who has survived great harm while also existing within a society that continues to harm me. And much of it has been about deconstructing the narratives and meanings of things that have so often been imposed on me by others, especially those meant to help or provide support, and searching for my own language with which to tell my own story and to make my own meaning.
The last couple of years have perhaps been the most intensive part of this work for me. When I look back to the first time i was in serious, long-term therapy, I almost don’t recognize the person I was who found it so hard to speak, who communicated mostly though written words, who often felt small and like a child, despite being in their early thirties and who hid in corners, who felt so exposed by the space of an entire room that they insisted on conducting the therapy sessions from the small spaces between the furniture and the walls, who did not want their therapist to look at them as they struggled to find the words to describe what they’d endured, often only ever uttering a few words or sentences in an entire one hour session and who never really got far with any of it.
It would be years before I tried therapy or “getting help” again. In the meantime, I became very emotionally shut down and numb. With the help of high dose SSRI anti depressant medications, I was able to barrel through life as a social worker and later a foster and adoptive parent. I believe I somehow managed to channel and bypass a lot of my own pain and trauma through my career and through the acting out of what I was taught to believe was a kind of “saving” of vulnerable kids like I had once been and a story of personal redemption that had been programed into me since my days as a teen in church. (Before I was ever even out of my abusive and neglectful upbringing, I was being used and exploited by the church for my dramatic story and charged with comforting the masses with my so-called and non-existent salvation). That was until the system I was participating in revealed itself to be more harmful than helpful, perpetuating systemic abuses and oppression far more often than actually helping families and children escape the effects of those things on their lives.
All of my life, to this point – the point where we moved back to my hometown, I’d been programmed with a lot of language. Much of it unexamined rhetoric and propaganda -more specifically, the language of a white family holding generations of secrets and abuse, the language of Christianity and then the language of white saviorism through what i was led to believe was the “good work” of social work. (One thing all of those have in common is the lack of the introduction or encouragement of critical thought.) Much of it the language of whiteness. For whiteness does truly have a language all its own. And mostly, it is a language of omission. What is not being said, far more revealing than what is.
As I have gone through this process of deconstruction ( a word I prefer to use over words like “recovery” or “healing”) for myself for four years now, I have discovered for myself just how dangerous the language of whiteness is . That it is full of gaslighting and double meanings and code words. That it is actually very confusing and violent and weaponized and that this is by design, it is strategic. That it is an undeniable tool of oppression and victim blaming. After all, if you can’t name your own reality, how can it be called into question? And then come the inevitable questions about why you didn’t tell in the first place. All of it making it’s deployment, the inability of it’s victims to name it for what it is is, a kind of entrapment and yet another level, another thing that harms.
So much of this process for me has been about language. About learning to language what happened to me and using it to tell my stories, if to no one but myself. And it has been a frustrating, sometimes seemingly futile endeavor, this language thing. It has required a set of decoder glasses with which to see through the tricks and tools and weapons of whiteness.
And it occurs to me now that this is in part because we do not teach the language for these things to children in white culture, believing we are protecting them from the darkness and from harm, when in actuality what we are doing is making them more vulnerable. It is as though we believe we will conjure the very things of which we speak if we actually say the words out loud. It is as though we have forgotten that what we are trying to say has already happened, is already here and is part of the human experience for some. It is as though the speaking of the words somehow holds more impact that the actuality of what they describe. That it is more important to protect the imaginations of the ones not affected than it is bodies of those who are.
And it also occurs to me now that we are like this, we white people, and our fragility and our seemingly delicate constitutions and our inability to call a thing a thing and our setting of boundaries and labeling of boxes around what is speakable and unspeakable. It is reflected in so much of our culture, perhaps nothing more demonstrative of this as the rampant adaptation by so many school systems across the country of abstinence only sex education and the accompanying fear that talking about sex with kids makes sex happen.
But there is also, perhaps a more sinister reason for operating this way and that is because we fear that if we give children the language, they will, in turn, tell on us. They will reveal to us ourselves in the ways that only children can. They will hold us to account for the ways in which we fail and harm them, the emperor will be revealed in all of his naked glory.
I was not spoken to about what happened or what was happening to me or really anything about my world or my reality because that would have given me the ability to name my experiences and would have exposed them for what they were – abuse, neglect, rape, incest, trafficking, forced abortion. Instead I was most often gaslit – told that what happened had never happened or hadn’t happened the way I said it had, victim blamed or worse, completely ignored and not spoken to at all.
And so this exclusion, this omission was not made by mistake, it was by design.
This is exactly how much of whiteness operates. Sins and lies of omission always being counted as less harmful than blatant, outright obvious physical violence. Playing dumb, claiming ignorance and benefit of the doubt with regard to intent in the face of something harmful, a refuge so often granted to white people and not to BIPOCs. While black parents are forced to have so many talks with their children from the earliest of ages about how they may be perceived because of the color of their skin, we can’t even be counted on to admit racism exists and that we and our systems uphold and violently perpetuate it, much less do something about it.
White language is so fucking loaded.
And yet what does whiteness do to people who are traumatized, who experience oppression and marginalization? Tells us we are fragile and weak and broken and contaminated, not to tell our stories or think about what happened and definitely not to band together under anything other than the most sanitized of narratives. Tells us we lack resilience and “grit” and the ways in which we cope and find meaning and ways in which to stay here, human after having been robbed of our humanity, maladaptive, when we are perhaps the most resilient, most adaptive humans of all. And psychology/mental health systems step in to tell us not to trust ourselves, that they know better, make us afraid of ourselves and our own trauma and further fragment things that have already been fragmented and above all, promote assimilation and conformity to white social norms as penultimate evidence of good mental health.
So I’ll continue to be here finding and creating the language I need to stay grounded in reality and rejecting the language of whiteness, calling things out when I see them, here in this space. As I hope to make a series of posts about the particularly gaslighting and problematic language of trauma/psychology/self-help and the ways in which it harms
I am under no illusion that I am the first to say these things, by far. And I am deeply indebted to the BIPOCs whose writing and work I read and follow who have been saying these things for a very long time and it is their work, their ability to call a thing a thing that has often given me the ability to see through the deceptive and violent and profoundly impoverished language of whiteness. And it has never been that I didn’t believe them, it is just that I am now able to make the connections and articulate the source of so much frustration and harm and to name it for myself, which I believe is an important and a different and distinctive thing. It is important for us all to understand how we are all harmed by whiteness and white supremacy, that it is not just something that harms those who are “other” than us and to fight for liberation, together.
Below is a list of BIPOC whose writing and work has formed and informed my personal work and writing. Many of these folx prefer to be followed on Facebook rather than friended by white folx and will say so on their profiles. Please respect this boundary where requested. Also, though some of them do engage in anti-racism work and activism directly, not all of them do so be mindful of this. Many of them do have paid offerings as well as Patreon pages or ways to contribute financially to their work. I urge you to offer your financial support for their work when possible and not just to take and extract from their work for your own benefit. These are just a few and in no particular order.
Rhizome Syndrigast Colcanth Flourishing – https://www.facebook.com/RhizomeSyndrigastCoelacanthFlourishing
Staci Jordan Shelton –
Alexis P. Morgan –
Layla Saad –
Desiree Adaway –
Andrea Ranae Johnson –
Didi Delgado –
Kat Tanaka Okopnik –
Yocheved Angelique Arroyo –