A Healthy White Racial Identity

A Healthy White Racial Identity April 4, 2019

I have blogged about issues of privilege in the past and thought a lot about the concept. I love well thought out nuanced articles on the topic. This article by Eric Kaufmann is a good example about what I like to see. He dismisses the notion of privilege as being attempts of whites to influence our society and indeed argues that much of the problem stems from punishing whites who develop some degree of white consciousness. It is a good read.

I disagree with Kaufmann about his assertion on whites’ attempt to influence our society by promoting white privilege. He does not find evidence of this attempt because that is not how white privilege operates. Rather it is an unspoken type of social force that does not need to be overtly supported. Indeed, unless we explicitly address white privilege, or just about any type of privilege, then it will continue to exist. So I think the first part of his paper is a misunderstanding of the nature of privilege.

But the second part of his article is quite intriguing. It has forced me to think about what is a healthy white racial identity and do we try to encourage such an identity in our current society. We have not really thought about what a white racial identity means in our society, and we get little discussion about in in academia. Yes there is a subfield of “Whiteness Studies” in race and ethnicity work, but I do not think that the work coming from that subfield is very helpful. Most of what I have read either encourages whites to abandon their white racial identity and/or to simply agree with people of color’s desires.

This has created a void which I think Kaufmann rightly recognizes has allowed the emergence of Trump. I do not think that any serious person believes that all whites who voted for Trump are racist. But a good many of them may be tired of being told that their racial identity is evil. That they should not be encouraged to think good about their group while those of other races are free to develop esteem about their racial group. We have made a lot of important improvements over the past few decades. But what we have not done is honestly think about what whites are supposed to think about themselves in this new racial reality.

Those who have read some of my previous writings on race relations know the premium I put upon having productive interracial communication. I am especially concerned about our inability to engage in active listening to individuals with differing perceptions on race. This communication and listening should help us to develop an empathy for others and to have some understanding of why they have certain beliefs. As I consider the position of white Americans, I get it that some of them feel that they are being left behind. I can see how they do not feel invested in this current racial narrative. We have to bring them into the conversation by thinking about what we would want in a positive racial white identity. And merely saying to stop being white or that whites are evil is not going to cut it.

While I am not white, I do think some of my empathy comes from being a Christian. An interesting thing happens when I talk about Christianophobia. At first individuals deny that it exists. Then when I document situations where Christians are being treated as second class citizens then I am told that the Christians deserve this. I agree that some Christians are just looking for reasons to feel like they are victimized, but there are some real issues that have been brought up and dismissed by so many people simply because they do not like Christians.

So I think I get it when whites feel that their concerns are not being addressed in modern society. That does not mean that whites know what it is like to be a black man being pulled over by the police and wondering if this might be a police stop that goes bad. But it does mean that unless we listen to them and help them to construct a healthy positive racial identity, then a good number of them will always be vulnerable to politicians like Trump.

At this point of our history it does us little good to ignore the fact that we have not done a good job of considering the role of the majority group in our emerging multiracial, multicultural society. Lord knows that as a black man, I have no desire to go back to a time where the silencing of our voices was the norm. But neither do I want my white brothers and sisters to have their voices silenced either. Working together I think we can figure out a white racial identity that is neither a pretext for white nationalism nor a negation of anything white. But we have to work to do if we want to see the emergence of a white racial identity. It is work worth doing because I do not believe we will have true racial peace until we have a healthy approach to whiteness.

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  • Lc Sutton

    Thanks for another great article. Daniel Hill’s book White Awake does a goid job of trying to help create a healthy White Identity.

  • Ron Swaren

    I’ve been identified with all kinds of groups, so have been ‘called out’ at one time or another by all sides. Here are some “white achievements”, which I don’t think we want to turn the clock back on. 1.Alphabetic writing—-the ability to store and disseminate huge amounts of complex information. Basically a Middle Eastern invention. 2. Columbian Exchange. Combined with ships that could go anywhere vastly improved nutrition worldwide. 3. Industrial Revolution. Although other societies had a good run at it, the English broke though due to a combination of extensive waterways and cheap, coal energy. This eventually replaced human (often slave and child labor) with machine labor. 4. Harnessed electricity 5. Information Revolution. Gave access to anyone anywhere in the world top level information. 6. Developing ability to protect the planet from extra terrestial threats. 7. Common law, jury system and standardized constitution.

    On the downside> 1. World’s worst killers. 2. Loss of synergistic abilities with natural world. 3. Moral existentialism

  • Joseph Rhea

    Dr. Yancey, thanks for this article! I really appreciate your thinking and your writing.

    GK Chesterton writes somewhere about the Boer War, when Britons were struggling with the false equation of patriotism and imperialism, that a true patriot – a true lover of one’s own country – should also respect the patriotism of citizens of another country by not colonizing them. It seems like the post-colonialist movement accomplished the real good of opposing Eurocentric (mostly white) imperialism; but it inverted that false equivalence by writing historic white European culture as inherently evil, not simply wrong for being colonialist.

    An idea that seems unrelated, but that feeds into the conversation, is the distinction between “objective goods” and “relative goods.” Objective goods – financial, legal, relational, whatever – are things that Christianity teaches we should be grateful for and steward well. Relative goods are the (obviously) relative distribution of objective goods among different people or groups of people – i.e., that a black man is more likely to be stopped by the police than a white man.

    One of my fears as it relates to culture and race is that we make several logical assumptions, including 1) describing objective goods only in terms of relative goods with the language of privilege; and 2) assuming that all goods operate in a zero-sum economy when many do not. It seems that the growing elite perspective among whites is that whites must (at least symbolically) repudiate most of the objective goods that are part of the white European heritage and redistribute relative goods (usually implied: the possessions, services, and opportunities poor and middle-class people compete for) to redress privilege.

    A healthy cultural identity has to include gratitude for the positive aspects of one’s heritage, as well as a sense of responsibility for the failings of one’s forbears. For white people, this does include taking objective and relative goods from people of color; but seeking a more just relative distribution of goods can coexist with gratitude for those goods.

  • JoelJoeasJoe

    WTF?! “Working together I think we can figure out a white racial identity that is neither a pretext for white nationalism nor a negation of anything white”, again WTF?!, as a white male can someone explain to me why I need input from a non white to figure out white racial identity?????????

  • Tom Hering

    If you asked me what “White racial identity” means, my first response would be, “A highly questionable concept (race) based primarily on a lack of pigmentation.” I might then start talking about something of real substance, i.e., my cultural heritage gifted to me by my ethnic ancestors.