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  • Writer's pictureJeff James

A Year of Giving Up Whiteness

On October 6, way back in 2020(!), my first book called Giving Up Whiteness: One Man’s Journey launched to the public. It was a capstone of over four years of ruminating and wrestling on the issues of racism and White privilege and the ongoing implications of living in a culture built on their foundations.

The 2020 summer of revolution seems to have settled back into a regular pattern of life in America, until the next wave of police violence or election mayhem. Oh, and people are still dying of Covid 19 and taking heated sides on whether to protect ourselves and each other with vaccines and masks. What a year!

Giving Up Whiteness book

Giving Up Whiteness is part memoir, part history lesson, part epiphany and call for seeking the defeat of racism in a different way. For anyone hearing about the book for the first time, here is a quick summary:

  1. To even entertain going on a journey of anti-racism, one must give a damn. The give a damn state of mind usually forms because you begin to care about someone from a racial category other than yours and you begin listening to their story.

  2. A journey towards anti-racism must begin with an understanding of what race even is, how it was invented, and why its been so effective in misleading us with disastrous results.

  3. Race is a human-made invention; although many think it’s based on biological observation and categorizations, it’s not. It’s a socio-cultural construct and as such was “made up.”

  4. The concept of race was invented for a reason, and it wasn’t benign. When you read the history of its development, you find both correlation and causation with colonialism, economic exploitation, and a perverted attempt at “salvation” of conquered peoples via violence. Even the race category name of “White” was chosen to reinforce superiority.

  5. Living our lives through the lens of race, and particularly a White supremist/White privileged worldview (which, by the way, can be held even by people of color) affects every aspect of our lives. It influences even those of us who deeply desire social equality to get tripped up, because we often seek assimilation for “others” and not true equality where cultural norms and systems are equally shaped by diverse humans.

  6. We must each go on a deep personal journey to begin understanding these issues in our own life, and hopefully, to be prepared to participate in developing a new culture where race isn’t at the center. The book is the story of my journey, one filled with all kinds of stupid mistakes, hurtful-yet-unintended comments, and emotional learning experiences. I share my junk so you can feel less defensive about facing yours. That’s how we can do this journey together.

Needless to say, a lot of people weren’t thrilled with the topic or my take on it. All of which is understandable; a book that asks you to reconsider a major aspect of your identity is not exactly a light read. Despite my attempt to write as a fellow pilgrim and mistake-maker, according to more than a few social media posts on the book’s Facebook page, many couldn’t get their heads around it or their hearts opened to it based on the title alone.

Those who were willing to consider a different approach to this centuries-old human problem, however, have been so gratifying, and at times even excited, with their feedback. This means a lot to me, so thank you for sharing your heartfelt feedback. I remain even more convinced there is a great benefit to questioning the very foundations of what we consider race.

Addiction to racist power

As I ponder a year of having a little piece of my soul out there for the world to read, I wanted to share two primary things I’ve continued to learn: 1) the pernicious human attraction to power and, 2) the tendency for our brains to keep settling towards the norms within our environment.

First, a word on power. Racism is a sin of power-seeking, much like every other “-ism”: sexism, classism, sexual orientationism…the list goes on. To draw boundaries around other humans for the purpose of marginalizing them and exerting a perceived superiority over them is an exercise in power. Power is so addictive because little hits of it throughout the day, whether conscious or subconscious, unleash dopamine into our brains, just like cocaine, or a Twinkie, or a complement on how good our hair looks on a given day. We can’t get enough of it.

Living in a cultural environment that celebrates whiteness as a standard of goodness and excellence is like broadcasting a little power-drip of dopamine through the airwaves straight into our brains. It’s constant, it’s effective, and it’s incredibly hard to give up, as we’ve seen over the last fifty years that we’ve even begun to take equality seriously.

As anyone who has fought addiction of any kind will tell you, it is most definitely not just yet another attempt at making better choices that frees us from dependence. There must be a giving up of our own power-seeking and a reliance on a Higher Power. There must be environmental changes that shift the influences around us to voices of life, not death. There must be new, healthier sources of dopamine hits. And there must be relationships of trust, unconditional love, and forgiveness.

Despite the recent heightened awareness over the value of Black lives and the ongoing reality of White privilege, I think we would all agree that those important seeds of sobriety are most certainly still not taking root in our culture. Embracing freedom from power-seeking is our only path to freedom from racism.

A side note for those of you who share my Christian faith. This is one of the reasons I have been profoundly disappointed with our Christian community as it is practiced in the United States. If there is anyone who should be a role model for the power of giving up power, it’s Jesus. You really can’t read much of his teaching or observe his life (nor that of his disciplines, both male and female) and come away with an agenda of power-seeking, political or otherwise.

The part that many of us who claim to be followers of Jesus have played in elevating blunt force political power as a solution to our culture’s problems, therefore, is to me, anti-Christian, which is to say, anti-Christ. Politics is a process of sorting and prioritizing resources; participation in it can be either self-seeking, or other-elevating. But it never replaces God’s method for real transformation, which is first and foremost love and grace distributed through his body, the church (assuming the church is in submission to its servant-leader, Jesus, and therefore seeking his will, not the world’s).

Which brings me to my second point, our environment and the signals it sends us. By “environment” here I’m really talking about our culture and its unspoken norm-shaping. It’s the documented power of Instagram or Tik Tok to increase my teen daughters’ likelihood of suicide. It’s the media’s consistent lack of depth in covering issues, or tendency to choose political sides in order to attract a lucrative advertising audience. Yes, it’s capitalism practiced without self-sacrificial, community-oriented motives. It’s the commodification of our bodies and emotions. And it’s the perpetuator of whiteness as the standard for comparison.

One constant environmental signal is the ridicule and diminishment of “others”, however you define other. There really wasn’t a “good old days” when people didn’t do this; it’s just been amplified to Def Con Five with the combination of social media and 24x7 news cycles. We’re still trying to solve problems by simply yelling more loudly at each other vs. building relationships of understanding and sacrificial love.

Trying to solve racism without a foundation of love is like trying to “win” the hearts of minds of Afghanistan by dropping drone strikes on them. The philosophy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (and his philosophical predecessors such as Gandhi and Jesus, among others) has fallen out of favor in the resistance against racism, I’m afraid. Some dismiss a commitment to nonviolence and loving your enemy as idealist at best, and potentially evil at worst. Others misunderstand or willfully misapply the radical nature of Dr. King’s message, preferring to nostalgically bury his demand for full economic access and cultural equality underneath their favorite feel-good quotes.

Yet I still identify with the power of love and believe it must be the core foundation of any effort to affirm that Black Lives Matter, that holding onto White power and privilege at the expense of our fellow humans must be obliterated, and that to seek transformation of our society without love is just another exercise in power-seeking.

I find it interesting what came to mind when reminiscing about the year since my book Giving Up Whiteness came out. Many assumed I was suggesting that White people give up their culture and heritage so that other races could take their turn in dominating. I suppose that paranoia would cause some fear to bubble up. But I could have just as easily titled the book, Giving Up Power. That is truly scary to anyone addicted to power, which is to say, most of us. But creating an environment where sobriety from power and freedom to love is possible is really our only hope.

Give up power-seeking. Give up whiteness. Grab hold of love. I guess if I just said that it would’ve been a shorter book.

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