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  • Writer's pictureJeff James

addiction to whiteness

“Idolatry” is a very ancient, biblical-sounding word, isn’t it? You don’t hear it much in popular culture because, well, we moderns don’t like the thought that we’re susceptible to worshipping anything. In the process, we often get caught up in worshipping ourselves and our indulgences without even realizing it.

The Oxford Dictionary shows the frequency of usage for the word hit its peak in the early 1800s, with a steady decline up until our current times. It defines the word as “extreme admiration, love, or reverence for something or someone.” When I describe white peoples’ addiction to whiteness (“white” and “whiteness” are two separate things, but closely related, obviously) as “idolatry”, a lot of people get upset, predictably. “Addiction” is perhaps an even harsher, more offensive word than “idolatry.” Yet when we observe the reaction of many (most?) white people to being confronted with our addiction to whiteness as documented in books like White Fragility and I'm Still Here, the responses are quite the same as a heroin or alcohol addict faced with the prospects of not getting a fix: denial, anger, deflection.

In Giving Up Whiteness, a book I began writing in 2015 after the Emmanuel AME Church murders by a committed white supremacist in Charleston, South Carolina, I share why I compare white peoples’ addiction to whiteness (not all, but probably most, and especially those of us who have grown up in a majority of whiteness) to other forms of idolatry and addiction.

We humans love power. We’re addicted to it because it is such an attractive short-term antidote to fear. As fear courses through our minds and bodies, little doses of power we experience throughout the day soothe our insecurities and give us the false impression that we’re in control. Beyond a feeling of safety, scientists have found that dopamine is released in our minds during activities that stroke our ego. But just like illicit drugs, the effect of this addiction to short-term feelings of power are highly destructive.[i] The historian Henry Adams, a great-grandson of John Adams, wrote, “The effect of power . . . on all men is the aggravation of self, a sort of tumor that ends by killing the victim’s sympathies.” This addiction to power fuels the abusive husband, parent, coach, teacher, police officer, and local politician. Power literally causes brain damage and limits a human’s ability to empathize and see things from another’s point of view.[ii]

Perhaps the biggest eye-opener on my journey, particularly over the last four years, is that the invention of race was one of the most powerful developments in the history of power-seeking, and whiteness is one of the most pernicious weapons in the arsenal. So many satisfying dopamine hits of superiority and power get sent to those of us who are considered white when we walk down the street, watch television, or sit in a classroom or meeting. I and other white-categorized people have been raised as whiteness-addicts without even realizing it. And as any addict will tell you, getting sober is a long, tough road.
This realization was, frankly, chilling. My whole life I have failed to rid myself of an addiction to sugar; how in the world could I seriously attempt to get sober from my addiction to whiteness? Nobody wants to admit they are an addict of any sort, much less to racism. But as I thought about it, isn’t that why so many Euro-American folks become extremely defensive when racist thoughts or actions are revealed in our own lives?
We don’t consider ourselves addicts; the whole idea is offensive. Respectable people aren’t addicts, right? But just watch how we—I—act when our addictions to power are called out in the homeowners’ association meeting, or the decision to reorganize the company, or the PTA meeting to discuss the new school zoning plans. In fact, I felt that defensiveness recently, when one of my daughters pondered aloud whether I had truly given up whiteness because I still felt entitled to sit in a Starbucks to use their wi-fi even when I hadn’t ordered anything, and because I sometimes dropped into a hotel or restaurant to use the restroom even when I wasn’t a customer. My earlier awareness of how race plays tricks on the brain and leads to an addiction to whiteness came back to me with a punch in the gut.
How does an addict set themselves free? The answer, according to various recovery groups—alcoholics, narcotics, sex addicts, co-dependents, and others—is that you can’t set yourself free. To paraphrase the first two steps of the Twelve Steps program: “We admitted we were powerless [over whiteness]–that our lives had become unmanageable,” and “[We] came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” Austin Channing Brown, in her exceptional book I’m Not Here, noted that after slavery “America could have put to death the idea of Black inferiority. But whiteness was not prepared to sober up from the drunkenness of power over another people group.” Like every other addict, I had to seek God’s power to change.
Only the hope of greater joy can motivate someone to embark on a lifestyle of such massive change. I have yet to buy into the joy of being healthy in order to give up my sweet tooth. But somehow, my willingness to shed whiteness—theoretically much more ridiculous and difficult to attempt than changing my diet—was implanted with a seed of joy from relationships with people of color throughout my life. Now it feels like that seed is finally blooming into a state of resistance to race as a primary identifier in my life and an embrace of justice as a way of life.

My prayer is for our healing; healing for all of us, regardless of ancestry or skin tone, who have been deeply harmed by this addiction.

From Giving Up Whiteness: One Man’s Journey available 10.6.20 from Broadleaf Books. Pre-order now and enjoy early shipment. NOTE: Your reviews on, and are much appreciated. I also encourage you to support local bookstores and order from which will benefit your local bookstore. Your word-of-mouth support on your social media and friend networks are also greatly appreciated!

[i] Robertson, Ian H. How power affects the brain. in The Psychologist. London, UK, 2013 Available from (accessed June 17, 2018). [ii] Usseem, Jerry. Power causes brain damage. in The Atlantic. New York, NY, 2017 Available from (accessed June 2, 2018).

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