The clamoring white self… in friendship

In my last message, I described what I call “performance-based belonging” and the ever-insecure clamoring “white self” that it establishes in those of us raised primarily under its influence. Here I provide an example of how this plays out, and what it looks like when this clamoring white self tries to build friendship.

When my baby was one year old, I separated from her father. Behind closed doors, we had had a very tumultuous and high-conflict relationship. Shortly after leaving him, I was sitting on the grass one day with another young white mother who had a baby who was the same age as mine. Though we did not know one another all that well, we had spent time together many times over the course of the year since our babies were born. 

On this day, we were chatting about the usual things, and somehow I felt it was weird to not share this significant change that was happening in my life. Maybe I was a little bit awkward because it was more personal than was typical for us, but I found a way to tell her that I had moved out of my husband’s house, and that my baby’s father and I were splitting up.

Her face went completely flat. No expression whatsoever. There was a long silence. I started picking at the grass, unsure what to say next. Finally, she spoke. What she said was, 

“I am just feeling so good about the fact that we have no plastic products in our home. I have replaced all our containers with glass, and I don’t even buy groceries in plastic anymore.”

I was stunned. It was a complete non-sequitur, and for a moment I wondered if I had even spoken aloud, or if I had just imagined that I had shared this painful news. It was disconcerting, unsettling. The exchange left me feeling invisible and alone. 

Have you ever had an exchange that left you feeling this way? What did you make of it? 

I can say that I thought many times over the years about that exchange. I finally came up with what I thought might be a plausible explanation of what happened. I don’t know if this is true, but I suspect that perhaps she and her partner were also having a hard time (many couples do struggle when parenting babies and young children). Perhaps hearing about my separation triggered her own insecurity about the stability of her relationship. And perhaps, in this season of life–young motherhood–when it is so difficult to find things to point to that affirm our worthiness by external measures–perhaps she needed to review and affirm something that would demonstrate her own worth, in this case, her effective eradication of plastic from her home. 

Now, this example may seem a little extreme. But I cannot tell you how many exchanges I had along similar lines, in white progressive Berkeley, especially as a young white mother with other young white mothers. Afterall, young motherhood is a particularly vulnerable season of life for those of us–under white supremacy culture–who have counted on being able to perform in externally visible ways, in order to know we are worthy and we belong. 

At the time, and even in the years immediately following, I did not read this exchange through the lens of race. I was too insecure and emotionally underwater myself for that level of reflection. And when white people are alone we don’t tend to think in racialized terms. We think of ourselves as just “people” until a person of color walks in the room. This is part of being raised and socialized under white hegemony. 

However–even when we are only among white people–when a community like Berkeley has run off most or all of the people of color who used to live here–whiteness is still operating. Whiteness, and white supremacy culture, are stilleating away at our humanity–now even more rampantly because it goes unchecked by those who can see it for what it is and push back. 

Perhaps from the outside it looks like we white people are perfectly content with how we live, and with the depth of our relationships. I suspect that this has more to do with the level of pretense that we have mastered under white supremacy culture than with true, deep security that comes from a way of life that cultivates a web of personal and social relationships where feeling felt is the norm. Under the influence of white supremacy culture, no one can ever really prove their worthiness enough to relax and be. Even those white people who appear to be securely situated in the white community, are only able to look this way because they are regularly propped up and reaffirmed by invisible structures and cultural biases that make it seem as if they have a permanent place of esteem and belonging in the community. 

If we scratch the surface of the “security” this performance-based belonging engenders, we find it does not run deep. The sense of belonging that white culture purchases is fragile because it is based on the ability to perform, and to continue performing, which for everyone, at some season in life will be impossible. Young motherhood is a classic time. Old age is another one. And for those of us who have had extended periods of chronic illness, we recognize how fragile performance-based belonging really is (I will tell you more about that part of my journey another time). 

White supremacy culture breeds insecurity, and a life-long need to reestablish and reaffirm that we are here, we matter, we are worthy of belonging. White supremacy culture teaches us to manage our insecurity by endlessly improving ourselves, continually winning the approval of others with displays of our “excellence” and our “mastery,” and by purchasing visible outward indicators of our “worthiness.” 

There is big money to be made in keeping ourselves and one another in this state. White supremacy culture dovetails perfectly with capitalism—and the billion dollar advertising business—to keep us ever reaching for the next thing that can perfect us, and with it, the promise of a permanent place of belonging in the social world. White supremacy culture is a rampant culture of body-improvement, home-improvement, child-improvement, all in an attempt at self-improvement…. So that we might one day relax, be, and belong. 

Under white supremacy culture, the human person becomes focused on the shoring up of the “white self” (i.e. the perfect, pure, in control, high performing self). This is an exhausting and destructive way of life, requiring endless feeding of the socially constructed identity. As this way of life picks up pace (and it inevitably does), we can connect even less, and our children and young adults demonstrate increasing levels of mental health challenges, our communities become more and more polarized along lines of race and class, and the health of our overly extracted-from planet becomes unstable. 

I call it the “clamoring white self” because it is so busy, so self-absorbed and it makes us very unpleasant to be around for anyone who has access to a different cultural experience that offers a more relational way of engaging. 

How do you see whiteness operating in your life (even if you are a white person mostly surrounded by other white people?) Do you recognize the feeling of your clamoring white when it begins to take over?

I have come to identify some of the inward signs that my “white self” is beginning to take over an interaction I am having…. But the people of color in my life can feel it long before I do. 

In my next email, I share a personal story with you about what it looks like when the clamoring white self enters spaces dedicated to racial justice.