by Sonia Calista
In my frustratingly liberal Ivy League classroom, I raised my hand.
My professor, a former editor in the New York Times, had opened class by saying that people are misguided in fearing Trump; most of his anti-immigration orders will be shot down by the courts.
I told her, calmly, that the fear is not misguided. Because of Trump, many immigration officers have become even more unabashed about their inhumane and often illegal practices.
She said I was challenging her knowledge so I relayed the real-life story of an unpunished criminal officer.
She framed it as a debate between her knowledge and mine. I told her, calmly, that she was arguing with facts.
It was this statement that she brought up in our one-on-one meeting a few days after she suggested I leave the classroom. She cited it as an example of why it was impossible to have a conversation with me. But facts are facts, and the story of the criminal officer was just one in a deluge of narratives reported even by her beloved New York Times .
If events like these happened only to me, this would be a boring story. But white people’s hostile emotional response to their knowledge being challenged – often marked by an accelerated heart rate, shortness of breath, and feelings of terror and rage – have become laughably predictable.
One study calls it cultural anxiety. It’s characterized as “feeling like a stranger in America, supporting the deportation of immigrants, and hesitating about educational investment.”
Apart from causing people to call 911 in fear of a hijab? It led 63 million people to vote for Donald Trump. Nationalist religious movements are popping up all across the world, not only in Europe but even in India and the Philippines, expanding wars and militarizing borders, murdering thousands inside their own nations, withdrawing reparations from their former colonies, and even closing borders to millions of climate refugees. If rising sea levels pose the greatest threat to our species, “cultural anxiety” is our greatest enemy.
Another name for this phenomenon is white fragility. When I packed my bags and finally left the East Coast to come home to the Midwest, I realized it’s just called white supremacy. Most people don’t like being called racist, and white liberals get especially triggered.
Someone who has some insight into this emotional phenomenon is Mark. He’s part of an anti-oppression education program on campus and agreed to speak under a pseudonym; he’s facilitated dozens of anti-racism workshops.
How does he help people move through their hostile emotions?
“By not making too much space for it in the workshops,” Mark says. “By acknowledging the emotions, and saying there are many reasons they may feel uncomfortable. Biases in their language, interactions, research, classes, conversations, you name it. I’m asking them to acknowledge that all of us have these implicit biases that have been culminating all our lives. In everything we consume.”
Yes, everything. Even for me.
I’m a mentally-disabled trans Indian American woman, raised in an upper-class Hindu family in a beautiful American suburb. Since I wanted to find the truth at the root of white fragility, it brought me to an interesting dilemma: how do I escape my own biases?
I quickly realized it was both impossible and unnecessary. I’d say I’m pretty vocal in my low tolerance for bullshit even when it comes from myself. Instead of ignoring my life, how do I use it scientifically to understand cultural anxiety?
I followed three popular ways to find truth. The scientific method led me to the natural sciences. Studying history led me to social sciences. And, in what will probably draw tense laughter from the European-minded: meditation led me to the spiritual sciences.
And I’ll give you three guesses as to which of the three yielded the most reasonable answers. You might need all three.
I also encourage you to call me on any bullshit you find-I have so much to learn and I’d rather us help each other out. This article is long, so I’d section off about twenty minutes if you’re ready to listen.
“What is actually happening to a white person’s mind when they are called racist?”
The Oatmeal, a website for incredibly cute comics, explains it surprisingly well. In fact, if you haven’t already,read the comic quickly then come back when you see the last panel:
Good? Let’s dive in.
“Confusion,” Mark says, describing responses he’s seen from people who were asked to recognize they could be racist. “A lot of times they don’t know what to say. You can hear hints of defensiveness, but my words are granted a little more legitimacy as an educator in those spaces specifically.”
Responses I’ve gotten to notifying white people of their racism? Being called libelous, sensitive, abusive, violent, and manipulative. That I’m hurting them. One professor even threatened to sue me, comparing me to Donald Trump and reporting me as a threat to the university.
We’re seeing different realities. Even when I’m crying, they still view me with terror. There’s a chasm between intellectual understanding and self-reflection, and I’ve seen few people cross it.
In the mid-1900s, Polish social psychologist Henri Tajfel ran an experiment where participants would guess the lengths of a few lines. Unsurprisingly, errors in judgement were random. But when longer lines were labelled as ‘A’ and shorter ones, ‘B’, the errors got…less random.
They got uniform.
People thought the shorter ‘A’ sticks were longer than they actually were in reality, and that the taller ‘A’ sticks were shorter. Similarly, they thought the longer ‘B’ sticks were shorter than reality, and the shorter ‘B’ sticks as taller. The very act of categorization made participants see conformity to the category where there was none.
Henri Tajfel later became famous for his theories on social identity, saying that people tend to view themselves according to how society views them.
So: societies construct my view of others and myself.
I believe society’s ideas about me because inclusion provides me with assurance. Core beliefs (such as ‘A’ lines being taller than ‘B’ lines) are rarely questioned and always nurture my sense of reality. Members of “out-groups” are discarded.
But what if a social identity you are placed into…is not you?
I’m talking with a white-skinned professor of history at my university, whom I’ve named ‘Jane’. I’m trying to figure out what “white” even means. When I ask her what history has to say about this, she responds: “The meaning of white for whom?”
She points out how, in the nineteenth and twenty centuries, American newspapers – and even the Census – did not grant Whiteness to Jews, the Irish, or Eastern Europeans. And she notes how today, there is no Census category for Arab or Persian. Middle Eastern immigrants are legally white. What does white even mean then?
“I don’t think there’s a consensus,” Jane says. “So perhaps what has changed is who gets to be white, but what hasn’t is the contested nature of that being.”
Even the natural sciences back her up. It is the scientific consensus that racial categories have no basis in biology. But this fact was not always the scientific consensus, and Jane’s words reminded me of something Mark had mentioned during our talk: the skull studies that made a lie scientific.
Craniometry, the study of skull measurements, formed the base of European scientific racism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. European scientists, most notably French scientist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, categorized the races as distinct species based on cranial circumferences. It is a fascinating case study not only in the psychology of Whiteness, but in the anti-human irrationality that continues to underlie Western sciences to this day.
Let’s put his skull studies in context.
Historically , the concept of race came after European elites began enslaving Africans.
Unable to rely on their own increasingly-poor, increasingly-angry citizens to run their plantations, their eyes fell upon Northern Africans. The Christian Church had already practiced hating North African Muslims during the Spanish Inquisition. This made the job of lazy European elites even easier.
Because North African Muslims rejected Christianity, Europeans convinced themselves that they weren’t human. Gone were the ideas that Africans were industrious, intelligent, and artistic peoples. To the European-minded, they became inhumane, heathens, irrational, backwards, threatening, childlike, animals. This allowed them to enslave the Muslims with little guilt.
But in the eighteenth century (think: French Revolution, American Revolution) plantation owners faced slave uprisings, revolutionary ideas of universal human rights, and the exciting possibility of creating a new nation independent from England’s taxes.
They sought to create a new nation but these lazy people needed trendy, secular, ‘enlightened’ ideas to justify enslaving Africans and murdering Native Americans. Thus: the very same process that Tajfel had noticed in his studies of social identification began-in reverse.
Imagine the sticks in Tajfel’s study. The tall ‘A’ and short ‘B’ ones. Now imagine if only the B’s have labels. The rest have no label. Place yourself in the shoes of one of those unlabeled lines. If Tajfel, who invented the ‘B’ category, told you that “you are a line because B is not a line,” it would be kind of terrifying on an existential level, right? Especially if you believe all lines matter.
The goal of the New England elites was to divide people to make profits for themselves. They feared unity. In one case, Bacon’s Rebellion-an armed rebellion by people of many classes and races against the Doeg tribe in Virginia and Governor William Berkeley-terrified them to their aristocratic core (they responded with the Virginia Slave Codes of 1705). But unable to find any actual cultural unity between the poorer European laborers and themselves, the proslavery rich simply created a ‘B’.
They targeted enslaved Africans. They called them “Black,” and scared the white-skinned poorer colonists about the “Black danger.” The elites then said to these frightened white-skinned immigrants, who were already anxious due to their unfamiliarity with the land, “Your enemy is my enemy, and we are friends. I’ll create a nation where you feel at home.”
It was a master stroke. Now, European elites could feign unity with poorer (and now, terrified) European colonizers despite having no unified culture with them. No ‘A’.
“White” came from this fear, a lowest common denominator between themselves and poorer white-skinned laborers, a manufactured friendship based on fear and greed. This ‘A’ would convince white-skinned settlers of their Manifest Destiny to murder thousands of Native Americans and expand white borders.
The skull studies come from this eighteenth-century period. White-skinned people exaggerated differences in their own bodies to make them seem as opposite as possible from non-‘Caucasians’. Whiteness became a cultureless culture. All it could do was manufacture fear against any “other”.
But maybe “any” is the wrong word. Whiteness means, quite literally, anti-Blackness. Its existence depends upon Black people’s dehumanization. Paired with nationalism, Whiteness means indigenous genocide to this day. (I find it interesting when white-skinned people ask me what my ethnicity is, expect me to say ‘Indian,’ and stumble when I ask them what theirs is. They rarely say ‘British’ or ‘German’ and instead say ‘American’ or ‘White’ as if either of these labels have even a semblance of a unified culture.)
But Black people and Blackness are humane (surprise, surprise). They were the first race to be identified. Blackness can exist and has existed without Whiteness. But Whiteness without Blackness, without an “other”? It does not exist, has not existed, and can never exist.
Yet, in the post-Civil Rights era that we find ourselves in today, where we know we are all the same despite our skin color, where the USA even grants ‘freedom’ to all its uncriminalized citizens, shouldn’t racism be gone?
It should…if racism was about skin color.
But the issue was never about skin. It was always about making Wall Street money off the ‘other’. Whiteness creates an ‘other’, and othering hasn’t vanished and it never will. It simply hides. If you can’t find it, simply praise, unconditionally, the humanity of the “Other” and watch as the entire culture comes out of the shadows to revolt against you.
Whiteness is holding on for dear life to its last hope: to create a white nation where they, ironically, don’t feel like “others”. With tanks and fences, to take back “their” country from “others” whom they’ve leeched off since before July 4th, 1776.
For the Wall Street elites, this is perfect: cultural anxiety makes white-skinned people ignore Wall Street.
But a white nation will never be great or even succeed, if you’re looking for some truth.
When white-skinned people tell me to leave their country if I hate it so much, I feel a little bad for them because they don’t know their nation is an illusion. Lies can exist only in the mind and a white culture has always been a rich man’s lie. A plantation-era anxiety. Identities built upon an “other” eventually cannibalizes itself. Even if they end up murdering me in their anger, I’ll pass happily, knowing they’ll soon destroy themselves.
But if Whiteness is a lie, why does critiquing it feel so…real?
Well, because it is.
Whiteness creates horrible living conditions for the “other”. Sapped the “other” of their food, water, shelter, and even their children and their bodies.
On a spiritual level? Plantation owners knew how to convince us that the “other” exists. Millions of us have spent our lives believing Whiteness has the divine power to actually rip our humanities from us if we don’t show them respect.
Exposing Whiteness for its lie traumatizes our sense of reality-how could I have believed in such a demonic white lie?
So was this it? Misery and guilt, the answer at end of the scholarly road?
Of my three initial processes, I still had one path left: meditation guided by my gurus. And suddenly cultural anxiety became almost laughably (if frustratingly) simple.
Touch, taste, smell, sight, hearing.
According to the European sciences, I have these senses which have their sense organs: skin, tongue, nose, eyes, ears.
But how can I sense my humanity? How can I sense my Self?
During the questionably-named Age of Reason, European scientists championed secularity. Things that are touchable, testable, smellable, seeable, and hearable-only those can be evidence for anything. Only those exist.
But it is my people’s tradition is to recognize our immaterial thoughts as another sense, with its sense organ: the mind.
And what does the mind sense when it thinks, ‘I’?
There is a basic truth that I had doubted for so long: that the mind senses something. I’ve been calling it ‘humanity’. To observe this, all you need to do is meditate on your mind.
If you can see, close your eyes.
What do you see?
If you answered “nothing,” you are wrong. What you see is the undersides of your eyelids.
Sit with this reality. Try it for ten minutes. If you start feeling anxious, ask yourself: “Who is feeling anxious?” If negative thoughts storm in, simply watch them. Ground yourself in love for your Self.
Other than ‘humanity,’ people have called it Consciousness, the soul, the Self, natural law, the wild, divinity, God, spirit, the universal, Allah, the Brahman, Time, the Buddha, Jehovah, Truth, Jesus, Oneness, the Holy Spirit, science, history, Shiva, I, Dark Energy, Dark Matter, the fourth dimension, the irrational…you get the picture. Truth inspires limitless love.
But Whiteness finishes where Christianity left off: it asserts that this divinity is exclusive.
In a stunning (and for me, foundational) 1980 spoken essay denouncing both capitalism and communism, Russell Means, an indigenous freedom fighter, said, “The European materialist tradition of desacredizing the universe is very similar to the mental process which goes into dehumanizing another person.”
I sometimes wonder what Darwin would say if I came up to him and said, “I am fully human.” How would he have convinced me of his materialism against my reason? The reasonableness of his rationality and the irrationality of my reason? Would he have asked for proof and then laughed if I presented myself?
This anxiety will never go away until the idea of an out-group vanishes. That is what we mean by spirituality, by Self-awareness. That I am not my body, but the observer of it. It is the anxiety of Self-avoidance that protects the out-group in the first place. This fear gave birth to Whiteness. And it is with this existential anxiety that materialists colonize the world, create its governments and economies.
And when white people realize they are on this path to Self-destruction? There will be anxiety.
Yes. I think, by pledging themselves to the white culture, white-skinned people have come to dehumanize and avoid themselves.
It didn’t start off that way of course.
Prior to the revolutions of the 1700s, the Church answered the “Who am I?” question with divinity and secularity. Divinity is a separate entity: God. You are in God’s image. You are a child of God. You are human. You are human if you are Christian. The Church and Europe used “othering,” this false separation from the divine, this Hell, to terrorize people across the entire world.
White-skinned people’s humanity itself was exploited, taken for granted, trivialized, ignored, and then: self-sabotaged.
“After all,” Russel Means says, “Europeans consider themselves godlike in their rationalism and science. God is the Supreme Being; all else must be inferior.”
Human versus nature. Christian versus heathen.
The European Enlightenment’s rationality, in Russell Means’ words, “picked up where Christianity ended.” The Church conflated Peter with Jesus and Jesus with Peter. It asserts that the Self, this divinity, is exclusive only to followers of Jesus of Nazareth. The European sciences assert that Truth does not even exist.
Instead, their sense of humanity came from the material world. Human versus animal. White versus Black. In-group versus out-group.
Why this madness?
For millennia, people in the South Asian peninsula have written thousands of texts and constructed full-blown universities (such as Takshashila) where they studied and continue to study the Self. The mind and the body as one.
Their fundamental realization? Consciousness is everywhere. Of everything.
You would even categorize my people’s fervor for Truth as religious…which would be inaccurate. Religion implies non-religion: secularity. But the secular does not exist. The more accurate term for our fervor would be a way of life. A mental outlook.
The European sciences are catching up to my ancestors’ eons-old realization.
The human species evolved from ape species, which came from rats, which came from lizards, which came from fish, which came from worms, which came from sponges, which came from small multi-cellular organisms, which came from single-cell organisms, which came from molecular reactions, which came from planets, which all came from the atoms of the Big Bang.
There is no ‘out-group’ in the entire universe, no line between human and non-human, soul and soulless, divine and secular. Exclusivity is the imagination of people who ignore their Selves.
My true identity, my humanity, does not depend upon any human opinion-even my own. I am. I always am.
That is what we mean by Self-awareness. By seeing true divinity when the monarchs of materialism beg us not to. By cutting down their lies. Laughing at their ignorance. Loving our Selves by upending borders wherever people create it. Unity through difference, not despite it.
In our present era, this means to include Blackness so unconditionally, to uplift indigenous peoples so thoroughly, to free ourselves from gender norms so completely, that we upend everything that resists our Selves. To realize that seeing undocumented, criminalized, and imprisoned people as human is a radical proposition-one that reveals just how ignornat we as a society have become.
That we begin to heal ourselves and each other from the violence of our ignorance through repentance and reparations. Heal our Divine Selves instead of our material bodies which will decay regardless.
Self-doubt is the deceptively simple root of white fragility.
Self-avoidance also gave birth to murderous forces: slavery, colonialization, to both the Hindu-regimented caste system and the famines in the Indian peninsula manufactured by the British. To the Trail of Tears, Manifest Destiny, to Whiteness, European rationalism, fascism, to the White, Christian, Jewish, Islamic, and Hindu nationalists.
To borders and fences. Self-doubt gave birth to fears and hatreds eons old. To guilt instead of joyous repentance and reparations. To glorifying military states instead of glorifying welfare states.
See, this is why this topic of cultural anxiety is so important even for us people of color. Whiteness is not limited to the white-skinned.
Peace and borders are incompatible.
And when we realize we’ve been led to doubt ourselves our entire lives by rich elites? When we understand that we are living in a terrorist nation ? Sure, we’ll be anxious. We feel lost. This anxiety is within us.
It too shall pass. The climate, and the times, are a-changing.