#026 Mapping Some Moves of Whiteness


Rabah:                    I mean tonight …

Steph:                     Yes to all of the above. It’s … what do I want? I want to talk about whiteness and white fuckery, but I also want to talk about… What were we just talking about? We were just talking about … scheduling? About, Oh, coming up with dialogue, right?

Rabah:                    We were?

Steph:                     Yes. So I …

Rabah:                    I mean I think you’re cooking it up. You’re making this up as we go.

Steph:                     I am making it up and this is like, so I learned some things about myself today when I was talking to my friend Jen and we were talking about the difference between whiteness and white fuckery.

Rabah:                    Is there one? I thought they’re both the same.

Steph:                     Well, I mean I think that’s a real, that’s a real question. Are they the same or is there a difference? I think there’s a difference.

Rabah:                    I didn’t know … I didn’t know there was something called white fuckery.

Steph:                     So I feel like I have seen that on Twitter probably over the last two or three years. It’s probably shown up because when I heard it, it didn’t strike me as, I never heard that before, but I don’t think I had heard it. I think I’d seen it written.

Rabah:                    Oh, it is a thing?

Steph:                     It was uttered several times at the four day workshop that I was at.

Rabah:                    Oh, I haven’t encountered it yet. This is the first time I’m hearing it.

Steph:                     Yeah. Well, so it’s the first time I heard it in use, right? Like on Twitter it’s a commentary about something out there. Right. But this was in context and so then… I just been thinking: is white fuckery what was happening or was it really whiteness fucking with us? So that article …

Rabah:                    What’s the difference though?

Steph:                     So the article I just gave you talks about separating whiteness from the white body. All right. So whiteness uses white bodies much easier than anybody else’s body, but it can use anybody’s body, but it uses—it’s most easy to use white bodies and white people shit around not having understood themselves as having a race or anything like that. Right. It’s like their panic around …

Rabah:                    How can they not? Everything is centered around whiteness as a way of distinguishing between others and them.

Steph:                     Right. But if you’re white, you don’t understand that veil is there. You don’t understand there’s water that you’re in, you just, it really is this blank slate kinda… And I know for myself that I …

Rabah:                    You mean the whiteness is…thinks that it’s a universal condition, which is what whiteness does. It thinks that is the definition of being the neutral, the man, the human condition *is* whiteness and everything else is an anomaly or exception or abnormal or different.

Steph:                     And then how that plays inside a white-bodied person like myself. Is that the starting assumption is that your operation in the world is the same as mine. Right? Like I project me onto you because I assume we’re the same. Right. But that’s not really- either …

Rabah:                    You mean the difference.

Steph:                     It’s not how it is. Right? First of all, it’s incorrect, but it’s like a kind of an understanding you have to grow into, but you’re-

Rabah:                    Oh no, you understand. I mean I think it’s understood that there is this expectation that it’s neutral, that everything is supposedly on an equal plane when it’s not. So it’s a paradox, right? It seems like there’s a double, it’s like by saying that you are, everything is … everything, there is no nothing called race, right?

Steph:                     I think….I think….

Rabah:                    But at the same time to be discriminating on it continuously on this other axis. So there are two kinds of moves being made here. It’s a double move.

Steph:                     Well there’s a systemic phenomena where systemic racism is happening and has been happening and is going to continue to happen unless we do some real serious shit to stop it. And then there’s the experience of a white-bodied person growing up inside whiteness. And at some point, I think two things happen: which is that if you grow and you start to understand whiteness is a thing, at some point you start to understand yourself as separate from whiteness.

Rabah: Hmmm.

Steph: That whiteness doesn’t compose the entirety of who you are.

But to carve that space out is very challenging because how does it look any different than everything you’ve always done as a white person–that looks like whiteness still, right? Some version of whiteness even as you’re actually exercising autonomy. And then the other thing is that whiteness itself is alive and doesn’t want to die. And so it works its way … it’s like parasitic, right? It works in white people to fuck up anything that might actually threaten it. Right?

So there’s sources for the…white fragility that are internal about “Am I anything other than whiteness” and how can that be about me and whatever. And then there’s whiteness using your fragility to make sure you don’t attack it anymore. Right? So that it can still live. So I think that mostly what happened at the workshop was whiteness working through the white-bodied people in the room, most of us, not all of us.

Rabah: Hmm, right.

Steph: And I think that there’s evidence to support that white people didn’t know what to do. Right? I mean there was no plan to escape from the problem we were in. But in retrospect, there was a question people were asking. They were like, “Is there white extraction of knowledge happening here?” It would not have been that hard, in retrospect, for a savvy facilitator to say, “Oh, I hear a question. Should we talk about this for a minute?”

Rabah:                    But it gets repressed you mean.

Steph:                     But that didn’t happen. Right? People were not as skillful as they are. Right? We were de-skilled… like we were in … I call it this white fog, right? Where it’s like, “Wait, something’s going on. I’m trying to get through….” And then, but then everybody has their coping- the way that they get through and it doesn’t really get resolved.

Except it did. Except that there was this very kind of clear and steady progression from all the people of color in the room saying, “It’s clear that you don’t know what you’re- you don’t even know who you are,”

Rabah: Right….”

Steph: …”let alone what it is you’re doing”–and we are presenting this challenge back to you to get it together.

Rabah:                    That’s fine.

Steph:                     It’s perfect. I mean it’s what was appropriate.

Rabah:                    …next time something like that happens.

Steph:                     But then the group has to keep talking about it for their- for the next time. Not to just be a repeat, we have to learn from. And what I …

Rabah:                    Yeah, yea. Exactly what you said when you say that there’s something like a question like that gets posed we have to take a minute to acknowledge it and see what the answer… To come up with concrete examples like that which got missed.

Steph:                     Right.

Rabah:                    I mean those cues that were missed, or people refuse to go to those places…. But people refuse to go to those places because the thing there is no positive—there’s no movement possible. There’s only acknowledgement of something that is a lack, that there is no way things can be fixed or resolved around it. But if we can propose that, can this be… can this lead us to a more … a place where there is a constructive, a solution here? Is there a solution in asking that question? Is this white extracting? What is the solution? So even if you acknowledge it and you say, “So what is it that we are proposing? What is it that we need to acknowledge? What is it that, what insecurity do we hear in that question that “Is this exploitative? Is this …”

Steph:                     Right. And my hypothesis around it is that there were preexisting conditions in the group and this was just like a match or this was just like, it was clear in a way

Rabah: Hmmm…

Steph: …that it was like BOOM all the attention went there. But I don’t know that it was even actually- I don’t think it could have been such a big thing if there wasn’t a lot of pre-history.

Rabah:                    It’s possible. Context is everything.

Steph:                     Yeah.

Rabah:                    Pre-history is everything. But then there are a lot of new players in that situation as well.

Steph:                     I mean there were, I think a lot of people knew other people and that’s part of the reason that the group

Rabah:                    Emotional stress.

Steph:                     … actually held together because in the way that it did, but there was also really steady movement of leadership from participants. Participants did a lot.

Rabah:                    Which is great.

Steph:                     It was perfect. I mean it was great. I think what was, I think that as a thing that didn’t happen is that there wasn’t recognition from the predesign and facilitation team that the participants were engaged in a parallel process.

Rabah: Hmm.

Steph:They were working an aspect of the problem.

Rabah:                    Which should have been on the agenda as well. It should have been that the participants had equally this stake and this ability to do these simple things, right. I mean, to have that openness is part of any kind of … that kind of …

Steph:                     And that was there. So that, I mean there’s a way in which even though there’s a lot of- there was a lot of really- I don’t know, I just, I kind of want to say ‘unfortunate things’ that happened and that’s not strong enough for the women of color in particular who felt like they were being taken advantage of or they were being misused in some kind of way. And… I mean… that was a sentiment that—I’m putting my own words on it, summarizing it, but that was kind of an experience that a lot of people apparently had and …

Rabah:                    If they could articulate exactly how and where are the places that this was occurring and why, with concrete examples or sort of just articulating a feeling… That would be extremely helpful.

Steph:                     I think there are very concrete examples. I mean, I can come up with several.

Rabah:                    That’s great. And then that helps for clarity.

Steph:                     And I’m sure that there’s plenty that I missed.

Rabah:                    Instead of focusing on the accusation there’s more focus on clarity is what …

Steph:                     It’s really like these are just the things that happened, but from the whiteness side of it, and I feel like this is a contribution from the whites—I can only see the things that I can see because I recognize some aspect of it in myself. Right? So I had very carefully carved out that I was not going to speak very much during the workshop and that I wasn’t going to be talking about the research in any particular kind of way.

Maybe that was the wrong way to think, but I was like, “I need to not do that.” And so I created a method to let them know what was going on,  where I would tell Axel and Axel would tell the team, and then the team could either say, “Oh, that’s a question we want to bring to the group.” Or they could say, “No.”

Rabah:                    Right. But then everybody should be aware of that method.

Steph:                     But what they did well, so Axel says he told them, but I think either they didn’t understand or they didn’t agree or he didn’t tell them or he didn’t tell them clearly.

Rabah:                    Right.

Steph:                     But I also didn’t confirm. Right. So it’s not like I’m innocent. Right. It’s not like I- there’s shit I should have done too. And what, like part of what I know I did is that right at the beginning I started having questions about things that I was observing in the organizing, but I was like, “I don’t want to be a facilitator.” Right. “I don’t want to step into a design role. I don’t want to be part of that. I want to be a participant observer.” And so I noticed things, I don’t know, maybe half a dozen things where I’m like, “if I had a stronger relationship…”; “…if we’d had more time.” There were reasons why I was like, “I’m not going to say anything about this now, but I’m aware of this. I think this is a problem. I think this is an indicator of…” But then the whole thing went to hell. Right.

So then it’s like how much of that is on me? Right. And the part that’s on me for sure is that when they didn’t maintain the boundary of not calling on me to talk about the research, which isn’t to say that I wouldn’t have talked about it with anybody. I wanted to be as open about it as possible, but I didn’t want to be … I didn’t want to be feeding my observations as a researcher into the system for everybody. I wanted the facilitators to retain that control.

Rabah:                    Right. But it’s …

Steph:                     And when, but when that didn’t happen, when they gave it to me, I took it. I mean I was surprised and I was like… But I wasn’t…

Rabah: but doesn’t that….

Steph: I wasn’t thrown by it so much that I questioned- that I didn’t do it, right. I still did it and I just, I rolled right into it. And that set a certain kind of way that I was going to participate for the whole rest of the weekend– it was a done deal at that point. Right. But it’s like how easily I … it’s like: I believed they had a good reason for doing it and I don’t think it was that thought-through just like, I don’t think my response to do it in the moment was thought-through. It wasn’t at all. It was just …

Rabah:                    But most of these things …

Steph:                     They aren’t,

Rabah: Yea…

Steph:  but that’s what’s kind of… I think in a weird way almost beautiful about this. It’s like all of this is tracked. I mean there’s stuff that I didn’t get down and whatever, but there’s like so much– that the whiteness is transparent. If we are willing to look at it.

Rabah:                    The whiteness lies in the expectation that something that was being processed in that minute, will have ready fast-processing happening exactly then and will have direct results immediately in that space. And I’m like, that takes a lack of wisdom to understand that these things are processable, these things are contingent, these things are extremely complex. They need going back and taking …

Steph:                     Right. Careful stock.

Rabah:                    … the very arrogance of thinking that, “Oh, you’re going to be doing this in this meeting for the first time,” we had not had any parameters set up. None of us know what the hell is going on. But you should be able to deliver like that. [Snap.Snap.] The minute we ask you a question and you should know exactly what you’re doing. Otherwise you are all these kinds of things that are wrong, and inefficient and incompetent and you’re like, “Wait a minute.” That is whiteness. That whole expectation and assumption itself is whiteness.

Steph:                     Yeah.

Rabah:                    Any other practice, any other tradition, any other would immediately say it’s immature to expect a researcher who, for the first time is stepping into this role, who’s telling you this is extremely new. It’s a, I mean, how, why would I even rely on this researcher at this point to give me something which is sophisticated enough? They have to go home. They have to look at it. They have to think about it. They’re like, work it up. You can ask preliminary questions. You can be like, “Hey, I’m wondering what are you sensing?” You never judge. You say, “Okay, I’m guessing you’re going to go back and think about it and come back with something more studied,” which is expertise. Your expertise right now is not to wing it. Right?

Steph:                     Right.

Rabah:                    That is what shocks me that people even have this assumption that some… In things like these, things are going to be like fast food. They’re going to be like a burger you order like get…”Give this to me right now. This is what I need from you right now.”

Steph:                     I think that is part of it and I think the other part of it is, I don’t know, I don’t think they had a very tight design to begin with because if the design was tight, if each time that we were together was actually intentionally conceptualized with a view to the outcome they wanted to get from it, I don’t think there would have been room for them to invite me in in the way that they did.

Rabah: Right.

Steph: It’s like, but I mean, I don’t know, maybe they planned more than I think they did.

Rabah:                    But it’s a group dynamic thing. Anybody who works in groups….

Steph:                     Once it goes, once it starts. That’s right. Once it starts, it starts.

Rabah:                    You know that there’s going to be places for things to erupt and people to have moments. You have to account for all of that, right? But the expectation is whiteness, that the expectation is going to be there: that this is so smooth and this is going to be so taken care of. This is all going to be so like supposedly some day somebody out there is fixing this.

Steph:                     No, I think most of the organizing team spent the weekend and even after it kind of in a kind of shock that they had lost control.

Rabah:                    That’s fine.

Steph:                     It is fine. That’s what I, it’s just like it’s just what happened but, and it shows us that this is a really intense process. Right? And if we get caught with our whiteness on display, like guess what, our whiteness was on display and everybody knew it. Right?

Rabah:                    There’s no hiding it.

Steph:                     So then so then it’s like, okay, so then now what? And to me this is where I want to kind of draw a line between whiteness and white fuckery. Because I think whiteness has a little bit of, it’s uncon…. We don’t, we’re caught up in being used by whiteness and our body is like not under our control.

Rabah:                    Right.

Steph:                     Right? In a certain way and then the transition is…the courageous thing, right, is to face the whiteness—is to be in it, is to go, “Here, this is what it looked like. This is how it used me. I’m going to figure out how to shut that gate so it can’t happen again. It’s probably going to find another way in but I’m going to just keep working to shut down all of those anytime..”

Rabah:                    There’s no it. There is me, there is the what- the minute we say “it” and it’s outside of us all of that. It becomes really problematic. [crosstalk 00:18:18].

Steph:                     It has to be both though, we have to be-

Rabah:                    It has to be both but

Steph:                     We have to able to understand how to separate ourselves from it and if we don’t locate it out there then we can’t do that.

Rabah:                    Right. Right. But we keep saying “it,” it also makes it problematic because it always is something out there, which is not-

Steph:                     No, it’s not.

Rabah:                    So it’s like you’re taking responsibility and being vulnerable in that situation and saying this is a group dynamic: “Things may not work out completely and perfectly. We are completely aware of that. There will be people who will get triggered. We’re completely aware of that. Our focus is only on working through those moments and finding the best possible solution for those moments without having any prior understanding of how these things ought to go should happen.”

Steph:                     Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Rabah:                    All of that. Right?

Steph:                     Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. So.

Rabah:                    That’s about it. There’s no, this is not happening through us no, no, no, no, this is what is it. This is I–need to be vulnerable right now.

Steph:                     So then I think it transitions. Right. And if I don’t choose that then I’m kind of relying on whiteness to do its thing and I think that’s when I’m crossing over into white fuckery. Now I understand that I’m …

Rabah:                    Participating in it.

Steph:                     That- yeah. That I’m allowing it to be, to use me when it wants to.

Rabah:                    Right.

Steph:                     Without, without, without, without me rejecting it.

Rabah:                    Or taking, I mean rejecting is a hard word. I would say taking responsibility for it.

Steph:                     Okay.

Rabah:                    Rejection is something which is like oh, it needs to be stamped and all of that. I mean it’s just like awareness that there’s something here that is beyond blame and beyond punishment and that this is a moment for change, and…

Steph:                     Right, but I don’t think rejection is too strong I think. I think, yeah, I mean I have to take responsibility but…um, and I think …

Rabah:                    Responsibility is a scarier word than rejection frankly. “Responsibility” is when you really acknowledge what all the trouble is.

Steph:                     You’re thinking rejection is just like a knee jerk.

Rabah:                    Rejection is completely saying, “no” without, it’s a form of like, “I reject.” It’s a very negative way of saying, “I reject” but the minute you say, “I take responsibility for it” — It’s a different form of accepting that this is part of what is the dynamic, and then “This is what I need to change. I need to change and I’m taking responsibility.” It’s a big, it’s a scary word. Rejection is like “I stamp you out from me because…” How is that helping?

Steph:                     Right. Well and it’s not even really possible so.

Rabah:                    No, it’s not.

Steph:                     All right. Well yeah, so for the first time I’m actually, this is thinking about—I have not typically in my life thought about like what I was going to say next to who. I don’t, I have not been strategic in that way. I haven’t been. I’m more responsive. I was just like, “what’s in the moment right now,” but to try to move this conversation forward with the group of people who were in that workshop and because we are still under a research framework?

Rabah:                    Yeah.

Steph:                     I’m going to like, I’m going to track the moves I’ve already made. Who are the people that I reached out to who responded to me in one way or another

Rabah: Right…

Steph:      and just kind of this is how … like to try building these relationships and these connections and trying to sustain them so that you can have this deeper conversation. Which is only going to happen if there’s a collective willingness.

Rabah:                    Right.

Steph:                     Right. To have it. So, but there’s a–

Rabah:                    But do you think that there is no collective willingness right now?

Steph:                     Well, I think that, I think that the organizers have not, I mean they exclusively said that the research was a mistake. Without any language around, maybe “we learned something worthwhile, but we wouldn’t do it again this way.” Like nothing, just like the research was a mistake. And I just think that’s kind of scapegoating and it’s reactive.

Rabah:   Right?

Steph:   But that’s the message that they gave out. I’m just being, I’m being measured and like thoughtful: who does it make sense to reach out to next and under what basis? Right. So that I’m not wasting people’s time, but there is a, there’s a logic to it in terms of building accountability and trying to feed things back into the system and trying to open this conversation up so that we could really have it.

Rabah:                    Right.

Steph:                     So I’m going to make a map of my next moves, I’ve got my history of whatever the 20 moves are that I have already made. And maybe, I don’t know, the next dozen or 20 I don’t know. I have to …

Rabah:                    Yeah. You have to think it out with utmost skill and wisdom as to what is required and what is needed. Not what is right, but what will work.

Steph:                     Yeah.

Rabah:                    There’s a difference.

Steph:                     Yeah.

Rabah:                    And if that research element has been cut short and it seems unproductive for everybody….are there other ways to approach deeper questions, but giving up on that angle. Right now the group is particularly worried about that — to be able to let go of that and just engage in ways that will be more constructive.

Steph:                     Yeah. I don’t know. I don’t really know where the group is.

Rabah:                    Right, so find that out: just show up and be present and find that out.

Steph:                     Yeah.

Rabah:                    Would be interesting.

Steph:                     It would be. Very much so. Okay. Thank you.



Recorded November 18, 2019

Location: Amherst, MA

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