On white exceptionalism

Last May, I had just finished a wonderful book (Untamed by Glennon Doyle) and so, in true stalker fashion, Facebook started giving me all kinds of ads about it. One was a book club enthusiastically describing Glennon (a white woman) as “the” voice of today’s women. A Latina woman commented to the effect of “um, I doubt it…” and my “helpful” self felt compelled to respond (despite typically swearing off internet comments sections, ha!) I said, “I totally respect if you only read authors of color, but just so you know, Glennon ‘gets it’. Her longest chapter is about racism. I’d invite you to give it a chance.” Cool — I’d prefaced my perspective with a respectful and honest intro so I was good, right?

Another commenter of color swooped in and, very bluntly, said “you didn’t acknowledge what she was saying. You dismissed it.” Y’all, I was HURT! My gut reaction (my “flesh,” to put it in Christian-ese) said, “this woman’s correcting ME?! Super-woke, grew up around Black folk, lifelong activist Ellie?! Surely not! You don’t know me! I ‘get it’!”

Layla Saad, in Me & White Supremacy, calls that “white exceptionalism.” We all think it’s someone else — that white supremacy has not poisoned sweet, good, little ol’ me. Which is why we want to pretend Amy Cooper was some far-right Trump supporter, or why, in times like these, we frantically send whatever signals we can that “I’m one of the good ones!”

We do this because it hurts to recognize the racism inside of us. I emphasize this so that, as we embark on exploring our white identity (as many white folks did last summer), we wouldn’t stop when we feel the pain. Because it will come. It hurts our pride, our self-image. But it’s necessary.

I got called out by a stranger on Facebook. And my stomach clenched, and my heart rate increased, and I had my fingers ready to pen a super-smart response defending myself and my “woke credentials.” And then I took a deep breath and read her words again. And I realized that she was right. This woman’s comment was a critique of a culture that centers white voices and treats others as invisible. Instead of honoring and amen-ing that, I expressed the “well-meaning, paternalistic, white liberal” version of what she was critiquing in the first place.

I share this as just one small example of how much is waiting for us to unearth and reflect upon, if we are willing to peel back the layers of our social conditioning. We can educate ourselves ‘til kingdom come about history and the Black experience in America, which we absolutely must do. But if we don’t do this crucial work of exploring our own identity, our own whiteness, our own poisoning by white supremacy, we will only have head knowledge, which won’t lead us (as white folk) to transformation. Head knowledge may change our actions, but introspection changes who we are. Actions ebb and flow based on circumstances. Who we are — how we show up in our daily lives and the actions that spring from that — is what will impact society over the long haul.

As Layla Saad puts it in her introduction,

“This work is not about those white people ‘out there’. It is about you. Just you.”

Published by Ellie Hunja

Ellie is a mother of two (ages 6 & 3) who's on a journey to cultivate a life of purpose, authenticity, and joy. She writes about parenting, racial justice, faith, autism awareness, mental health, and more. She believes that empathy and vulnerability can change the world, and that there is ALWAYS room for dessert.

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