Whiteness as a World-Making Project is Bound to Fail

Among the things that whiteness is, it’s a set of practices that pretends the possibility of disentanglement. We’re entangled, and to pretend that we’re not requires us to do the most horrific things.

— Ross Gay, The VS Podcast

Whiteness is: a world-making project that organizes bodies; the two poles of this arrangement are exposure and exemption. Exposure: to the inevitable pains, losses, hazards, and uncertainties of living. Exemption: from them.

Whiteness is: risk-aversion, invulnerability; the managed, global redistribution of risk and harm.

Whiteness is: a psycho-social-spiritual technology: a way of relating to, by seeking to eliminate, uncertainty, precarity, the (only) certainty of death—that supreme uncertainty.

“Everything we love, we will lose.”

— Francis Weller, quoted in Bayo Akomolafe, “Grieving is how flowers bloom”

The goal of the project of Whiteness is to fully insulate certain (human) bodies—White bodies—from pain, loss, uncertainty, and risk, precisely by exposing other (imagined as not-quite-human) bodies—Black, Indigenous, people of color—as well as all manner of nonhuman bodies and the earth itself, to massive and unending danger, precarity, extraction, and harm.

This project is built on the dream of absolute safety and separation: that it is possible to avoid suffering forever and completely by outsourcing and offloading immense, unending suffering onto “others,” imagining that those others are fully separate from oneself.

Fear and a felt, internalized sense of scarcity, of not being or having enough—enough power, enough resources, enough capacity to encounter, move through, adapt to, and be changed by challenge—are the primary motivators of this project.

As a project, Whiteness is, of course, bound to fail: suffering (pain, loss, grief, death) is an inevitable part of life, and the work of trying to avoid suffering tends to produce more of the same. Also, we are not separate—we live in an entangled, interdependent universe—and so what happens to some (human and nonhuman) bodies eventually impacts us all.

It might be possible to maintain the (very fragile) illusion that it’s possible to stave off suffering for some amount of time, but that illusion requires constant, careful edits and omissions—the paranoid policing, erasure, exclusion, and “cutting out” of anything that threatens the illusion’s coherence—and can only be maintained for so long. Our current era of cascading climate and economic crises—precipitated by colonization, white supremacist-capitalism, the transatlantic slave trade, and the industrial revolution, which made it seem possible, for a time, for people to buy, steal, kill, or “race” their way out of scarcity, uncertainty, suffering, death, and the fact of our shared entanglement—is a clear illustration of this.

Our work, now, from within this time of immense grief, loss, pain, instability, and uncertainty, might be to simply let the project of Whiteness fail—as, indeed, it has always been doing, despite our desperate efforts to prop it up—and, from within that dusty rubble, to learn to perceive, nurture, and cultivate other ways of relating to pain, loss, uncertainty, risk; other ways of being in relation—with one another, human and nonhuman, and with ourselves (those unsettling, ever-becoming strangers that we are).

How do we do this?

How do we move towards fear? How do we welcome risk? How do we celebrate, grieve, and play-fall-dance our way into the unknown?

How do we help to create, together, and in encounter and collaboration with the more-than-human world, new/old, mish-mashed stories, rituals, and practices—i.e., new cultures—that can help us to hold, navigate, and relate to the joys, sorrows, and uncertainties of entangled, risky, always-temporary living?

How do we re-learn or re-member what it is to make home, when home is no longer, and never has been, the protected domain of “the Human”?

Sarah DeYoreo is a teacher and writer living in Portland, Oregon, where she teaches a public class called “Interrogating Whiteness” and convenes other kinds of gatherings. Her nonfiction and poetry have appeared in PropellerEntropy, and The Rumpus. This spring she’ll begin offering a new class called “Meeting Collapse.”