Overcoming Whiteness: A Matter for Imagination, Not Law

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Whiteness [is] the ownership of the Earth forever and ever, Amen.                         

–W.E.B. Dubois, The Souls of Black Folk

whiteness is the world’s most dangerous cult today.                                               

–Pankaj Mishra, The Religion of Whiteness

Modern neuroscience solidly supports Freud’s notion that many of our conscious thoughts are complex rationalizations for the flood of instincts, reflexes, motives and deep-seated memories that emanate from the unconscious.                       

– Bessel van der Kolk, M.D., The Body Keeps the Score

I have not knowingly read anything calling itself “critical race theory.”  My life was greatly influenced in that direction by having come of age during the civil rights era, by my seminary education, and my having read fairly widely among black authors, all of which lent support to the instinct for justice and my innate horror at cruelty and injustice that have been with me as far back as I can remember.  Too, I’m influenced by my left-leaning, anti-war, pro-civil rights mother, in particular by her exemplification of the wholly unintentional duplicity of white liberal anti-racists.   That is,  those who who love M. L. King Jr and never leave their white enclaves nor ever actually challenge their inherited, unconscious superiority over people of color nor their inherited faith in the assumptions of capitalism, and thus unwittingly betray that inherent instinct for justice.  

These pro-justice influences led me to sacrifice much of my entitlement as a white person to live in an environment in which one is not constantly reminded of poverty and race, decay and forgottenness, disturbing evidence of otherness, as I am here on my street in Utica, NY.  Independently, one could say, I have arrived at my own understanding of whiteness including my own case as amounting to a religiously-held identity even among white secular liberals.

As a writer I’m positioned in that split that existed in my mother and persists among liberals today who do not imagine we are part of the “religion” of whiteness.  We imagine we are not them. This is not ordinary hypocrisy. The difficulty we face can be explained when we grasp the nature of whiteness in a Freudian way, as one of the “complex rationalizations” that allows us to manage the  “flood of instincts, deep-seated memories,” etc., emanating from the unconscious.  Whiteness is “composed” in response to that flood we cannot see,  to the unconscious that is beyond the reach of the rational mind, hidden from view, our foundation in mystery and predetermination both.  

Disestablishing or overcoming whiteness, therefore, and the caste structure whiteness keeps in place demands more than a political process of changing laws.  Malcolm X’s transformational approach to change for black people comes closer to the kind of change that can work for white people whose true religion, unknown to themselves, is whiteness, its roots buried in the unconscious.  Spiritual transformation includes the unconscious factors that are, though inarticulable, real.  That is, whiteness can be dislodged by persons genuinely committed to racial justice at the level of the origins of religion itself, of those entities inhabiting the layer of mythic, imaginative understanding inherited with biology.

For centuries in human history these invisibles were thought of, and were, the gods.  Contrary to reasonable thought,they have not gone anywhere.  Problematically for people for whom they’re not real, they can – and do!- run amok, no one in charge. Lack of connection with spiritual reality, now the norm,  has not released  liberal “free-thinkers” from irrationality – quite the opposite!   Lacking depth-based conviction, behaviors in the liberal world are unaccountable to any power”higher than ourselves” which is to say, to any power higher than the consensus derived from current power arrangements, i.e. the gospel according to free market capitalism.   

Society might be further along in disestablishing whiteness if we weren’t so sure that the invisibles are not real that we ban them from consciousness.  But if that’s where we must start from so be it. We must seek other paths to the unconscious!  Having delved recently once again into reading contemporary black writers including now Les Payne’s biography of Malcolm X, it seems possible to me the powerful attraction black literature has for many white liberal Americans ( ones who’ve had great impact on me – Frederick Douglass, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, etc.) unknown to ourselves, is a pull inward to a disregarded otherness – or othernesses – that, so far, has eluded the light of consciousness.  Dominant liberal reality with its worship of individual liberty and the accompanying ideological and economic values favoring capitalism, encourages us not to pursue that “otherness,” even to fear it like the Devil.  Herein lies the staying power of whiteness.  

But the otherness also has staying power.  It pursues our attention through powerful interests we find in ourselves that have no rational basis, such as mine in literature and jazz, and in our personal dreams, say, of being a dancer or a coffeeshop owner.   Importantly, the otherness pursues – or rather goads – us in another way – in our neuroses, our pathological symptoms, and in our illnesses generally.  Neurological science now confirms the body-mind connection: there are ways to connect with the otherness through “non-mystical” means, and thus ways to spiritual transformation for a justice-seeking person desiring health and willing to encounter her/his own suffering to attain it.  

Inasmuch as one successfully avoids full encounter with that otherness because it is unconscious, it remains something one can be aware of only through the eyes and words of the non-white peoples.  Our whiteness has to be pointed out to us because – as Dr. Jung famously taught about the shadow aspect of the unconscious, it is “by definition,” unknowable.  We left-leaners read the black writers because they feed reach into the unknown in oneself, whether or not one actually enters those personal depths.  

Liberal white people who loathe Jim Crow laws and the Ku Klux Klan still can commit smaller acts of unconsciousness and still, though hating American militarism, tolerate the way of life that depends upon atrocities being inflicted on others around the globe.  They can do little for those who suffer from American disrespect for the sovereignty of racial others because, in keeping distance from and blind to that inward otherness, one also denies the seat of personal sovereignty.   One is, in a fully socially acceptable way, blind to the awakened consciousness, powerful enough to be life-changing as it was in the case of the slave ship captain who had the conversion experience expressed in the song  Amazing Grace.  How, given liberal aversion to higher moral authority, can such conversion be achieved now?  

James Joyce’s short story The Dead, which I read recently for a book group, is a story of conversion.  The husband, initially wrapped up in his own fantasies of his wife, learns that when she was a girl, she had an original love, a sensitive boy who gave his life for love of her.  Suddenly the man sees her in her true aspect, as an  “other.”  His habitual mind shaken, he perceives his own life in “the long body,” from birth to death.  He’s presented with the question, what is worth living, dying for?  The passion (lust) he had felt for his wife becomes the vision of passion itself, the flame that makes life a burning and not merely a resignation, a failure to be accountable, from cradle to grave.  Life without the burning is the normal mode of existence for western whiteness, the one we agree to and assimilate with as we ignore that persistent other tugging at our consciousness in the voice of both our unrealistic longing to be involved with our creativity, and of our neuroses.  Though the  passionless life is not exactly the same as whiteness, one could not exist without the other.  

Thus I’m claiming, yes, we cannot eradicate racism or disestablish whiteness until/unless we can find our way, as individuals, to –  in Joyce’s words – be “living in the full glory of some passion.”  By assimilating, by accepting a condition that should be unacceptable, i.e.,  the repression of the only reality that can stand opposed to the false sovereignty of whiteness, that has the power to make us accountable to a  “power” higher than liberal reality – white supremacy remains secure.

In Dr. King’s famous words, “No one is free until we are all free.” As long as I remain blind to that otherness in myself, how can I be free?  And you cannot be free until I am free.  Liberal white people, freed from lower caste identity, do not know our own unfreedom.  We do not identify with the inarticulate souls that we hold captive, voiceless, gasping for air.  Maybe some of us, as we practice our hobbies, our dabbling in art, let our passions out on a leash.  But just as we do not know our whiteness, we do not know our obedience to a toxic system that can be subverted only by people who take back their freedom (many people have echoed this idea before me, including Henry David Thoreau) by placing their lives upon a different a basis that serves, rather than “owns the Earth forever and ever Amen.”   It allows the others their other reality because it first honors the sovereign other of oneself.   That is, we who are white liberals  must seek a higher glory than being good. 


The mother told me her 30-year-old daughter – (she who wrote the note pinned to the Cafe bulletin board, “Thank gods for Cafe Domenico”) cries still for the Cafe that’s now gone.  Are her tears for something real?  Or is she just a 30-year-old kid who needs to grow up and toughen up?   The Cafe, especially for the young, was very real.  That is, I venture, the Cafe was the place that opened this young woman, and others who’ve made similar testimony,  to a sense of the larger, inclusive reality in which one’s own spirit can be alive and, in turn, leads one into its (more abundant) reality. I’m tempted to call this the essence of forgiveness, but forgiveness implies wrongdoing, and this spacious imaginative reality precedes wrongdoing.

I venture further:  the reality the Cafe embodied was counter to the one that reduces everything to materialism and useful function.  Many of us must live in hopes that these are what are worth living for  because there’s nothing to tell us there’s anything more than that.  In reality reduced to the material, buttressed massively by mass media and commercialization,  aspiration shrinks down to one-size-fits-all, squeezing out any room – no spaces, because no invisibles are real – in which the soul can breathe. The soul is the canary in the mine.  What it weeps for – call it “Jerusalem,” call it the object of longing –  is real.

For ordinary people like me – and not just because I’m old –  it’s a struggle to keep my moral compass in these incredibly confusing times, the world fed to us via screens and soundbites by means of which the absolute wrong of slaughter of innocents in Gaza, or of calling in the police upon the students of one’s own university peacefully protesting! can be made to appear relatively wrong compared to the state of Israel’s need to defend itself.  Thank godsfor our independent journalists that can help us see through the cracks of totalitarian neoliberal reality.  And we no less need, less apparent to some perhaps – in order simply to keep our on-the-ground lives oriented in the direction of interdependence, of peace and love –  information from a more intimate, non-negotiable source: our personal/transpersonal reliable onboard soul’s vision.

For that information to guide our actions,  a creative practice that connects us with the unconscious region is needed.  But also, because we are so essentially social beings, we need places and communities that confirm to us the reality our soul sees and for which it longs, where soul can know its own dreams are real,  where alignment is naturally with the guiding star of peace and justice, where even if we’re constantly bamboozled into assimilation by the surrounding media-saturated liberal reality and its tolerance for lack of conviction, there is always that place where we an be reassured the dream, personal and universal, is real.   

Our Cafe was such a place, the young woman’s tears confirm this. Last night my young friend Andrew said to us “a Cafe is like a park.”   By its very indigenous distinctness, its assumption of “I’m okay being me,” our coffeeshop embodied in my husband’s and my personal, bred-in-the-sixties language a “god,” an archetype of inclusiveness that spoke beyond Utica’s provincialism to a more cosmopolitan reality.  In NYC this might make it nothing special.  In Utica it was a lifeline to that realm wherein “souls rejoice,” wherein the belief that my dreams and longings are legitimate is confirmed.

Without either the practice or the places, people who’ve been convinced their soul’s reality isn’t real are defenseless against being seduced into accepting what is (morally) unacceptable. We assimilate as if this were in the natural order.  This is what our history has done to those of us white people at the upper end of the caste system.

Of course businesses, even socialist-leaning ones like Cafe’s – are limited in their ability to stand for poetic reality against corporate reality. That is, they have to sell their product.  Because its survival was in my keeping,  our business – though small –  frustrated that part of my calling that wants to be engaged in speaking the truth about the trauma of whiteness, the caste identity informing liberal reality which depends upon betraying oneself. My own story affirms for me the truth of liberalism’s suppression of personal sovereignty by tolerating the relativization of “even” the privileged white infant’s absolute, uncompromisable need for safety and physical cherishment.  The reality of trauma-as-soul-wound is a door opening on the real soul that extends beyond the PTSD of war veterans and survivors of overt childhood abuse, a more universal story than just my own.  

Looking at this no small matter of accountability, I’m feeling the world of no religion (sorry, John Lennon!) is not the key to the universal dream of peace.  Despite the fact of Sunday morning being known as the most segregated hour in America, I don’t believe separate churches is a problem, but, rather, what are white peoples’ churches for? Are they for buttressing whiteness or for growing human beings according to the pattern of original wholeness in their souls? Would not acknowledging – inviting –  communities  based in personal sovereignty, in which each is accountable for his/her own creative practice (i.e.,“micro-religions”) be the ultimate challenge to whiteness, an identity which depends entirely upon the self-debilitating effects of unhealed, unrecognized personal trauma? Would this not be a more responsible, loving way to establish equality than laws?

Kim C. Domenico, reside in Utica, New York, co-owner of Cafe Domenico (a coffee shop and community space),  and administrator of the small nonprofit independent art space, The Other Side.  Seminary trained and ordained,  but independently religious. She can be reached at: kodomenico@verizon.net.