Whiteness in Nature

by Jul 1, 2020

We’re in baffling times. Most of us care deeply – really deeply – about justice for all. We’re profoundly compelled by the urgency to stop the systematic oppression of Black lives.

Plenty of information floods social and public media advising white people how to be present and committed in action for correcting the harm. In fact, there’s so much information, so many words, that it’s near impossible to discern what’s helpful and wise and what’s not. Which sources have integrity, and which ones are about monetizing the moment?

First things first. All of us must see whiteness. This is urgent. And to see it, we have to STOP.

Stop to listen. Stop to see and admit, to question, to learn and to change.

Whiteness is a system of dominance. It requires imbalance. It requires a deep belief that white bodies and culture are both standard and superior. It’s a belief built intricately into our public systems – government, education, economy, media, literature, even science. Investigate this.

A few examples might help. The two of us are white. We remember when we asked our white second grade teachers something like, How do you spell “ask?,” the teachers would answer, “Spell it like it sounds.”

The language of mainstream education in this country is the language of white people. The “way it sounds” when young white voices say “ask” is different from the way it sounds in the voices of young Black or Latinx or Native American or Middle Eastern South or Central Asian-American students. Because we are white, we were far more likely to succeed with the teacher’s guidance than were our BlPoc peers.

Here’s something else to consider. When you’re describing a social event or something from media, do you only place modifiers in front of people of color? “This Black guy was saying….” “Then the Asian lady looked up….” What about when you’re referring to white people? “It started when a man walked out the front door.” We’ve both been busted on this. It’s real. It’s subtle, until it’s not.

All of this points to the fact that the dominant culture of our country unconsciously centers whiteness as just the way things are – as common sense, the standard of what’s normal. To white people this is often invisible. It doesn’t occur to us that “just the way things are,” is specifically the way things are for us, for white people. As the rule-set driving public life, everyone else has to figure it out and abide by it. This expectation is demeaning, and it’s exhausting. It crushes spirits and talent. It hurts in a way that is far more burdensome than you’ve known up to now, if you were raised white.

Whiteness is also entirely unsustainable. It is at odds with nature itself. At its extreme worst, whiteness can and does lead to the senseless murder of real people: George Floyd, a father and brother; Breonna Taylor, an EMT specialist and a girlfriend; Ahmaud Arbery, an electrician and beloved friend; Elijah McClain, a massage therapist and violinist.

The biosphere of the natural world is the planet’s single most successful living system – self-organizing and sustained for the past 3 ½ billion years. This track record, of course, includes humans. Every being alive comes from nature. And all humans, no matter where they live or what they look like, share more than 99% of their DNA. People you adore and people you can’t really stand. Everyone.

Both racism and our mistreatment of nature come from misapplications of our otherwise spectacular skill for thinking and self-reflection. Primary among these misapplications has been the persistence of the separation myth. The belief that humans are separate – from each other, and from the rest of life. Privileging and holding as standard all things white, much like holding as the standard all things male, are extremely dangerous expressions of the lie at the core of the separation myth. 

Believing that we’re other than nature has made nature all too easy to objectify. Likewise, if those of us with light skin believe we are “other than” people with dark skin, that too is a precursor for objectification. But such things are not hard-wired. Neuroscience is showing that we can rethink. We can change our minds. We can change the stories that structure society, the agreements that sustain community. First, we have to stop. We have to see.

The answers will not be easy. There is a lot to question and to put down. A lot to unlearn. But the answers we need for restoring balance are mirrored in the natural world every day. They’re in what we’ve come to call Full Ecology. The full interdependence of your nature with all nature, and with all humans.

In the wake of horror after horror, in grief and unspeakable fatigue, Black communities are saying NO. No to the imbalance. No to whiteness as the standard. No to the systems that support the supremacy of white culture and the gross diminishment of all others. Non-Black people of color and white people are joining in that NO. Centuries of tolerance for systematic derision, harm and hate are being revealed.

It is time to be right here in the demand that we STOP. It’s time to listen to the world around you. To question the lie of separation and its expression in fear and dominance. Of other people. Of the land, water, air, animals.

We – every one of us – are natural. All of direct value to the health of the whole.

Whoever you are, wherever you are, stand up and speak from your heart for the lives of Black people.

It’s a matter of life and death.