In her new book, The Weight of Whiteness: A Feminist Engagement with Privilege, Race, and Ignorance, Dr. Alison Bailey explores the ways white supremacy and privilege operate like an anesthesia, desensitizing white people to the inherited damage of whiteness on collective humanity.
“White people say we don’t feel the weight, but we feel something. We feel numb,” said Bailey, a professor of philosophy at Illinois State University where she is director of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. While people of color feel the impacts and blows of whiteness every day, Bailey argues that whiteness—or operating as if the customs, culture, and beliefs of the white, racialized identity function as the standard by which all other groups are measured—has “a gravitational pull that draws white people away from feeling the damaging effects of white supremacy.”
The connections between privilege, whiteness, and ignorance have framed Dr. Bailey’s scholarship and teaching for the past 20 years. She noted most conversations on whiteness tend to focus on listing the unearned advantages. “The well-known approach looks to white supremacy for what it confers on white people—being granted the public trust, knowing that the university curriculum will reflect your people’s experiences and contributions to the world,” she said.
This approach means challenges to whiteness are usually confined to making privilege visible, rather than understanding the collective toll. “White privilege doesn’t feel heavy to white people, it simply makes things easier for us,” noted Bailey, who added this common response to the weight is significant. “White people are more comfortable thinking about privilege in terms of what it does for us, than we are feeling what it does to us.”
In the book, Bailey measures the weight of whiteness in terms of its costs and losses to our collective humanity. These costs include a false sense of entitlement, hypervigilance, resource and opportunity hoarding, a distorted racialized perception of the world, implicit bias, a damaged moral compass, difficulty sustaining relationships with people of color, and a willful ignorance about American history and our family genealogies.
She noted whiteness promotes “numbing strategies,” such as white talk. “You might hear, ‘My ancestors didn’t own slaves.’ ‘They weren’t around for the Pequot Massacre.’ ‘I have Black friends,’” said Bailey. “When white people habitually offer evidence of our goodness and innocence, we avoid actually feeling the history that circulates in us.”
Bailey offers deeply personal accounts of her exploration of the weight she inherited from her settler, colonialist ancestors. “I spent a good eight years holding space with these costs and losses in my own white being,” she said. “I wanted to feel what was behind the anesthesia of whiteness and this required courage, vulnerability, and honesty.”
Feeling that weight of whiteness is integral to healing, said Bailey. “White people need to walk into the places that scare them and explore the clean pain required for collective liberation,” she said. “The stakes are high,” she added. “Our failure to hold the weight of whiteness ensures that white people will continue to choose anesthesia over knowledge. When we do, we will continue to blow the weight of historical trauma through communities of color.”
The Weight of Whiteness: A Feminist Engagement with Privilege, Race, and Ignorance is set for release February 15, 2021. Find out more about the book.