How Racism Hurts White People… And How Healing from That Hurt Can Help Us All Build a Better World: An Interview with Ann Jealous & Caroline Haskell
Lynn Burnett: Before we begin, I just want to say congratulations to you both, as we celebrate the 10-year anniversary of your wonderful book, Combined Destinies! And congratulations on the new audio book release, which I hope everyone reading this interview enjoys. What do you think accounts for the renewed interest in your book, 10 years after its publication?
Ann Jealous: Thank you! In some ways, Combined Destinies was ahead of its time 10 years ago. It’s become more relevant, in terms of people’s consciousness, since then. More people now are doing antiracism work than 10 years ago. More people are having conversations about race and racism, and more people are talking specifically about the subject of the book… how racism negatively impacts White people.
Also, Combined Destinies remains the only anthology of its kind. There are other books that include White people talking, in their own words, about the negative impact that racism has on them. But there’s no other anthology.
Caroline Haskell: In terms of what has changed in the past ten years, I would add that the Black Lives Matter movement has been huge. That movement has been important in many ways, including playing a massive role in waking up White people. And the George Floyd murder, and the blatantness of how it happened, woke up a segment of White people who had remained profoundly asleep even throughout the Black Lives Matter era. That murder, especially, was all over television, and social media, and was nearly impossible to avoid. It forced many of us to realize that we needed to wake up and pay attention. Like Ann said, all of this has made our work even more relevant today, in terms of people’s consciousness, and especially White people’s consciousness.
Lynn: How has your thinking about how racism harms White people changed over these past 10 years?
Ann: I don’t think it has changed for me. I think White people are profoundly hurt, and I saw evidence of that long before I began to collect stories about that harm.
Lynn: When did you first start to see that evidence?
Ann: Well, I didn’t think much about how racism was hurting White people in the 60s and 70s. It wasn’t until I became a professional therapist that I thought about it. You know, growing up as a Black woman in the Jim Crow South, I really didn’t pay any attention to White people. But once I became a therapist, it was strikingly apparent.
Caroline: My understanding of how deep the hurt is goes back 30 years. I was doing social justice work around substance use, HIV and AIDS, and mental illness. In the late 80s, I realized that there were huge systemic problems that lay underneath the social issues I was committing myself to. And that’s when I really started looking at oppression.
But how has my thinking changed in the past 10 years? I have a tendency to be extremely positive… so it has been humbling to realize that White denial and delusion around racism is even more profound than I had previously thought. If my thinking has changed at all, it’s that I underestimated the severity of the problem.
Lynn: How has the publication of your book influenced your lives?
Ann: For me, it’s been an opportunity to have more conversations with White people about racism, than I had been able to have before the book came out. The book has given me more of an opportunity to push the conversation, with people who were resistant to the conversation. I’ve also been able to build more and stronger connections with the many White people who are involved in antiracism work. The book has helped us build relationships that strengthen us… relationships that help us push up against the fear and resistance we sometimes experience in this work.
I’m still stunned by the ability of White people to block this out. It’s like you’re living in the middle of a hurricane, and nobody is mentioning it. So the hurricane keeps coming because nobody is dealing with it. For me, experiencing that level of denial is overwhelming. And I’m committed to trying to stay out of overwhelm, because if I allowed myself to sink into overwhelm, I probably wouldn’t be able to do anything. Having relationships that strengthen me is essential.
Lynn: The metaphor of the hurricane is profound… and later in the interview, we’re going to take a deep dive into those topics of White silence and denial. But before we go there, I’m imagining some readers might be wondering why we’re focusing on White people being harmed, when racism obviously targets Black and Brown people. How would you summarize how racism harms White people… and why it’s important for us to think about that?
Ann: Once, Caroline and I were presenting our book at a college. And a Black student said, “What, we’re supposed to feel sorry for White people?!” And I said, “No, you’re not supposed to feel sorry for them. This isn’t about feeling sorry for anybody. This is about changing things.” So yes… A lot of people do wonder, you know, why we should deal with White people at all around this issue?
Caroline: If people of color could have ended this system without us, they would have done it a long time ago. So that’s the imperative. This work of bringing White people into an active concern for racial justice is critical, but many White people have never considered why they need to get involved.
Both Ann and I believe that humans, in general, do not get involved in something unless we see some benefit to ourselves. White people gaining an understanding of how racism harms them gives them that personal stake. We’re never going to be able to end this, unless all of us get involved together. This anthology is an appeal to White people, saying hey, you are impacted! And don’t you want to be better, and do better? It’s an invitation.
Ann: If I really had to put how racism harms White people in a nutshell, I would say racism damages your humanity. We can talk about how that happens… but that’s as brief as I can put it. And if I had to add just one more thing, I would say that living with pretense is harmful. It’s harmful to your psyche, it’s harmful to your emotional self. It gives you permission to project all kinds of things onto other people and to not take responsibility for yourself. But we can get into all of that later.
Lynn: What’s the stake that White people have in exploring how racism negatively impacts them? And what’s the stake that Black and Brown people have, in White people doing this work?
Caroline: There’s a very false notion, that we as White people sit outside of what’s happening, and that somehow we’re not impacted by it. There’s a deep need for all of us to see that no one is really doing well in this system… even though the impact and the harm is very, very different. Still, the psychic damage to White people is huge.
I talk a lot about White supremacy culture — and I highly encourage everyone to read Tema Okun on this subject — in that it’s a culture of disconnect. It disconnects us from ourselves. It disconnects us from people of color. It even disconnects us from nature. It gives us the impression that we are somehow separate from this world. It disconnects us from other White people. You know… there’s that setting up of who are the good White people, and who are the not-good ones. So often, if we think that we are the White people who do understand, we weaponize our sense of superiority against other White people.
Lynn: Some people might not have heard the term White supremacy culture. And even folks who have, we might still need some help understanding it. How would you describe that concept?
Ann: I don’t know if I’ll answer the question, but I’ll tell you where my head’s going. Ok, I’m imagining I’m White. This is the trip I’m taking in my mind: I’m a little White girl. I’m born into a poor or working-class family that feels a lot of shame. Shame around not having enough money. Shame around not having much of an education. But nobody talks about the shame. Nobody acknowledges it. We’re just experiencing it.
Now, because of my shame, I might feel a need to see or believe that others are worse off than me. That others are not as good as me. Because I don’t feel like I’m good… but if I can believe that others are not as good as me, it can give me just a little bit of a sense that I’m better. I’ve got to be better than somebody else in order to feel okay about myself. So I might look down on Black people, and say, well, at least I’m not Black.
Or, maybe I grow up and I do have money. I still come out of this shame-based culture. I may have material riches, but that doesn’t mean that I feel like I’m good enough. I still may feel compelled to find people to look down on, to help feed my need to believe that I’m good enough. Not only am I good enough… I’m better-than! And I need other people to agree with me that I’m better-than. I need other people to work with me to make sure that a lot of people know that I’m better. A whole culture enforces this, and then I enculturate my children, and my grandchildren.
Lynn: What you’re saying immediately makes me makes me think of Du Bois’s wages of Whiteness… the psychological wage.
Caroline: Yes. The original construction of Whiteness was all based on justifying the oppression primarily of Black and Indigenous peoples. How can we exploit and manipulate people and create an ideology that supports it? That’s the original construction.
Lynn: Exactly. There’s a strategic construction of Whiteness and White supremacy. The intentional creation of a tool, to offer White people something special so that they can experience advantage, and become invested in advantage…
Read on to part II of this interview, in which Ann Jealous and Caroline Haskell take a deep psychological dive into two of the major themes of their book — White guilt and shame — and explore how to work through those negative emotions and come out the other side.