Hello, my name is Ben and I’m addicted to whiteness.
I can’t pinpoint exactly when it started, but I know I wasn’t born this way. No one is born addicted, but I was nursed and raised by addicts who were reared by other addicts.
I was genetically predisposed to inherit this bloody heirloom; a generational disease that infects my DNA. As a child, I was immersed in whiteness; it was the water I grew up in and the tradition I was formed in. I was fed the lie of whiteness until I grew to enjoy the way it tasted. Later, as an adult, I consumed whiteness at such a rapid pace I became addicted without knowing.
James Baldwin said, “White people are trapped in a history they don’t understand and until they understand it they cannot be released from it.”
The whiteness I consumed was indistinguishable from what it meant to be American or Christian. Christianity is the mother of whiteness and America it’s adopted father. Whiteness was born through the monstrous marriage and unholy union of Church and Empire. Of course, it has older siblings (imperialism and colonialism) and children of its own (Jim Crow and mass incarceration), but whiteness remains the well-nurtured love child of Christianity and American’s 400-year-long adulterous affair.
For many years, I was blind to my addiction. I couldn’t see my whiteness — let alone how it harmed me and those around me. It seemed natural and advantageous. However, over time Black, indigenous and other persons of color taught me to see my addiction. At first, I wasn’t very responsive. It was easier to ignore people, live in denial, and continue consuming whiteness. What stripped the veil off my eyes was an intentional spiritual decision to look at myself through the eyes of Black authors, intellectuals and creatives.
James Weldon Johnson wrote, “Colored people of this country know and understand white people better than they know and understand themselves.”
Intellectuals like W.E.B. DuBois, James Baldwin, bell hooks, Toni Morrison, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Claudia Rankine, Willie James Jennings, Kelly Brown Douglas, J. Kameron Carter, Eboni Marshall Turman and many others helped me see myself for the first time and to understand the disease of whiteness as an evil lie whose addicts have wreaked a terrorizing legacy of violence throughout history. Whiteness is an anti-Black economic and political system of domination and control that offered my ancestors and I the grand bargain of trading our ethnic identities for power and status over others.
I once was blind, but now I see my whiteness has no positive value and therefore cannot be redeemed. It is an illness, a pathology.
What we call “white people” are simply human beings who were created good, who are now inflicted with a disease. Those in denial believe the lie that whiteness is good, natural, beautiful or neutral. Those not in denial understand the disease as a force for evil and oppression in the world; a false religion that opposes love, life and flourishing for all of creation.
“Whiteness is a psychological and social affliction that has invaded every aspect of society.”
Whiteness is a psychological and social affliction that has invaded every aspect of society. I wish I knew how to abolish whiteness and eliminate this disease from my life and the earth. However, as far as I know we do not have a cure or vaccine. Also, it remains unclear if whiteness can be abolished.
For now, we have to learn how to attack it the way we would an aggressive cancer in our bodies and in the body politic. There two roads we can take: the road of continued disease and denial, or the road of resistance and remission.
Our disease is deadly, but we are more than our whiteness, and the Twelve Step program may offer those of us who are afflicted with the disease a path toward recovery.
As a pastor, I’ve walked with many people on their journeys of addiction and recovery, and I’ve seen the power of the program. The Twelve Steps are a transformational spiritual tradition that’s been incredibly affective at creating communities of accountability and recovery for people afflicted with the diseases of alcoholism and addiction to drugs, sex, gambling, food, work, hoarding and crime. Today, about 2 million Americans are in some form of AA.
What if we started an AA for whiteness?
What would happen if hundreds of people, who were racialized as white, became conscious of their disease, began gathering regularly to acknowledge their affliction, held one another accountable for their illness, and actively walked the Twelve Steps toward recovery?
Maybe it’s a vision for the future of the white church. Whatever it is, we know that denial is the easy path. Recovery is always so much harder, but nothing good comes without hard work.
As Baldwin taught us, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
Benjamin Boswell serves as senior minister of Myers Park Baptist Church in Charlotte, N.C., and facilitates anti-racist trainings called “What Does it Mean to Be White?”