Examining White Privilege as an Act of Decolonization

It's important for young white women such as myself to speak out against racism (photo credit: Steve Neiman).
It’s important for young white women such as myself to speak out against racism (photo credit: Steve Neiman).

Self actualization cannot come without self-validation. Earlier this fall, on October 7, I attended a bell hooks’ event at the New School as part of her “Mapping Desire: Archeologies of Change” series. The particular talk I attended was titled “Moving from Pain to Power: Confronting Loss”  led by hooks, Darnell Moore, and Marci Blackman in conversation. Throughout the evening, they spoke about what it means to become aware of your own worth and to use the pain of your oppression to create power within yourself.

One of the things I was most struck by was how she spoke about what it means to decolonize oneself, or unlearn the messages of the “white supremacist imperialist capitalist patriarchy,” as she so often says. hooks reminds us that oppression is systemic, while also being reinforced by internalized oppressions that we enact upon ourselves and others in marginalized communities, especially in communities of color.

To decolonize oneself provides an understanding of the power one possesses. As hooks eloquently stated, “a culture of domination always wants us to see power as outside of ourselves.” In order to maintain the privilege that comes from being the oppressor, the oppressors must convince the oppressed that they are incapable of transcending subordination. If we could teach ourselves to decolonize our minds and hearts, then we could teach those within our communities that we all possess the power to resist colonization.

hooks spoke about how her brother, a recovering addict of 25 years, beat himself up for not having money. She talked about how he kept evaluating himself on the scale of the aforementioned “white supremacist imperialist capitalist patriarchy.” Evaluating oneself on a scale designed to exclude the most marginalized will always be disappointing.

Moore raised the question, “what would a Black loving world look like?” He said that this seemingly easy question is surprisingly hard for most people of color. Colonization has taken over both the minds and imaginations of people of color.  In response, hooks said,“We are so enamored by the face of the oppressor that we cannot look away.”

The colonization of people of color has come in the form of silencing their own self-validating voices telling them that they should value themselves based on white values. But decolonization is about instilling a “yes” in children of color rather listening to the incessant “no” that has been taught through institutional racism.

hooks mentioned the self-help books so often bought by white people. She argued that white people seem to either resist or uphold the dominant narrative whereas people of color are still encouraged to say “no” to their grief.

Given all of the above, hooks’s talk raised a question for me. As a young white woman, I do not hear the “no.” And yet, it is important for me to examine and resist white privilege. What would it mean for me, and for other white people, to decolonize messages regarding white privilege and institutionalized racism?

First, this decolonization would have to begin with an evaluation of systemic privileges. If decolonization was merely a process of self-validation, the process of white people “decolonizing” would promote the same privileged individualism that created “whiteness.” In Shelly Tochluk’s Witnessing Whiteness, Tochluk dedicates a chapter to the creation of white identity. She explores the ways in which capitalism created a drive for individualism, thus encouraging oppression rather than inclusion and communalism.

She stated, “many of the early colonists held a religious view of valuing the humility of ‘self’ working as part of a communal whole. But this moral way of being did not support the growing capitalist system.” She then went on to explain how most colonists switched mentalities to be more individualistic and exclusive, perpetuating white supremacist imperialist capitalist patriarchy, as hooks would say.

hooks talked about perceiving power as “power over” rather than “power within.” For white people to decolonize our minds, we would need to differentiate between these two forms of power. The actual process of decolonization for white people is to say “no” to systemic privilege.

We internalize specific attitudes at a very young age, and whether they’re intentional or not, certain behaviors of domination play into the oppression of others. White people are taught that there is power within, but we are also taught that we need to have power over. Whiteness and capitalism go hand in hand.

A culture of domination wants us to see power as invalid unless we can assert it over someone else. What we don’t realize is that prevailing white feminist values also teaches young white women such as myself to find power within ourselves to gain power over others, and that is almost always in the form of having power over each other as white women and power over people in marginalized communities, especially women of color.

Self-promotion and individualism are at the root of what whiteness has become in America. To allow those who have been raised with whiteness to self-validate without acknowledging the ways in which they have already been taught to “say yes” to themselves will do nothing for the act of decolonizing whiteness within ourselves or becoming self-actualized as anti-racists.

Decolonization is at the root of solving issues of oppression in today’s society. We should teach people of all races, classes, genders, sexualities, etc. what it means to decolonize and how to validate the power within rather than seek to have power over.

10 thoughts on “Examining White Privilege as an Act of Decolonization

  1. Lauren, this is an amazing blog post! I definitely want to use it in my intersectionality essay. I especially like how you explore what it means to say “yes” and “no” for a POC and white person, respectively. Your analysis of hooks’ theory has made me understand decolonization and privilege in a way I have not before. Thank you.

  2. I’m very impressed by this article, and your step-by-step analysis. Do you think there could ever be a generalized curriculum for public schools based on building the skill of “having power within” instead of “having power over”? How could we institutionalize these steps? Do you think they can be?

  3. Lauren, your blog post does an amazing job at defining decolonization. You also do an amazing job of analyzing the relationship between colonialism and capitalism, which made me have a deeper understanding of the two topics.

  4. Love your piece! The way you describe decolonization of ones self was clear, insightful, and made me self reflect. One of my favorite lines was, “A culture of domination wants us to see power as invalid unless we can assert it over someone else.” I completely agree and it gave me more of an understanding on decolonization and made me self examine myself throughout the piece.

  5. Lauren, this blog post completely blew me away. Your analysis on the white culture of domination and the ways in which we have been taught to use self-validation was incredible. I thought your point at the end where you wrote about validating the power within rather than seeking power over others really resounded with me because as humans we so often view power as coming from outside of ourselves.

  6. This is a great break down of hooks’ talk! Your blog post has given me a better understanding of what hooks meant by power over others. Seeing the power as white women over each other, as well as communities of color.

  7. As a white individual I find this to be a really helpful article to have access to. Its made very clear on how to check our own privilege in a bigger context, becoming aware of and working on saying “no” to systemic privilege. Beautifully written!

  8. You do a very amazing job of breaking down a concept that is so complex and multi-faceted! It is truly engaging to read about what steps are needed in order for people in the position of power to begin to step away from the comfort of having, as you say, “power over” someone else. However, after reading your piece it is clear that decolonization of the mind is far from easy. It takes a lot to begin to look at yourself and how you have benefited and/or contributed to such oppression whether consciously or subconsciously. Great Job!

  9. I love this piece! I think the way you explain such a complex idea such as decolonization is amazing. It makes me really think about whether we’re really incapable of decolonizing as some people say, or if people are just too lazy to do the work. Such an interesting and intricate idea.

  10. Great Job Lauren! It’s really interesting when you wrote that, “hooks reminds us that oppression is systemic, while also being reinforced by internalized oppressions that we enact upon ourselves and others in marginalized communities, especially in communities of color.” This made me step back and re-evaluate my perception of oppression.

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