White Danger: Double-Mindedness, Violence, and the Confusion of Whiteness
“I guess I just don’t understand what boundaries are.”
I remember the exact location, the light, the positions of our bodies in space, when a white man said these words to me. He had a pattern of violating boundaries and agreements, and would frequently admit those violations while simultaneously claiming confusion that the boundaries and agreements even existed. When confronted with this pattern, he belligerently denied any capacity to understand his own behavior.
For me, it was a revelation. I will always be grateful for this lesson.
It has been many years, but I often think of this moment when I consider the danger posed by white people, and by white men specifically, to people of color, and to Black people especially. I am seasoned enough by living to know that the white people to fear are not only those who arm themselves, but also those who believe themselves to be disarmed. I have learned that this type of white person is, in certain regards, infinitely more dangerous because they believe themself to be incapable of causing harm, and in fact separate from harm doers.
Some people are more dangerous because they believe themselves to be benign. Those of us who have survived sustained harm understand that patterns of harm are actually the opposite of benign: they are malignant. And indeed, whiteness, which I define as the ideology of domination that intentionally and unintentionally expresses itself through the bodies of white people, operates much like a cancer, eroding and consuming. This erosion can be slow and, at times, nearly imperceptible. The lies, the betrayals of trust, the cowardice and shame, the lack of moral compass and the denial of harm-doing, enacts its first and perhaps most lasting damage to the psyche of the white person. A white person who is being consumed by whiteness may appear, to himself and others, helpless to do anything about this. A society being consumed by whiteness, by white danger, may appear to be helpless to do anything about it. And indeed our first response to this decompensation is often to feel concern and compassion, or exasperation and laughter. We should not be laughing, but we are. Laughter escapes the body when the nervous system is overwhelmed.
The confusion, denial, helplessness, and base absurdity of a white person, confronted with the impact of their own harmful behavior, is dangerous. This is not to say that it is equivocally more or less dangerous than an explicit show of domination. But it is a clear and present danger. It has long term consequences and an insidious nature, that is wound together in certitude with the explicit show of domination.
I have known many white people who cause harm and act surprised about it. It took me years to understand this behavior. The phenomenon wherein a white person denies their own reality through a pretense of confusion, in turn induces confusion for any witness. We may feel gaslit, at risk of questioning our own sight. What I have noticed, over years of observation, is that when white people repeatedly cause harm to people of color, and deny it, they are very effective at asserting an alternate reality to the one that white people themselves are directly experiencing, and they are especially effective at asserting their own victimization within that alternate reality.
We, who witness these assertions of an alternate reality, in which the white person (or, lately, white society) is the victim, may think it is autonomic because the behavior comes with such a high level of facility, so as to appear involuntary. And in a way, it is. Because they believe it, we believe it. They seem helpless and so they must be.
That is, indeed, the entire point. In reality, this assertion of victimization is a highly sophisticated and elegant defense mechanism, a product of a highly sophisticated and elegant psychology, that supports participation in white supremacy, a system that is most highly effective at replicating itself.
“The shaping of white identity, premised on exclusion, is a central thread in the national narrative, bound up with capitalist development in general and manifested, in one way or another, to one degree or another, in every political, social and cultural institution.” Linda Burnham, "No Plans to Abandon Our Freedom Dreams"
Increasingly I find myself turning towards the framework of double-mindedness, the twin conscious and unconscious behavior of people who engage in harmful or abusive behaviors, while simultaneously being unaware of causing harm to others, and even believing themselves to be incapable of causing harm. This type of consciousness is not specific to whiteness. In fact, it permeates most relationships where dominance and abuse is present. White identity is one such space, as it must be differentiated from other cultural and ethnic identities (including those which were subsumed into whiteness in order to manifest it), inasmuch as its foundational operating principle is the abuse of power. Application of the framework of double-mindedness* to the phenomenon of whiteness has unlocked a deeper level of understanding for me, and in my work with white people.
Double-mindedness in white people is, at once, a core function of, and a dangerous side effect of, living within the coevolving systems of capitalism and white supremacy - what Cedric Robinson rightly articulated as “racial capitalism,” understanding that racialization is endemic to capitalism, not distinct from it. The function of double-mindedness has roots as old as the system itself. How else would one remain functional inside a socio-economic system that confers benefits to white people through violence against, and at the extractive expense of, Black and indigenous people and people of color? A white person must become effective at dissociating. The heart, the brain, the bodymind itself, becomes adept at running offline, quieting the systems that would register ongoing harm, violence, and injustice as a disturbance.
Generations of white people in the United States have learned and practiced this type of dissociation. It comes with a high level of facility, just as the dissociations of Black and brown people in order to navigate the chronic threat of white supremacy on our bodies and psyches, comes with a high level of facility. The dissociation of double-mindedness in white people is supported by hundreds of years of policy, legislation, and political process that allow, even require, individual white people to relate to Black and indigenous people and people of color as a lesser class of human. The socialization of whiteness deems the non-white class unworthy of the same empathic response as fellow white people.
Ideology plays a key role as well. The entire system of racial capitalism is constructed on a narrative of white superiority, and most importantly, the inherent “goodness” of white people of European descent, an inheritance of the unique historical overlay of Christian hegemony and colonization, wherein the role of the European Christian missionary was to “subdue” Black and indigenous communities through conversion intent on saving their souls. Those who were not willing to be converted were tortured, raped, and murdered.
We cannot underestimate the impact of this legacy of violence on the psyche of white Americans. We cannot overestimate the conditioning toward violence within the cultural trauma of whiteness. Whiteness is not just a cultural trauma of erasure: the ways that European communities, at times by choice and at times by violent force, gave up their cultures of origin for the sake of assimilation into the system of white supremacy. Whiteness is also a cultural trauma of violence: enacting violence, witnessing violence, consenting to violence, and celebrating violence. Consider that we are only a generation or two out from a period in which lynchings were a Sunday affair and white children posed for photos beneath the tortured, mutilated, and deceased bodies of Black people who lived in their communities. (If we can be considered beyond this, which is arguable). Consider that even now, there are white people who reactively celebrate Black death at the hands of the police, as if protesting for the civil right to do so. Consider the split consciousness of the white person who at once subscribes to religious vows or values, who engages in spiritual practices, who meditates on the nature of compassion, and also experiences and re-experiences pleasure through violence.
Consider that we are all connected to this legacy and this conditioning.
White status is, and has always been, a contested space. Just as the space of “other” is contested. But as our most recent elections and attempted coup have laid bare, the core tenets of white status and the core beliefs of white supremacy have remained relatively stable for over centuries. It is only the individual and collective dissociative state in white people, arising from witnessing and participating in daily systemic violence that benefits the white community, that would have anyone believing otherwise. That state, at its essence, is double-mindedness. On the one hand, a white person is engaged in a system of violence and harm, and is capable of causing enormous harm to those who are targeted by and vulnerable within that system. For evidence of this, simply look to any recent news story reporting on white women calling the police on Black people who are engaged in everyday behaviors of life. The same white women at the heart of these stories believe themselves to be benign, incapable of causing harm, because of an internalized narrative of white goodness and white neutrality.
Individual and interpersonal racialized violence and racial harm often occurs within the dissociated state, and is enacted by the dissociated body. A demand for accountability in the aftermath of this behavior, or even something as simple as “feedback” on harmful behavior, is received as an assault. A white person, believing themself to be benign, either fights or collapses in response to learning about the behavior taking place within the dissociative state. These days we casually and frustratedly refer to “white tears” and “white fragility” as we throw up our hands in exasperation, disbelieving that a white person could truly not see that their behavior was problematic or violent. But in actuality, white tears and white fragility are just one visible manifestation of the sophisticated defense mechanism of double-mindedness.
Consider this: If a white man experiences himself as a confused, helpless victim of his own lack of consciousness and understanding, he is not then responsible for his own behavior. No alternative behavior, no solution, no apology, and no internal work is then required. He may continue causing harm and enacting social, emotional, psychological, or physical violence in perpetuity, always and forever claiming that he does not understand, and could never understand, why his behavior is harmful. But his confusion and helplessness is not disconnected from an explicit show of domination. The former offers a path of distancing from the latter, assuaging guilt, soothing the ego, reassuring the white person of his goodness. He is protected, and his double-mindedness is intact.
There is a different path, albeit it is a harder one. Whereas the double-minded and unintegrated self is causing interpersonal and collective harm, the integrated self may actually be capable of interrupting patterns, of offering true apology and accountability, of taking responsibility for body, words, and decisions in real time. Hard, yes, but it is not, after all, so tall an order. Black and brown people, indigenous people, and people of color learn from a very young age that part of our job is to control ourselves, lest we die. White people instead learn that they have little responsibility to control themselves. White people learn that the locus of their control responsibility lies externally, and they learn to control others, often through violence, microaggression, gaslighting, manipulation, and other forms of overt or subtle abuse.
I believe this lesson can be reversed and dismantled. I believe it is the necessary work of white people to engage in, right now, for the sake of our collective survival.
I also believe in harm reduction. Because the danger of the unintegrated white self and society, the inability to take responsibility for one's own actions and the impact of those actions on others, is not a one-sided danger. Those of us who witness and understand this phenomenon, can make the conditions more or less dangerous for ourselves and others based on how much room we give to the behavior, how long we allow our boundaries to be violated, how much benefit of the doubt we give, and with how much resignation we move through the world.
Can we accept the danger for what it is, without collapsing in response to that danger?
And what then? If we are not to collapse, what are we then compelled to do about white danger? Because the danger of double-mindedness is not limited to the interpersonal, institutional, cultural, or even national realms. The danger of this phenomenon is playing out on a global scale, where the combination of bullish resistance to reality and reticent confusion at the consequences of bad behavior has masked the highly racialized difference between the U.S. public health response, and that of Black and brown majority nations. We are not doing well, and I believe it is not an exaggeration to say that our problem is psychological.
We must consider the role of a cultural orientation to violence and subjugation, inside the criminal mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic response at the highest echelons of government and the most localized level of relationship. A narrative of white goodness, an unwillingness to respect the most basic social boundaries (social distance, wear a mask), and a warped relationship toward the humanity of others, plays no small role in the outrageously dangerous behavior of Americans, and may explain the sensibility that avoidable deaths are, in actuality, collateral we pledge towards economic prosperity. It is what sociologist Janine De Novais calls “worship” in the death cult of white supremacy.
What I know for certain: it is not up to white people to keep us safe, or to get us free. It never was. It never will be.
Some years ago, I attended a retreat on race, love, and liberation, with Reverend angel Kyodo williams, a Black zen teacher and author. During the event, Reverend angel helped us to discern the difference between justice and liberation, noting that most conceptions of justice in an American context presuppose a condition where the group who has caused harm is in a position to give us justice. Liberation, she felt, was something altogether different.
In a context of global collapse, climate catastrophe, fascistic rise, and racial reckoning, I feel and see and experience daily the limitation of “justice” to give us protection, to heal us, to free us. So long as we engage the alternate reality circumscribed by the double-mindedness of whiteness, where boundaries are not boundaries and harm is not harm, we cannot be safe and we cannot be free. That way lies destruction. There is nothing more for us, or for them.
We must turn, and it must be now. If it is the work of white people to integrate themselves, so that they might heal, then it is the work of Black and brown people to free ourselves. So that we might live.
*This is different from the double-consciousness of black people, as described by W.E.B. DuBois in his 1897 autoethnographic work, The Souls of Black Folk, to describe the internal conflict experienced by Black people when having to view themselves through the racist gaze of white society.