Whiteness Has Costs to White People

The consideration of how this system also is damaging to white folks assumes the fact that white supremacy culture is terrorizing and deadly for people of color is both undeniable and the most acute driving force for abolishment of a white supremacist society.

Whiteness gives white people: 

-Increased access to material resources such as income, wealth, homeownership, health insurance, loans and mortgages

-Increased access to a criminal justice system that allows for making mistakes and imperfect attempts to meet basic human needs

-Human rights that are less under attack --for example, white people are less likely to be killed in our homes and in the streets by the government and are less likely to be detained or deported for living here without government permission


The psychic and emotional costs of being white are devastating. To be white means we are encouraged to dehumanize ourselves enough to believe that somehow only the people who look like us are worthy of freedom, forgiveness, and choices. But I believe the emotional pain of being white in a place where white people have and continue to commit incredible violence against non-white people is often so unmanageable to deal with that we repress it--we numb ourselves, we make up excuses for it, we blame the people being harmed. I think we go to extraordinary measures to justify or to ignore or to numb precisely because our body actually knows feeling it would be overwhelmingly, too heart breaking, too painful.

As Jessie Daniels writes in White Supremacy is Deadly for Everyone, “The lie of whiteness holds out a promise: that being white will save you from social isolation and disconnection through materialism, individualism and the satisfaction of superiority.” It tells us, work hard, do for yourself, and remember, regardless of how many unmet needs you have, be grateful you are white. But other than a made up story about superiority, and a history of violence and power stealing and hoarding, that whiteness often is vacant of human, cultural and ancestral practices of love, community building, repair, healing, mourning and prayer. 

Building an identity around a story some white men made up simply to justify genocide, enslavement, theft and sexual violence, is an unstable identity. The accumulated multi-generational devastation of what it means to be white is, quite literally, deadly.

Eighty four percent of people who killed themselves in 2016 were white1.

As Daniels writes, “These so-called “deaths of despair” among middle-aged white people may also be a response to the kind of psychic numbness required to trade one’s full humanity for the social standing conferred by whiteness. Maintaining the myth of whiteness and white superiority requires a certain amount of disassociation, including the ability to dehumanize entire groups of people.”

In On Being White and Other Lies James Baldwin writes, “Moral erosion has made it quite impossible for those who think of themselves as white in this country to have any moral authority at all ― privately, or publicly. The multitudinous bulk of them sit, stunned, before their TV sets, swallowing garbage that they know to be garbage, and ― in a profound and unconscious effort to justify this torpor that disguises a profound and bitter panic.”

drawing by Michelle Sayles

drawing by Michelle Sayles

White supremacy culture makes it difficult for children, and adults too, to be healthy.

The distorted precepts of white supremacy culture create conditions that work to extinguish the parts of all children that we as adults perhaps cherish most—creativity, commitment to fairness, access to emotion and curiosity. These values also create conditions that nearly render impossible the worlds many of us say we want for our kids—ones that are safe, loving, supportive and joyful. White supremacy wasn’t created to keep anybody healthy, or really even alive. 

As Ibram X. Kendi explains in Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, race, and whiteness, was invented precisely to create a caste system that keeps resources and power in the hands of white folks—and really, not all white folks, primarily the ones that made the laws. It positions all white folks though, and most notably white children, inside of an abandoned, isolated, spiritually empty lie that signals to be thankful you won the invented racial lottery. While that racial lottery system offers more basic human rights to people with light skin and straight hair, but I wonder if deep in our body, as young people, we unknowingly feel that winning that lottery is not correlated, or perhaps in some ways is inversely correlated, with feeling whole. Without any acknowledgment, we get indoctrinated into communities who are run by a set of rules that weren’t ever created to meet the needs, outlined in Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg, that may actually keep us soulfully alive—connection, community, contribution, love, authenticity, nurturance. 

Costs of White Supremacy Culture to Children

Lost Relationships

Racism and white supremacy is a divisive force that either prevents relationships between white children and children of color because of segregation, or makes those relationships difficult because of the tension and violence of racism. 

As white anti-racist educator Robin DiAngelo states in Putting Racism on the Table, “I could be born into, I could learn, I could play, I could worship, I could study, I could love, I could work, and I could die in racial segregation, most people do live the majority of our lives in racial segregation, and not one person who has ever mentored, or loved, or guided me, has ever suggested that I had lost anything”.

Even though, perhaps, white folks lose so much. 

Hierarchy and individualism

Inherent in the name white supremacy, is the element of imagined superiority—which is dependent on a belief in hierarchy—with white men, particularly white cisgender, heterosexual, wealthy men, at the top. This inherently values competition and individualism. It’s difficult to have meaningful relationships with people we are always in competition with.  This then discourages community, interdependence, mutual support and collaboration—values that perhaps are some of the biggest emotional protective factors in our lives.

Meritocracy and materialism

Meritocracy, the idea that what we have and accomplish is based on ability and hard work, means that when violent and often under resourced conditions prove more powerful than simple hard work and skills, adults and children, are quickly deemed unworthy, when perhaps they actually are incredibly hard workers, who have been born into a position in the system that intentionally keeps them under compensated and in positions below their capacity. This notion, coupled with a culture that heavily values material consumption, means that children very young often see themselves as consumers and owners, judged and valued based on material possessions. Louise Derman Sparks writes about this dynamic in What if All the Kids are White: Anti-bias Multicultural Education with Young Children and Families, naming that these condition “undermine the development of authentic identity and the ability to connect with other people.”

Assimilation and Loss of Culture and Heritage

As James Baldwin writes in The Price of the Ticket, “So, with a painless change of name, and in the twinkling of an eye, one becomes a white American. Later in the midnight hours, the missing identity aches. One can neither assess nor overcome the storm of the middle passage. One is mysteriously shipwrecked forever, in the Great New World”.  

Therefore, as Paul Kivel writes in Uprooting Racism: How White People Can Work for Racial Justice, white children often grow up in homes that have been stripped of the richness of the “languages, foods, music, games, rituals, and expressions” of their ancestors.  

Denial and Rationalization

The identity of being of an oppressor class—of whiteness—as a child, can be a deeply troubling and confusing reality, that encourages white children to live inside false realities that denies the existence of racism while rationalizing the consequences of it, as Stacey York explains in Roots and Wings: Affirming Culture in Early Childhood Programs. They are conditioned to never acknowledge or speak about people’s differences, which, as York writes,“prevents them from exploring, understanding, and questioning the social treatment of people based on their skin color. White people, including children, are shield from the effects of racism on people of color. This allows them to adopt society’s denial of racism.” Simultaneously, York continues, “white children will likely learn how to justify the state of current and past race relations. Rationalization is a common defense mechanism in which individuals use elaborate explanations to justify their behavior.”

As organizer and educator Lindsay Bradley explains, “I think for white kids one of the most insidious things white supremacy does is force them into a really confusing position where they know they are good people but then they see injustice all the time and they see their oppressor role totally normalized by the people they love and the people who take care of them. So they are forced to pick a side. They might try really hard for a while to say ‘guys this isn’t right!’ but eventually they will see that they are alone and go silent. But that truth has to go somewhere. So they move on in their lives with this huge contradiction. They have to develop major denial and rationalization patterns to justify their role and place in the worlds. And once you start living in lies like that you can justify anything. You’re poisoned.” 

Fragile and Unstable Sense of Self

White children not only see color, they notice many of the results of racism in the world around them and in the media, and actually use race to make decisions about what kind of relationships they have, and what they think of people—including themselves. This can position white children to have painful or even violent relationships with children of color, and to have an insecure and vapid relationship to themselves. 

As Louise Derman Sparks writes in What if All the Kids are White: Anti-bias Multicultural Education with Young Children and Families, “In short, basing their identities on a sense of racial superiority puts White children at risk for developing an overblown, yet fragile, identity, instead of developing a solid sense of self that is based on their interests, connections to people, and contributions to the community.” 

Stacey York shares similar observations in Roots and Wings: Affirming Culture in Early Childhood Programs, “Too often children’s inner sense of self is lacking. They try to protect themselves and build their sense of self by focusing on external factors such as what they have, what they look like, or what they can do. To a certain extent, white children’s sense of self comes from believing that they are better than anyone else.”