Whiteness as Orientation

The world extends the form of some bodies more than others, and such bodies in turn feel at home in this world.

Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology (2006)

In Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others, Sara Ahmed argues that whiteness is an orientation. People who are white or white-passing tend to be directed toward objects that are considered more advantageous than those available to non-white people. White bodies are put in proximity to “styles, capacities, aspirations, techniques, [and] even worlds” that benefit them. White folks face certain things in life that, when reached, present better opportunities.

In other words, the world takes white bodies and puts them in front of shiny objects. These same white bodies are then able to take control of the world and continue putting shiny objects in front of people who look like them. And when we are constantly plunked down in front of shiny objects, we come to expect that as a norm.

White people are used to having access to that which is advantageous. In fact, the tendency of “facing” these benefits, as Ahmed puts it, becomes a habit. And when access to shiny objects becomes habitual, we tend to forget we were given that access in the first place.

If, as a white person, you fail to recognize those habits and privileges and work to dismantle them, then you are a racist.

Reading Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist makes it clear that the opposite of racist is not “not racist”. The opposite of racist is antiracist.

RACIST: One who is supporting a racist policy through their actions or inaction or expressing a racist idea.

ANTIRACIST: One who is supporting an antiracist policy through their actions or expressing an antiracist idea.

Ibram X. Kendi, How to Be an Antiracist (2019)

What’s important to remember in these conversations about racism is that policies are key. Policies are in place that prioritize white lives over black lives. The people making these policies tend to think that white people naturally face good things, and fail to realize that it’s the policies in place that actively turn white bodies toward shiny objects.

Black people are not naturally less intelligent, as Trump claims. They are not predisposed to live in impoverished neighborhoods. They are entrenched in policies that hinder their success and make them face these fraught realities. They are living the American Nightmare.

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