A person holds up a large mirror, covering their face and only showing their arms. Behind them and also reflecting in the mirror, a bright blue sky with several clouds are visible. The image is subtitled, "You cannot be what you cannot see?"

White narrative: You cannot be what you cannot see?

My musing this time is an underdeveloped thought about diversity, equity, & inclusion; allyship; and being a white person. Last year in October 2022, I attended the excellent Inclusion & Diversity in Open Source summit at All Things Open 2022. There were several speakers who shared experiences and perspectives about diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. I appreciated the elevation of diverse voices and people whose experiences are historically relegated to the periphery of Western society. For myself and also our world, it is important that more light is shone on these stories. The event also caused me to reflect on my own identity as a white American male. I began to interrogate what “whiteness” and being white meant.

NB: Over two years ago, I affirmed that I wanted to write and share more personal thoughts on my blog. Not only the professional and fully-polished things. Looking back, I haven’t really done that. Being a part-time perfectionist, I get stuck on the production value of the things I make. I feel like I have to get it just right before publishing. I have several unpublished stubs started on my blog (19 as of publishing time, to be precise). However, I have not yet overcome the hesitation of being content with a stub post just being a stub post. After all, if Wikipedia can do it, why can’t I? Furthermore, I can also write for the purpose of my own satisfaction and not the satisfaction of others.

So, here goes.

Me? Not represented?

After the Inclusion & Diversity summit ended and I returned to my hotel, I entered a thought loop. There was this uncomfortable idea stuck in my head that as a white American male, I didn’t feel represented there. Which depending on your view, either sounds very ironic or it might seem obvious (duh!). However, I did not want to suppress this uncomfortable feeling. I wanted to interrogate it, understand where it came from, and identify why I felt this way.

First, I came to see my feeling of under-representation was not (only) as a white American male—but instead as a privileged ally. Many speakers during the day called out issues in our industry, shared their work as advocates and champions in working to address these issues, or did both. But in our divided and divisive world of the 2020s, a feeling of frustration slowly overcomes me. Never all at once, but more often like the tides of the ocean—slowly rising, rising, until everything is underwater. What are my role and purpose? I care about DEI issues and I have made an effort to do what I can in the last eight years to make Open Source more diverse, more inclusive, and more equitable. I attempt to spend my privilege on others who don’t have the privilege and power that I was assigned at birth.

Noticing the white narrative.

However, at the same time, I can’t help but feel there is a narrative about people who look like me and come from where I come from. That narrative is white supremacy. The white supremacy narrative can be an integral part of identity to people who also look like me and come from places like I do. The narrative often comes from a place of anger. The narrative is often hateful. That context is understandable because the white supremacist narrative is always harmful to people who do not look like me and come from different places than I do. My daily life is least impacted by the white supremacy narrative.

However, I am not saying that white supremacy is unreal. On the contrary, Western media, news, and opinion articles quickly provide several easy affirmations that a white supremacy narrative holds real weight.

The paradox of the white narrative

Yet, I feel the narrative is also the exact problem. Does a white supremacy narrative override other narratives that a white person could relate with? I remembered a time when I took a History of Women in Science & Engineering course during my undergrad studies. While discovering hidden stories in history of accomplishments, struggles, and successes of women in STEM over hundreds of years, I was also intrigued to read about the allies who helped them. The allies I read about were white men who spent their privilege as sponsors to many of these early women innovators. They shared their own resources and enthusiasm as an act of asserting both the value of the women they supported and the work they did.

It was doubly sad to me that history relegated several of these stories to the sidelines, both the stories of these women innovators and the stories of their allies. These stories of early allies are under-represented because most often, they are simply not told.

No savior complexes.

At the same time, an alternate narrative to white supremacy must also not be a savior complex or white savior-ism narrative. True allyship does not look like a savior complex. The historical view could easily jump toward a conclusion with a savior complex narrative. There are no saviors; the only one we can truly save is ourselves. We can support, mentor, and sponsor, but there is no magic, quick solution that makes everything better.

In today’s world, I feel that healthier narratives are also not well-represented. I strongly believe in words that I attribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.:

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Today in the United States, white supremacy is going more mainstream (again). It is also one of the most visible narratives of White identity. This begs a question of how do we influence the narrative and also inspire what a better, healthier “whiteness” can mean? How do we promote stories of transformative love, incredible allyship, and true compassion? There are many stories in history if you look closely. But often they are relegated to the periphery and cast aside, alongside the experiences of other white people who fit outside the societal power structure of White society. We need these stories told too, should we create a more equitable society that allows everyone to realize their innermost human potential.

Where do we go from here?

I write this without full answers. My motive to write is because this thought comes up from time to time for me. Sometimes I just long for better role models. I want a society where more white people lend their support and power for dismantling hate and destruction. I want more white people who use their privilege and power as superpowers for love and justice. A future default narrative for whiteness should not feature pain and center hate. This is in spite of what is an undeniable part of the legacy and history. Yet that is the heart of it. I want the mainstream narrative to change. I want us to take real steps toward reparation to atone for that legacy and history.

But it is like they say, “it is hard to be what you can’t see.” Sometimes I feel exasperated by the narrative staring back at me and my ancestry. My identity as a white American man is bound by nature of my birth. But perhaps instead of waiting for the right story to be written, perhaps this is my own action item. I should be better at writing my own story. The only person I have to do it for is myself.

Photo by Rishabh Dharmani on Unsplash. Modified by Justin W. Flory.

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