I recently wrote an article asking White people to resist the urge to center everything in the world around “Whiteness.” It offended quite a few people, I got a lot of flack and in the end, my work got censored. What I realized is that many people didn’t really understand what I meant by “not centering the world around whiteness.” It’s as if they felt it was some type of hate speech or animosity against White people. The fact is, if they were Black like me, they’d fully understand why I made this ask. If they walked in my shoes as a Black woman every single day, it would become their daily mantra too to not center their lives around whiteness. Here are four reasons why as a Black person, we cannot continue to center our lives around Whiteness if we want to preserve our dignity, self-respect, and mental health:
I’m from Sierra Leone, West Africa. When I read history books written by white people who colonized my country, they often refer to us as savage and backward people. In these narratives, they make it clear that because we were so uncivilized, they had to come to occupy our land, steal our natural resources and evangelize us. When I read these accounts, as a black person that would center my life on whiteness, I would feel like my people never contributed anything good to the world.
And if I continue reading these narratives, I truly begin to believe the lies about Africa as a whole being incapable of managing itself. So much so, that white people needed to come in and save the day for our own good. The thing is, these narratives are largely inaccurate and blatantly untrue. West Africa had thriving prosperous kingdoms before the white man ever set foot on the continent. We were a Wakanda of sorts — we had great armies and invented mathematics, astronomy, architecture, and engineering. The European colonizers connived and tricked centuries-old kingdoms to kidnap and enslave Africans and to plunder our land. That’s the real version of history, not the white-washed, white-centered one that you and I have been taught all our lives.
I was lucky that I was educated and curious. I went out and researched the counter-narrative to the popular mainstream belief that puerile Africans needed white interference to thrive. In the above case, if I had chosen to only center my life around whiteness, I would have only accepted the white narrative about my ancestry — I would have accepted that my ancestors were unruly savages incapable of building great civilizations, creating novel inventions, or of having extraordinary politicians and leaders. If I centered my life on whiteness and believed those distorted narratives, I would think of my people as being inferior, or lesser than white people. That’s what happens if black people repeatedly and systematically consume and believe white narratives about us. So here, I chose to not center my knowledge about the history of my country or my continent around whiteness. If you were me, wouldn’t you do the same?
I have large eyes, a broad nose, brown skin, and full lips. I don’t exactly fit White standards of beauty and every time I open a magazine, I am overwhelmingly reminded of that. White standards of beauty are everywhere, so much so, that black and brown people around the world spend billions of dollars on plastic surgery every year to get a white aquiline nose, smaller lips, or lighter skin. These individuals have chosen to center their lives or at least their physical appearance around whiteness to the detriment of their own true features, and if you think of it, that’s really sad.
When they change their features, the message they are sending is: white is better, white is prettier. Whiteness becomes the point of reference for beauty, and the more you resemble a white person, the better. But in doing this, we depreciate diversity and tend more toward a society where everyone starts to look the same. This will not serve humanity best in the long run.
Even more interesting is the phenomenon of cultural appropriation. This happens when a white person adopts something usually from a black or brown culture — i.e. when the British singer Adele wore a typical African Bantu knots hairstyle. When this happens, the white person — in this case, Adele, confers whiteness to Bantu knots, and they become an adopted and revered style accepted as part of white standards of beauty. The problem with this is that they never originated from white culture, to begin with, and were seen as ugly on black people. In fact, white colonizers prohibited African women from wearing Bantu knots. When cultural appropriation happens, white people send the message that something that is fundamentally from another culture is okay if used by a white person. As they center the culturally appropriated item in whiteness, they omit to give credit to where it came from which in a way would serve to instill a more positive narrative about that other culture versus previous negative narratives.
Racism is an uncomfortable topic, but if we are ever to dismantle it, we are going to need to talk about it. When talking about racism, one needs to talk about white supremacy, white privilege, and white fragility amongst other things. I can’t sugar coat facts to make them more palatable to a white audience, so I explain terms, I explain the inherent violence of white supremacy.
White people sometimes shift in their seats when I do, but we really have to have these conversations. If I center these discussions around whiteness, that means that I won’t tell the harsh truth like it is. I’ll spend my time trying to make white people feel comfortable when in fact, the subjects of white supremacy cannot be made comfortable because the whole ideology in itself is violent in nature.
So yes, White people will feel uncomfortable hearing about this stuff, but that’s okay, and it is definitely not as hard as having to be a victim of White supremacy all of one’s life. So, here again, I would say, one needs to resist the urge of centering narratives about racism around whiteness. These narratives need to expose the brutality and violence of White supremacy even if they cause discomfort.
I have two mixed-raced children. It’s been a challenge educating them about their West African and Black heritage because of all the negative stories — past and present about my people and my continent. Most of my children’s education is centered on whiteness and how wonderful it is. I go to great pains to give them a balanced view of the world, I try to make sure we center our family life on a blend of whiteness and blackness. No one is more superior or better than the other.
But it’s hard to do this in a world that continuously drives them to center everything on whiteness. A world that perpetually tells my teenage daughter that she would look better with straight fine hair instead of her beautiful thick curly Afro. A world that constantly tells her to try to look more white than black.
Here again, if I gave in and centered our world on Whiteness, I would be depriving my daughter of half of her identity. So it’s important for me to strive for a balance because her diversity is something to be revered and valued rather than neglected and suppressed. If you were me, wouldn’t you do the same?
So this is what I mean about not centering my life around Whiteness. It is in no way means that I am against Whiteness or that anyone should rebel against Whiteness. It simply means that we should leave space for other cultures to express themselves and to be front and center in our lives. It means that as Black and Brown people, we shouldn’t accept White narratives that we are inferior and haven’t contributed much to the world. It means that we start talking more about our histories, our cultures, our traditions, and our values. It means we re-establish balance in the world and that we value each and every human being for the richness that they represent.
We have some pretty huge challenges ahead of us — for example, how are we going to feed an ever-growing world population, how are we going to cure cancer or manage the environmental catastrophes that are in the making. We are going to need all the diversity in the world to overcome those challenges, so let us stop centering everything on whiteness and instead center everything on our common humanity instead.
Thank you for reading my perspective.