Ultrawhite and the Privilege to Travel
My bags are packed. It’s an enormous feat, because departure won’t happen for two more weeks. But, in light of the years-long planning process behind me, two weeks may as well be go time. And so, they’re packed. They sit at the foot of the bed, waiting.
I know every single item by heart. Three shirts, two pairs of pants, one tiny deck of tarot cards. 365 days or so of essentials, folded into a 45 liter sack. I’ll wear each item until it’s translucent, become viscerally aware of what I thought I needed but don’t in fact, and I’ll shed and pick up and shed again along the way. One thing is certain. I will know the contents of my pack. I’ll feel the weight of them, their texture against my back, and I’ll decide in each moment if this thing is coming along for the next leg of the journey or not. When you strip down, it is more difficult to be ignorant to the things you’re carrying around.
The privilege I wear as a cisgender white woman with the means to take a year off and travel is more sneaky. Unlike the headlamp and the spork, which are useful only so far as I know where they are when I need them, I use my privilege to my advantage by pretending it’s not there at all. This is the power of white supremacy. It hides in plain sight, posing as the norm. An odorless poison permeating everything it touches. And I carry it in my pack, too. Tucked between the pages of my United States passport, draped over my savings account, and pulsing beneath every step I’ve taken in my life until now - when I get to take a leap of faith and trust that I’ll land back on top - is my whiteness. My racism. Not because I hold prejudice against others but because my very ability to move through the world the way that I do - safely, with my eyes closed when I choose, and always with the assumption of being received as right, beautiful, and worthy - depends on it.
I write it here because it matters. Because people are dying. Because we are all collectively suffering inside these toxic systems. And because this work is central to being a whole hearted human being. To begin to disarm the invisible monster, we in predominantly white spaces have to wake up to our racism, our privilege, and our assumed supremacy. We have to do away with the belief that racism is a single event or a moral judgment that happens on an individual level and instead begin to see it as the structure that it is, underpinning every single institution we know, be it the hollow appropriation of yoga by which white women like me preach love and light without reckoning with justice and accountability, or the capitalist productivity model that encourages me to keep my head down in a cubicle until I die, or the immigration policies dictating which families get to survive intact, or the Instagram filter culture that might have me lie to you about the beauty of my journey abroad without owning the truth of how I got here and what is really going on underneath.
Indeed, even on the brink of a year of uncertainty - a time when I hope to learn something new and be surprised every day - I know that I’ll find my whiteness, working for me. It doesn’t negate the experiences that I’ll have, but neither is it negated by the highs and lows of those experiences. It’s just here in the pack all the same, with the quick-dry dress and the handheld water filter and the iPhone camera lens. It’ll be there with me when I’m negotiating fare in a language I learned in university and when I’m turning a patch of soil that has been colonized and controlled for centuries by people who look like me. In the cloud of greenhouse gases trailing my airplane and in the vegetarian meal I pain to find in a rural countryside. When I announced that I was leaving and when I decide on my terms when and how to come home. It’s here even now, as I publish on a platform built by white women, processing my own whiteness out in public.
The thing is that it’s here, whether I decide to look at it or not. Shame and infinite contradictions notwithstanding, I aim to look and to get more comfortable with the discomfort that looking stirs up in me. Of course there is ongoing, dedicated, tangible work to do from that open-eyed place if we’re really going to upend the unjust systems that run our world. But for those of us with the privilege to turn away, turning toward and getting present to the unearned advantages at our backs—sitting with the dense weight and sharp responsibility of them—is an essential start. Until then, we remain oblivious to the harm that we cause, and, if true healing or wholeness is what we seek, we’ll never find it.
February is Black History Month (though of course Black history is U.S. history). A couple resources on my radar: Rachel Cargle is curating a free learning series called #DiscoverOurGlory on Instagram (so much learning to be had on Google, and she walks you through some potent places to start). Layla Saad’s powerful book Me and White Supremacy, an invitation to pull out our own racism and complicity in racist systems, was recently published in hardcover. I encourage you to follow and pay these and the many more Black women who are leading the way, and to find communities of other white folks to support and hold you accountable along the way. There are so many resources available. Let’s get to work, white friends. It is well past time to take inventory.