Updated: May 21
As a white male person, I continue to deal with the issue of white distortion. Distortion is not that uncommon. Sometimes it’s comical, like when we walk through a hall of mirrors. Sometimes, it’s not, like when it prevents us from working together to secure our habitat.
If you grew up something like I did, then doing what seems natural can get you into a lot of trouble, or at least keep others in their troubles. White distortion is not the same for everyone. For those in the “White Power Movement” the distortion not only warps their vision, but also freezes it in place. This kind of distortion is a cult leader’s dream. It’s like one’s mind has turned into stone.
For most of us, our white distortion is not so massive. If we work at it, we can control it instead of it controlling us. The key to understanding everyday white distortion is to recognize that from the inside one does not see it. White distortion doesn’t appear distorted to white people. The power that arises from being white in a white man’s world, in other words, seems “natural.” From the white perspective, social differences don’t really matter because we are all individuals.
In his book, Inventing the Individual, Larry Siedentop attributes individualism to the West’s replacement of family and local gods with Christian monotheism (2015). Just like there was one God, every person was one person with one soul. This soul was deeper than any family and social identity. Siedentop’s historical analysis ends with the beginning of the modern age when secular thinkers borrowed this religious individualism to develop what we know as modern liberalism.
Siedentop’s story seems true enough until one notices the absence of any sociological analysis. He writes as though the social did not exist. His logic is fine: God created all of us, so we are all equal. That’s the kind of thinking one gets when you practice theology without sociology. Sociology does not deny a shared humanity, but it looks at our humanity as embedded in social relations.
If one interprets Christianity from the perspective of the white distortion, it looks a lot like Capitalism in that it extracts persons from social relations and sees them as isolated entities, The white distortion omits from its framework our social relations that serve as the matrix and the source of individual development. When these social relations exist in a legacy of racial oppression and violence, as they do today, the white distortion also erases white racism.
Ignoring these relations does have its consequences. It means that white people in Europe and America have a distorted view of themselves and the world in which they live. Many of us now see how the West has constructed a world that erases our relationships with each other and with the Earth. It’s not that difficult to recognize the long history of the cult of white supremacy that has been recently stoked by Trump and his cohorts. I think we are slowly learning how to deal with this through the enforcement of the rule of law and the protection of voting rights. These struggles are now entering a decisive phase.
The larger issue is the continuing process of correcting the distorted vision of our national identity. Roxanna Dunbar-Ortiz’s new book, NOT A Nation of Immigrants: Settler Colonialism, White Supremacy, and A History of Erasure and Exclusion, shines a light on many aspects of our history that our white view has omitted. I think her point is that it’s a distortion of the truth to name European conquerors and enslavers “immigrants” to the Americas.
Dealing with such distortions would be a good step in preparing ourselves for cooperating with others in creating a climate of justice.