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Writing While White

Updated: Mar 28, 2023

It’s true that my book, A Climate of Justice, was written by a white man. Is that significant? Some white men, of course, might not see their work as written by a white man, because they don’t see whiteness. They just see individuals or humans, but then they never see the social worlds in which they exist.

To see myself as a white writer, I must have created some distance between my person and my white social world. I don’t think I recognized this gap in any meaningful way until I was in college. Such social amnesia is a white person’s privilege that is maintained by paying attention to some stories and ignoring others.

Even with this critical distance between myself and my social world, I am still a “white writer.” So, what does that mean? Well, it means I am not a Black writer or a Native American writer. My writing in not embedded in their social worlds, but in a white social world. And what kind of social world is that?

In A Climate of Justice, I define it as a social world that privileges whites over others, denies that others suffered and continue to suffer for these privileges, and justifies this condition by asserting white superiority. All this results in what I call a “climate of injustice.”

White writers, as I see it, would know that they write in this social world. How do they do that? Let me use Aristotle’s four causes to answer that question. Aristotle’s four causes are material, efficient, formal, and final. The usual illustration is a statue. The material cause would be the stone, the efficient the sculptor, the formal the implicit or possible shape in the stone, and the final, the purpose of the work. The causes are answers to the question, “Why does something exist?” The answer is “be-cause” of the material used, the worker’s work, the inherent design in the materials, and the purpose.

In the Acknowledgments in A Climate of Justice, I write about my “mindfulness.” The knowledge from many others filled my mind with different perspectives and critical stances. This would be the material cause. I am grateful for receiving this knowledge and I also recognize that my access to this knowledge was a privilege for those of us who existed in or could enter a white social world.

The efficient cause brings us to me as a writer. Whiting a book like A Climate of Justice involves not only the writer’s character, but also the writer’s implicit readers and the development of arguments. Aristotle refers to these three elements as ethos, pathos, and logos—the identity of the writer, the values of the audience, and the logic of the speech. Writing, in other words is a relational activity that expresses what is thought-provoking in the interplay of self, other, and language.

So, who are the others, or what literary critics call a writer’s “implied audience”? For the most part, I write to other white people—people who exist in our unjust white social world. I advance the possibility that my readers and myself could be invited to meet those who have carried the burden of white privilege in a civic space where broken relationships could be repaired.

In this transformation from social worlds to civic spaces, I have given myself as well as my readers a space to relate to one another not as white or black, but rather as citizen and civilian. For the most part, I am a citizen with the responsibility to support the rule of law that protects and provides for civilians who are vulnerable and cannot protect themselves. This does not erase our white social world, but rather gives us a place to join with others in dealing with it.

“Writing while white” has a couple of meanings. It acknowledges my belonging to the social world constructed by the legacy of white supremacy. At the same time, this social identity exists “for a while,” because it is possible that I can move into a civic space, when invited by civilians, to write as a citizen. To realize this possibility for myself and my readers is the “final cause” or purpose of A Climate of Justice.

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