Did you start to glaze over when you read the word “white”? As if, because this article is about Whiteness and racism, then this article must be for racists or people of a different race? If so, great! This article is written for you!
Also, if you have European heritage or are racialised as white, and have a desire for the world to change for the better, then this is for you! Read on…
Few of us are happy about the situation in the world today. Many of us avoid reading the news a lot of the time, wishing to avoid the overwhelm of all the horror spiralling around us. Whether it’s war, mental health epidemics, corruption, or the planetary mass extinction event we’re in, there’s a lot of bad news out there.
So why hasn’t there been a global revolution? Why haven’t we overthrown the elites? Why haven’t we rebelled successfully? Why aren’t we rioting every day, until the wars have stopped, the forests are protected, the rivers are flowing free and bursting with life? We know something is wrong, something big, yet we collectively seem unable to stop it.
I’ve been wrestling with these questions daily for more than a decade now. As a co-founder of Extinction Rebellion (XR), I saw that movement grow from the inside, spreading around the world into 84 countries. Yet it didn’t result in global revolution. And for the past few years, I’ve been asking “why not?”.
One of the answers I’ve landed on is that while Extinction Rebellion was initiated mostly by people racialised as white (including myself), it was limited by how it remained mostly a “white” movement. Yes, there were people of colour and outsided cultures in XR, and many of the visionary leaders in XR came from these cultures. Yet after many conversations, I’ve learnt how difficult it has been for many of these people, and I’ve observed how many of them dropped away from the movement — not because they don’t care, but because it was too painful for them to stay and organise in the majority-white spaces of XR.
This is not to demean XR, nor to say we were bad. There’s a predictable pattern, known as “white guilt”, that happens when such dynamics are spoken about, and often a sense of hopelessness amongst white organisers: “Why don’t they come and organise with us — don’t they know that we’re inclusive/not racist/anti-racist/friendly, etc.?” Yet if we see XR’s (and most of the environmental/climate movement’s) continued whiteness, not as a result of us doing something bad, but as symptomatic of where we are, at this time, in the unpicking of centuries of systemic racism and internalised colonialism — recognising that we, in Europe, have been repeatedly colonised and brutalised over the past few millenia — then perhaps we can bring a little more compassion and curiosity into looking at why we are where we are.
Bringing that curiosity, I’ve heard from many activists in the UK from Majority World communities about the experiences they’ve encountered in XR. Many of them found that what they said was ignored during meetings. And finding their contributions weren’t landing, they found themselves saying the same thing over-and-over, getting increasingly frustrated as they were repeatedly ignored; or found themselves giving up — finding another group to organise with, or walking away altogether.
And with that information, as I started to reflect on my own experience, I noticed something that surprised me — something I hadn’t expected to see. It was subtle, yet it definitely happened. Here’s what I noticed…
The White Glazer
When people from a non-European culture started to speak, I would quite often glaze over, or tune-out, of what they were saying — and often within the first couple of sentences as they spoke! It was as if there was a voice in my head that was intently searching for reasons to ignore what was being said!
Perhaps they’d use a foreign word or an acronym I wasn’t familiar with. Notice what happens as you read maatubuntumitawo-gafric, or perhaps, UBUNTUPACHAVIDYA. Did your eyes gloss over some of it? Did you get a sense that this was a word for someone else? That this isn’t a word intended for you? Did something in you slightly turn off? If so, you’re not alone — this is an experience that many of us share. If such a word were to come up in a meeting, that aforementioned voice inside my head would jump on it: “Aha!” it would say, “you can switch off, they’re not talking to you.” And once I’d switched off (along with most of the rest of the group), nothing else they said would be taken in.
The “voice inside my head” is a common experience. Indeed, internal voices like this are so common that many of us don’t even realise they’re not ‘us’, but rather, a cultural pattern that we’ve internalised — something from our experiences and surroundings that ‘tells’ us how to live our lives. Psychotherapists have various names for these inner voices, including inner figures, inner children, inner demons, parts, roles, or archetypes. These inner figures, while in some way being part of us, seem to act independently from how we intend to act — and often seem to speak directly against what we’re trying to do! In the racialised context of organising with people from outsided cultures, this particular inner figure’s pattern could be thought of as an internalised ‘maintainer of Whiteness’. I’m calling him my White Glazer. (For me, it’s a ‘him’).
I’ve noticed another way this inner figure would get me to glaze over would be if some other country was mentioned repeatedly. Maybe someone from Indonesia would start talking about politics in Indonesia, and I’d soon find myself turning off. “Following politics in the UK is difficult enough, let alone Indonesia,” the White Glazer would say, “You don’t have the mental energy to follow politics everywhere, so let the Indonesians worry about their country — what goes on there doesn’t concern you!” Do you recognise that voice? Have you ever let it take you away from a conversation? If so, have you ever wondered why the person speaking is saying what they are saying to you?
Sometimes it wouldn’t even be what a person said, but the space they took up to speak. I’ve noticed my White Glazer telling me things like, “They’ve gone on for a bit long now — don’t they know we’ve got important things to get through in this meeting?” From this, I’ve deduced that my White Glazer assumes that the person speaking isn’t aware of the dire and urgent situation of the planet. Yet by-the-odds, a person from an outsided culture is likely to be far more aware of our planetary peril — perhaps having had family members killed for activism, or their land-of-heritage flooded, invaded, mined, or harmed in other ways!
And so I’d turn off during meetings. And so, having not been listened to the first time, the person from an outsided culture might repeat themselves at the next meeting. If so, my White Glazer would jump in: “Gosh, why are they going on about this again?” he would say, as I switched off, yet again.
And if, at any point, my fellow organiser would show a hint of frustration, my White Glazer would leap on it: “Woah! An angry black/brown/Indigenous person — you don’t have to put up with this! They need to learn to control themselves. Don’t they know how dangerous they are! Now they’re not being inclusive, are they!” And at that point, the Conflict Resolution Team would be called in, with stories about how difficult they are to organise with.
Recognise any of this? That last paragraph is possible better named as “white fragility”. Yet the bits that comes before it — the glazing over, tuning out, and drifting off — that’s what I’ve come to recognise as White Glaze. It’s part of our racialisation and enculturation into becoming ‘white people’. It’s something we’ve been programmed to do. It’s a pattern of behaviour that our culture has taught us.
And so, what can we do about it? The first thing is to notice it. Notice when you glaze over. Notice when you turn off. Get really precise. Do you want a word explaining? Do you want to know what an acronym stands for? Do you want to know why you should care about something happening somewhere else? Notice it. Bring compassion to yourself, perhaps acknowledging this is part of the training of Whiteness. Ask the person to slow down. Open up, and let them know what has gone on for you. Such vulnerability is often experienced as relief, as it signals that you’re interested in really listening and ‘getting’ what they have to say.
Recognise that you don’t know enough of the context, that you don’t understand something, and that you need to learn — and that that is OK. Perhaps ask for pointers, so you can go away and do some research for yourself. If it feels right, perhaps invite them to take up more space, by explaining things to you — meanwhile, bear in mind that, by asking a person of an outsided culture to explain something to you, you’re asking them to do extra work. Acknowledge that you’re the one needing to be taught, that you’re the one “slowing things down” (although by doing this, you will probably be easing and speeding the way towards global revolution). If you ask them to explain, don’t expect or demand it of them. Acknowledge that you’re asking something of them, and that this could entail emotional labour. If they don’t want to explain to you, respect that, and find other people who have been racialised as white to ask about it. Get curious. Find (or create) spaces of learning, for yourself and others. Be prepared to study, and to learn.
At least, this is what I’m doing (imperfectly). And it seems to be helping!
Moments of White Glaze
I didn’t invent the term “white glaze”. I first heard Gail Bradbrook naming it (another XR co-founder). I believe it originated with her and Skeena Rathor (founder of XR’s Visionary Cultures circle). Skeena was telling Gail about the Kudumbashree, and Gail didn’t show any interest. Skeena, somewhat exasperated, said something like, “Gail, I’ve told you about them three times already. It’s a women’s movement in resistance in India with 4.5 million members. It’s a movement to pay attention to! What goes on for you? It’s as if you glaze over whenever I tell you about it!” And that was when Gail noticed herself glazing over. And caught herself. And truly listened.
If you’re not aware of the Kudumbashree movement, look them up. Are you also aware of the 2-million-person ongoing revolution in Rojava, where the Kurdish population have been self-organising with a feminist praxis for decades, amidst resisting Nation-State violence from all sides (Turkey, Syria, Iran, Iraq, and beyond)? Or the Zapatistas, Indigenous people who have carved out autonomous land from the Mexican State, setting up their own educational and democratic systems? What about the Sankara Movement in Burkina Faso? The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) in South Africa? Or Aukiñ Wallmapu Ngulam (AWNg), the “Council of All Lands” of the Indigenous Mapuche nation in, and beyond, Chile? These are all movements that have a lot to teach us (rebels and activists in Euro-heritage movements), if only we devoted our time to learning from them.
A common topic where the white glaze often seems to ‘get us’ is when a person-of-more-melanin urges us to root into stories of resistance — both from around the world, but also our own stories from our own lands. Perhaps our glazing over is due to how high-school History classes turned many of us off from the richness of our land’s stories (mainly teaching us about white warmongers). Yet there has been many resistance movements in this land that are worthy of our attention, and we would do well to allow these his/her/our-stories to inform our present-day activism — and by doing so, prevent us from repeating pit-falls, and teach us skilful ways to organise. Such stories also serve to locate us collectively, providing a sense of belonging, community and meaning that has immense psychological and collective benefits to our health.
Another frequently glaze-bringing topic seems to be when people of other cultures try to tell us about the possibility that there are different ways of knowing and being in the world — let alone what these might be! Whiteness has denied the wisdom and reality of people of culture around the world for centuries, as a way to justify converting them, ‘schooling’ them, ‘civilising’ them, and so eradicating their languages and cultures, and stealing their lands, resources and children. It is vital and urgent that we (in the grasp of Whiteness) get to grips with the possibility of there being different ways of knowing and being in the world. As a pointer, look up ‘pluriversality’.
White Glaze is just one dynamic of Whiteness. Many others have already been named, such as white superiority, white-exceptionalism, white saviorism, white centring, white fragility/violence. If these terms are new to you, there’s plenty of books out there that explain them. It seems to me that White Glaze supports all of these dynamics to continue — by pre-empting our ability to effectively listen to ways of knowing and being that are less familiar to us. White Glaze prevents us from being informed by outsided cultures, and so maintains their outsided-ness.
If you’ve read this far, I applaud you — you must have an attention span capable of staying with complex ideas and new concepts. And so I beseech you: apply your attention span to the words from fellow activists who have roots in outsided cultures. And if you find yourself drifting off or glazing over, bring your attention to that. Interrogate White Glaze. Notice what happens for you, where you ‘go’, what goes on in your body, and what triggers White Glaze. Practise this compassionately and without blame. And notice what helps you to come back into a mutually-beneficial way of relating: to listen well, and to engage humbly with our family from around the world.