White is not a colour...

...it's a Power Differential

<This is a back-of-the-napkin post. I am not familiar with the academic literature, and, as with most ideas, may eventually find my argument made, and possibly discarded, after further research. If you know of any literature that might be helpful, please let me know.>

The big paradigm shift required among white people is that 'Whiteness' isn't a colour as much as it is a power differential. Once the mind lets go of 'being white or Black' as being a colour difference and starts to view it as a power difference, it becomes easier to see the ways in which white supremacy is baked into everything that Americans (and, yes, Canadians too) hold dear, including Apple Pie. Notice that I'm not saying that colour doesn't matter - it does, in that it is a constant and inescapable, visual, emotional and cultural reminder of past, present, and expected future oppression. That's also why Black Lives Matter: no one is saying that white lives don't matter, just that the power differential between white lives and Black Lives Matter(s), and requires white people to realize their part in the oppression of Black people. It also becomes easier to understand why BIPOC people can't be racist, and why we capitalize the 'B' in Black.

Truth be told, there's a lot of internal work that white people must do before the concept really begins to make sense. To steal western philosophy's original thought experiment, when you're a prisoner inside Plato's cave, all you know are shadows. Chained to your friends by jailors, all you're ever taught by your captors is the black and white world of shadows. You have no reason to doubt them. After all, your surroundings are dark and you can't see very far. By a stroke of luck, you finally escape your surroundings and exit the cave 🎶 blinded by the light. 🎶 It takes you a while to adjust; you quickly understand that the life you lived inside the cave reflected an extremely limited view of the world around you. Indeed, it reflected the exact perspective that your captors intended for you to understand. Excitedly you gather some of your new friends in your new world and go back to rescue your old buddies in the cave. Except, much to your surprise, they don't want to follow you out of the cave, protesting that the light at the entrance to the cave is too bright and it hurts their eyes. Instead of taking their freedom, as you expected your friends to do, they choose to remain in the cave with their jailors, victims of Stockholm Syndrome, only ever seeing shadows reflected on cave walls, never fully aware of the vibrant life that awaits them in the sunshine.

I know you can see where this is going - it takes a lot of work to summon up the courage to leave the black and white cave of white supremacy. The brightness of the sun hurts your eyes, and, at first, you can't see anything at all. It's only once your eyes become acclimatized to power dynamics at work in the world outside of the cave that you begin to understand the outside reflects a new and more visceral reality. It turns out that your jailors lied to you - the world is not made primarily of dark shadows on a cave wall but of colour, meadows and mountains and flowers and oceans and animals, all things that you had no idea existed.

The same goes for our understanding of Whiteness-as-Power Differential. It's natural to chafe against the new idea, to say that it doesn't make sense, that Whiteness-as-Colour is the way it's always been, and so always will be, and, oh, by the way, I don’t see skin colour. But at some point we have a choice - do we walk out into the sunlight and do the hard work of figuring out how to navigate the world around us, complete with its bright sunshine, or do we slink back into the cave, content to sit in the shadows?

Now, as all allegories go, the analogy breaks down somewhere. In our case, 'Whiteness-as-Colour' is not that the folks who see in shadows are the prisoners in the cave. If I may bungle the analogy further, they're the jailors, intent on keeping others in the cave. They know that if others leave the cave, the power they have over their prisoners disappears. The old ideas of Whiteness-as-Colour slowly begin to loosen their grip, and, over time, white supremacy can be stamped out. But that requires a commitment from all of us not to remain as jailors in the cave, but instead to come out into the light, which in turn requires of us the hard work of seeing the world for the first time in, ironically enough, true colours.

I understand this drawing of parallels between Plato's Allegory of the Cave and White Supremacy as understood through Whiteness-as-Colour has major structural flaws. For one, drawing parallels between white supremacy and the quintessentially white reality of western philosophy is awkward at best, ill-advised at worst. But this post isn't intended to faithfully reproduce the reality of Whiteness-as-Power Differential, but is instead to act as a way of helping my fellow white people understand why changing their paradigm from Whiteness-as-Colour to Whiteness-as-Power Differential is such a difficult, yet necessary part of racial reconciliation. I think many of us can understand the process it takes to get to a lightbulb moment, the moment after your eyes have adjusted to the light and you can see the world around you for the first time. It’s no different doing the hard work of unlearning white supremacy - you’ve got to come out of the cave.