Thoughts on the White Imagination

Photo by Toa Heftiba

For a few weeks now I have been working with some fabulous writers on a panel proposal for next year’s AWP Conference in San Antonio. Before this, in preparation for a job interview lesson I was to teach, I had returned to Claudia Rankine’s book Citizen: An American Lyric and while I re-read it I began to think about how I could create a panel on the White Imagination, which is what I have been working on. In many ways, whites do not understand what this constitutes because we can’t always see it. It is the water we swim in as fish. The struggle for even well-meaning, white allies who want to address racism in our nation, is the internal discomfort and fear that our whiteness, when called forth for examination, creates in us. We want to wiggle out of it. We want to “but” our way through it. We want to point our finger at other “bad” whites. But not ourselves. We don’t want to be white anymore, not during this examination.

This array of emotions–shame, guilt, fear, humiliation, mild discomfort–leads to and perpetuates our blindness. Our unwillingness to sit silently and listen. The irony, of course, is that people of color have to live in this feeling of discomfort every day. A woman of color never knows who might consciously or unconsciously judge her, misrepresent her, slight her in hopes of creating intimacy, ask her to join as a representation of her “race,” expect her to be certain ways, speak a certain way, and so on. The irony is that as white people we can’t tolerate discomfort and yet we not only perpetuate discomfort, but we–our very whiteness–uphold the institution of white supremacy in our country that has determined it’s okay to kill, cage, and destroy bodies of color. This is the hard truth of our whiteness. The truth we keep pushing away because it feels bad, it really does. We don’t want it to be this way. And yet it is.

I will say this. My ignorance is vast but I continue to work on the issue of whiteness and to work towards dismantling the white imagination because it’s unacceptable. It’s unacceptable that one and three black men will be imprisoned in this country while only one in eighteen white men will go to jail; it’s unacceptable that our police are legally allowed to kill/ lynch Americans of color; it’s unacceptable that every week we have new shootings aimed at minority groups in our country because radicalized white supremacists continue to terrorize our nation, their power unchecked, their crimes not considered a reflection of all whites but an anomaly of concentrated hatred.

But all of this should be obvious. What isn’t obvious is that whiteness and white supremacy is upheld and proliferated by the white imagination, which limits the identity and the narratives of people of color to only those in relation to whiteness and stereotypes — always in relation to the dominance of whiteness. For example, the story of a woman of color overcoming/ coping with racism, the story of a Begali woman in relation to her cultural identity, the story of a Native American as living on a reservation, in poverty, drunk, and so on. These narratives are prized over narratives that might go in other directions, say, discussing an interest in sculpture, a novel about a haunted swimming pool, a collection of interviews of women artists or a history of farming, and so on. That’s not what white publishers want (that’s not what sells?). They want a story in which the identity of oppression is held up and examined and we get to see that despite all this terrible hardship the individual is able to find the beauty in their life and the good in people, or whatever. (This is not to say that those narratives aren’t important, but they are not the only narratives.)

Why do we want these narratives? I suspect that they make whites feel better about their whiteness and the consequences of oppression. We think, see, they’re okay, they overcame so much. What a victory! I suspect too, that we want to examine the “other” under the microscope of oppression. There is something thrilling in the voyeurism of hardship and pain.

Aisha Sabatini Sloan, in her keynote at NonfictionNOW, Iceland 2017, titled “The Dangerous Lure of Writing for White Readers in an MFA,” discusses the way her MFA program pushed her away from her original scholarly and creative interests into writing narratives that fit the white imagination. She didn’t feel like she could write for black readers. She explains what happened to her writing:
All of the overtures that are made to “explain” the experience of being a minority are tiny coded signals that the reader is presumably unfamiliar with this experience. And the reader who doesn’t have to guess at that reality can feel those signals as a distancing. In some cases, these are teeny, tiny gestures. But the reality is, even the smallest of those gestures can feel huge.

These words carry a certain sorrow, perhaps, that she was pushed to write in a way that would distance a reader like herself. Sloan wondered where her work might have gone if she hadn’t felt this pressure to conform and had been able to pursue her passion projects. If she had not been forced into the small box of the white imaginaire. Luckily, she has returned to that former self and is pursing the projects and work that she feels inspired by.


What I return to as a white woman, an American, a writer and activist, is the need to sit in discomfort and not attempt to slough it off on other white people. To point a finger at the actual racist. To deny my part in it. I say this because just as people of color are forced to represent their otherness, white people represent the life of racism in this country. There is no way around this in our current moment.

The fact of the white body is supremacy. The fact of the white body is oppression. The fact of the white body is violence and death. The fact of the white body is erasure of all others that don’t bare sameness.

Rankine writes:
because white men can’t/ police their imagination/ black people are dying

What imagination does she mean? The one that fears the black body his culture has created as a figure onto which the white imagination has projected all it’s ugliness. Just think for one moment about the way black men were turned into rapists to be feared by white women (and lynched by white men) when in fact it was white men, slave owners, with the most egregious history of rape of Black female slaves.

But that isn’t what this is about. This is about learning to listen, to absorb, to feel, to hear, to read about, to know with great familiarity the legacy of whiteness that a white body carries. And then, brick by brick, to dismantle your own imagination. To find your own way through this history that unless we come to recognize, to know with great intimacy and vulnerability, we will continue to pass on. Trust me, when I tell you (with great love) that it is your own work to do.

Published by

emilyarna

Writer, teacher, essayist, author of the essay collection Made Holy forthcoming from the University of Georgia Press 2019. Mother of two boys, runner, and activist. Wife and partner to Kindergarten teacher and singer songwriter, Mr. Martin.

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