Francesca Maximé – ReRooted – Ep. 32 – What is Whiteness? with Dr. Janet E. Helms

Dr. Janet E. Helms joins Francesca to explore the historical roots of whiteness and systemic racism, and offer perspective on privilege and racial identity.

Dr. Janet E. Helms joins Francesca to explore the historical roots of whiteness and systemic racism, and offer perspective on privilege and racial identity.

Francesca is joined by Dr. Janet E. Helms to explore the concept of whiteness. White is whiteness? What is white-bodied supremacy? Where did this come from in terms of the history of this country? How does it live in people’s psyches, movements, behaviors, and actions? What kind of research supports different ways of being? These questions are explored among others concerning race relations, gender, patriarchy, autonomy, and freedom.

Dr. Janet E. Helms is the Augustus Long Professor in the Department of Counseling, Developmental, and Educational Psychology and Director of the Institute for the Study and Promotion of Race and Culture at Boston College. She is past president of the Society of Counseling Psychology. Dr. Helms is an APA Fellow in Counseling Psychology, Ethnic Diversity, and Psychology of Women. In addition, she is a member of the Association of Black Psychologists, the American Psychological Society, and the American Educational Research Association. She has written extensively about race, for laypeople as well as for clinicians. Learn more about Dr. Helms:

Whiteness, Systemic Racism, & The Constitution

Dr. Helms and Francesca share on how the concept of whiteness perpetuates racism in this society, and is rooted even in The US Constitution, which actually protects white male heterosexual privilege. Systemic racism has to do with the protection of that privilege, where all the rules, policies, and social practices are essentially designed to protect white male heterosexual privilege. This is rarely in the common vernacular because its recognition poses a threat to the people who have privilege from birth.

“Whenever we change a rule about systemic racism in this society, we threaten someone who’s white, and so I think it’s really important for us to begin to think about what is the threat, because if we can understand why white people feel threatened then we can maybe help them understand how they can change themselves in ways so that they’re not always afraid of losing something.” – Dr. Janet E. Helms

Check out this guide to the stages of racial identity development from Dr. Helm: Summary of Stages of Racial Identity Development
Unacknowledged Privilege (5:02)

Highlighting issues surrounding privilege, Dr. Helms shares that if you are a white person who begins to recognize that you have been treated differently because of your skin color, there becomes a recognition of some responsibility for change, both in yourself and the current societal paradigm. That might not feel so comfortable to give up some of your own privilege, some of your own safety. This leads Francesca to elucidate the notion of shared privilege, the idea that we all can have access, equity, and be able to move about more freely.

“There are different privileges and each white person has to begin to ask themselves, ‘What is the privilege in my life, and how do I have to change myself in order to share privilege?” – Dr. Janet E. Helms

For information on looking deeply into one’s implicit racism, and for ways to unburden yourself from traumatic pasts imprints, check out Ep. 29 of ReRooted
Waking Up, Taking Medicine (36:02)

Francesca brings up the recent cultural meme of being “woke,” which implies there is a constant, idealized state one can attain that is totally equanimous and anti-racist. Playing off of this, she introduces the concept of “waking.” Waking is taking action, it’s being engaged with an ongoing process and unfolding. Dr. Helms shares that this action is not just reflecting on oneself, but also learning how to change the context in which you exist. Learning to see things from an interconnected, holistic, ecological perspective acts as good medicine.

“It’s good medicine for everyone, but I think it would be unwise of me not to warn people that people don’t always like to take their medicine. So, as one begins to awaken and try new things, one needs to be aware that other white people might not accept you because you’re challenging social norms. I think; though, that what will happen eventually is that if enough white people begin to challenge those social normals, then this challenging will become the norm, rather than the colorblindness that now seems to exist.” – Dr. Janet E. Helms

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Images from Art Institute Chicago and Boston College