Ever noticed how white people get anxious and nervous as hell when the word ‘white’ is mentioned in terms of race? Through experience, when mentioning or discussing whiteness, white privilege, white supremacy, white anything, there is at least one white person that will pop up and go on the defensive as if the discussion was about him or her. They will swoop in guns blazing ready to defend the sanctified dignity of the entire white race.

I know you’ve been told how hot all whites are racist, especially the white person who told you. You’ve been told that white supremacy doesn’t exist or that racism is not a major issue for people of color. You’ve even heard how white people are superior. Anytime ‘white’ is uttered, you can expect a white person to dish out weapons of whiteness we’re all too familiar with as we’ve been bombarded with the same weapons before all in the name of protecting something that they’re afraid of facing.

Irna L. Landrum, who wrote a piece for the Daily Kos, talks about her experience teaching a racial equality training. She writes how white people, including the ones who believe they’re progressive, get in their feelings when their color and all the things associated with it is brought up:

White people on the left often hate to be called white. Much of the time, progressive or liberal white people experience this naming as a direct attack, something to get away from, fight back against, or something they just can’t handle, all jittery and anxious, trying to DO something and just making it worse. Sometimes they stand there, bodies all braced and waiting for the moment to pass. And sometimes they completely disappear, ghosts in front of your eyes. This discomfort—even hatred—only increases in times like these, where white nationalism is hyper visible.

From the moment that egg and sperm meet, each of us is becoming a specific kind of person based upon where we live, the cultures we are raised in, and our experiences. This is our conditioning. Those raised to be white are conditioned from birth to accept the glaring contradiction between everything they are taught about love and how to treat people, and treating or witnessing people of color be treated as exceptions to these rules. White people are taught, indirectly through experience and directly through words, that this contradiction is normal, justifying their comfort, even as others suffer. This is what I mean by whiteness. I don’t mean culture. Whiteness is not culture. Whiteness is absence.

Whiteness is a suppression of humanity.Whiteness is a collective agreement which evolved among those who descended from Europe on the best way to survive. Whiteness is an infestation with roots in European histories of violence which then reimagined itself when it colonized the lands below our feet.

Whiteness is wily. It exists to survive and replicate. It is not carried in the genes of those who pass it on to their children. Instead, it is taught, directly and indirectly, to every Euro-descended child so that they become, even before first breath, white. And this teaching is about what it means to put your own life and comfort first, your own guaranteed survival, automatically, overtly and subtly, and to do this without feeling any contradiction with your most basic values.

To feel the contradiction between your values and something you are doing or witnessing is to feel unsettled. Uncomfortable. Everything about whiteness is a deep contradiction to the values that many white people are raised with as well as to the basic biological forces of human connection and empathy. Feeling unsettled or uncomfortable is important for human development. Struggling, dealing with this unsettledness is how we learn. It’s where wisdom comes from. It is what whiteness protects against.

Whiteness is not just a conditioned way for individuals to be in the world, it is also a system. White supremacy is what happens when systems are constantly communicating that this muted state is normal and that when your white body does not have what it is entitled to—safety, security, comfort, enough energy, a strong sense of purpose and connection—then either you are not working hard enough OR it’s someone else’s fault and must be eradicated. They must be eradicated, controlled, made to go away so that your comfort returns.

For the body, comfort is about survival. Discomfort cues the body to start looking around to see if everything is okay, if there is any threat that will interfere with our lives. If a threat is perceived, then the body launches the survival responses of flight, fight, and freeze. Once launched, the survival responses play out until the body perceives that the threat has passed and it is safe again.

Why do white people hate to be called white? Because living with contradiction can only happen if it is never made visible. The minute this contradiction is given a name, whiteness hijacks the body’s survival responses in order to ensure its own survival. Having someone see you, name you as white, name this deep life-contradiction, feels like an attack on the body. When the body feels attacked, it uses the tools that evolution has given mammals to find safety under threat. Fight. Flight. Freeze. Fold.

Gaslighting. White fragility. Whitesplaining. Microaggressions. White consolidation of power. Nepotism amongst those with power. Bystander silence. Scapegoating and targeting. White supremacist action. White folks not seeing, not believing, not feeling the impact of racism, thinking that somehow those impacted by racism must be overstating it, making it up, creating it. These are all examples of white survival responses.

Of course, I can never truly understand what it means to be white and have to live with and deal with whiteness, especially when it’s pointed out. I can only go by actions and reactions. Through my experience, I’ve seen how white people are when it comes to being confronted about their whiteness, and it’s virtually the same across the board no matter who they are.

But the reality is that such a mindset is debilitating to white folks even if it’s never mentioned. It produces a constant shelter and perpetual victimhood that prevents learning, empathy, and evolution. White people must truly confront, treat and cure whiteness if they ever hope to be truly free from their own prison of false comfort.