Her eyes filled with terror at the sight of me, and she sped out of that South Carolina parking lot, tires screeching. I stood there holding my jumper cables and feeling confused, shocked, and ashamed. I’d forgotten to turn off the headlights on my old Honda. and my car battery was dead. I thought I was just asking for help from the only other person in the parking lot. I’d never before caused anyone as much fear as I saw in that Black woman’s eyes. I’d never before had to so blatantly face my whiteness.[1]

I’ve returned to that memory many times as I’ve continued to unpack and understand what it means for me to inhabit the body that I do. What does it mean to have been socialized, particularly through my identification as a youth with the white, evangelical church, into imagining myself as a white, cis-het, able-bodied male?[2] Why have I been so resistant to recognizing it? And what does my part in this unfolding story of racial oppression, whiteness, and white rage mean, especially as I commit myself to antiracist action and the dismantling of oppressive systems?


Engaging this topic is risky. Centering whiteness in discussions of race has the potential to yet again elevate the considerations of white-bodied people above the experiences of people of color, thereby re-creating the very oppressive social dynamics I am trying to analyze. As I theorize and write about whiteness, I am free from the threat of racial oppression, which is itself an expression of the white privilege I’m working to understand. However, by centering myself squarely within the formational landscape of whiteness as an active and interpassive participant in perpetration and a descendent of perpetrators, I am attempting to problematize and denaturalize whiteness and to, in the words of Mary Watkins and Helene Shulman, “break the cycle of identifications and projections that would allow such enmities to continue.”[3]

When speaking about whiteness, it is important to note that I am pointing to a social location of power and privilege that is rooted in a culture of white-body supremacy. It is an idea that is thus deeply connected to white bodies but that also transcends ethnic or national identity. The term whiteness gives us a way to talk about power relations in a society using the “social geography of race” by placing everyone on a hierarchical continuum from a privileged, advantaged center to the marginalized, disenfranchised periphery. In the United States, whiteness serves as a shorthand for those whose racialized social identities place them in the center.[4]

Using the language of social location allows us to begin putting words to the unseen, unstated perspectives and horizons that shape our very experience of reality. It helps us begin to name and understand the nature of the water in which we have always been swimming. We are born into a shared, social reality that affects and informs every aspect of our lives. Locating the limits, contours, and contortions of this shared reality is like trying to see how our glasses bend the light waves. We must do this because, while our shared realities give us a framework from which to engage the world, they also distort that world, and whiteness is a distortion within our shared reality. It textures the way I experience myself and everyone around me. It locates me and my imagination of who I am and who you are. It organizes my world into a hierarchical, race-based caste system that places white bodies like mine at the advantaged, normalized center and bodies of color on the periphery.[5] And because it’s my “reality,” it also hides this very distortion from me. Importantly, the existence of my centrally located identity demands the existence of a peripheral or decentered, marginalized identity. In other words, the fantasy of whiteness requires the subjugation of others. Imagining myself as white means I’m imagining something about everyone else.

Locating myself in this shared reality as one who inhabits an intersection of identities that place me in the center of this so-called reality is thus communicating more than just social identifiers. It speaks to how I’ve been socialized and formed by my interactions in this shared reality to see myself and see others. But I have not just been living my life and interacting in my body; I’ve been developing my image of myself and others while existing in a body that’s marked as white in a world that naturalizes white bodies. Walking down the street, ordering pizza, applying for a job, approaching a stranger—every interaction I’ve ever had has been in a body that’s been marked as white.

Both of these processes, imagining and marking, are intertwined and interact with one another as we learn who we are and develop conscious and unconscious images of ourselves through our social, relational space and then respond and act within that social world out of that imagination. The two speak to one another in a reciprocal, reinforcing fashion. Attempting to unilaterally force a change on one typically fails—a point mental health therapists face constantly as mere insight into a behavior or symptom rarely changes it. This all means that as much as I acknowledge structural racism and want to think of myself as someone who is fully committed to antiracist action, I am still marked and experience myself to be white. Consciously choosing to reject my identification with the social, symbolic meanings of that marking simply moves it from my conscious awareness (where I can recognize and try to change) into my unconscious reality. Believing that I have somehow rid myself of the ideology of whiteness or white-body supremacy is the actual vehicle for it to continue to distort my very perception of reality. The moment I think I’m finally free of it is the moment I am most under its control.[6] The best we can do is to continually listen to others and look for the ways that this malformed imagination expresses itself as we actively work to dismantle the systems and cultures that reify it. Only then can we begin working to build institutions and cultures that support our social and individual transformation.[7]

As I have suggested, for me and other white-bodied individuals, our central location and the privilege associated with it provides a source of insulation from the truth of this location and the oppression on which it is built. In all those interactions that mark me as white, I am also hindered from hearing the truth of that marking, namely that others are marked as some form of not-white and are thus formed in dramatically different ways. In this malignant imagination, I see my body as normal, whereas other bodies are abnormal. And this malformed imagination is reinforced through the interlocking structures of culture and society, recurrent interpersonal interactions, and my own psychological defenses.  My reality is thus insulated from having to face its illusory, destructive, and oppressive nature. My white privilege is so embedded in my imaginary world that I can’t even see it as privilege. Or as Willie James Jennings writes, “If we want to understand what finding voice and forming life-sustaining vision mean at this moment, then we have to understand how whiteness informs the intellectual, artistic, economic, and geographic stage on which vision and voice are realized and performed.”[8]

White Rage

Conversations around race and privilege are usually met with a kind of silencing, distancing, and resistance from white-bodied individuals. There is often a collapse of the reflecting, thinking space and an aggressive assertion of personal innocence on the part of the white-bodied person; this is mixed with a seeming inability to engage the systemic. Robin DiAngelo uses the term white fragility to describe this common, defensive reaction of white-bodied individuals to conversations around race. The phenomenon has seen more wide recognition thanks to DiAngelo, but her language and approach is problematic for a couple of reasons. For instance, we label things fragile that require protection and care, so if white-bodied people are fragile, then the implication is to care for them—once again centering the experiences of white-bodied individuals over the experiences of others. Additionally, the language of fragility fails to move the conversation forward in any meaningful way. Fragility speaks to an innate property of someone as opposed to a psychological process.[9]

I have thus found that Carol Anderson’s language of white rage offers a more robust conceptualization of what is happening inside the white body and mind. It aims to capture the elusive and disavowed aggression underlying the reactions of white-bodied individuals. This form of rage protects the white-bodied individuals from becoming aware of the cost of creating and maintaining their illusion of whiteness. Anderson writes that white rage is triggered by “blackness . . . with demands for full and equal citizenship,” a demand that exposes a trauma behind the imagined reality of a white racial identity.[10] This is a truth about whiteness that authors like James Baldwin, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Anderson, Mark Charles, Soong-Chan Rah, and Jennings (among many others) have worked to expose: whiteness requires Blackness, which means imagining oneself as white necessitates the continued oppression of others, and such oppression means that whiteness requires the trauma of perpetration.

To speak of this trauma of perpetration is a counterintuitive move that goes against most common assumptions around what and how trauma affects individuals and groups. Charles and Rah, in their book Unsettling Truths, invite readers to apply a perpetration-induced traumatic stress lens to the concept of white fragility. According to Rachel MacNair, who first coined the term, perpetration-induced (or participation-induced) traumatic stress is a form of posttraumatic stress disorder that is caused not from having suffered a terrible, traumatic event but from having caused it. In this way, she prioritizes the impact of an event on someone—that is, the psychological symptoms that follow from an experience (thought intrusions associated with the event and the avoidance of stimuli that remind one of the event)—rather than the experience alone. Charles and Rah argue that perpetration-induced traumatic stress offers a better framework for understanding the phenomenon of white rage—it is as if white-bodied individuals are regularly haunted by experiences that they don’t have words for and can’t integrate into the narrative of who they think they are, so they keep vigilant guard to protect themselves from ever acknowledging what they already know.[11] Protecting against that recognition can take many forms from increased arousal and hypervigilance to a dissociative pulling away in the moment.

What unites these symptoms, though, is a defensive posture to keep out what is experienced as a threat to the self. MacNair’s research indicated that those who had perpetrated trauma on others displayed symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder that were just as strong as and often stronger than those who were victimized. Or as Socrates notes, “The doer of injustice is more miserable than the sufferer.”[12] Additionally, these trauma symptoms can stem from actions that are not explicitly against one’s held beliefs, such as killing enemy combatants in war, and guilt need not be present, even if guilt is often associated with perpetration-induced traumatic stress. That is, we may display perpetration-induced traumatic stress symptoms while not being consciously aware of having done something that we thought was wrong, bad, or sinful. This is especially relevant in the context of white rage given that many white-bodied people don’t consider themselves to have overtly engaged in any active, violent racist behavior, and so they aren’t aware of any feelings of guilt. Using this lens to understand the defensive posture of white-bodied people to conversations about systemic racism allows us to conceptualize the reactions beyond fragility and to give language to the unconscious, embodied response that is an aggressive resistance to recognizing what they already know.

Interpassivity and Perpetration-Induced Traumatic Stress

Before fully applying a perpetration-induced traumatic stress lens to white rage and white-bodied Americans who don’t think of themselves as racist, I must make two further points. Vamik Volkan has written extensively on the impact of trauma on the individual and social level for both victim and perpetrator, and understood in this way, trauma is not just an individual phenomenon; trauma also applies to mass cultural racial trauma, including events that are not tied to distinct memories or individual actions. Volkan’s work shows how one’s ancestors’ histories of trauma affect one’s own identity. He writes that “children develop general history-related unconscious fantasies because the traumatized self and object-images passed on to the children by their ancestors become amalgamated with their identity as a member of the traumatized larger group, which is part of their core identity.”[13] In other words, the experiences and memories—or lived history—of parents and grandparents are passed down to children in their very identity and group belonging, regardless of whatever learned history was explicitly taught. Crucially, this suggests that trauma transmission is not merely biological or explicit; it is also social and unconscious. Therefore, being identified as white means incorporating a traumatized core identity into one’s self and imagined reality, regardless of one’s individual family ancestry or conscious knowledge and belief. As Charles and Rah write, “White America could not perpetrate five hundred years of dehumanizing injustice without traumatizing itself.”[14]

The next point to highlight concerns the concept of interpassivity as a form of disavowed participation. Interpassivity is a term that comes from the philosophy world (more particularly, aesthetics) and was coined by Robert Pfaller when he combined the terms interactivity and passivity.[15] Interpassivity describes the way that people allow an other to enjoy or consume for them. This again sounds counterintuitive. Pfaller uses the example of canned laughter on a sitcom to show the way the show does the laughing and enjoying for you. In this way you may sit and watch the show, displaying no emotion or engagement, but still leave with an experience of having enjoyed it. Beyond art, Žižek has expanded the concept to include a defensive compromise through the use of dissociation and repression.[16] He suggests that through interpassivity we can remain passive in terms of our own actions, maintaining an appearance of innocence and thereby avoiding feelings of guilt, while still benefiting from the acts done by an other. We end up substituting our own conscience for a naive observer who is content with the appearance of innocence. Thus, as long as it looks as if we didn’t do it, we can let the act be and avoid any sense of guilt or remorse.

The other who acts for us in many cases in modern American society is some system or organization—a structure in place of an individual. We blame the system for all the problems while still benefiting from those very ills. We thus deny our participation and stay insulated from facing the truth of our complicity. The housing crisis in the United States is one example of this compromise loophole. Most homeowners who think of themselves as good are very quick to verbally assent to caring for the unhoused, but they also fail to recognize how their rising property values are directly connected to the continued oppression of the unhoused and other marginalized groups. As just one example of such oppression, many city municipalities use an armed police force (among other measures) to move the unhoused to other cities instead of supporting programs to assist them. These kinds of responses keep the problem out of our backyards, and residents are protected from having to see the human cost of their real estate value rising.[17] The power and privilege of their socioeconomic status insulates their imagined reality. 

Applying interpassivity to whiteness, then, makes clear how white-bodied Americans like me interpassively participate in a white supremacist society, enjoying the benefits of being centrally located in that hierarchical, racial caste system while remaining individually naive and ignorant of our complicity. Interpassivity helps maintain a gap between what I know and what I recognize so I can live as if I don’t know. It maintains a space for simultaneous “knowing and not knowing.”[18] White-bodied Americans’ privileged, central status thus insulates and protects us from seeing our interpassive participation and investment in those very oppressive systems. The details of these systems have long been highlighted at work in, for example, the justice system’s disproportionate incarceration of Black Americans or the continued police brutality toward communities of color. As white-bodied Americans, we interpassively disavow our white rage, making sure we aren’t personally involved in direct, overt aggression while allowing the police and courts to enact it for us. As Anderson writes, “White rage is not about visible violence, but rather works its way through the courts, the legislatures, and a range of government bureaucracies. It wreaks havoc subtly, almost imperceptibly.”[19]

But we nevertheless still participate in the system. The naive stance thus has to be maintained through a constant and active disavowal as the truth of the interpassive compromise tries to press itself into our awareness, disrupting our malignant imagined reality. This speaks to many white-bodied Americans’ inability to engage or thoughtfully reflect on the social or systemic aspects of racism, instead insisting on their lack of individual, purposeful engagement with racism. I can maintain the illusion of my innocence as long as racism is confined to deliberate, personal acts of violence. As soon as we allow for a broader, systemic understanding, my innocence is not lost but exposed as disavowed rage. I can no longer hide behind the external appearance as if I didn’t know. My ignorance was never about naivete but about denying perpetration. In short, by moving to the systemic, my interpassive loophole fails, and I’m faced with what I’ve always known but wouldn’t recognize.

One of the clearest examples of this active, aggressive denial of the systemic can be seen in the white evangelical church’s resistance to critical race theory. For example, at the 2021 American Association of Christian Counselors conference, Josh McDowell, a well-known, white-bodied evangelical apologist, gave a talk where he stated that “with CRT they speak structurally. The Bible speaks individually. Make sure you get that. That’s a big difference.”[20] The need to silence and avoid any discussion of the structural highlights interpassivity at work. McDowell’s strong reaction to critical race theory is, thus, a manifestation of his white rage and this interpassivity. In other words, the compromise loophole of benefitting from oppression while avoiding responsibility closes when the social, systemic, and historical aspects are revealed, leaving him exposed as a participant in perpetration. Critical race theory, therefore, threatens to dismantle the interpassive disavowal as interpassivity falls apart when we are able to recognize and see past our as if denial.

Recognition, though, is not the end. It’s barely a beginning. Interpassivity and perpetration-induced traumatic stress show us how limited information and knowledge are in bringing about change. There is much more happening in our bodies and our unconscious than beliefs and ideas. White-body supremacy is not a mere knowledge problem.[21] Awareness of trauma is not the same as healing from it. Growth requires, among other things, repetition—being able to pause and feel the visceral manifestations of white rage without moving to doing, reacting, fixing, projecting, or justifying. Growth means returning to a shared history, embracing the social and systemic, and recognizing all of our forms of denial and avoidance. Such acts require white-bodied beings to resist their defensive retreat to individualism or paternalism, leaning instead into the risk of a more vulnerable community and a more collective identity than many white-bodied Americans seem able to imagine. This also requires a resistance to the defensive retreat to individualism, as we lean instead into the risk of vulnerable community. Developing the grit to maintain the recognition and continue to own our own perpetration so as to then work to enact change is not accomplished overnight, if ever in our lifetimes; it must be approached in terms of “generations, if not centuries.”[22]

Returning to the parking lot and my eighteen-year-old self standing there, not having words for what had just happened, we can now begin to apply the constructs we’ve engaged. I, a young white-bodied man, was not experiencing a fragility at having to face my own part in a racial narrative. I was getting in touch with a rage. I was suddenly forced to recognize myself as not just me, an individual, but also me as a member of an oppressive group—a recognition I wanted to avoid. The look in her eyes tore past my interpassive disavowal and revealed to me what it means to imagine myself as white. I had lived my life believing that, because my personal experience was different—I had grown up in Turkey—I was somehow separate from the white supremacy that undergirds so much of American society. I, after all, was a good white-bodied person. I knew history. But this defense rang hollow that evening, as I could no longer avoid recognizing and feeling how I was born into a narrative. I am part of a story. I participate in a system. I was raised with particular fantasies, object images, group identities, cultural practices, family histories, and personal narratives that are, in the end, inseparable from the perpetration of racial trauma. I inhabit a body, a white body, that carries with it everything that has been mapped onto it from generation to generation: raping, enslaving, lynching, colonizing, and oppressing others. That evening I wasn’t just Paul needing help. I was a white-bodied man in an empty parking lot in South Carolina expecting a Black woman to help me.

In the moments that followed her flight, my white rage fueled my response as I pathologized her and defended my malformed reality, denying my visceral reaction. “How could I be threatening? What’s wrong with her? How could she think I was dangerous? I’m obviously just asking for help.” Anything to keep the problem and focus on her instead of a collective we. Baldwin was right: “History is not the past, it is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.”[23]

In that moment I was reaching for anything I could to keep from recognizing myself in that history. My resistance to seeing and feeling my place in a shared story of race and oppression was an enactment of my interpassive disavowal. It was a desperate attempt to insulate me from a truth that was coursing through my body: the truth of my malignant imagined identity. It was my own perpetration-induced traumatic reaction—my white rage. I was willing to pathologize, demonize, and objectify her to keep me feeling better—to keep me from seeing myself.

[1] My maleness and social class (among other social locations) were of course also present in this interaction, but I am choosing to focus on the impact of whiteness for the sake of this essay.

[2] For whiteness as imagined, see Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (New York, NY: Spiegel and Grau, 2015).

[3] Watkins and Shulman, Toward Psychologies of Liberation (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).

[4] For the social location of whiteness, see Resmaa Menakem, My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies (Las Vegas, NV: Central Recovery, 2017); for how whiteness transcends ethnic or national identity, see Willie James Jennings, After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2020); for the “social geography of race,” see Ruth Frankenberg, “Growing up White: Feminism, Racism and the Social Geography of Childhood,” Feminist Review 45 (1993): 55, https://doi.org/10.2307/1395347; and for the centeredness of whiteness in the United States, see Lynne M. Jacobs, “Learning to Love White Shame and Guilt: Skills for Working as a White Therapist in a Racially Divided Country,” International Journal of Psychoanalytic Self Psychology 9, no. 4 (2014): 297–312, https://doi.org/10.1080/15551024.2014.948365.

[5] For the identification of unseen social architectures, see Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall (London, UK: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014); and for race-based caste systems, see Isabel Wilkerson, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (New York, NY: Random House, 2020).

[6] For our relational self-images, see Daniel J. Siegel, The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are (New York, NY: Guilford, 2020); and for distorted self-perceptions related to whiteness ideologies, see Slavoj Žižek, Less than Nothing (New York, NY: Verso Books, 2013). [two diacriticals in this reference]

[7] It is important to note that jumping too quickly to rebuilding is often done in the service of avoiding feelings of guilt or affecting actual change; many white-body individuals then create the same white supremacist structures under different names.

[8] Jennings, “Can White People Be Saved?” in Can White People Be Saved? Triangulating Race, Theology and Mission, ed. Love L. Sechrest, Johnny Ramirez-Johnson, and Amos Young (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2018), 29.

[9] See DiAngelo, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism (London, UK: Penguin Books, 2018).

[10] Carol Anderson, White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide (New York, NY: Bloomsbury, 2016), 3.

[11] See Charles and Rah, Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2019); and Rachel MacNair, Perpetration-Induced Traumatic Stress: The Psychological Consequences of Killing (Lincoln, NE: Praeger/Greenwood, 2005); and Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th ed. (Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association, 2013). It’s important to note that the literature around trauma is incredibly rich, complex, and diverse. What is presented here is a very brief overview of particular diagnostic conceptualizations.

[12] See Plato, Gorgias 479.

[13] Volkan, Gabriele Ast, and William F. Greer Jr., The Third Reich in the Unconscious: Transgenerational Transmission and Its Consequences (New York, NY: Routledge, 2014), 41; italics in original. For other works from Volkan on the effects of trauma, see Volkan, Animal Killer: Transmission of War Trauma from One Generation to the Next (London, UK: Karnac, 2014); and Volkan, Nazi Legacy: Depositing, Transgenerational Transmission, Dissociation, and Remembering through Action (New York, NY: Routledge, 2018). Volkan’s work has earned him awards for how he has addressed interethnic conflict and peacemaking, which stands in stark contrast to the deserved outrage he has faced regarding his reluctance to recant his previous work in supporting anti-LGBTQIA associations, literature, and therapy.

[14] Charles and Rah, Unsettling Truths, 176. For trauma and the contrast between lived and learned histories, see Roger Frie, Not in My Family: German Memory and Responsibility after the Holocaust (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2017).

[15] See Robert Pfaller, Interpassivity: The Aesthetics of Delegated Enjoyment (Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press, 2017).

[16] See Žižek, Less than Nothing. [see 2 diacriticals]

[17] See Binyamin Applebaum, “America’s Cities Could House Everyone if They Chose to,” New York Times, May 15, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/15/opinion/sunday/homeless-crisis-affordable-housing-cities.html.

[18] Frie, Not in My Family, 177.

[19] Anderson, White Rage, 3. For additional examples of white American participation in systems that oppress Black Americans, also see Coates, Between the World and Me andMenakem, My Grandmother’s Hands.

[20] McDowell quoted in Bob Smietana, “Christian Author Josh McDowell Steps Away from Ministry after Comments about Black, Minority Families,” Religion News Service,September 19, 2021, https://religionnews.com/2021/09/19/christian-author-josh-mcdowell-denounces-crt-says-black-and-minority-families-dont-value-hard-work-and-education/.

[21] See Todd McGowan, “The Bedlam of the Lynch Mob: Racism and Enjoying through the Other,” in Lacan and Race: Racism, Identity, and Psychoanalytic Theory, ed. Sheldon George and Derek Hook (New York, NY: Routledge, 2022), 33.

[22] Menakem, The Quaking of America: An Embodied Guide to Navigating Our Nation’s Upheaval and Racial Reckoning (Las Vegas, NV: Central Recovery, 2022), 164.

[23] Baldwin and Raoul Peck, I Am Not Your Negro (New York, NY: Vintage International, 2018), 107.