In Paul Hoard’s essay for The Other Journal on race and white rage, he describes a personal “awakening” experience as a white-bodied cisgender male that is honest and courageous, particularly in a current political context that has more volume than direction. Hoard steps into a dialogue that is many generations old, and yet we’ve only begun to have the conversations we must if we are to become aware of the internalized aspects of our racialized society, and so I am grateful for the direction he takes the conversation.
As a person of color, I am not one who believes it is possible, or even worthwhile, to try to purge ourselves of all aspects of white supremacy. However, we must work to rid ourselves of the residuals of the American racial caste system, which remain a source of profound separation and persistent alienation. In practice, I believe our struggle is better framed in the movement toward a desired way of relating rather than the elimination of negative outcomes. Theologically and spiritually, this means that our work must take us through the political discourse of justice and liberation (i.e., systems and structures) and then toward a more intimate understanding of belonging and kinship (i.e., relatedness).
Moreover, as a former family therapist, I know that human systems change when we develop new patterns of interaction, when our words and stories become new ways of imagining and relating. We must see new ways to engage with one another, develop new intentions toward one another, and restructure the patterns that held the old ways of relating in place. This is also true when we pursue change in larger systems. Different patterns of interaction are needed to shift the mental models, even after structural alterations occur. It is when we ignore those different patterns that we run the risk of our systems returning to their former state. The discourse on white rage allows us to consider how we relate in conscious and nonconscious ways—the things we do to perpetuate what we hope to overcome.
I found Hoard’s exploration of this discourse a thoughtful invitation, particularly as a way to engage the conscious and the unconscious aspects of our identities and cultural legacies in the hope that we might see a different quality of social connection. He shares about two types of rupture—one within himself and another between him and a woman in a parking lot. These are missed chances to engage differently beyond the social norms, but Hoard’s awareness that we must see ourselves in need of each other’s work is compelling and the start of a different conversation. Indeed, if we are to engage this discourse deeply enough to transform the systems that constrain us, we will need to return to the premise that we belong to each other.
I’m aware of the complexity of that statement, so let me emphasize that we need to attend to our communion over our sense of agency. Without an orientation shift toward communion, our collective fears will push us into groups of confirmed biases that operate within frames of scarcity and threat. The ideals of tolerance and kindness will not be sufficient to transform these systems in the mind. A similar hard truth must be said to people of color: if we are waiting until the mental systems of white supremacy are fully deconstructed, we wait in vain. It is a system of collective defense, and it will not be successfully dismantled under threat or duress. Moreover, if we remain socially separated and if mere acceptance or racial tolerance is our level of risk or mutual commitment, we should not waste too much of each other’s time.
Acceptance cannot deliver much as it relates to structural social change, and it is more likely to leave us cycling in and out of pleasant but unsafe interactions. However, these engagements can reveal how we are constrained by our contexts, social identities, and roles. And I am convinced that our work is in these spaces of engagement, our work is to choose how to act within these constraints. We act so that we can become, so that we may pursue a deeper communion. This, I believe, requires a psychological and spiritual exploration of the self within our cultural frame. And it is in these spaces, between the body, spirit, and the culture, that we must find a different intention and a different safety. Some would argue that, in so doing, we might end up finding a different form of the sacred.
As you read the two stories that Hoard and I offer, you will encounter our inability to effectively move beyond the rules of our context and the constraints of our place. His brief interaction with a woman in a parking lot and my story with a man on a phone call have particular settings, expectations, and constraints. His story takes place in a community in South Carolina; mine, a generation earlier, takes place outside a large city on the east coast of the United States. Although the times and context are different, the stories are held together by a racial caste system and the constraints in our interpersonal engagements. I believe that any examination of white rage must be seen within the context and the constraints that Black-bodied selves and white-bodied selves experience when moving beyond their designated (caste) roles.
THE PHONE CALL
It was over forty years ago when I first experienced a white body moving back and forth between fear and anger. I was a recent college graduate, working as a counselor on an all-night call-in hotline, trying to make a little money while searching for a full-time job. One night, I received a call from someone I quickly identified as a white male who had been drinking. I asked the man how I could be helpful. He wandered around a few topics that were stressful for him but soon landed on talking about “niggers.”
I realized then that he couldn’t tell that I was a Black man. I was stunned to hear him spill his prejudices so freely, but I knew that when I spoke in my “college voice,” white people sometimes misread my race on the phone. It was a tone and style I adopted, almost unconsciously, whenever I was in white cultural space. I was socialized to assume this voice as a coping strategy that would somehow keep me safe from open hostility and rejection. But this call realized my other, related fear—that I would get a white caller who could not tell that I was Black and that I would need to hide my racial identity for the caller to remain open to my assistance.
We had been instructed to limit the length of our calls, so we could serve as many people as possible, and given that most of the calls I received at the hotline lasted fewer than fifteen minutes, I decided not to agitate this man further by trying to correct his perceptions of me. I calculated that if I remained mostly quiet he would be served, and I would be safe. He was not that curious about who I was; he just wanted someone to listen to him. However, as he talked, I felt a growing desire to hear him, to try to make sense of this man beyond his hatred and disgust. He was not attacking me directly—just people like me.
I was also influenced—perhaps held in that moment—by the traditions taught by my parents and lived by my ancestors, which held that Jesus said to forgive your enemies and those who persecute you. I also used self-talk to lower the feelings of threat in my body, and this gave me enough space to resist becoming reactive. And as my sense of feeling threatened diminished, my curiosity increased. I was experiencing something that I had never felt before: I was, for the first time, being addressed as an insider in a white world. That is, I was invited into an experience beyond the constraints of my Black-bodied frame, beyond who I was in the world.
I thought my listening and neutral stance would eventually soothe this man, but he struggled to manage his internal sense of anxiety. His exhausting rants seemed to be his only relief, as he would settle down only to work himself back up again, aided by an alcohol-induced cycle. “Niggers on my TV!” he fumed. “Niggers trying to take over. Everywhere I look there are niggers all over!”
The man was incredulous that Black bodies could be perceived as equal in status to his own white caste. Brown-skinned people presented an existential threat to his mental model of a coherent world. And the idea that his children would be exposed to a Black world caused him great distress. He was in full defense mode, off and on, for almost forty minutes, weaving together stories of threat, victimization, and exposure.
What became clear was that underneath all of the man’s drunken rage was terror at what he perceived as a growing threat: Black people were bad for the country, invading spaces everywhere and having a polluting influence on his children. He used the word nigger so many times that it was desensitizing to my body. I grew numb to the word and experienced a bit of dissociation during some of the conversation.
In truth, the pervasive feeling of our encounter was sadness. I believed he would never find a way to integrate the experience of Black bodies and white bodies without some degree of threat and disgust. For someone in his social location and privilege (i.e., white-body supremacy), he felt more trapped and constrained than powerful, more pitiful than to be feared. His belief was in a world that I could not inhabit without injury, one where God did not love me like God loved him. This was a world in which I did not belong and a God I did not know how to serve.
After about forty minutes, I began to feel some guilt, as if I were betraying his trust. He was vulnerable and perceived me to be a sympathetic insider. It was clear he had hoped I would understand him within his world, and it was strange for me to realize that I had made some connection with this man. In an emotional sense, I could understand his fear of losing what now seemed fragile and fleeting, of being made an outsider in a world where he thought he was safe. But I also remember feeling a growing conflict, as if I were betraying my people by letting this go on, by listening to this filth. Throughout the conversation, I hoped he would move on to other topics that I assumed must be more challenging in his life: his spouse or stresses around work, maybe more about his concerns with raising his children. But I suspect he felt more of a failure when engaging these central areas of his life, and so he ruminated on Blackness in hopes that I would join his ritual of scapegoating.
I knew from his pace that I would need to interrupt him to end the call, but I began to feel that I owed him some kind of truth before we ended. He had needed a safe space to regain a sense of control over the parts within him that were full of fear and then rage, but I needed to release the weight of his fears and anger and those failed parts of himself that he had projected onto Black bodies; it was not mine to bear or to take in.
When he paused for a moment, I said, “I need to tell you something. I’m a nigger.”
“Yes, I’m a nigger.”
My statement threw the conversation into a strange space of disorientation, as if we had entered the zero gravity of a parabolic flight. The disorientation makes it hard for me to recall the specifics of the ten minutes that followed, but I know that he paused and then said something that surprised me by its lack of hostility. I know that in those ten minutes in which the laws of racial-role gravity didn’t seem to apply, I tried to explain that I thought I should tell him that I was Black since he was so angry with “them.” I may have even said I appreciated his honesty. I recall that his emotions seemed to shift from anger to something more placid. He didn’t offer an apology, and I imagine that an apology would have felt false. But he did express gratitude for my listening, and I feel certain that he also ended the call disoriented with a bit of shame.
AFTER THE CALL
The man who called me that night was not expecting to receive help or empathy from someone in a group of people he devalued (i.e., an outsider), nor did he anticipate receiving understanding from someone he perceived as a threat. I don’t believe he felt threatened interpersonally when I offered my revelation, but our social identities—those roles and rules that define our social interactions—were somewhat disrupted. This loss of orientation happens when the caste system is violated, because those roles and rules have given us a “false sense of comfort, and made us feel that the world was in order.”
In the man’s cultural frame, he was the insider, the one with pigmentation and ancestry that represented a superior culture and broader worldview. His concern for the erosion of that order and, subsequently, the corrupting force of Blackness was at the heart of his fears. Conversely, hidden from him, I was the outsider, identified through my physical features, which were symbolic of my constraints, both as intellectual inferiority and from an underdeveloped culture. He could not conceive of me as anything other than his white “helper,” the person who had heard his fears and sympathized with his distress, one who could understand him as only another white male body could. These were very different expectations or rules than he would hold for a social engagement with a Black man.
When I became a Black man and an outsider to him, he realized that he had identified emotionally with someone he should not, and he had thereby betrayed some unspoken rules of membership as a white male body. This was an internal constraint he felt from his social role and caste membership. And what I imagined was more challenging for him was that he had placed me in a power position in our short engagement, committing the very status violation he was ranting about. All of this was beyond the informal rule set of how the world was supposed to work for both of us. For him, this violation of the social constraints stimulated a sense of intrapersonal threat, and for me, it produced a brief moment of narcissistic satisfaction.
As I have mentioned, I also felt disoriented as we ended the call. My temporary white helper space did not feel fully safe as we both returned to the legacy roles inherited within the social order. What it meant to be Black-bodied was to be constantly navigating fears and anger—both my own and those of white bodies. I had learned that social success was dependent on my ability to assist white folks, to make them feel comfortable with me and less afraid of my presence. This also meant I had learned the dance of managing the perception of equal or superior status, unless, of course, it was in the arena of sports or entertainment. More specifically, I had learned to avoid the threat of displaced white male anger and certainly those spouting racial epithets and abuses.
It was clear, before my caller ever reached for his phone, that he was already feeling threatened—teetering back and forth between a fight-or-flight desperation. In his world, it was clearly acceptable to scapegoat Black bodies and to mask threat and shame with rage. In my overlapping world, anger and fear also mingled, but they were suppressed, frozen, or muted to remain an immobile emotion, not without shame. Anger in Black male bodies was—and is—perceived as more dangerous in its expression, so it had to be constrained or redirected inward and between.
To my surprise, I had escaped this exchange without his anger being turned toward me after having exposed his vulnerability and fears. I had believed that the power shifts during the engagement were dramatic and enough to stimulate a betrayal rage, and I didn’t know how to trust that the man wouldn’t unleash his anger as a way to help him return his sense of control and social dominance. Moreover, I took care to avoid being activated by white male anger, so that it would not stir the collective rage that was caged inside of me. We were two bodies living in a social order in which our roles as white men and Black men were structured in such a way that made a type of true communion nearly impossible. In my body-sense, this relationship would always carry a potential for displacement, scapegoating, distortion, frustration, oppression, and the denial of fear and rage. I’m not fully aware what his body-sense communicated to him, but the implicit rules and the explicit roles have always made these relations rigid and fragile.
This interaction was more complex than I understood at the time, and my understanding now is shaped by years of studying cultural and racial dynamics. However, in less than an hour, this interaction reshaped my sense of self and my perceptions of my body in relation to the supremacy of whiteness and white male-bodied superiority. I didn’t have the language for it then, but I felt a deeper understanding of the ways that I was not just the son of James and Ruth but also a living metaphor (i.e., young, black male) that cued up white-skinned bodies to an experience of fear and shame, all of which led to their sense of threat. This knowing came as I was experiencing my caller’s perception that I was white and male, and he was offering, in a brief moment, the resonant awareness of a caste insider. I belonged because he judged my speech pattern as a caste signifier and could not see my skin. In that moment, it was no longer a matter of my inferior reasoning in this skin, or my expressions of base appetites as an offspring of an underdeveloped people, but that my embodied self was an existential threat to the world as he knew it.
My caller, in his intoxicated rant, was fearful of what Black skin represented, what it might do to his children’s future. The notion that I was hated and devalued for my pigment and culture was amended with the understanding that I was feared because I could disrupt his internal sense of supremacy within the caste. I needed to be discounted or made less salient a threat to white-skinned imaginations and their ways of being. He talked of Blackness like a virus that needed to be contained, isolated from his white-skinned world. He feared that somehow his children would be exposed and corrupted by an evil uncontained, and not just from an interpersonal encounter, but from the visibility and influence of Black-skinned bodies even at a distance. We could not have a transforming interaction because the social roles we inhabited, their rules of engagement (and our loyalty to them) and what they represented, constrained any real discourse in which we might have engaged. Together, we could not move beyond the constraints of white supremacy and the caste system that necessitated the devaluation of Blackness. Neither of us was able to reorient around a new reality, a new way of being with each other.
I’d been socialized to play my role in a cultural narrative that institutionalized implicit assumptions of race and gender. As a broader culture, we value individuality so highly that we sometimes devalue or discount our social nature and the influences of the collective on us. We are individual agents, but we also take up roles and live out cultural scripts, including constraints, that allow us to fit in and belong to our social groups (i.e., intersectionality) and find our social place (i.e., embedded and belonging). We have individual concerns, but we’re also embedded in a web of social, political, and theological interactions that structure our feelings and give us a sense of our time and place. My caller was aware that his identity, his roles, and his sense of institutionalized superiority felt fragmented by his exposure to Black bodies in white-bodied roles. The threat he felt was to an idea that to dilute or contaminate whiteness and the institutions it has generated was a violation of a pure form and that they would then be ruined and lose their efficacy and divinity.
I would suggest that this form of white rage is different in quality from Hoard’s rage of narcissistic injury (or disillusionment), as that loss was about the constraints and limitations felt and not the constraints being released. For my caller, it was not just the pigmentation that was an affront but the displacement of his role, his power and control, and hence his social safety. He could not confess this vulnerability and rage to anyone other than someone like him, someone with whom he could identify, someone who in partnership could understand the sense of threat when the constraints to Black bodies were released, a white-bodied male. No longer was he able to perceive himself superior or safe, able to wall himself off from this “wretched of the earth.” He was now brought low by the exposure, and that somehow threatened his cultural hegemony and personal sense of control. To me, it felt like he was being frightened by ghosts, haunted by the fear of what would happen if the power dynamics and constraints were suddenly shifted. As if mere exposure would unleash specters of shame, contempt, violation, and annihilation.
A CALL FOR IMAGINATIVE REORIENTATIONS
So, where do we go from here? How do we hope for a real sense of personal and corporate change in our social relations? As a nation, we have made structural changes in the law, politics, civil rights, education policy, and voting rights, but areas of systemic bias persist (e.g., racialized housing segregation, mass incarceration and police violence, and unequal medical care). We also face the threat of racial retrenchment in behaviors and attitudes that seem more related to status or caste than overt racial policy or structural governance. Indeed, the racial caste system is the infrastructure of preference, privilege, and power that has shaped the social relations in this country and that continues to shape and form us. It is an informal system that constructed levels of human worth and a social separation based on pigmentation (i.e., heredity) and social status (i.e., heritage), a system that still restricts relations across racial and ethnic lines today.
Our two stories together reveal the ways these dynamics played out within two social contexts. My hope is that these stories help to locate us within local conversations that can extend beyond power, oppression, or the anti-wokism of political discourse. Our Gordian knot of race and caste will not be unraveled through political discourse, as our relations have become too “fixed and frozen.” Hence, we need a shift in orientation that would allow us to imagine a mutual belonging within a multiethnic community without the residual constraints of caste. Such a shift would alter the internalized roles and rules we hold that order and constrain our relating. We can find this sort of movement in the Gospel of Luke (4:18–19), when Jesus proclaims that the “disinherited” outsiders (the poor, the captive, the blind, the oppressed) are to become the recipients of God’s favor embodied in him. We also see rage erupt toward Jesus when he implies to those listening, positioned as insiders, that God will show favor to whomever God chooses (4:26). Jesus subverts the established social order by redrawing the lines of insiders and outsiders.
Of course, power and oppression must be faced, as structural constraints inhibit any hope of relating with reciprocity and mutuality. However, if we are unable to move the social discourse and our imaginations beyond power, politics, and agency to issues of communion and belonging, we will remain a fragmented collective. Without this profound reorientation toward connectedness, we are prone to perceiving what we already believe to be the order of things. The old roles and rules will draw us back into inhibiting constraints, and when we feel a sense of the threat (of each other), we will be compelled to rebuild institutions that protect our sectarian interests and beliefs.
 Hoard, “Beyond Fragility: Interpassive White Rage,” The Other Journal 35 (2023): #. [Fill in page number or link in place of # when known]
 Note that a mental model or frame contains organizing habits of converting experience into basic assumptions, ways of thinking, ways of acting, and notions of what is normative.
 For insights on the racial caste system within the United States, see Isabel Wilkerson, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent (New York, NY: Random House, 2020).
 See Resmaa Menakem, The Quaking of America: An Embodied Guide to Navigating Our Nation’s Upheaval and Racial Reckoning (Las Vegas, NV: Central Recovery, 2022).
 See René Girard, The Scapegoat, trans. Yvonne Freccero (Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 1986); and Arthur Colman, Up from Scapegoating: Awakening Consciousness in Groups (Wilmette, IL: Chiron, 1995). [See diacritial in Rene]
 See Wilkerson, Caste, 196.
 For insights on our cultural scripts, see Mary Midgley, The Myths We Live By (London, UK: Routledge, 2004).
 See Franz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, 60th anniversary ed., trans. Richard Philcox (New York, NY: Grove, 2021).
 See Wilkerson, Caste, 17.
 Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited (Richmond, VA: Friends United, 1976), 42.
 See Daniel J. Siegel, IntraConnected: MWe (Me + We) as the Integration of Self, Identity, and Belonging (New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 2023).