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  • Lisa Blair, M.A.

Erasing Race: The Dangers of Individualism, White Privilege, and Spiritual Bypassing

“We’re one, but we’re not the same

We get to carry each other, carry each other”

—“One” on Achtung Baby written by

Adam Clayton, Dave Evans, Larry Mullen, and Paul David Hewson of U2[1]

One of the many privileges of being a white person in America is that we don’t have to think about the color of our skin. This is not something we earned; it’s a condition we were born into and one that most of us remain entirely unconscious of, especially if we live in segregated (that is, mostly white) communities.

When we go about our lives largely unaware of our whiteness, we have the luxury of thinking of ourselves as individuals rather than as members of a race. This leads us to a tendency to do a spiritual bypass around racial issues. I will explain.

Whites, people of color, and identity

Beverly Daniel Tatum, former president of Spelman College, conducted a study on racial identity. She asked students from different backgrounds, races, ethnicities, classes, and personalities to complete the sentence “I am ,” using as many descriptors as they could think of in sixty seconds. Many students wrote down personality traits such as “shy,” “intelligent,” and “honest.” Students of color also wrote down their racial or ethnic group, such as Black, Puerto Rican, or Korean-American. In contrast, white students rarely mentioned being white. The students of color identified with their skin color, whereas the white students did not.[2]

People of color (POCs) don’t share the luxury of seeing themselves solely as individuals. Because their skin color alone is used to target them in violent and discriminatory ways, they cannot forget their skin color, nor the realities of what that skin color means for their lives.

Certainly, POCs within their own racial/ethnic circles experience themselves and each other as individuals with distinct personalities, interests, and viewpoints, just as whites do in their racial/ethnic circles. But on the societal level, they are reminded on a daily basis that they are more than individuals: They are members of a race, and they may never ever be able to voluntarily distance themselves from that racial group. They cannot avoid the violations committed against them by whites based solely on their skin color, from microaggressions like “Can I touch your hair?” to macroaggressions like racial slurs and institutionalized discrimination in employment, housing, and the legal system. While whites get treated like individuals who are worthy of trust, respect, and privilege, our citizens of color get treated like they are members of a group that is unworthy of trust, respect, or privilege—regardless of their individual achievements or actions.

These patterns of thinking about ourselves and others are deeply ingrained in white people. On the societal level, they can have disturbing consequences. Consider the term “Black-on-Black crime”—a phrase employed regularly by whites and the media to refer to crimes committed by Blacks on other Blacks. The phrase “white-on-white crime” is never used, despite the fact that the vast majority of perpetrators of violent crime victimize someone they know, i.e., someone who is a member of their own racial group. For example, in 2014, the FBI reported that 82.4% of whites were killed by other whites and 90% of Blacks were killed by other Blacks.[3] Nonetheless, whites regularly think and assert that Blacks killing Blacks is a serious problem that the Black community needs to address, while simultaneously ignoring the reality of “white-on-white crime,” let alone considering it a collective problem that the white community needs to address. Either “Black-on-Black crime” and “white-on-white crime” both exist or neither does, and there is simply crime.

Likewise, consider that when white men such as Dylann Roof or Jared Lee Loughner commit mass shootings, the media and the general white population label them as “mentally ill” and “lone wolves” and don’t mention their race. The white men are viewed as individuals with the characteristic of mental illness. But when African-Americans or Muslims commit crimes, they are called “Black thugs” or “Islamic terrorists”—lumped together and stereotyped according to their color, as if their race or religion were inherently violent.[4]

White individualism and spiritual bypassing

Shortly after the 2016 U.S. presidential election, a friend of mine who is a woman of color posted on Facebook about the fact that the majority of white women who voted cast their ballots for Trump. She expressed some (understandable) anger toward white women about this.

This is an excerpted response from a white woman, who said she voted for Hillary Clinton:

You…just put us all [white women] into a clump. Hellooo. We are not statistics. We are individuals, with our own opinions. And so many of us saw the craziness and ran the other way too. But the others won, majority or not.

The important thing is to stop creating a barrier and start thinking thoughts of togetherness. Stop looking at the color or the race and see each other as women, all struggling to find our way in the world. We need to build relationships with each other that transcends [sic] all the prejudice, simply by accepting each other as we are. The more we talk about the difference, the more we become part of the problem.

Here is my response to her:

You are doing what we call “spiritual bypass.” What you're saying is ignorant and hurtful and dangerous. We cannot and must not “think thoughts of togetherness” by stopping “looking at the color or race of each other” because the facts are that those whose color and race are not white in our country, are being systematically brutalized, terrorized, incarcerated, left behind, murdered, forgotten, excluded from all sorts of systems (medical, educational, legal, etc.) exactly because of the color of their skin. To deny race is a form of racism itself, like it or not.

In this exchange, the white woman says, “You…just put us all [white women] into a clump. . . . We are individuals, with our own opinions.” It’s true that my Black friend did lump white women together as a group. However, when a Black person lumps whites into a group, it’s fundamentally different than when whites lump Black people into a group—because whites do so within the context of centuries of racial oppression. White women as a group enjoy innumerable privileges afforded to them by their whiteness, in contrast to Black women as a group.

In the 2016 election, white women as a group voted for Donald Trump, whereas women of color as a group voted for Hillary Clinton, exposing a clear divide along racial lines. This fact, coupled with the reality of white privilege injuring people of color, leads me to view my friend’s treatment of white women in her post as completely valid.

“Spiritual bypassing” is a term coined by writer John Welwood as a "tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks.”[5] So many white women (and white men) do a spiritual bypass around race. They say we should see all humans as “one” based on a spiritual idea that we are all—at the core, underneath it all—connected as one human family, and that to focus on surface differences does everyone a disservice. They argue that focusing on race means dwelling on how we are different rather than how we are similar.

I agree with this viewpoint on a deep level. I do believe we are all connected, that we are each tied to one another in an undeniable way. In fact, I believe that if something happens to human beings on the other side of the Earth, that this affects me too, on some level. This philosophy has a place in one’s heart and spiritual practice. However, I also believe that this viewpoint is dangerously flawed when it’s asserted in the context of racial injustice and the arena of public discourse. Any assertion of oneness must never trump (no pun intended) our relentless quest for racial justice for our Black, Brown, and Red sisters and brothers.

“All Lives Matter” and spiritual bypassing

Whites’ persistent denial of our own “whiteness,” and our insistence that we are all simply individuals, allows us to deny race altogether and instead promote the position of “oneness.” For example, the “All Lives Matter” response to the Black Lives Matter movement is spiritual bypassing on a societal level. The “All Lives Matter” message is that all lives are equally important and valuable and that we should not assert one race over the other. In theory, this should be true, but in reality it is not.

White America’s ignorance and refusal of this reality is deadly. Consider just a handful of some of the more highly profiled police shootings of unarmed Black men (and a child) since 2014: Jordan Edwards, Alton Sterling, Walter Scott, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Akai Gurley, and Tamir Rice.[6] Thus, the need for the creation of the Black Lives Matter movement—to call attention to the extrajudicial killing of Black people by police and vigilantes, but to go beyond that as well. The movement’s guiding principles state, “Black Lives Matter is an ideological and political intervention in a world where Black lives are systemically and intentionally targeted for demise. It is an affirmation of Black folks’ contributions to this society, our humanity, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression.”[7]

It is white America’s collective white blinders to our skin color and the respective privileges we experience based on that color that lead us to dissociate from our membership in a racial group. When we disconnect from belonging to the racial group called “whites,” we can quickly make the leap to “oneness” since, from our point of view, there is no real difference among people. To spiritually bypass racial differences, and to assert “oneness” above all else, means dismissing and denying the reality of what people of color experience every day. When we whites insist on oneness, we necessarily stop insisting on social justice because we can’t afford to notice the differences.

* * *

[1] The song “One” was written during a particularly conflictual time among the members of the band U2 based on their differences about their musical direction. Although most listeners of the song believe it is about a feeling of “oneness” this is not actually what the band intended. Bono described the song's theme as such: “It is a song about coming together, but it's not the old hippie idea of "Let's all live together." It is, in fact, the opposite. It's saying, "We are one, but we're not the same." It's not saying we even want to get along, but that we have to get along together in this world if it is to survive. It's a reminder that we have no choice.”

Hilburn, Robert (12 September 1993). U2’s pride (in the name of songs). Los Angeles Times. (p. 62).

[2] Tatum, B. D. (2000). The complexity of identity: “Who am I?.” In Adams, M., Blumenfeld, W. J., Hackman, H. W., Zuniga, X., Peters, M. L. (Eds.), Readings for diversity and social justice: An anthology on racism, sexism, anti-semitism, heterosexism, classism and ableism (pp. 9-14). New York: Routledge.

[3] Lichfield, G. (23 November 2015). Here are four charts on race and murder in America to tweet back at Donald Trump. Quartz.

Harriot, M. (4 August 2016). Open letter to white people who are obsessed with black-on-black crime. The Root.

Coddett, K. (2 March 2015). White on white crime: an unspoken tragedy. Huffpost.

[4] Butler, A. (18 June 2015). Shooters of color are called ‘terrorists’ and ‘thugs.’ Why are white shooters called ‘mentally ill’? The Washington Post.

[5] Welwood, J. Interviewed by Fossella, T. Human nature, Buddha nature: On spiritual bypassing, relationship, and the dharma.

[6] A look at high-profile police shootings of black people. (18 May 2017). CBS Minnesota.

[7] Black Lives Matter. (2017).

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