“A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”Howard Zahniser, Executive Director of The Wilderness Society and primary author of the Wilderness Act of 1964
Twenty years ago, I was standing in the middle of Ramsey’s Draft, a small river rushing through central Virginia. Ramsey’s Draft, also the namesake of the Wilderness Area it inhabits, moves swiftly through the George Washington and the Jefferson National Forests. From the parking lot off of Hanky Mountain Highway to the top of Hardscrabble Knob is about 7 miles, with only about a 2000 foot rise in elevation—numbers that could not daunt the type of hiker I was back then. But a Wilderness Area posed new challenges. Wilderness Areas like Ramsey’s Draft are governmental tracts of land set aside for scientific preservation and observation. There is minimal human imprint, so I had no trail at my feet. The land lies undisturbed. I walked the edge of the draft until I could penetrate no further through the overgrown flora, and then crossed the river in an effort to find my way. I crossed the river 14 times on the hike in.
Midway through the day, while slogging across the draft, I stopped in the middle of the river. It was May. Hot. But the water thrashed icily against my firmly rooted shins. I wanted a moment to take in the moment. A wind gently meandered through the forest, weaving itself in and out the northern red oaks, brushing past the eastern white pines, whispering to the sugar maples. A Blue Warbler, invisibly perched in the forest canopy, pushed out four staccato notes, followed by a fifth, rising note, a question echoing through the woods—imploring a response from a far away mate. The incessant onslaught of water, rushing around some rocks and over others, rolled the static of white noise from my feet up to my ears. Admiring the old-growth Canadian hemlock that lined the banks of the draft, while feeling the water slosh against my legs, I started thinking about that age-old, seemingly perfect metaphor of the river. A cathartic moment in nature. My great exhalation was a mere whisper in the onslaught of chaotic noise from the river. And then my mind was clear, but the significance of the moment was not. Standing in a river. Thinking about the river. What did this moment mean? What did this river mean? I took my sunglasses off to wipe my brow and everything made me squint. That big Virginia sky, that luminous sun pushing down, that radiant white light reflecting off the water. Washington. Jefferson. Everything was white. Everything was whiteness.
Whiteness is the river of my life. Every time I take a step, I’m in it. Whiteness surrounds me and pervades my every step.
Anytime someone steps in a river, a paradoxical truth emerges: The foot entering the river steps in a place where water comes together with other water in a singular and unique way. No one will ever put their foot in that same water, which rushes downstream immediately after it’s touched. But also, every time we step in that river, it’s still the same river. The micro-moments are ever changing. The macro river will forever be its namesake.
My movement through my life is a movement through whiteness. When I was young, moving through whiteness was easy. Comforting. Reassuring. I moved in spaces and systems meant for me. I was safe in school. I felt protected by law enforcement. My missteps were excused as “boys being boys.” My experience was centered. I was inherently valued in all spaces. But all of this ease came from ignorance. Because I didn’t understand the systems I was in, I didn’t fight against them. The serenity with which the river flowed for me hid the dangers it brought so many others. I didn’t fight against the river, moving perpendicular to its power. I flowed gently with it. I rode the current. I enjoyed all the wonderful things the river had to offer.
First noticing whiteness, then learning about it, then actively trying to dismantle it has changed my relationship to it. Doing years of internal work, questioning my learning, interrogating my biases, and analyzing the spaces I encounter have turned the comfort with which I previously navigated whiteness into a completely new journey. Instead of going with the flow of the river, I’m now pushing back against the current. My course is upstream. My direction is toward the source.
When we think in terms of rivers, we think of forever. Rivers are everlasting. They were here before us and they will be here after us. They are unstoppable. The earth cannot hold them—no, rivers carve deeper and deeper trenches into the land. Ramsey’s Draft has been flowing as long as whiteness. The water—eternally coming forth from the springs atop Hardscrabble Knob—seems impossible to stop. I could return to Ramsey’s Draft and trudge back into the middle of the draft. It would be the same river, yet it would be an entirely different one than the one I walked through 20 years ago. The same is true of whiteness. Every step is different yet every step is, in its own way, exactly the same. Every step reveals a new iteration of whiteness. Every step reveals whiteness that has always been there. Every step I take is a slog through whiteness. Can rivers be stopped? Can whiteness be stopped? The power of human ingenuity has led us to undiscovered places before. We’ve built dams to stop rivers far bigger and more powerful than Ramsey’s Draft. If we can only recognize the challenge ahead of us—collectively, all of us as white people—we can solve it.