Cloak of Innocence

Truly it seems as though we are living through a Renaissance of writing about the African American experience. It’s hard to keep up with it all, and if you’re like me, there’s only so much time in the day after work, after partnership and family. So in case you missed this one, I’m going to share a few of my favorite parts with you.

As an ordained Baptist minister, Dyson has all the eloquence and power of a great preacher and the book takes the form of a sermon, or, specifically, a “jeremiad, an extended lamentation about the woes we face, about the woes we embody,” as he puts it. Because we first must grieve, and our grief must be heard by those who have done us wrong, in order for us to move forward together.

In fact, GRIEVING is the first step in the Seven Steps to Healing that I propose in my book Decolonizing Wealth. We cannot hope to cure our racist, divisive, exploitative institutions and culture unless we take the time to acknowledge the pain upon which our very society is built.

Over and over reading this book I was struck by Dyson’s deeply compassionate, tender tone when addressing White folks. In my own book I did my best to speak from a similar place, as a Native American. In the Welcome to my readers, I addressed those who have the most privilege:

“Reading this book may feel like I’m yanking off the Band-Aid. There may be moments of discomfort. I invite you to sit with it, in the understanding that I am motivated by love, and that things have been just as uncomfortable, if not really painful, for many of us, for a very long time.”

But with all his empathy and compassion, Dyson does not shy away from calling out and confronting White fragility, the “cloak of innocence,” that most White folks cling to, denying how they benefit from a world made by and for them.

“The white person we love is no longer an individual, but, in their insistence on innocence, they are all of whiteness,” he writes. “They have chosen whiteness over us.”

“In my insistence on holding you accountable for privilege, for tiny but terrifying aggressions, for any of the everyday racial slights that reinforce white supremacy, I have invoked again your sense of your guilt. I am not just a person, but a pointing finger, a scold, a challenge to the authority you were given as a birthright and that you cannot bear to relinquish.”

“Beloved, to be white is to know that you have at your own hand, or by extension, through institutionalized means, the power to take black life with impunity. It’s the power of life and death that gives whiteness its force, its imperative. White life is worth more than black life. This is why the cry ‘Black Lives Matter’ angers you so greatly, why it is utterly offensive and effortlessly revolutionary. It takes aim at white innocence and insists on uncovering the lie of its neutrality, its naturalness, its normalcy.”

“The most radical action a white person can take is to acknowledge this denied privilege, to say ‘Yes, you’re right. In our institutional structures, and in deep psychological structures, our underlying assumption is that our lives are worth more than yours.’”

“There is a big difference between the act of owning up to your part in perpetuating white privilege and the notion that you alone, or mostly, are responsible for the unjust system we fight… By overdramatizing the nature of your personal actions you sidestep complicity. By sidestepping complicity, you hold fast to innocence. By holding fast to innocence, you maintain power.”


Thank you Reverend Dyson, for calling it like it is.

In the world of funding, whether we’re talking about bank loans or venture capital or even social and ethical finance and philanthropy, the dynamics of race are stark. 92% of foundation CEOs are White[1]; the management of financial services is 81% White[2]; 86% of venture capitalists are White[3], as are more than 96% of angel investors[4].

European White imperialists spent centuries marching around the world, using whatever means necessary to amass and consolidate resources and wealth. Now, adding insult to injury, those who were stolen from or exploited to make that wealth— Indigenous people, people of African descent, and many other people of color— must apply for access to that wealth in the form of loans or grants; we must prove ourselves worthy. We are demeaned for our lack of resources, scrutinized, and often denied access after all.

It is time for a reckoning, for grappling with these truths head-on.

I’ll close with one last passage from Dyson’s book:

“Without white America wrestling with these truths and confronting these realities, we may not survive. To paraphrase the Bible, to whom much is given, much is required. And you, my friends, have been given so much. And the Lord knows, what wasn’t given, you simply took, and took, and took. But the time is at hand for reckoning with the past, recognizing the truth of the present, and moving together to redeem the nation for our future.”


An enrolled member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, Edgar Villanueva is the chair of the board of Native Americans in Philanthropy, a trustee of the Andrus Family Fund, and the vice president of programs and advocacy at the Schott Foundation for Public Education. Follow @VillanuevaEdgar and @DecolonizWealth on Twitter. Decolonizing Wealth is available to purchase at all major booksellers and many local bookstores.

Edgar Villanueva