We Need to Talk About Whiteness

Lots of white people want that identity to be boring, lifeless, and almost hidden. Lots of white people want to not talk about whiteness because they think that white privilege isn’t worth talking about. They think that focusing on other races – the ones suffering from this privilege – are the real place to effect change.

We can’t make a change unless we change whiteness too. Whiteness may be the privileged position, but that means it has more history, more substance than we’re talking about.

Race means a whole hell of a lot in America. We might not want it to mean so much, but it does.

Whiteness isn’t nothing. Whiteness dominates our societal “norms” and our visions of America. For too long, being white has been the default. We need to challenge this. We need to challenge the language of whiteness. We need to use “white” as a real, meaningful term instead of a default.

What does it mean?

Too many white people think they can describe someone without race when they’re white, but fail to do the same for Black, Asian, Hispanic, or any perceived “other.” Too many times, I’ve heard a story where the person’s appearance includes a whispered, “Black” or a strangely, almost mimed “Asian.” I’ve never heard someone whisper that so-and-so was … white. But a lot of so-and-sos are white.

What does it mean? Why are white people scared of saying that someone was black, and unaware of marking whiteness?

Racial-profiling is real. It is pervasive. It is often subconscious. It is ruining and ending lives.

I am white. I am a woman. I am short and rarely, if ever, a perceived threat.

If I lock myself out of my car, strangers will assist me, police will believe me – no one will accuse me of anything.

If a member of my neighborhood watch saw me walking alone at night, hoodie or no hoodie, heavy bags or empty arms, smile or menacing glare, that person would likely ask if I needed anything. They wouldn’t ask me what in the hell I was doing there?

If I walked up to a stranger’s home and knocked on the door, they would not fear me. They might offer me a phone, assistance with a flat tire, or even give me directions. At worst, they would think I might want to sell them something or talk about Jesus. They would not shoot me.

I am the perceived victim of all altercations. I’ve been in bar fights and street scuffles. I have always, always been the person others offer to help. The men involved has always been assumed guilty. (In these situations, I perceive the men I fought or argued with to be at fault too, but the strangers around us never questioned me.) When I have felt threatened in public and private, all outsiders involved have sided with me and offered me help.

I am not Trayvon Martin. I will never be murdered for looking suspicious.

What does it mean, I ask? What can we learn?

What can we CHANGE?

No one is surprised when I speak with eloquence. No one is surprised by my successes.

If you are white and reading this, I challenge you. I challenge you to not see this as something from which you are free. You are part of this. Even if you have never said, “Wow. You speak so well.” Even if you think you would never profile someone, assume someone’s intent, or suspect someone based on their race. I challenge you to examine your privilege. You are privileged. You cannot deny that. I challenge you to watch yourself. I challenge you to watch others. I challenge you to challenge racism – even when it’s subtle, unclear, or seemingly “harmless.” I challenge you to challenge your friends – of all colors. I challenge you to challenge your parents and elders when they use language, terms, or stereotypes. Yes, it’s nice to think that they just inherited language or don’t know that certain things are problematic. But, it’s not okay. Challenge them. Challenge them and educate them. I challenge you to make a real change in this society. I challenge you to expect more.

We all – all people – need to do better. We need to challenge every slur, every little joke, every tiny detail of our understandings of race. Racism is real. Racism is killing – literally killing – our children.

Being white isn’t meaningless. That privilege is so much more than history. That privilege walks with me into job interviews, down streets at night, in the aisle of every supermarket, convenience store, and department store. That privilege drives with me, walks with me, talks with me.

We have to change something.

What does it mean? How do we change it?

Let’s start with words.

*****************************************

More to consider:

I feel like we need to start thinking about race across a spectrum. The black/white divide we always get totally obscures other people and groups (Latino/as, Asians, Native Americans and other indigenous folks, etc.). It is truly problematic to me that white is the default for so many; we should also investigate how deeply that runs.

Also, asking people to think about whiteness as a category of privilege and taxonomy seems only part of the issue. I feel like we hear a lot about white privilege. We know we have it, but what do we do about it? This is what has always stumped me. How do you actively acknowledge your privilege and, at the same time, avoid being complacent without socially or economically shooting yourself in the foot (which seems to help no one)?

Furthermore, what does it mean to further taxonomize oneself (‘I’m Polish,’ for example) when you’re already white?

One thought on “We Need to Talk About Whiteness

  1. “I am not Trayvon Martin. I will never be murdered for looking suspicious.”

    I am going to assume by your statement that you’ve never walked through a minority neighborhood. I am a woman and I’ve been jumped more times than I can count for being seen as white in a black, Latino, Dominican or Cuban neighborhood, despite being an immigrant myself. My white best friend in high school was very much murdered for looking suspicious in the wrong Miami neighborhood. I would have been too, had I not been able to “talk” my way out. I definitely did not grow up feeling privileged for being white.

    I see what you are trying to do here, and I think it is admirable. But as the offspring of Italian/Latino/Irish immigrants who is able to pass for white, I will tell you that racism is not an affliction suffered by Caucasians alone. I harbor no ill will toward anyone because of their race, even though I suffered throughout my childhood for being too white or not white enough. My experience has taught me that hate is hate, no matter what color your skin.

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