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.

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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?

You’re never allowed to use the n-word. (So you should shut your mouth.)

First thing’s first: I’m very pleased that President Obama won his bid for re-election.  I am not a Romney fan and I am (obviously) a pretty hardcore liberal.  That’s right everyone, I love my rights and lady business and social programs and gays and minorities and taxes and environmental activism and rights and all kinds of other liberal shit.  I support marriage equality.  I support the Dream Act.  I support legalizing weed.  Okay, so now my bias has been addressed.

But here’s the thing, being liberal doesn’t mean you get to say the n-word.  And here’s the other thing, disagreeing with President Barack Obama (or any other person you might label as black) doesn’t mean you get to call them the n-word.  Unless you are black, don’t say.  Just don’t.

It’s pretty simple: if you are a white person, you don’t get to say the n-word.  

I’m white, and I’m not even going to type it.  Why?  Because I don’t get to use that word.  It’s not unfair.  It’s not a problem.  It’s not hard at all.  I’ve never once felt like I needed to do so, and I never will.  I don’t think there is any reason, even if I’m trying to talk about it academically, to actually use it.

Just don’t use it.

After the election, there were so, so many people on twitter and elsewhere who felt entitled to use that word.  Why?  Because they were mad that Barack Obama won the election.  Oh, and because they are racists, they called him the n-word.  These people largely claimed that they were just expressing an opinion, and that using that word doesn’t make them racist necessarily.  Maybe that’s true in some situations – like maybe you’re at a concert and you’re singing along to lyrics that include that word – okay, I still wouldn’t do it, but you’re not necessarily racist because of it.  However, if you’re pissed off about something and use the n-word to insult a person, then you’re a racist.  It’s pretty simple.

Others have claimed that it’s not “fair” that black people get to use the n-word while not-black-people aren’t afforded the same privilege.  If you or anyone you know thinks this, give it a moment to stew.  Just think it over for a second.  Presumably most of these people are white, and they think it isn’t fair that black people get to say the n-word.  They’re mad because that’s not fair.  They’re mad because black people are doing something that white people can’t.  (Pause to think.)  If you didn’t reach the following conclusion, you need to take a college course, watch some documentaries about the 1800s, or 1700s, or most of the 1900s, or just give up: white people are privileged, have been discriminatory and hateful, and owned slaves for hundreds of years.  Remember the whole “segregation” thing you read about in high school?  Yeah, that was like 50 years ago.  It was real.  I think white people can give up a few words; that seems a lot easier than hundreds of years of slavery, discrimination, and marginalization.

You can think of other words.

There are so many other words to use if you’re mad at someone.    Here are some examples.

  1. Jerk.
  2. Stupid-head.
  3. Asshole.
  4. Dummy.
  5. Ignorant.
  6. Simple-minded.
  7. Wrong.
  8. Uninformed.
  9. Fool.
  10. Racist.

If you are a white person trying to justify the use of a racial slur, shut up.  You have no reason to use it.  You have no excuse.  You are being racist, ignorant, and wrong.

If you’re wondering if you can use it in special circumstances, you can’t.  Nope.  Not okay.  Even if you’re the token white friend in a group of black friends and everyone around you is chummy and using that word in a nice, friendly way… you still can’t say it.  Even if you and your friends are all making jokes about ALL the races, you still can’t use it.

Sort of like you wouldn’t say the f-word in the grocery store in front of a bunch of kids… you know, except way worse and completely different.

There were a lot of people using the internet (via twitter, facebook, and all other forums, I’m sure) to complain about the results of the election, which I understand.  Americans have the right to express their opinion.  That said, Americans don’t have the right to be racist or hateful.  There are not rights to attack people via social media – cyber bullying is an actual crime.  People are not protected when making threats or speaking words of violence.  Racist speech, while not technically illegal, should be shamed.  It’s already shameful, and the rest of us should make sure those who use hate speech are shamed for it.

You’re a racist.  Shut up.

Seriously, it’s 2012.  There is no excuse for racism.  There is no need for it.  If you are a racist, if you use racial slurs, if you think it’s okay to make jokes about other races, etc. you should be ashamed of yourself.  Shut up.

 

Hoodies don’t kill people. People kill people.

This morning I caught wind of comments Geraldo Rivera made on the recent shooting death of Trayvon Martin in Florida. For those who aren’t familiar, the teen was walking in a Florida neighborhood toward his step-mother’s home with a box of candy in his hand when a neighborhood watch member called 911 to report a “suspicious” person in the neighborhood and proceded to follow Martin. He shot the teen (the 911 tapes present a case that appears as if he held Martin screaming for his life at gunpoint before shooting him) in the chest and claimed “self-defense.” Because of the gun laws currently in place in Florida, the shooter has not been charged or arrested for murdering this young man.

This has spurred some discussion nationally about gun laws, vigilantism, and race/racial relations (Martin was black. The shooter was, I believe, white or Latino). Geraldo Rivera weighed in on this event on Fox and Friends recently:

“I am urging the parents of black and Latino youngsters particularly not to let their children go out wearing hoodies. I think the hoodie is as much responsible for Trayvon Martin‘s death as much as George Zimmerman was […] Trayvon Martin, God bless him, an innocent kid, a wonderful kid, a box of Skittles in his hands. He didn’t deserve to die. But I bet you money, if he didn’t have that hoodie on, that nutty neighborhood watch guy wouldn’t have responded in that violent and aggressive way.”

In other words, in Rivera’s opinion, hoodies kill people. Yes, because some guy apparently decided to make the connection between an item of clothing that the majority of people across the nation have worn at some point–the hooded sweatshirt–and  crime, black and Latino kids shouldn’t wear them. What??!

Rivera’s logic is akin to saying women shouldn’t wear short skirts because they’re “asking” to be raped. Clothes don’t cause crimes. They don’t. People commit crimes. People act in violent ways. People make the decision to kill, to rape. Not clothing. Blaming the victim gets us nowhere when the conversation should be focused on whether or not Florida’s laws protect its citizens from harm, or whether the way the laws are written prevent guilty parties from being held responsible for their actions. In this case, they seem to be preventing a man who stalked an innocent young man down a public street because he felt that the young man looked “suspicious” fro being held responsible for what he has done. Suspicion should not warrant cause to shoot and kill someone–ESPECIALLY a child–in cold blood.

Furthermore, why just “black and Latino youngsters”? If Rivera hasn’t cued us all in that race played a huge role in the relative “suspicion” of Trayvon Martin walking around a relatively upscale Florida neighborhood, then I don’t know what will. But why is he blaming minority youth for a problem that obviously lies in the perception of black and Latino youth by white America? It’s NOT okay for people to jump to conclusions based on race! Haven’t we had this conversation over and over? Do we really need to have it again because Rivera is giving racism a free pass by blaming hoodie-wearing black kids for being shot in broad daylight carrying candy and nothing else? Why are we blaming Trayvon Martin for his clothes when we should be charging a racist murderer for a heinous, disgusting, and deplorable crime?

You’re Not Funny, You’re Offensive

There are many people who are easily offended. Their comedy sensibilities are seriously lacking, and instead of seeing the funny element of a joke, they concentrate on the stereotype being presented, and thus categorize the joke as “offensive.” This is not entirely accurate. However, all joking aside (I couldn’t resist the pun), there are some “jokes” that aren’t jokes–they’re just offensive statements.

I’m all about what someone I know once called “equal opportunity offenders.” Think Mel Brooks, Chris Rock, Kat Williams, Dave Chappelle. The greats tend to fall into this category. Equal Opportunity Offenders make jokes about every stereotype in the book; they can laugh at other people and at themselves. They don’t make these jokes to alienate, discriminate, devalue, or otherwise hate on individuals or groups of people. They make fun of everybody for the things we don’t necessarily choose, and some of the things we do: our race, our geographic location, our nationality, our religion, our sexual preferences, our genders, etc. But they do this as a method of moving the conversation toward larger issues, and the humor comes from the stereotype. We don’t laugh because we actually think all such-and-such people do/are this, but because its a stereotype of what that group is or does. Sometimes it’s true, but it’s not meant to be the kind of statement that narrows the possibilities of individuals.

However, there is another category of ‘comedian’–if one would deign to call them such–that doesn’t fall into these bounds. Let me explain with a short anecdote.

I was riding in a car with a large group of people when a country song I was unfamiliar with came on the radio. I found it a little distasteful (it was about “titties and beer”), but not offensive. I could chuckle at it. Yet, one line deeply disturbed me, and as everyone around me laughed it up, I sat stone faced: “Thank God I ain’t queer.” What?! That’s not funny. That’s not saying, ‘Hey, Gay men are like this and Women are like this, yuck yuck ha ha.’ That’s just a mean-spirited cut against anyone who categorizes themselves as queer. It’s a stupid and ignorant statement, not a funny one.

Another example: using language that is racist, unless you’re reclaiming it, is not funny. Ever. Black people can say the N-word in a comedic setting because it’s theirs to reclaim and refashion in meaning. Sorry, white people, it’s not yours in any manner except the racist one. So don’t use it in your comedy. Calling someone a nasty name based on their race or ethnicity often results in a few nervous chuckles, but it’s not funny; it’s racist. Same thing goes for any other nasty words directed towards women, gay people, and other minority groups. It’s not funny when you call someone a bitch or a fish wife or a fairy or a fag. It’s just not.

Being nasty toward people for things they don’t choose isn’t funny. It’s mean, nasty, and often falls into the category of one of the -isms (racism, sexism, ethnocentrism, etc.). Instead, why not focus on the little idiosyncrasies that make people funny in general. And if you’re gonna pick on one group, be prepared to pick on them all, including your own.