This post is part 2 of 4 in a series I'm doing on modern racism in America. As I have learned about what racism and anti-racism work are in a modern cultural context, I have come to understand one of the most important things we can do is end the culture of silence (we will dive into that in part 4). Let's break the silence together and continue the conversation...
When white people talk about a person of color in a movie, they will often identify that person by their race or ethnicity. "I really like the black woman, she's..." or "Why did that one guy do that? You know, the Asian one..." We, as white people, are well aware of other people's race and use it as a way to identify them. When we speak about our fellow white people, however, we rarely, if ever, identify them as being white. "The tall woman..." or "The one on the phone."
For us, as white people, we do not see whiteness as a means of description. In our minds, to be white is to exist. To describe the "white woman" or the "white man" wouldn't make sense because, at any given time, we are surrounded by white people and that could mean just about anyone. To white people, we are not a part of a race. We just are.
When it is pointed out that we are in fact part of a racial group, we, as white people, tend to cringe with internal discomfort. We don't like to be thought of as a collective. We like to see ourselves as individuals, free of the constraints of racial identity.
Part of the reason being a member of the white race makes us so uncomfortable is because we know that, historically, a white group was often an angry mob, a conqueror, a system of terror. The white race is associated with the colonization of Native lands (the US, Australia, South Africa, India, etc.), genocide, the KKK, white supremacy, and so on. And not to mention the millions of whites who still, in present times, consider the white race to be superior. To be a part of the white group, the white race, means we are a part of a group that causes inexplicable pain (when I say "white race" I mean as a social concept - there is no biological white race).
On the other hand, when we as whites identify with the white individual, we connect ourselves with heroes. There is no shortage of white people (mostly men who are straight and able bodied, but that's another conversation), who we feel have contributed valiantly to politics, medicine, art, and science. We loathe the idea of being lumped in with the white race but love the idea of being white individuals. We even fantasize about being the next great white hero, the next Steve Jobs, Tony Robbins, Bill Gates, Marie Curie, Susan B. Anthony, and so on.
We wonder what contribution we'll make, how we'll be remembered, and how our legacy, as the individual we are, will be memorialized.
However, to not identify with a race is something only whites are allowed to do. We can choose to ignore our racial identity because we see whiteness everywhere (the government, tv, movies, CEOs, writers, our neighborhood, restaurants, work, etc). It feels like the norm, and we've internalized it as the norm, thereby negating our need to identify it, because to be white is to just be. Whiteness defines the Western human experience.
It is so interwoven into the society white Europeans built that we (as white people) don't even realize it's there. Which leads us to believe it's not necessary to acknowledge it, or to claim we're a part of it. For many white people, they would say a part of what? And in that question, they unwillingly acknowledge that society is so intertwined with the white experience that there is no place where they end and everything else begins. You can't acknowledge something you can't see. But, just because we can't see it doesn't mean it's not there. In fact, brown and black people will readily tell you that they see where the white race begins and ends. They see what it means to be white. And because we, as white people, are so used to seeing ourselves everywhere, it's a shock when someone points out that because whiteness has no end, because it so deeply pervades society, it is actively erasing everything that exists beyond its borders.
In other words, to be brown or black is to be invisible. It is to be outside the scope of what we've deemed human existence is.
Its is only us white people, who cannot perceive of ourselves the way everyone else does, who see our skin color as so universal, so standard, so equated with the very concept of humanity, that we don't even realize that our whiteness is intertwined with the reality we're living. We rarely, if ever, reflect on what it means to be a person of color and interacting with the white race.
In order to root out systematic racism, we as white people must acknowledge the reason it makes us so uncomfortable to be thought of as a white race or a white group. And in acknowledging this, we must come to terms with how other people see us, as white people dominating a diverse world.
As we've talked about so far, we white people prefer to be defined as individuals. That's what we've been socialized to believe we are. And so when we enter a room with people of color, we don't register why our presence would make anyone there uncomfortable. In our minds, we project onto them our individual qualities. We think they see a person who is kind. Or a person who is funny. A person who is warm and loving.
However, upon looking at me, or you, or anyone else who is white, there is no way to know who you are individually. What you are, to people who don't know you, is a white person. You may be racist. You may not be. You might be a white supremacist. Or you might not be. You might wish harm onto people of color. Or maybe not. How can anyone tell by looking at you?
We as white people must realize that although our intentions are good, we are part of a race of people that calls the cops on a black family having a bbq. We are part of a race of people who calls the cops on two black men sitting in Starbucks, waiting for a meeting to start. We are part of a race of people who have been caught on video killing black people.
Therefore, we must acknowedlge that although we believe ourselves to be good people, when we walk into a room, down a street, or get on a bus, there's no way to know whether or not we're the next Karen. There's no way to know if we're about to exert terror on an unsuspecting person of color.
There. Is. No. Way. To. Know.
As I learned about identity, racism, and where I stood in it all, it was hard to reconcile the public perception many people hold of me with my private self. To come to realize my presence caused people anxiety and uncertainty was something I wanted to deny. Surely not me. Them, yes. But not me. And that is me returning to my insistence that I be seen as an individual, and not a member of the white race.
And now you might be thinking That's not fair! I'm not racist! I'm a GOOD person!
All I can say is, now you are beginning to understand how it feels to be judged for your skin color. But make no mistake - the way white people are judged is incomparable to the way people of color are judged. You will not be killed for being white. You will not have a police officer kneel on your neck with his hands in his pockets, casually strangling the life out of you. You will not lose out on jobs, housing, or loans because you are white.
Rather, you will benefit. Being white is not going to derail your life. It's going to accelerate it (many people refuse to hear this point because discrimination is illegal. Legality does not stop people from committing crimes. If it did we would not have robbers and rapists. People break the law all the time. The only way to stop discrimination is to stop racism).
We may not like that we are a race, and one of the main reasons we don't is we've never had to think of ourselves that way. Generalizing and grouping people by race is thus far something that has been done by white people and not to them. We exempted ourselves and therefore respond with anger, defensiveness, and wounded pride when it's done to us. When we are asked to see ourselves as white, our knee jerk reaction is to claim we are not racist. We're not like those people. We're different. We're an individual. We proclaim this with pride, without a hint of irony that our insistence on being seen as an individual, rather than a member of a socially constructed race, can only be done if we grant ourselves special privileges no other race has.
For more on this I highly recommend the book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria (make sure you get the updated version - the first edition was published two decades ago). This series will be continued with part 3 - what does it mean to be a good ally?