On Being White

Black. White. Racism. Privilege. Riots. Guns. Crying. Invisible.

I’ve been wanting, for several weeks now, to blog about the killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. I’ve wanted to formulate statements about the hidden wound of racism and the invisible norm that is whiteness. But I haven’t written anything. I’ve barely been able to speak about the tragedies that have recently (and not so recently) swept our country. Other than posting commentary that I found helpful, I have remained silent.

I’ve been silent, mostly, because I haven’t known what to say. Should I talk about the alarming statistics about police violence towards black males? Maybe I should discuss the overall militarization grasped by a country that is dictated by fear. Or better yet, I should highlight the unbearable “Christian” response to those on the margins who are being overlooked and executed. I’ve heard it said that Jesus cannot breathe.

For countless hours, now, I have rolled many, many thoughts around in my brain. I’ve been angered and have experienced deep sorrow. But every time I’ve come close to formulating a response, I’ve felt as though everything I want to say has already been said by those who can say it much more poignantly.

Today, I decided to revisit a paper I wrote for my racial healing course. The paper was entirely about my whiteness. So, instead of pouring out information that has already been discussed, I would like to share some words about my white skin. If you have never explored your own whiteness, or blackness, or yellowness, or redness, I cannot more strongly suggest that you delve into the race that has (whether you admit it or not) deeply shaped all the aspects of your life.

 

I know that I am white. I never remember not being white. As far as I can recall, I’ve always understood that my skin is white and I’ve known that some other people have skin that isn’t white. I didn’t care much about the color of my skin, or even think about it often. Sometimes, when somebody would tell me that I danced like a black girl or my grandfather would make a joke about race or I saw a picture of a black Santa Clause, I would think about skin color. During those times I would become more aware of race, but I rarely thought about its impact on my life or its power to define me and shape me.

But whiteness has shaped me. It has played a role in my personal formation and the formation of the many communities and systems in which I participate on a daily basis. My family is white, my college and grad school were white, my church is primarily white, my religion is white (or has become so in America). My president may have black skin, but my government is white. My music might not be white, but it makes white money. My spouse is white, but is our relationship? Perhaps our relationship isn’t white, because it definitely is not invisible.

Whiteness has, in an invisible and (up until now) unidentifiable way, pushed me into a corner where I desire to abolish my white privilege and transcend my white guilt, but also to a frustrating place where I lack awareness about how this healing action may begin. On the following pages I narrate a journey that explains how whiteness pushed me into this corner, how I’m currently wrestling with my whiteness, and how I hope for healing action in the future.

I shall begin with a narrative of racial memories. While I surely cannot recall every instance when whiteness had a grip on me, I can call to mind many occasions which informed my conceptions of race, privilege, oppression, normativity and my own whiteness. I considered myself a racial norm boundary crosser, but my extremism was sheltered within the confines of a generally loving and kind family. While I crossed many vocalized and silently suggested boundaries created by my family system, my radicalism was likely unapparent within the greater systems of my school and community.

Several of my friendships in elementary school stood in opposition of my cultural narratives (as a middle class, white American, living in Harrisonburg, Virginia in the early 90s). In the fourth grade, my best friends at school were Lynette Garcia and Rosa Osorio. I don’t recall thinking it was weird or out of the ordinary that my friends were Latina. However, I can’t remember ever hanging out with them outside of school. Perhaps children primarily socialize outside of school with other children in their neighborhood (the majority of my neighbors at the time were white), or maybe I only spent time with children whose parents knew my parents. Whatever the case, my socializing at school was racially diverse while my socializing at home was predominantly white.

As I began to get more involved in athletics, my friend circle expanded to include black teammates. I remember a time when I asked my mother if one of my black teammates could spend the night at our house. The answer was no and I was frustrated and hurt. I honestly cannot recall my mother’s reason for rejecting my request and it may have simply been that the house wasn’t clean or it wasn’t an appropriate night for a sleepover (my mom was not a “friends are welcome anytime” type of mom). However, I remember I had very particular sense of frustration that day, perhaps even an awareness of injustice. I recollect an awareness of intolerance and judgment that scraped at my sense of goodness and fairness. I cannot say for sure whether or not this judgment was solely due to race, but I can be almost certain that race shaped the overall perception that my mother had about my teammate and her family.

In high school I went to homecoming with a boy from Mexico. Well, I’m not sure if he was actually born in Mexico, but his family was from there, and he spoke Spanish and he looked Mexican. My parents didn’t seem to have a problem with my date, but my mom was a bit worried about how my grandmother would respond. My Mamaw is, hands-down, one of my favorite people on the planet, due in part to her loving kindness. She was incredibly kind to my homecoming date, but I know my choice to accompany him stretched her formulations of racial appropriateness. I’ve realized that, even though my grandmother has never expelled crude racial remarks, her seemingly naïve and “cute” comments about non-white people are paternalistic and damaging. The running family joke is to designate that black people are “nice and clean,” because my grandma always felt it necessary to note the upstanding nature of her black coworkers or acquaintances, as if we would assume they were cruel and dirty if she didn’t make the proclamation. We always found this habit very comical and would reference it often. I wonder if we laughed because grandma seemed so kind, naive, and well-meaning while sounding ridiculous, or because a refusal to laugh would cause us to sit in the unbearable awareness and tension of racism.

My parents recently quipped about my grandmother’s latest racial crack. Apparently she was a bit surprised to find that her newest doctor was black, and when commenting on him, she first stated that he was black (she probably whispered the word black) and then recanted with, “Actually, he was brown.” I have no idea what she was indicating and I can imagine her curious, gentle voice making this claim. My parents thought this remark was uproariously comical and while I wanted to laugh alongside them when they shared, my recently tumultuous conscience was gnawing at my insides. I wanted to shout that her ignorant racism isn’t funny but I also desired to snicker at her unsuspecting reasoning about her doctor’s skin being brown instead of black. Is it okay to laugh at my grandmother’s benighted racial commentary or should I be disgusted and embarrassed? Her statements might be funny if they weren’t situated within a generational foundation of racism and white privilege. Or maybe that foundation makes them funny, or at least comical in an endearing way, because she’s trying so hard to be kind to and make sense of people she was taught to abhor, while attempting to break out of a narrative that pains her in an indescribable, unknowable way.

Just several weeks ago, at family Thanksgiving dinner, I attempted to explain the invisibility of the white norm. I told my cousins that we don’t have to ever think about being white. We don’t wake up in the morning and wonder if anyone will mistreat us because we are white. We are not afraid to put our hands in our pockets while shopping or wear hoodies in nice neighborhoods. I reinforced my argument by noting that when we explain a white person, we may mention what that person is wearing or what that person does for a living or a character trait of that person: “The man over there wearing a red shirt.” “A really sweet woman at work.” “There’s a doctor who lives down the street.” However, when we describe a black person, the color of that person’s skin becomes the main signifier: “This black lady at church.” “A friendly black man lives down the street.” “The black guy over there.” My family members began to ponder my statements and the conversation seemed to dissipate. Several minutes later, my grandfather took a seat at the table. He began to tell a story: “There’s a black lady at work…” On the faces around the table I noticed startled looks of confusion and awareness.

At this point my paper began to weave together parts of my story with texts we were reading in the course. Later, I will post some texts that really helped me to begin exploring my own race and race relations.

To my white friends, I know that I will not be able to change your political or religious views, but I do ask that you examine your own whiteness, that you allow yourself to see the invisibility of the white norm. I often times try to think about what it would be like every morning to wake up and look in the mirror and realize that I am black in white America. Just think about it. Politics and platforms aside, just think about it.

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