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Examining My Whiteness

by Erin

In his last post, John posed the following questions:

  • What does it mean for you to be white in the US, or Western Europe, or the world?
  • How does your whiteness affect the conversations you have in your daily lives?

I've been thinking about this quite a bit (as you may imagine!) and share my responses here:

I'm white. But until recently I didn't know it.  I know that sounds silly, because I've checked those "white" boxes for all of my life, but I didn't deeply examine what it meant to be white because I never had to. I always thought of myself as differently. Or I didn't think of whiteness as a thing - I was just "normal, or American". My family's ethnic heritage is Italian, French and German and so that's how I've seen myself...as the embodied mashup of my relatives who emigrated to US 4-5 generations ago. Regardless, just as the world sees John as black, I'm seen as white.  My whiteness allows me to blend in. To go unnoticed. To be silent when I want or to speak up when I choose. To float through life without my very presence rubbing someone the wrong way.  It has allowed me to look for the good in everything.  It fueled my positive outlook for so long it earned me the nickname "Optimissy"  -remember those Little Miss books? "Little Miss Optimist" would be mine.

Being a white woman means I get to be "default".  I'm the norm, I don't stand out and as such, I'm generally given the benefit of the doubt. I can trust that others will see me as "safe" and won't cross to the opposite side of the street when I approach them on the sidewalk. Others are patient with me when I ask for directions.  I can ask questions without others wondering why I didn't get it the first time. I can rely on people hearing my words rather than fearing or dismissing me as "aggressive" for speaking out about something that hurts me. My whiteness shields me from daily questioning about why I am in a given space and ensures that I will get good service in restaurants and while shopping. My whiteness means I'm approachable and people regularly offer to help me if I'm lost or drop something. I can wear pajamas in public or leave the house without fixing my hair and not be called a "crack head." I can open a box of crackers for my hungry kids in the grocery store before paying for them and no one will raise an eyebrow or question whether I will pay for them. To my knowledge, I have never been followed around a store. Being white meant my parents didn't have to have explicit conversations with me about how to interact with a police officer when I get pulled over for speeding, and I can have a conversation with a cop when pulled over (a luxury not afforded my husband, as I clearly witnessed recently).

Further, when my whiteness is carefully examined I find it to be painfully empty. For 37 years my whiteness trained me to avoid conflict, follow rules and be a "good girl". It signaled that if I dutifully followed a prescribed set of actions, followed steps that were laid out by design for white cultural success.... I'd get an education, a good job, be able to buy a home and everything will fall in line with each of these successes. Sure enough it's done those things for me. But I've come to learn that these rules only apply to people of my race. A different set of rules apply to people of color. It pains me that this different set of rules will apply to my sons, despite all that we'll do to set them up for success.

Whiteness now feels hollow and sterile. It has sheltered me from both the pain and suffering, the beauty and strength of people of color (PoC).  It's kept me from deeply understanding the severity of macro- and microaggressions that remind all of us every day that some lives are more important than others. My whiteness has stifled my voice and reminded me to be polite. It's shamed me into avoiding uncomfortable conversations and caused me to resist speaking out against things I know to be wrong. It protects me from doubt, frees me from worry and gives me a choice in whether or not I deal with injustice---big or small. I can "check out" of any conversation when it gets too uncomfortable.  I have that privilege.  My whiteness means I get to be an individual and that my opinion is not assumed to be that of all others of my race.

My whiteness means that when a white supremacist like Dylan Roof commits premeditated mass murder during a bible study, that I can think of him as a racist monster, acknowledge the tragic loss of lives, and move on, if I choose.  I can try to rationally disassociate my whiteness from his. I can choose to not claim Dylan Roof as a member of my own race.  I can declare that as a white supremacist, he was acting out the extreme examples of hate.  But whether we're aware or not, it's a version of the same white supremacy that we're all socialized into. It teaches us that black and brown lives, no matter how accomplished, intelligent, beautiful, kind, responsible and brave are simply valued less in American society. Newscasters and politicians can refer to Roof as a neonazi, placing him in a separate group. This allows those of us who are white, to not claim him---to absolve ourselves of any feelings that there is anything wrong with being white.  But it robs us of the opportunity for reflection on the continuation of racism in our country or even the simple notion that until Europeans settled in North America in 1600s whiteness didn't exist. We invented whiteness, placed it above all, and we must now own up to the fact that Roof is one of us, that we created him.

White people can claim to be "colorblind," as I did for many years.  I've learned that when we do this, we erase the lived experiences and daily struggles of people of color.  If I dont' see my husband's Blackness, then I don't see him! "Colorblindness" is the 2015 form of racism.  As white people, when we say that we don't see color or are raising our children to be colorblind, we impede progress.  We shift the focus away from the uncomfortable examination of our own complicity in the systemic racism that exists in our neighborhoods, schools, parks, workplaces, cities, states and systems of government.

Any time I talk about my whiteness, I feel my blood pressure rise and a lump form in my throat. So I tend avoid it.  I squirm from discomfort of facing and addressing the ugliness that is heaped daily on people I love.  Engaging in social justice and antiracism work means I always need to use "whole body listening" (the kids talk about this at school...it's how you signal your engagement as a listener). This means actively listening, hearing, feeling uncomfortable, and hurting.  It means actively de-programming my defensiveness and letting go of fear. It means not trying to find a solution, or explanation, but to simply acknowledge that a racist experience sucks, its not fair, and that I hurt along with the hurt person. 

It also means making mistakes. It means screwing up, hearing feedback and doing something with that feedback, no matter the tone of voice used to point out my mistake. It means being open to being wrong and being willing to change.  

My whiteness isn't my fault.  But it is definitely my problem. Our problem. White people's problem.

Comments

Katelyn Allers said…
Thanks, Erin. This is fantastic.
Erin - As I mentioned in the comment on John's previous post, I hear many of my own feelings echoed in your description of your own. My experience is much different, of course, because all the members of my immediate family are white, so we are not pushed forcefully into the fray as you and your boys are each day.

I just read this, and thought of you. Wonder what you think of it: http://lilywhitemama.com/a-piece-of-the-puzzle/
Anna Beeler said…
Erin - Great post! I relate, and particularly appreciated your description of "whole body listening," and the willingness to acknowledge & experience fear and defensiveness while also working to let them go. I think white folks (myself included) need to be reminded that when we stop avoiding our most painful feelings - including those related to racism & our whiteness - we re-connect with our full humanity and our ability to connect meaningfully with others. Which is a pretty big personal payoff, in addition to necessary for addressing racism in any fully meaningful way. And framed that way, definitely worth the discomfort. Would you mind if I shared your post on Facebook, and highlighted (quoted) your last 2 paragraphs ?
erinjohn said…
Thanks so much for the feedback, y'all!

Anna - You can absolutely share on facebook.
Michael - I'm working my way through the posts on lilywhitemam.com. My initial thought is that her plea to liberal whites was extremely poignant. I love the fact that she breaks down the MLK quote -- especially to a level where we can see how we've all learned to be passively complicit--- is really powerful. So glad to have you on this journey with us :)
Sarah Curry said…
Thank you Erin for your honest words. I believe as a white woman we do not know how to speak of the situations around us and therefore do not speak at all.
Sarah Curry said…
Thank you Erin for your honesty and openness to share. I know in many situations I do not speak up out of fear of offending either party, so I stay silent. I see my students this summer and know that they will have a harder time in education just because of the color of their skin. I feel so small and that my actions will not help.

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