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I love white people. Seriously!

I've been getting a lot of email, private Tweets, and Facebook private messages that seem to be expressing a common theme: "Why don't you like white people? Why are you so bitter against white people? Be nice to white people!"

Allow me to clarify something very important: I love white people. Not to sound like a white person talking about their "black friend," or the sexist talking about how "my mom is a woman," but I work with white people, advise them, mentor them, eat lunch with them, get coffee with them, play basketball with them, do astronomy with them, etc. I'm the son of a white woman. I married a white woman. I have the best (white) mother-in-law anyone could ever hope for (she gave me a Black power beer stein for my birthday for chrissakes!) 

I love white people.

But you know what I have a hard time with, nay, can't stand? White culture. White culture---the straight, cis-male version in particular---is anathema to me. I think this is a very important distinction. This even goes way beyond "Love the player hate the game." The thing about white culture I dislike the the most is the fact that no one talks about white culture. It's as if it doesn't exist.

Whenever I fill out any kind of form asking for demographic information, I have to check something that identifies me as "Black," "Black/African American," "Black/non-Hispanic," etc, and my University sees me and calls me a minority or URM, or on a really good day a person of color. All of my life it has been clear to me that I belong to a group, and that group is based on being non-white.

The problem with white culture is that white people see themselves as "normal people" and as "individuals," and as such don't recognize themselves as belonging to a specific group of people in our society. More than being normal, and hence invisible, it is also considered "right"  and "superior." Everyone should aspire to be accepted into or tolerated by white culture, because to be a part of it is key to being American. The combination of being normal and right is what makes white culture normative

That's a key aspect of white culture: to be white is to be normative, invisible, regular, taken for granted, and most importantly, superior. This is white supremacy in a nutshell. It's not the sheet-wearing, cross-burning, KKK membership variety, per se. Those are all subsets, albeit extreme subsets of white supremacy. But white supremacy goes well beyond these extreme examples. 

If you are white, everything in American society is geared toward you and people like you, from "flesh-colored" Bandaids, to "Nude" clothing, to every goddamned show on Netflix, to our politicians, to political discourse, to our wealthiest private universities (HWCUs as I call them). This country is based on and geared toward white people. That's a very important aspect of white American culture. It doesn't get any bigger than the fact that culture itself in your country is geared toward your people! That is white supremacy.

The supremacy of white culture shows up in almost every aspect of life. White families have 20 times the wealth (assets minus debt) as Black and Latina/o families. White people numerically dominate every aspect of our country's societal, economic, judicial and political structure. This means that white people are in charge of shaping this country's social norms, wealth/income distribution, and laws. There is no aspect of American life in which Black or Latina/o people can exert this sort of influence and control. Whiteness permeates every aspect of our society. And yet it is invisible to most white people.

The flip side is that non-white people and their cultures are seen as inferior, strange, always lower and always the exception. This is troublesome to me, and the more I learn about race and racism, the more I see everyday examples of non-white people being relegated to lower rungs in our society. Sadly, my field of science provides the clearest view of this: 90% of astronomers are white, and less than 2% are Black, Latina/o, or Native. That's white supremacy. It's right there in  your hallway every day, and its presence does not go unnoticed by the few people of color you may (or may not) have in your department or institution. 

So here's my challenge to white people. Answer these 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?
If you, as a white person, start asking yourself the first question every morning, and the second question throughout your day, you will actively combat systemic racism. Seriously. You'll help PoC, especially women of color. You'll make a huge difference in your world and your scientific community. This is called keeping your privilege in focus. This is unpacking your invisible knapsack. This would be AWESOME!

I'd love to hear from the white people in the comments section What are your answers to my two questions above? I don't expect much, but I'm always happy to be surprised!

Comments

I think there are many "white cultures", and skin tone is only one variable. In my experience, language is another one.

I live in the US but am foreign-born, and English is my second language. I do believe being white does makes it easier for me to "blend in" and pass as a US native, but only as long as a manage to speak English with no detectable accent. Speaking proper "American" took me years to master, and before that I would sometime feel condescension or mistrust from merchants, public servants, etc... Whether this was conscious or not on their part I can't say, but it's clear that simply having the "proper" skin color is not enough.

I think overall it's more about whether you can pass as a "true native" or a member of the local "clan in power". I often feel like being white is a convenient "disguise" that makes it easier for me to pass as a member of the local gentry - even though I don't really feel like I'm part of it.

I wonder if other white people think the same way: not feeling like they have real power/privilege, but at least glad that they can hide it.
Erin eloquently and effectively articulated many feelings which I also share, and I hope everyone reads her post and reflects on how much it also captures their experience as it does so much of mine. That said, I'll add a couple of brief thoughts of my own.

- 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?

The short answer is, I don't really know. I have recently been working to be more aware of being white, and what it means to be white, including how others respond to me as a result. I've also been reflecting on how my experience as a straight man differs from that of women and LGBTQ folk. In many ways, my experiences of these things are similar. I don't know what it means to be white because I largely don't notice it, or am not aware of it. Like floating in water that is exactly 98.6 degrees, I cannot feel my whiteness because no one else seems to notice it - or, at least, most people I interact with daily do not notice it in any way that I can perceive. I feel like my skin color is not an issue - I am judged based on my words, my actions, my tone, my perceived intent, and not on the color of my skin. And that, I think IS the core issue. I AM being evaluated based on my skin color, and the evaluation is: no trouble here, all is well. This allows me to ignore my whiteness and operate as if it has not effect or does not exist. But the more I delve into questions of race and racism, the more I realize this is not the case for anyone who is NOT white, and is not even the case for white women as much as it is for white men.

So, now, I am wrestling with what to do about it. I'm trying to feel my whiteness, to be aware of it, and to question how it influences me and others. I'm having more conversations about race (and gender), and (like Erin) coming to terms with the discomfort and defensiveness these conversations generate in me. I'm working on letting go of looking for validation that I'M not the problem, and instead trying to just understand how I can help work toward a solution.
Cathy said…
I have actually started asking myself similar questions to the ones you posed, and the answers are always depressing. I'm a white woman, and one of the most stark examples of a conversation that would have gone very differently were I not white was on the light rail in Baltimore. My RFID card was on the fritz and the fare inspector couldn't get the machine to register that I had paid. I explained the situation- that the machines at the station read it with only minimal difficulty but the handheld ones must not be as sensitive- and she took my story at face value. Not even a warning that I should get a new card. As she walked away, I thought, "Would that have gone down that way if I were black?" and decided that the answer was almost certainly not.

This got me thinking about the fact that I am white and female and therefore socially deemed "trustworthy." I've watched tons of conversations between fare inspectors and usually black men who don't have a ticket, and they're always either ushered off at the next stop or get written a ticket. I would bet good money that if I were having that same conversation and made a show of looking through all my pockets and my bag and said, "I have no idea where I put it! I just had it a minute ago," I would be allowed to stay on and not penalized in any way.

Unfortunately, in this situation I don't feel I can help the people who are being penalized because the fare inspector would be more in the wrong in the hypothetical situation of letting me stay on the train rather than in penalizing the people who are breaking the rules. It does mean that I have resolved to be careful never to lie to get out of a situation when I can simply because I'm a white woman.

In answer to your first question, "What does it mean for you to be white in the US, or Western Europe, or the world?" I would say that it means that I don't have anything to prove. Someone once was trying to help me analyze a dream (which I quickly decided was ridiculous) and in the dream I was relating, I happened to be a guy. She asked me, "And what does it mean to be a guy?" and I eventually realized that it meant that in the dream, I could just be. The other two dream characters were male, and I felt no need to prove that they should respect me or think of me as anything but capable. I feel like being white is a similar thing: I don't need to try to convince anyone that I'm respectable, trustworthy, or a good person.
mikhailway said…
I think about your questions all of the time, although perhaps not as frequently as you would have it. However, while I think these are necessary they are certainly not sufficient. We need to make major changes in this society to address these issues, starting with primary and secondary education. It's the only way to seriously diversify the upper tiers of science and society as a whole. I spend 1/2 my time in NYC and 1/2 in Sweden and certainly the Swedes are (by default) making those school choices. We'll see how effective it is in 20 years time when the many 'non-white' immigrants they've taken recently (hopefully) filter into the upper tiers.

However, I believe I think about your questions more because of my own experiences. I grew up in an integrated society. I went to a 95% African-American primary school for 2 years, my oldest friend is African-American and so are my god parents. I went to an integrated church from age 8-18. My best friend in high school was African-American. So through their eyes I could see what my white privilege bought me. Then I lived in Chile for 2 years in the early 90s. Not in the observatory complexes, but in the capital while working at the Catholic University. Not being a fluent Spanish speaker caused me many problems, but being white certainly helped. I was certain that if I weren't white my experience would have been much tougher (easy to observe when you see the 'whites' dominant in the university system and govt). I was also seriously bullied in primary school and 1/2 of high school. That also gives you an (unwelcome) perspective.

btw, you and others may also find this like-minded article interesting.
http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/19/magazine/white-terrorism-is-as-old-as-america.html

cheers,
mike
Sheila said…
I am a white female, raised as an evangelical Christian, and grew-up in a very diverse community. These three characteristics made me believe that the privileges I received were gifts from God. The majority of classmates and friends were not white so my "good luck" was not so difficult to see. Little advantages, like people remembering my name, assuming I was the leader, befriending me easily, could be leveraged for bigger advantages like getting internships, summer-camp scholarships, and walking though the awkward years of my life with more confidence. Clearly, I was specially blessed and chosen by God for important things...just as my (predominately white) church told me.

I think the "I'm special" lie is a very powerful force in allowing white people to ignore injustices.
Anna Beeler said…
Hey John! I finally got around to checking out your blog. Great stuff! I bookmarked a bunch of videos & resources I intend to share with white friends & family soon.

Re: this post, thanks for giving white folks a couple of excellent directions! In my experience, most of us fall into one of 3 different camps - 1) Haven't really been challenged to think about race/racism much; 2) Scared, defensive, don't want to think about changing the status quo; and 3) Want to do something, but feel groundless, unprepared, hesitant, and unsure where to start, or what people more knowledgeable than us (that is, people of color) think would really help. (Much of which is part and parcel of internalizing whiteness, something Erin speaks to in her response.) For those of us in the 3rd camp, I think this simple bit of direction could be invaluable. I journal or meditate every morning, and I'm going to add your two prompts to my practice. Along with: What am I going to do today to fight white supremacy? (Not that one would have to add this. I think the two you suggested would go a long way.)

I think people in my social circle might find these directions useful, too. Would you mind if I shared your post on Facebook, and highlighted your "challenge?"

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