Friday, November 28, 2008

Why Whiteness

I have written quite a bit about whiteness.  I know that this is a subject that causes anger in many people.  The usual response is to call me a racist, or lecture me about my tone. Once in awhile I get the you're to sensitive or things aren't as bad as you make them out to be comments.  I realize that these are a defensive reaction but it is still highly irritating to say the least.

The reason we need to talk about whiteness is because it is everywhere.  It has become so dominant that it is normalized in every social institution.  Everywhere you look there is the influence of white culture.  I am well aware that many view culture as something that belongs to "others"; you know the "exotic darkies" but trust me whiteness has its own unique culture.

Even though whiteness is highly visible for all to see, it is something that is rarely discussed.  Usually when we discuss racism we attack it from the point of view of the person of colour.  We talk about things like how the legacy of slavery still haunts blacks, or the ways in which Indigenous cultures continue to be colonized. but never do we associate that as an act in maintenance of white hegemony.

Whiteness does not just exist, it is active, vibrant and alive.  Daily whiteness works hard to make sure that it is the centre of matters from the important to the trivial.  If we only speak about race in terms of the way that it effects people of colour, we are denying whiteness as a race and as an active participant in racial hierarchy.

Though focusing on the exotic darkies may be comfortable because that is what we have always done when we speak about racial discord, it is a very limited conversation.  Healing does not come from avoiding our pain and discomfort it comes from directly challenging it and forcing a change.

When I speak about whiteness I do it in search of a world in which all voices are truly equal.  For me it means releasing some of the anger that I have, and for others it may mean owning their unearned privileges. 

Privilege is the loaded word in all of these exchanges.  What some have come to view as a right of their existence is actually the result of  systemic racial equality.  The ease at which you are able to navigate the system to your advantage exists because the system was created to benefit you. 

Though I speak in generalities when I focus on whiteness it is important to point out that if you are disabled, gay, of lower/under class status etc the degree to which you will be able to benefit will be reduced.  This does not mean that a POC in your same position is your equal.  If standing next to a person in the same situation your whiteness will reassert itself and reestablish the hierarchy.

To be critical of whiteness is to risk attack simply because one is butting up against the norm.  How could a person of colour express dissatisfaction with a system that clearly so many people are happy with.  The sheer length and breadth of white hegemony would seem to make it an impenetrable fortress.

But my worth...my value...my satisfaction is every bit as valid as a white person.  Despite the content of whiteness with the inequality, my marginalization is something that I cannot content myself with.  It is not a matter of seeking to remove privilege but a demand that said privilege be extended to all.  The same opportunities and life chances that my white neighbour has, should be the same opportunities that are granted to me.

I should not have to fear that the police will one day attack my child.  I should not have to lie awake at night worried about the fact that I have to explain to my child that despite his gentle nature that the world will see him as a threat because of his blackness.  I should not have to battle with a racist education system to ensure that my child gets the education he is entitled to by law.  Finally I should not have to do battle daily to ensure that my child does not hate his blackness because that is the message that the world sends to him.

As an adult I do not expect any changes to directly effect me.  My path has been chosen and I must simply navigate it until its end, but as a mother and a potential grandmother I soldier on for those who will come after me, just as my foremothers did.  Whiteness is personal to me because it effects not only my life but the lives of those I love. 

Feel free to throw your hissy fits, stomp your feet, and howl, but your privilege must come to an end.  You are not more valuable to this world than my beautiful child.  I do not want your pity or your condescension.  My right to equality has been paid for in blood and I shall not allow your over sensitivity and selfishness to deny me my birth right.


15 comments:

Arum said...

I was brought up against this on the bus last night. I had picked my youngest (aged 9) up from the childminders and we were on our way home. To her delight, it was a double decker bus, so she ran upstairs and sat at the front. Towards the back, a young black guy was sitting listening to his ipod. He began to hum along. He then began to do his own rap (sorry, I am just not cool enough to know what this is actually called!), all about how it's nearly Crimbo. He was happy. He was enjoying himself.

After a while, I became aware that my child was being very quiet (something that is VERY unusual for her, this kid could talk the hind leg of a donkey). She was also very still, again unusual. She was sitting looking out of the window, with the hood of her coat pulled right over her face. I asked her if she was okay. Without turning round, she whispered "Mummy, that man is frightening me".

At first, for a split second, I couldn't work out what she was on about. Then I realised - black man, doing something 'socially odd', singing on the bus. She perceived him as a threat. And this is a kid from a home, school and church that preaches anti-racism. I just didn't know how to respond - lecture her? Go up to the guy, and probably embarrass the hell out of him? Anyway, he's not a cipher in my kid's anti-racism education. In the end, I just tried to reassure her "He's just having fun love, nothing to worry about".

How can I, as a parent, compete with all the crap she gets thrown at her every day? She's a white girl, therefore black men are a threat. She's only 9, but she's already internalised that on some level. This is what I meant on the thread about SVU - it, and shows like it, just spread poison into white women's minds. Othering black people doesn't just serve to keep them down, the way it's done also serves to keep white women contained.

I don't want my daughter to be afraid of someone on the bus just because he's male and black. I don't want her best mate to have a crappier life than her just because she's female and black. But somehow, the whole culture just seems to scream that these are the rules, and it's really difficult to know how to counter that loud screaming.

Danny said...

How can I, as a parent, compete with all the crap she gets thrown at her every day?
I would say that letting her know that what she's on tv is not always what real world is like is a good start. As a "big scary black guy" myself I'll tell you one of the biggest tells of a white woman that is scared of our presence: fear.

In your story about you and your daughter on the bus there is a very good chance that guy could recognize your daughter's hesitance.

A good way to counter act that is with real world examples. Show her that we aren't all looking to attack her. There is no more reason to be scared of a random black guy than a random guy or woman of any other race.

Arum said...

Danny, I try, I really do. This is why it shocked me. This is a kid who, in her own little way, is trying to get her head around the whole racism thing. I recently asked her to pass me my black trousers out of the wardrobe, to be firmly told off for being 'racist'. I then had to try and have the 'black is not a Bad Word' conversation with her whilst trying to get her ready for school, and me ready for work!

I think his gender had a lot to do with it - she wouldn't have been worried if it had been a young woman. But the combination of black, male and loud was obviously a real problem for her.

It makes me really angry that other people get to infect her mind. I never let her watch shows like SVU, it's too old for her. But she's obviously getting it anyway. Like I stop her from coming into the corner shop with me in the morning, to stop her seeing all the up-skirt shots on the front pages of the tabloids, but then, when I tell her that her 'dress me up' computer dolly is too thin, she patronisingly informs me that "that's what teenage girls are supposed to look like, mummy".

I suppose I'm just feeling helpless. I (we) are trying to bring our kids up as strong, independently minded, fearless women, but we can be undermined by the culture we live in quicker than we can blink.

Octogalore said...

"It is not a matter of seeking to remove privilege but a demand that said privilege be extended to all. The same opportunities and life chances that my white neighbour has, should be the same opportunities that are granted to me."

I agree. This is the key.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on how much you think race and class both factor in here. To what degree does wealthy blacks' degree of equal opportunity approach that of whites? I agree that one cannot reduce it to an issue of class, that is just one component. But how much of one? On one level, you can't isolate out the class component because the two are integrated. But as a mental exercise, if one did that, looking at what is left might help understand the issues better. I imagine what's left is prejudice based solely on skin color.

I always seem to move towards the large-scale solution mode, sorry -- must be the engineering thing. To the extent that someone like, say, Rebecca Walker, faces a different set of issues from someone in a poor community with a broken home who is of color, that seems to then militate two levels of activism -- working to ensure kids of color from poor communities get additional support and a head start, and also working to combat racism that's isolated from classism.

It seems a little artificial to separate, but does it cut down on the privilege denial? Someone might say -- well, I have black friends, the Obamas, so I'm totally non-racist. But when they see a black person who isn't clearly well off, do they think differently, and is it also differently from how they'd think if they saw a white person who isn't well off? Both of those might be "yes."

Just thinking out loud disjointedly here...

Renee said...

@Arum

I truly identify with you struggle as a womanist trying to raise sons to own their gender privilege is a difficult thing. Everything I teach them is continually contradicted the minute they leave the house. There are days that it almost feels like its a loosing battle but because I know what is at stake a soldier on.

I think that you should take pride in your efforts, so many parents cannot even be bothered. We are never going to be able to counter all of the messages our children receive but through diligence perhaps we can pass on the idea that the worst of them are wrong.

Anonymous said...

I am sympathetic to the concerns in this post regarding the negative messages that popular culture sends to young black folk, and also to the author's anger about the past. Her determination not to live for herself but for future generations inspires considerable respect.

My problem is that the basic essence of whiteness remains undefined. I can identify the colour white, and under most circumstances, Caucasian people, but when I hear black folk criticize other blacks for "acting white" I never quite know what they mean.

Until a clear set of definitions is provided any conversation about race is bound to remain nebulous no matter how hard it tries to be frank.

Vera H. said...

Arum,

That's a sad story. I think of my brothers and other black men who have to deal with this "be afraid of the dangerous black man" thing. Not only does the media and society at large perpetuate this image, some black men, perhaps feeling otherwise powerless, foolishly cultivate it.

Renee,

One of the things my mother stressed to us children was that there's good and bad in every group of people and to judge each a person on their own merits, not race. There have been many times in which I failed in this and my own ugly prejudices have come up, but I keep trying to follow what she said.

Indeed,we live in a very race defined, race driven society with many problems. If I knew the solution, I'd be waiting for a call from the Noble committee and have a flight booked to Oslo. Still, I think if we start seeing each other as fellow human beings , it would help matters.

I have a group of friends that I knit and crochet with. I supposed most of them would fall under the "privileged white woman" category, to many here with all the baggage that carries, but to me, they are my friends. with ups and downs, highs and lows.

As I sat with them and listened, your posts came to mind. I enjoy reading your blog; it makes me think and it challenges me.

We try to speak openly and honestly about racial issues. I don't feel put down because I'm black, and I don't go down the "clueless white woman" route. I'm glad to have their friendship.

I'm rambling and I'm very well aware that the mere babble of some ladies in a yarn shop isn't going to change a complicated and ugly history.

Just as it is wrong for society to demonize black men, it's wrong to demonize whiteness too.

Renee said...

@Vera H
Just as it is wrong for society to demonize black men, it's wrong to demonize whiteness too.
Speaking critically about whiteness is not demonizing it. We must have conversations about it and dissect it. Holding whiteness up to the light means making it accountable for its active participation in the race hierarchy.
As I said in the post if we only approach racism from the point of view of the person of color we are only seeing part of the picture.

Further no one said that all white people are clueless but it is a simple fact that there are things about being a marginalized body that they simply do not know and do not understand because they have never experienced it themselves. Part of being a body of color is that we must have a working knowledge of whiteness because it is necessary for our survival but the same it is not true for white people.

Amber Rhea said...

"I'm rambling and I'm very well aware that the mere babble of some ladies in a yarn shop isn't going to change a complicated and ugly history."

It won't change history, but it may very well change the future. In fact, that's exactly the kind of thing that I truly believe WILL change the future. To borrow a term Renee used here awhile ago - this is "micro-activism." I truly believe this is where we can each make a difference - by talking and engaging with our friends, on a one-to-one basis, in an atmosphere of caring, respect, openness, and non-judgment. If you're able to introduce one person to a perspective they'd never considered... and then they do the same... and then they do the same... well, that's how change happens.

The Barefoot Bum said...
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The Barefoot Bum said...
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The Barefoot Bum said...

Feminism, racism and communism, now with editing goodness.

Arum said...

I think that the issue for me is that I am very confident in my analysis of gender issues, but equally very aware that I'm lacking in my analysis of racial issues.

I know what it's like to be a woman. My eldest (aged 12) can now happily scream "Sexist craaaaaaap" at the screen whenever she sees something offensive. She's learning, and I'm the one who taught her. But I don't know what it's like to be black, and I'm aware that I just don't 'see' things out there. My ability to teach them is impaired by my own lack of insight. Which is why it sometimes feels like a losing battle!

Renee said...

@Octagalore

Well if someone is of color and they exist with class privilege their experience with blackness is obviously different.

I went to a very white university. I was constantly asked to speak as a representative of my race. There is a great degree of tokenism in which you are treated in this kind of environment.
There are also times when even though you display class advantage blackness will still come back to haunt you. Condi(can't stand the woman) has spoken about being in stores and being treated terribly. Of course when they discovered who she was their attitude changed.

I believe that having money or being in a position of privilege can mitigate some of the ways in which racism effects you but ultimately you cannot escape it.

@Arum
You will never know what it is like but the fact that continue to try speaks volumes about who you are. We can never truly know or understand the life experiences of the "other" but if we listen and learn we are helping and growing.

Danny said...

Arum:
I think his gender had a lot to do with it - she wouldn't have been worried if it had been a young woman. But the combination of black, male and loud was obviously a real problem for her.
It most certainly did.


I went to a very white university. I was constantly asked to speak as a representative of my race. There is a great degree of tokenism in which you are treated in this kind of environment.
Yeah your location can mean a lot. I went to a historically black college/university (called HBCUs) and since I wasn't "black enough" I was told I acted white and was treated differently.