I haven’t feeling very bloggy lately, but a couple of issues have popped up as of late to jar me out of my writing slumber. One of those issues is the concept of “whiteness.”
I know what you’re thinking. This isn’t Stormfront. I’m not in the Klan. Why are you talking about whiteness. It’s just not nice. We’re supposed to be color blind. Isn’t that what Dr. King wanted?*
Guess what white people– we are white, and we have to understand what that means if we ever want to truly connect with persons of color.
Being white is not a dirty word. It doesn’t mean you are bad. It just is, and it comes laden with cultural baggage and expectations. Without a critical examination of that baggage and those expectations, you can’t ever be expected to truly engage on issues of race.
Why is this important? First off, most white people, out of a good intention not to be perceived as racist, have gone off the deep end the other direction. We see ourselves as race-less, which then becomes a neutral in contrast to persons of color. When we are the standard, and persons of color are “other,” how can we fully confront difficult and delicate race issues? We can’t. We have to admit we are white. We have a race and culture. [Before a troll comments as such– yes I know race is a sociological construct and not a biological one. Doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Get over it.]
So if you accept that being white means you have a race and culture, and included in that, a particular filter for how you view the world, what do you do then? You have to embark on a critical examination of how those filters not just color how you view the world, but the people in it. For me, as I’ve examined my own whiteness, I’ve found that it often includes a tacit, deep-seated acceptance of “respectability politics,” which simply reflects, as noted by Mychal Denzel Smith in The Nation, “the idea that one can overcome racism (or any other form of oppression) by way of your personal actions, presenting one’s self as a citizen worthy of respect as defined by the dominant cultural norms and standards.” That sounds attractive, doesn’t it? But it’s just not real. Look at what happened to Jonathan Ferrell (see previous link). Look at the unrelenting racist abuse heaped on the Obamas. Racism is deep, enduring, and structural, and black people and other persons of color will be subject to racism even if they, for lack of a less pejorative phrase, “act white.”
How does that affect me and my examination of whiteness? For one, once I started examining my tacit acceptance of respectability politics, I could start examining other prejudices. How many times have I dismissed a valid critique because I didn’t like the way it was delivered. Even worse, how many times have I jumped in to give advice to the speaker (usually from a disadvantaged group) to say, you know, if you just spoke to me respectfully (i.e., like a white person), more people would listen. That, my friends, is unexamined whiteness manifesting as an offshoot of respectability politics. The demand to be spoken to a certain way before you will listen, even if the speaker if speaking cold, clear truth, seems to be a uniquely white one, a manifestation of white privilege. It’s also one at the base of this misguided and rather appalling piece that appeared this week in The Nation decrying “mean black twitter feminism” not for its message, but solely for its tone. In other words, black women can only speak to white women if they do it in a tone that makes white women happy. Think about that for a second. Not an objection to the actual truth of the message– just an objection that your manner of speaking hurts my feelings. Unexamined whiteness. I used to do it to, and now understand why. I’m white, and I’ve been told all my life I don’t have to listen unless someone is speaking in a manner I deem acceptable. This has been a huge stumbling block to honest dialogue for me, and will likely be in the future not just for me, but legions of white people.
So what say you? For my white friends, what do you think are the manifestations of your whiteness serving as stumbling blocks?
*And a final hint– white people who have lifted MLK quotes out of their proper context and use them to promote race-blind ideologies have failed to critically confront their own whiteness. A first step could be to stop selectively quoting the man and instead reading more about what he stood for. He was much more radical than today’s white public wants to admit.
*Thanks to Martha Crawford, LCSW (@shrinkthinks) for inspiring this post with your Twitter stream this morning.