Recently, I was doing a workshop on racism. We wanted to divide the group into a caucus of people of color and a caucus of white people so that each group could have more in-depth discussion. Immediately, some of the white people said, “But I’m not white.”
I was somewhat taken aback because although these people looked white, they were clearly distressed about being labeled white. A white Christian woman stood up and said, “I’m not really white because I’m not part of the white male power structure that perpetuates racism.” Next a white gay man stood up and said, “You have to be straight to have the privileges of being white.” A white, straight, working-class man from a poor family then said, “I’ve got it just as hard as any person of color.” Finally, a straight, white, middle-class man said, “I’m not white, I’m Italian.”
My African-American co-worker turned to me and asked, “Where are all the white people who were here just a minute ago?” Of course I replied, “Don’t ask me. I’m not white, I’m Jewish!”
Most of the time we don’t notice or question our whiteness. However, when the subject is racism many of us don’t want to be white because it opens us to charges of being racist and brings up feelings of guilt, shame, embarrassment, and hopelessness. There are others who proudly claim whiteness under any circumstances and simply deny or ignore the violence that white people have done to people of color.
In any case, some of us are quick to disavow our whiteness or to claim some other identity that will give us legitimate victim status. We certainly don’t want to be seen as somehow responsible for or complicit in racism.
I want to begin here - with this denial of our whiteness - because racism keeps people of color in the limelight and makes whiteness invisible. To change this we must take whiteness itself and hold it up to the light and see that it is a color too. Whiteness is a concept, an ideology, whim holds tremendous power over our lives, and, in turn, over the lives of people of color. Our challenge in this discussion will be to keep whiteness center stage. Every time our attention begins to wander off toward people of color or other issues, we will have to notice and refocus. We must notice when we try to slip into another identity and escape being white. We each have many other factors that influence our lives, such as our ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, class, personality, mental and physical abilities. Even when we’re talking about these elements of our lives we must keep whiteness on stage with us because it influences each of the other factors.
We are understandably uncomfortable with the label “white.” We feel boxed in and want to escape, just as people of color want to escape from the confines of their racial categories. Being white is an arbitrary category that overrides our individual personalities, devalues us, deprives of the richness of our other identities, stereotypes us, and yet has no scientific basis. However, in our society being white is just as real and governs our day-to-day lives just as much as being a person of color does for African Americans, Latino/as, Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, Native Americans, Arab Americans, and others. To acknowledge this reality is not to create it or to perpetuate it. In fact, it is the first step to uprooting racism.