If You're White, Do You Ever Think About Being White?

5 years ago

Earlier today, BlogHer Contributing Editor Nordette Adams shared a video with me on Facebook. It was part of a series of videos that got together black women and white women and let them ask each other questions regarding race. I now want to watch the entire series. The video Nordette shared asked two questions: 1) Do white people think about white privilege? and 2) What are the barriers to black women and white women being friends?

Today, I'm going to focus on the first question. One of the editors of Madame Noire kicked off the conversation by saying, "As black women, we think about race -- and subsequently, white people -- often. Do white people think about race often?" (I'm paraphrasing.) Sitting at home with my coffee, I actually said "no" out loud. Professionally, I think about race as a concept pretty often, but I think what she meant by her question is do you personally think about being white often? And no, not at all, not really ever, because I don't have to. The only time I think about being white is when we are specifically discussing race, either for work or with my daughter, or when something comes up in the news that is race-related. And most of the time, I'm thinking about the other person's race, not mine.

And I'm sure, at some point in my life, I have said at least one of the things in Shit White Girls Say ... to Black Girls. Here's the creator, ChescaLeigh, on Anderson Cooper talking about her viral video.

Watch the second questioner at 5:30ish ... this white woman gets extremely upset because "it makes it sound like only white people are racist." The next commenter -- also white -- after that sounded like she was near crying about it. Both women seemed to feel defensive because the white people are getting attacked (which they really weren't, as Chesca points out several times). What struck me was the level of their upset and the fact that the very calm black women who commented later said she usually keeps her emotions to herself because she doesn't want to come off like an "angry black woman." I don't know about you, but I've never tempered my emotions because I don't want to be called an "angry white woman." (A hysterical female, maybe, but that's very different from an angry white woman.

So. Where do we start?

I'm glad Nordette shared the first video with me because it got me thinking again about white privilege and how it still exists -- it totally still exists. If you think it doesn't exist and you are white, ask yourself honestly how you would feel if you woke up tomorrow and the majority of your elected officials and CEOs and teachers and other people in positions of authority were any race other than white. That's the best way I can think of to describe how deep-seated the white privilege is. Because the answer from most white people who have been honest about their reaction? Felt scared. Not terrified, but apprehensive -- like how does this change things? Which means there is something that could change, and that something is white privilege. For a more detailed explanation of what I mean, check out Laura's post at Catharsis.

I've stopped watching the local news, because unless they are covering serial killers that day, most of the suspects shown for any given crime are black. In a city in which the black population is only 29.9 percent. Either the black people of Kansas City are extremely busy, or the reporters aren't covering white crime.

Yes, we have a black president now, and that is amazing, but we are not living in a post-racial society just because we have a black president. Jim Crow laws only ended 47 years ago, when my parents were in their twenties. We're not even a generation out from blatant discrimination against black Americans. I think America's history of slavery makes black/white relationships even more fraught with awkwardness than -- in my opinion -- any other biracial friendship. And I feel the absolute worst thing we can do is pretend it doesn't exist. No, maybe even worse than that is to not realize on a conscious level that it still exists because it's very convenient if you're white to never go there in your head.

Do you ever describe your white friends to as being a white lady? Or do you just assume everyone is white unless you point out she is not?

It's hard to acknowledge white privilege when you're white because that means you should probably do something about it, and doing something about it might mean you or your child doesn't continue to receive the same advantage white people always have in America. It goes against human nature to purposefully take away from one's position, which is what makes it so hard. It's not evil to want to reap the benefits of position, but when that position is unfair to others, it's only right to level the playing field. How to avoid doing this? To pretend the field is already flat as a pancake. We can't fix a problem we don't see, because it doesn't exist! Everything's fine!

When I sat down to write this, I was going to open with "Nobody ever ... just because I'm white." Then I realized I couldn't fill in the blank, because nobody ever does ANYTHING to me specifically because I'm white. Being white is the given in America, or at least it is right at this very moment. So I asked around and got: "No one ever locks their car door when I walk past them just because I'm white." Another: "No one ever touches my hair randomly because I'm white." The touching of the hair had occurred to me because I know the hair touching happens -- I have seen it happen, and I probably have done it myself. I hope I haven't. Lord, I hope I haven't. But I can't guarantee I haven't, because the journey to recognizing white privilege started well into my thirties, and there was a whole lotta life before that. I didn't think about the car door thing at all.

Does it matter what we say to each other? Absolutely. But even more important is what we think about when we see each other. It does no good to stop using the word "ghetto" if you are still thinking it in your head. That's the tough part of white privilege -- in order to change it, you have to spend a lot of time thinking about it and how to change it, little by little, by reframing racist thoughts instead of refraining from saying the racist thing. When I write "racist," too, I don't mean necessarily vengeful or intentionally unkind things, but just things. Why would you lock your car when approached by a black man but not a white man? Why do you assume something is "ghetto"? Why would you think a black woman wants you to touch her hair any more than a pregnant woman wants you rubbing her belly? Women know how annoying it is when someone assumes they can touch us. Why would we forget how that feels?

It's easy to get defensive if you're white and you start thinking about white privilege. As one of the white women in the original video said, "We're making choices to think about it." I completely agree. Do white women think about white privilege? I can't speak for all white women, but since I never experience anything remotely like people locking their doors when I walk by, I have to choose to think about it instead of having it be my reality. And I need to choose to do it more often, so that my little corner of America levels out.

If you are white, do you ever think about white privilege?

Rita Arens is the author of the young adult novel The Obvious Game & the senior editor of BlogHer. Find more at www.surrenderdorothyblog.com.

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