I haven’t seen any of Whitney Dow’s Whiteness Project videos. To be honest, I’m a little afraid. For one thing, I expect to feel a lot of pena ajena while watching them. But there’s also the fear that I will just embarrass myself. But I did read an excellent interview with him by Jenée Desmond-Harris. But before facing the videos, I want to talk — in my overly analytical way — about what it means to me to be white. But I do think we have to be careful. The truth is that race is something that is outside of us. It is a concept. It is a way that we have of dividing up people into groups. And it is a function of our xenophobia. So it would be more correct to say that it is racism that is inside us and not race itself. On the other hand, our society is so defined by this concept of race that it is hard not to talk about it as if it were real. Ideas — even wrong ones — matter.
I self-identify as white. And what that means is that the society at large sees me as having no race. The way that society looks at race is the way the doctor looks at your chart. If you don’t have any diseases, you are healthy. In our society, if you don’t have any race, you are white. And that’s why the concept of race is so pernicious: it is thought of as a kind of contagion. This is why white supremacy is so caught up in issues having to do with purity. We see this in old terms like “quadroon” (one-quarter “black”) and “octoroon” (one-eighth “black”). The idea was to define the race of a person by the faction of “impurity.” White is pure and it is contaminated by racial impurity. The definition that these people have of the “white race” is “no race.”
This gets to the very heart of what it is to have white privilege. I have the incredible luxury of being treated by default as an individual. Yes, of course people make lots of assumptions about me. A glace is enough to tell, for example, that I’m a book worm. But if I were to go out and rob a bank, no one think, “A book worm robbed a bank!” And more to the point, no one would think, “A white guy robbed a bank!” It would just be “some guy.” People might decide that I was a “low life” or whatever. But no one would blame my actions on the white race. And that’s an amazing benefit that I get by being white.
Now look at this from the other side: it is just as good to be white. If I’m watching the local news and they report that a man robbed a bank, I don’t need to cringe when I see that the guy is white. So what? It doesn’t reflect badly on me! Because society has decided that he isn’t white. Rather, he is just another human being. And I can’t be held responsible for what some other human being does.
Other than this, I am as related to other whites as any given African American is to the African American community as a whole. And this is where it gets tricky. I’m hugely biased toward a particular cultural tradition of American whiteness — namely the liberal European tradition. I might spend much of my time complaining, but the truth is that I’m obsessed with Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Cervantes, and so on. And this makes me as white as the people who watch 19 Kids and Counting. Also that’s part of this blog and this article. Who the hell do I think I am? Actually, that’s a question some of my friends have asked me: why do I think that anyone cares what I have to say? But it generally doesn’t even occur to white men like me to ask the question. We see ourselves the way lords saw themselves in 18th century England.
At the same time, I have the most vulgar racist instincts. I’ve been very open about that while writing here. I fight it, and I think largely tame it, with my higher brain functions. But it’s there and it poisons me like a low-grade infection. And I’m not sure how it manifests. The truth is I see white people say really ignorant things about race that show clear blind spots. The most obvious is the claim, “I treat everyone equally!” Yeah, I don’t go around screaming racist epithets either, but I’m aware enough to realize that doesn’t prove anything. But by definition, I’m not aware enough to know the things I don’t realize. But even this understanding has at least a whiff of aristocracy to it — the great man trying to understand what the little men suffer.
Of course, my whiteness is geographically dependent. When I was a kid, my family went on one of those horrible car trips through Texas. At a diner in one town, two good ol’ boys had a very loud and threatening conversation with each other about the race of my father. They couldn’t decide if he was Mexican or Spanish. They eventually agreed that it didn’t matter. And then after we left, they followed the “colored” man with his white wife and mulatto kids to the county line. I wasn’t white that day and it had nothing to do with what was inside me.
But here in northern California? I’m as white as it gets — or at least well over whatever cutoff people determine for whiteness. And I’m very aware on a personal level how this benefits me. I see myself in very individualistic terms. I am, for want of a better term, a “curious fellow.” I go about my life as if I had no race. And I think that is, at rock bottom, what defines being white.
 That’s right: another Jenée Desmond-Harris article. What can I say? She’s really great, and I’m beginning to think that Vox is the best political website around. And yes, I think that is a pretty typical thing for a white guy to say.