My Whiteness

Whitney DowI 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.[1] 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.

[1] 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.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

5 thoughts on “My Whiteness

  1. Excellent. I actually have an old Webster’s lying around with definitions for “octaroon” in it.

    I don’t know that racism is hard-wired into our brains (it’s possible, and there’s a lot of evidence to back that.) Pattern recognition definitely is, and making guesses about what we think patterns mean.

    It can go either way. As a small kid in a poor white neighborhood I was picked on a lot. For whatever reason I made friends with some Hispanic kids, considered “bad” by teachers who warned me against associating with them, warnings I ignored since the kids protected me from bullies (and never did anything “bad” when I was around; they cussed and looked at girlie mags.)

    To this day my instinctive reaction to Hispanics is one of “safety.” I trust them inherently, a silly thing to feel. My reaction to African-Americans has long been one of “danger/they hate me,” probably because I grew up knowing none and got my subconscious programming from media depictions. Having lived in a majority-African-American apartment building for years now, that instinctive reaction has changed a little. Not enough though, as those implicit association tests showed me. (Probably because I don’t know my neighbors; I really only know about five people in the world!)

    I wonder if a human society without arbitrary categories is even possible. Along with pattern recognition we seem to have a tendency towards buttressing our self-worth (in what you’ve described as the pointlessness of existence) by imagining “at least I’m better than so-and-so.” That doesn’t mean we can’t find ways of limiting the power people have of harming others they arbitrarily categorize.

    Watching “DN” last week and Michelle Alexander (author of “The New Jim Crow”) was on. She had a great line: color blindness in America today means ignoring racial disparities. Even though they’re more obvious to white people than anytime in recent memory. It’s almost like the failing empire/patriotism reflex; the lousier American life gets, the more some people cling to hollowed-out, Lee Greenwood-style national pride. The more blatant American racism is shown to be, the more some feel a psychological need to deny its existence.

    There are obviously reasons for why our brains make these kinds of cognitive leaps, some of which must be instinctive and some learned. I’m really surprised that so far we have almost zero understanding of how this works and why.

    • I first heard the word in the Randy Newman song “New Orleans Wins the War.” And I first thought it was some kind of cookie because it sounded like “macaroon.” The words still amaze me: both in the vileness of its meaning and the silliness of its construction.

      I don’t necessarily think that racism is built into us, but xenophobia is. The truth is that things we haven’t seen before are usually bad. So I understand it and I’m very forgiving of these vile impulses in myself and others. The problem is that humans have all kinds of inappropriate gut reactions to things (like men jumping on beautiful women), which we still manage to control. But the way to control is not to deny.

      I have the same kind of racist crap going on that you are talking about. Growing up in Northern California, Latinos are “white” to me. The fact that my father’s family are all reasonably dark Portuguese and being around a lot of farm workers growing up probably helped in that regard. I have one friend who is a bigot when it comes not to Latinos but to Mexicans specifically. He even uses the words of other Latinos to justify his bigotry. This would be like someone using my complaints about Texas to hate Texans. These conversations are about the only time in recent years that I’ve been in a blind rage.

      With African Americans, I have these vile, irrational gut reactions. Obama has talked about this with regard to a woman clutching her purse when she’s in the elevator with him. With me, I might see a young black man on the street and feel the desire to check my wallet. These are not feelings I want and I feel like they are forced on me unjustly. But they are there and they are mine. All I can do is fight them. I certainly think it would help to have black friends, but it is the height of privilege-think to imagine that some black man would want to be my friend so I can improve my signal-to-noise ratio regarding racist impulses.

      Did you really expect me to know that “DN” was Democracy Now!? At least give me a “DN!” Geez! I will have to find that. I’ve never heard Michelle Alexander speak, but The New Jim Crow is probably the most important book I’ve read in the last five years. I have piles of notes on it, but I never managed to write about it because there was just too much to say. Maybe I’ll read it again. I could probably get an article per chapter. Although I disagree with her thoughts on Affirmative Action. I don’t think that getting rid of it would improve anything. I think she’s providing racism with too much of a rational basis in that.

      Part of the problem — especially on the right, but certainly not limited to it — is that a lot of people don’t want to deal with racism in America. They more or less say, “We gave you voting rights, what more do you want?!” The problem is that racism is so ingrained it adjusts to every law and every social movement. Whites feel like they’ve given up a lot to forward the cause of racial justice. And I can see why they do: roughly at the same time that the Civil Rights movement started really succeeding, the middle class tanked. Now this is actually a function of something else. But whites are not wrong to feel put upon. They just need to figure out that it isn’t other working class people with slightly different skin colors who are doing it to them.

  2. The “DN!” is here:

    It’s really sad, Alexander is on the verge of tears the whole time, who can blame her. I requested “Jim Crow” from my library because of that appearance. I can’t believe I only started watching that show fairly recently, it’s so terrific.

    (Does affirmative action even exist anymore? It should, it definitely should, but perhaps we should call it something else as frightened whites hate it. Labeling matters, the New Deal carefully labeled its programs with positive-sounding words that avoided right-wing trigger terms. Yesterday I got a flyer in my mailbox with #BlackLivesMatter on one side and serious pimping for school privatization on the other; I guess somebody’s figured out the demographics in this building, and it’s not a very nice somebody.)

    “Forced upon me” is quite right. My lizard-brain reactions aren’t conscious. Some come from experience (the Hispanic kids who saved me from bullies) and some from cultural norms I’ve absorbed. And then there’s always a gut sensation that being white is way, way more convenient than being Black. I don’t think of it in terms of privilege but I know it is, somewhere deep down. It’s not so much that I want others to get crummier treatment but that I’m hugely happy to get more preferential treatment. Current America is like living in one of those awful Soviet satellite states, where you spend ungodly amounts of time on the phone trying to get your insurance company or Internet provider (or whatever) to honor their contracts. It’s so demoralizing you kinda jump at any opportunity to be put front of the waiting line; after two hours on hold, you’re happy to get through to someone because you sound “white.”

    • Some kinds of affirmative action still exist, but I think you are right that there isn’t that much of it. What’s interesting about it is how whites generally think it is unfair while they enjoy far great benefits. But it is the same thing. In general, affirmative action is shoved in the faces of those receiving it — just as traditional welfare is. But white privilege is hidden — just as welfare for the rich.

      • I remember my mom describing the humiliation she had to go through to get food stamps. The system tried to make her feel ashamed. While a-holes who get bank bailouts scream bloody murder if Obama doesn’t say worshipful things about them!

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