Before I was white(ish)

This weekend I finally finished reading Between the World and Me by Ta’Nehisi Coates for bookclub. K and I decided to read this book together, because it’s the sort of book you want to talk to people about and, honestly, I can think of no one better to talk through the weighty issues of the world with than my friend K.

It’s a helluva book. Read it–let it move you, let it make you think. It’s a personal book and an emotional experience, but it’s also very thoughtfully reasoned and explained.

If you’re white or think of yourself as white, know it is not written for us, by which I mean to say that it is not written with us in mind. We are not its primary audience and it does not seek to convince us of anything. It’s damn good writing so if you read it with an open mind, it may just change your thinking. But I think Coates is well aware that isn’t his job nor does he want it to be.

It pairs well with “Will Racism Ever End, Will I Ever Stop Being a Nigger?” by Kevin Powell, which moved me to tears several weeks ago. Powell is an activist as well as a writer, which lights up his prose in a particular way. He asks kind of a shattering question of white readers in the essay: “You’ve got to ask yourself who and what was I before I became White?”

Now, I think there are probably a number of ways to think about that question, but I’d like to start with perhaps the most obvious way: how individuals come to fall under the category “white.” I’ve been thinking a lot about it of late, in part because I have such a strange relationship to my whiteness at times–and other times, I hardly think about it at all, which I think is the predominant condition of white people. I want to meditate on this here, not, I hope, in such a way that distances me from the reality of whiteness or my part in whiteness, because I want to fully acknowledge those conditions. And there is no reward in this except the thinking and the self-reflection. The readership of this blog is relatively limited, so hopefully this doesn’t come across as self-aggrandizement or a cry for attention. I don’t intend for it to be.

The works above invite the reader to think of whiteness and blackness as American social constructions. Whiteness, which presupposes and requires blackness to exist, is an exclusive club in America, but it does admit members periodically to balance its numbers and to maintain the illusion of fairness–the “up by your bootstraps” American Dream. Basically, whiteness absorbs immigrant groups. It absorbed the Irish and the Germans, the Polish and the Italians. It’s working on absorbing east Asians right now, although they still face racism obviously. Ta’Nehisi Coates rightly calls these absorbed races dead, because whiteness requires a degree of homogeneity and erases more than it incorporates.

An illustration: I’m mostly Italian American. My mother’s family is entirely Italian; my father’s family is about half. Growing up, I knew and recognized my maternal grandmother as Italian. She made Italian food; she spoke the language; she definitely looked Italian. She didn’t really look white, didn’t try to conform to whiteness. She was expressive in that way you expect Italians to be expressive. No one contrasted more strongly with her than my fraternal grandmother, who curled and colored her hair, who made bland Anglicized food, and who never, to my knowledge, instilled any cultural knowledge in her children. Who was aggressively soft-spoken. My father’s mother was distinctly white.

We choose to assimilate, but it happens broadly–not everyone lets go of their culture at the same time. It’s encouraged by media, by micro-aggressions, by erasure. The more affluent you are, the easier and more necessary it is. Blend in. Your family’s background is trivia at best. It’s not part of you; it certainly doesn’t require anything of you; whiteness is more important.

I was raised somewhat Italian. My parents certainly never fed us casserole with a cream of mushroom soup base. But they didn’t know the language (I learned it later, academically). We didn’t know other Italian families. The most Italian I’ve ever felt was visiting cousins, crammed in around one table, fed from the enormous pot of spaghetti and sauce that bubbled on the stove all day in anticipation of visitors.

But in many other ways, we were just another white American family. We were a white American family in an affluent black county, but that didn’t harm us any more than it spared our black neighbors from racism. It still happened, just in different ways. It happened, perhaps, less specifically at our hands, but we were still participating in whiteness, still part of a poisonous system. I don’t want to absolve myself of anything by saying I’m from P.G. County or my grandparents were immigrants. These are simply facts of my relationship to whiteness, factors my whiteness has to work around to exist.

Growing up where I did does mean that I didn’t really know what it meant to have my whiteness contested until I got older. I’m not the whitest looking person. “Ethnically ambiguous” is the term I hear most often. People from other cultures accidentally include me all the time. This doesn’t bother me, to be thought Latina by Latinos or Turkish by Turks, although I don’t want to appropriate. No, the problem comes from other white people, because we are the most invested in whiteness. What are you? Where do you come from? It’s a small taste of what happens to people of more recent immigrant groups all the time. People with accents or unusual names. People who aren’t really white yet. I don’t say this to be precious or suggest I have a full understanding of that oppression. I don’t. I do say it to emphasize that whiteness isn’t grounded in reality. It’s a social status, a construction. My fluctuating whiteness proves it.

It can be taken away. And that’s a particular kind of feeling. A not-safe feeling. Kind of like how a woman feels walking alone. Exposed. Your ability to predict how other people will treat you changes. It’s not just someone being rude; anyone can be rude. It’s another person knowing they have power over you, seeing you as less human than they are. Where are you from? It’s not a friendly question. Why are you here? You don’t belong here.

Whiteness can be taken away. And it changes, depending where you are. In the deep South, in the rural North, in very affluent suburbs, my whiteness comes into question. (The way I dress and talk do not do me any favors, but fuck it.) I’ve said that I felt safest in Alabama when I was in Tuskegee, which to some sounds like a funny thing to say. For a while, I worried that I felt better among black people because among black people, my whiteness is assured. But I don’t think that’s quite it. It’s true I didn’t feel questioned or threatened in Tuskegee, which was a relief. Tuskegee had no stake in whiteness. But it also felt familiar to me in a way that hostile, all-encompassing whiteness never does.

In Between the World and Me, Coates explains his process of thinking through blackness. As a young man, he wanted a unified theory from black thinkers. A clear way to elevate blackness. It makes sense. I think white people–or people who think of themselves as white–who recognize racial inequality want to do the same thing. They want to know and love blackness as a way of feeling better about their own whiteness. (Whiteness is not wanting to feel bad or responsible.) Here, we want to say, Let me peel off my whiteness and I will no longer have to feel accountable for what whiteness does. As if it is that easy.

I think loving blackness is important because we’re not taught to love blackness, we’re taught (quietly, insidiously) to fear and hate it. And of course black people should love themselves, ecstatically, publicly, thoroughly. But it’s not enough for white people to profess their love of blackness. And it’s not helpful to hate being white or to want not to be white (except, you know, when it’s really convenient to be white). I don’t know if I wanted the people in rural  Alabama and Mississippi to think I was white. In a way, I’m sure I did, because they would not have had to so obviously think about what to do with me if I wasn’t white. I would have been safe.

But I’d rather be Italian than white. I’d rather have that and know who and what I am, but it’s not as simple or as easy as that anymore. I can’t just say: I’m not white; I’m Italian American. Because being Italian has gotten lost in whiteness. To recover being Italian American, then, or to be anything else, I need to help dismantle whiteness.

DeRay McKesson has explained that for white people to dismantle whiteness, we must push our privilege until it breaks. We must use our privilege against our whiteness. This is no easy thing–in part because there are a lot of people very attached to being white. And the more they feel the cracks in it, the harder they’ll fight for it. Sometimes those people are our friends and family. And some days, they’re us. There’s no uniform state of working against whiteness; it is an activity. It’s a distressingly easy thing to fall back into simply being white and it is not easy at all to throw whiteness off. Because part of what whiteness does is make us comfortable.

And because in some ways, for some people, there’s a much scarier question to ask than:  “who and what was I before I became White?”

Who and what will I be after I am no longer White?

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4 thoughts on “Before I was white(ish)

  1. Hello! Hello, hope you don’t mind me asking a question. I’m English, and I live in England, and I’m of Irish ancestory and have brown hair, blue eyes and freckled skin. My brother, by the same parents, has black hair and olive skin. What would you call us? Me white and him black? I’m just not sure I understand the way you’re using black and white…does white mean English and black non-English? Am asking out of curiosity, not aggression, by the way (and typing on a temperamental smart phone!)

    • Hi! Thanks for your question. No aggression taken. 🙂

      So yeah, outside of America, it changes, right? (Coates, in his book, goes to France and acknowledges that even though it’s lovely to be in France, everyone has their own systems of inequality to deal with.) In the parts of Western Europe I’ve been to, society treats the Roma, other Eastern Europeans, and North Africans the way we treat black people and brown immigrants in this country. It’s always a question, I think, of who needs to be lowered for other people to be elevated. I think you can often tell by who gets demonized in a crisis situation, whose behavior comes under the most criticism by the media, etc. At least in America, it’s painfully apparent if you know what to listen for. And for us, it’s not just xenophobia. It’s an ingrained way our society is constructed.

      Of course, here your Englishness would probably supersede a lot of that. Your brother might get some questions or sideways looks, but his accent would ultimately categorize him as European. (My siblings also look whiter than I do, so it’s definitely an unpredictable thing. If I’m with them, less likely I get questioned. On my own, I’m not a known quantity for everyone.)

      For me, it comes down to this: when we talk about blackness, we really mean a social category. Multiracial people in America often get categorized as black unless they look really, really white. (And even then, they only get what’s often called “passing privilege.”) So we don’t actually care about someone’s background. Either your group has been assimilated or it hasn’t. Either you fit the profile or you don’t.

      Mind you, not everyone agrees on the terminology. There’s more than one way to think about blackness and rightly so. And I’m by no means an authority on the subject. Just trying to think my way through it.

  2. Julia,

    Thank you, I love this.

    Since I moved out of Baltimore and for the first time, I’m living in a 99.9% white neighborhood, I’ve been struggling with this uncomfortable feeling of embarrassment. It’s not necessarily because I’m pale, but because my appearance “fits in” with that of my neighbors. But, I’m not my neighbors and I don’t want to be lumped in with them. Living in such a “white” place, the “whiteness” of those around me is somehow magnified. There is a guy up the street flying a confederate battle flag right below the American flag (which makes absolutely zero sense) and, across the street from him, one of the many iterations of the regular confederate flag (next to an American flag). It’s like, these people aren’t simply unaware of the implications of these flags — they seem PROUD of the the fact that white privilege breeds racism and they brag about the fact that they’re not part of the “other”. I know I can’t do anything about what they think because, well, they’re ignorant morons with no concept of how the world SHOULD work – but every day, when I drive up the street, or when I hear somebody say something bigoted, it makes my blood boil to know that people like this still exist in our country. It angers me to see what other white people will say when there isn’t a single person of color around, even though no one is being hostile towards me, you know, because I’m the color of Elmer’s glue and I got sunburned yesterday doing yard work. I know that I can’t eradicate white privilege alone, but at least I’m aware of it and, I guess that’s better than nothing.

    • Thanks, Natalie. (I didn’t realized you’d moved!)

      It’s funny because one thing you always hear about white privilege deniers is, “but I don’t know any racist people. Where are all these racists you’re talking about?”

      I mean, as you point out, it’s not subtle.

      But then, these are also the most extreme examples. They’d be cartoonish, if they weren’t also terrifying. There’s also all the people who pop up on my FB feed preaching respectability politics whenever black people protest. Or the people who call the cops when black people are being loud and having fun. Or the people who accuse black people of making everything about race.

      And it’s hard to know: whose mind can I change? Sometimes it doesn’t feel like you can affect anyone. But I think you’re right that it starts with the individual, that we first have to recognize what’s happening, and then decide not to participate in harmful behaviors, and finally find ways to make that into an active, vocal thing.

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