The Unintended Consequences of My Whiteness
The entry below is taken, in part, from the introduction of my dissertation. It's a deeply personal account of how I learned about my whiteness. It's something I think about on a near daily basis and a piece I've been wanting to publish in a more personal, intimate way since I wrote it nearly a year ago.
I think there is something very real about being personally touched by an issue and having it transform who you are and what you believe. I was raised in a “colorblind” home. My parents, who had been raised in the United States during segregation, believed that teaching me not to see color was a way to teach me inclusivity. Given their lived experiences, I know that this choice came from a good and genuine place, though I now recognize that the opportunity to even say you are “colorblind” points to privilege and has a negative connotation in communities of color. I grew up believing that I wasn’t racist or prejudiced without ever having to confront any of the systemic racist institutions that existed around me because it just wasn’t something people talked about. Even in the 1990s race was whispered in hushed tones or, worse yet, not acknowledged at all.
I managed to make it to my PhD program without having to have really uncomfortable conversations about how my colorblindness had contributed to my participation in incredibly broken systems. I may have come to these issues and recognized them over time as someone who truly does believe in social justice and equal participation, but it's unlikely. Instead, there were other factors in my life that forced me to confront the ugliness and reality of racism in a much faster way. In 2011, I married a Black man and then, beginning in 2012, I watched, on television, one unarmed Black man after another get shot by the police while the media were there to highlight it. This wasn’t something new. The African American community had been angry and hurt and traumatized over police brutality and state-sanctioned violence for centuries, but I had the privilege of living on the outside of those realities for most of my life. Now my interracial marriage put me one step closer to understanding the injustice within my country and every day to this day that my husband leaves the house I have a moment of pause worried about what he might encounter as he goes about his daily routine.
In November 2014, police officers in Detroit shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice in a park. A month later I gave birth to my first child, a son: a boy that, while he is technically biracial, I knew would be seen as Black by other Americans every day of his life. Quickly my awareness of racial injustice went from being something that might exist when I was a total outsider looking in, to a definite problem as the wife of a Black man, to an alarming, terrifying reality as the mother of a Black child. It was during the first year of my son’s life that I realized the issue that I could not ignore was racial injustice in the United States, but more specifically, the blindness that most white individuals walk through life with every day.
The point of this post is not to speak about the gross injustices that people of color experience in this country on a daily basis. I'm willing to speak on those issues and will do so in any way that I can to advocate for more just systems, but there are a lot of Black and Brown individuals already doing that work and I'd strongly encourage you to check them out and support them directly. What I want to speak on is whiteness and how this fake classification, contrived centuries ago to divide people with similar interests in order to maintain power and control for the elite, is still alive and well. All white people participate in this ugly system, intentionally or not, because our institutions were founded on principles that directly disadvantaged or outright ignored people of color in this country.
I consider myself incredibly lucky to have been called in by a few people along my journey to the ways in which my whiteness blinded me to the impact of my words, actions or behaviors. The classmates during my graduate program who spoke out on the hurtfulness of words I used or stereotypes I held. A student in one of the early courses I taught in sociology who pointed out my one-sided interpretation of the material. Painful as these moments were for me and as much as I failed to be able to hear what was being said to me in real time, these were opportunities gifted to me. I have since reached back out to these people to thank them for being brave enough to say something and willing to do the emotional work of calling me in and explaining to me my ignorance when they certainly had no obligation to do so.
Now that my lived experience is one that has opened my eyes, not only to injustice in our systems, but to the ways in which my whiteness has perpetuated these systems, I want to help call in other people. It's naive to think that everyone will get to the place that I am in because of personal connections with people of color. So, I ask myself regularly, how can people start to transform and see their world differently without those connections? And I think part of the answer is to invite people in to a conversation instead of calling people out for their behavior. Giving people space and time to reflect on where they are and where they'd like to be. Offering empathy for missteps instead of shaming. Acknowledging that this is not a black and white (no pun intended) experience. There's a lot of grey in shifting perspective and expanding understanding.
Without a doubt we need a large, institutional approach to racial injustice in this country, but before that can be a successful reality, as individuals White people need to start to work on themselves and their own communities. We need to recognize the unearned privileges we've been afforded, come to terms with what losing them might feel like and envision a society where race no longer dictates access, opportunity, and justice.