The Whitest Black Person You Know: What is Whiteness and how it affects us all

When you hear the words “racial” or “ethnic” what comes to mind? That isle at the grocery store with all the Kosher and Mexican food? My guess is that for most of us those terms inspire thoughts of the habits, foods, and lives of people with brown skin. Black, Asian, Middle Eastern, Latino, African American, Hispanic, Islander…there are any number of terms that are used to describe these groups. Racial labels will be the topic for future discussion, but right now I want to stimulate some thought on why White or Caucasian wasn’t mentioned in this paragraph so far, and why most readers probably wouldn’t notice its absence.

The title of this post “The Whitest Black Person You Know” is intended to be an eye-catching exaggeration of my own racial evaluation. For years now I have been referring to my racial identity as “Halfrican”, a bi-racial mix of Black and White. Even though I have the light brown skin that puts me in the Black/African-American category when filling out the race section of an application, the resources, habits, interests, friends and family of my life could aptly be described as White. So, what’s going on there? I am Black but I live a White life?

In the Fall of 2011 I was fortunate enough to take a class that introduced my fellow organizational communication classmates and I to the concept of Whiteness. Whiteness is a concept that recognizes that we all lead racially constructed lives; the color of our skin, our ethnic backgrounds, our traditions, and our habits all affect who we are and how we interact with others. For people occupying this space, it involves power and privilege not afforded to others; institutionalized benefits usually embodied by White people that shape the world for everyone. Whiteness works to maintain power and dominance over those it exploits. One of the main ways Whiteness accomplishes this is by remaining unquestioned, or in other words, taking White out of the racial discussion. White is normal.

What does Whiteness look like in every day life? Whiteness is the entitlement people feel that leads to them taking up more space than needed, with their homes, on the sidewalk, on the bus, with their voices. It’s when White people think that race doesn’t affect opportunity and that minority groups just aren’t trying hard enough. It’s someone (Black or White) crossing the street to avoid a Black man. It’s a Black woman using White language to fit in at her job. It’s the obvious segregation of racial groups in Chicago and other cities. When we learned about Whiteness in class, the discussion took up more time than we had allotted for it and the following section on Blackness had to be pushed back. A great piece by George Lipsitz (reference at end) elaborates on the way Whiteness manifests itself in community projects, school districts, government, healthcare, judicial systems, and public opinion. Whiteness is even adopted by racial minorities in order to gain favor and success, perhaps without them even realizing what they are doing. Which is where we come back to me.

I grew up in predominantly White Northern Minnesota, was raised by White parents, have a White sibling, was surrounded by White classmates and friends, and took on a myriad of stereo-typically White hobbies and interests (skateboarding, punk rock, many things from the list of Stuff White People Like) It was great, I thoroughly enjoyed my upbringing, but here’s the important part of all this: This White socialization created an unquestioned confidence in my racial identity. I did not consider myself when talk of race came up, as most White people are trained by society to do. I used to describe my ability to easily adapt to professional situations as being “flexible”, now I realize that I was good at acting White…mostly because I didn’t know any different! I was surprised when my skin color would affect social interactions such as sales reps being unable to hide the surprise on their faces when meeting me at my administrative position at an architecture firm in San Francisco (White industry in a White city). The unfortunate punchline of a story for another day is “…well, you’re not what I expected you to be!”

What does this mean? Is it all doom and gloom? No! At least I don’t think so. Ruth Frankenberg, who has studied and written about Whiteness, says that the potential for the movement that would alter the meaning of Whiteness resides with everyone. I see this as a collective effort at elevated awareness, acceptance and action. We can start by recognizing the benefits afforded to those that embody Whiteness. Let’s all be more aware of how our biases (which are normal) turn into prejudiced action or words (which are avoidable). Let’s be wary of isolated decision making such as choosing which words aren’t offense to individuals or groups. Let’s think about the space and time we occupy, especially when in public, and view it in the context of that scary E word…Entitlement.

The goal of this piece is to stimulate thoughts about an often overlooked topic. White needs to be part of racial study and discussion. I welcome public and private feedback and discussion. I would like to leave the reader with a few more questions to ponder:

How does this topic make you feel? Confused? Threatened? Sad?
How does Whiteness play out in your life?
Can Whiteness be positive and/or put towards positive use?
Are there White people that don’t experience Whiteness?

Stay tuned for my next entry that ties together my post about Malcolm X, this post about Whiteness, and my racially ambiguous hair and why I won’t be cutting it for a while.

Additional Reading on Whiteness:

Frankenberg, Ruth. “Introduction: Points of Origin, Points of Departure.” “Epilogue: Racism, Antiracism, and the Meaning of Whiteness.” White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1993. 1-22. 236-44.

Lipsitz, George. “The Possessive Investment in Whiteness.” The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics. Philadelphia, PA: Temple UP, 2006. 1-23.

Segrest, Mab. “Of Soul and White Folks.” Born to Belonging: Writings on Spirit and Justice. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers, 2002. 157-75.

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11 thoughts on “The Whitest Black Person You Know: What is Whiteness and how it affects us all

  1. This is Pocket! I don’t know if the comment identification thing will work out. I like question 3. Can Whiteness be used positively? I think that the answer is definitely yes, but it may need a reworking first. As many non-white people, and the occasional white person who is more directly European, have found, a strong understanding of your own cultural background/heritage can be a powerful thing. Unfortunately, with it being invisible to White people, it mostly provides unseen privileges for them and an unfair burden on others.

    I certainly think there are other benefits as well. For example, a better understanding of Whiteness and how it works can teach me, first, that I am lucky to have grown up with the tools I need to easily survive in the majority culture. Then, having a firm grasp on those tools can enable me to utilize them to change that culture for the better.

    I think of a David Foster Wallace essay in which he notes that every inner-city black child must grow up bilingual, and then how difficult the language barrier made it to effect change in Thailand. I needed allies who could help me navigate their culture. I don’t think it is much different here at home, so long as everyone involved realizes that Whiteness is neither better than nor more “normal.”

    I shy away from saying that non-white people need white people to do A or B. I’d rather say we all need each other. But, understanding myself as being culturally different, rather than culturally neutral, goes a long way towards my accepting cultural diversity as a noble and powerful goal.

    • I resonate with this: . . .having a firm grasp on those tools can enable me to utilize them to change that culture for the better.

  2. Great post. I was directed here by your post on facebook surrounding the new Tarantino film, so I’m sure some of this will come up in our discussion afterward. I wanted to add something to the definition (along with the acknowledgement that my academic reading on whiteness is not very deep: I’ve read things here and there, discussed it quite a bit, and spent countless hours losing sleep over it, plus a few productive ones thinking more clearly). The way whiteness plays out in my life is as a supposedly “neutral” force that, because of its attempts to hide or not to exist, is therefore also devoid of culture. In the name of promoting itself as the status quo, it is not rooted in any specific time or place, and it would rather deny any connection to history. It is a force of cultural erasure, where instead of knowing and appreciating the amazing diversity of each person’s identity, the notion of being “white” attempts to blanket everything with a cultural apathy that passes as neutrality. The conclusion is to focus instead on the mass produced food and flashing gadgets that supposedly even the playing field by elevating everyone to the same timeless place-less plane. I feel strong ties between whiteness and what is called the “free market,” another supposedly neutral ideology wherein the histories of oppression and enslavement are overlooked in the name of “freedom” and “equality” (which is kind of like saying different size planets have the same free access to gravity). In this way i think whiteness is the oppressively boring culture of overstimulation and indulgent luxury that everyone across the world is taught to desire. Taught by advertising, pop culture, and the strength of new media tugging away at tradition. The history of objects and pop-cultural references become the only access to a cultural lineage: stories are passed down through hollywood and TV, songs through clear-channel and mobile devices — and the channels of ancestral lineage begin to dry up and atrophy. Whiteness has created a system whereby we farm out the loving care of elders to nursing homes whose architecture matches another genius of White culture: the prison industrial complex. The struggle for me and many other whites who are in any way aware of whiteness, is to acknowledge our place of privilege and not be somehow resentful of that fact: that what everyone is taught to desire may in fact produce a cultural void, a lack of cultural identity. Feelings of self-pity on account of being targeted for/by the mainstream are never productive. I feel this is at the heart of a lot of the self-loathing hipster culture that we’ve seen creep up in the last few decades.

    A lot of this is informed by my experience as a white male traveling in West Africa, where the standards of beauty and success are unanimous with white skin, straight hair, and a business suit. The same is true in the USA but it was easier to ignore as a white male child because all the images looked closer to me than they did, say, for my friend Ruby-Beth, a biracial jew.

    So there’s a lot to unpack with regards to whiteness: I just wanted to zoom out and note that part of acknowledging “white” as something other than just “neutral” involves a sober investigation of “white culture.” In this way it becomes possible to take responsibility for the actions and institutions in society that take up way more space than they need, and hopefully redistribute some of that space in a process of balancing cultural hybridization with a respect for culturally specific traditions and customs.

    • (Disclaimer: hastily typed out at work, but I love talking about this stuff!)

      I really like Isaac’s tie-in between Whiteness and other social phenomena. I think the only form of oppression we can link causally to whiteness is the insidious one Isaac mentions: in seeking to create normalcy out of whiteness, we find a new way to label out-group actions as “abnormal.” He hits all the salient points by divesting the effects of “whiteness” from the effects of “racism,” which are separate, though intertwined concepts.

      I’ll break down an interesting example given: that of Hipster self-loathing. Post-modernism has been an important part of American culture for a while now. This is definitely related to Whiteness, as it involves a massive disillusionment with our leaders (politicians, religious figures, businessmen and scientists). This is a disillusionment that can only be caused by a loss of faith in progress, and specifically in progress that benefits you. Most non-white people never really had that faith to begin with. An easy defense against such a loss of faith is humor, because the only other answers are to join in a broken system or be left behind. As most people do not relish the idea of living on a commune, they join the system, but now see it as a charade. Humor and self-deprecation at least show that they know this. But only people attempting to participate in White Culture would need such a defense.

      So we are looking at not only the post-modern, Hipster self-loathing, but the modern, guilty white jokes, whether over race or some form of exploitation. This guilt is clearly part of white culture, as its participants are almost overwhelmingly white, but it is also a part of Whiteness. Whiteness is somewhat bigger than White Culture, as it involves all the causes and ramifications of said culture as well.

      (Note: I have been doing this a lot, working in the Mortgage industry as I am…)

      • Pocket, did you see that Hipster racism thing that was going around a few months ago? Joking about things certainly is not the answer or way to move forward, which is I think what you’re saying.

  3. Hi, Levi!
    This is good stuff you’re doing here — keep at it!

    You’re reminding me of a friend of a friend who is ethnically Italian but was adopted by a family of stalwart Lutheran farmers in upstate MN. He grew up very culturally similar to his adoptive family, especially in his devotion — the context in which my friend mentioned him to me was that he had told her wistfully “Yeah… intelligent people seem to have a hard time with The Lord.” — and yet somehow he was the only person in that part of the state to wear Raybans and drive an IROC.

    So I guess there are many different kinds of whiteness, as well as many kinds of blackness…. just in case it wasn’t confusing enough already. And, I suppose, many different kinds of any sort of [xxx]-ness that you might think up.

    Thanks for this; I look forward to the next installment.

  4. It saddens me that this is even an issue. This is why: First, I am a Bible-believing Seventh-day Adventist Christian. This means I believe that “man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.” That being said. first there was Adam and Eve; time went by, there was the Flood, and only Noah’s family was spared. Do the math, folks: no matter what color you are, or where your family came from, or what language your grandparents spoke, if all of us had the capability of tracing our ancestry all the way back, sooner or later we would find a common ancestor. I have no idea what color s/he was, or what continent s/he resided on. But there is no doubt in my mind that s/he existed. So what this means is, we are all related to one another. We are all family. Some of us are tall, some are short. Some have very dark skin, and some have very white skin. These are interesting differences, and some of us do things in a different way than you may do them. But we are family all the same. And the sooner we all realize it, the better off all of us will be. And then we can stop wasting energy on worrying about what is Black, what is White, what is Italian…

  5. Whiteness has more to do with class (if you have lots of money), urban culture and belonging to what’s the coastal WASP group. I came to notice white people speaking for the shame of whiteness and “white privilege” tries to avoid racial issues from discussion, and rather they emphasize the watchwords of diversity, integration, multiculturalism and tolerance: I believe they don’t really live up to what they preach or teach. Are they willing to give up their privilege for a non-white or a fellow white not born with a silver spoon nor a trust fund? I don’t think so. This is coming from a man who was born and raised in a largely lower-middle income Hispanic city in Southern Cal. and I’m of half-French (father)/ part Cherokee Indian (mother) background, so I can be called a “minority” while I qualify as a “white person”. I received a regular high school education but not finished college, therefore it dooms me from achieving upper-income “yuppie” status shared by lots of white people, unless I go back to community college. These kind of white people speaking against the horrors of “privilege” have alienated minorities I noticed are socially liberal, but fiscally conservative and worry more of not having guilt trips when dealing with class issues other than racial, ethnic or multicultural ones they claimed to be concerned over. +

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