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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A Reaction to The Autobiography of Malcolm X – by Levi Baer

After a life of crime on the streets of Boston and New York which lead to his eventual imprisonment before he was 20, Malcolm X spent most of his adult life advocating the teachings of the Nation of Islam.  This religious group promoted the solidarity of Black Americans mainly by pointing out the tyranny of White racism.  It also promoted complete separation of Blacks from Whites rather than integration, given the group’s belief that integration only furthered the subjugation of Black people.  Malcolm X was considered by the majority of citizens and mass media outlets to be an extreme revolutionary, but was revered by many Black people in urban areas as a poignant speaker and advocate.

Near the end of his life, Malcolm X’s relationship with the Nation of Islam was terminated and he made a life changing visit to Mecca.  His outlook on racism and the struggles of people with African decent took on a global perspective as well as an acknowledgement of the possibility for partnerships across races.  Assassinated at 40, his life ended before he was able to make any major social progress based on his much more inclusive approach to racism and diversity.

I found The Autobiography of Malcolm X to be extremely captivating and enlightening.  The first half paints a heart-breaking and clear picture of his life as a young hustler and drug addict as well as provides insight to what the Black experience was like for some in the 40s and 50s.  The second half, which follows his total immersion into a world of  cult-like religion and racial activism, leaves the reader with as many questions as it does answers.  One can suppose that Malcolm X’s stance of separation instead of integration made it hard for many to accept anything he tried to advocate.  However, one can also sense many universal truths strewn throughout his extreme messages.  Surely, the most poignant question that will forever remain unanswered: what would the world be like had this powerful speaker’s voice not been silenced right on the cusp of his own enlightenment?

There are numerous provocative, inspiring, and thought provoking passages in the book.  Here are a few that stuck out to me, along with some brief thoughts about each:

Page 174
The teachings of Mr. Muhammad stressed how history had been “whitened”–when white men had written history books, the black man simply had been left out.  

The concept of history being written from the perspective of those in power is a familiar one.  From this quote I ponder how the majority of Black people in the U.S. do not know any more about their heritage other than it being prescribed to a whole continent.  It seems like Americans tend to take on an ethno-centric view that all of Africa is the same place with the same people and customs.  Personally, I’d love to know if my ancestors were Nigerian  South African, Ethiopian, or something else.  Better yet would be knowing what those cultures called themselves before their colonization.  Drawing upon drastic and pertinent examples, such as ambiguous heritage, I can see why the teachings of the Nation of Islam were popular to blacks in the 40s and 50s.

Page 238-9
Here was one of the white man’s most characteristic behavior patterns — where black men are concerned.  He loves himself so much that he is startled if he discovers that his victims don’t share his vainglorious self-opinion.  In America for centuries it had been just fine as long as the victimized, brutalized and exploited black people had been grinning and begging and “Yessa, Massa” and Uncle Tomming. But now, things were different.  First came the white newspapers–featuring writers and columnists:  “Alarming”…”hate-messengers”…”threat to the good relations between the races”…”black segregationists”…”black supremacists,” and the like.  

Malcolm X is talking about the back-lash he experienced when the media dubbed his message as “hateful” against white people.  I think it extremely important to note the ego of groups and individuals in power, and how that affects various situations.  One way I see this in action today is when majority groups want to help minority groups, but do not take the time to find out what help should actually look like and if that help is even wanted.  Helping hands should be wary of what is implied when those hands appear to be reaching down.

Page 364
“–not Muslim, nor Christian, Catholic, nor Protestant…Baptist nor Methodist, Democrat nor Republican, Mason nor Elk!  I mean the black people of America– and the black people all over this earth!  Because it is as this collective mass of black people that we have been deprived not only of our civil rights, but even of our human rights, the right of human dignity…”

The crux of Malcolm X’s message after his pilgrimage to Mecca, a drastic shift from his previous teachings, to include people of all religions and eventually of all races.  I think it is fascinating that here he begins to describe the issue as “human rights”, the phrase used today to describe gay rights.  I wonder how Malcolm X’s stance on injustice would fare in the gay rights struggle in which we are now engrossed.  Additionally, the global perspective on racial oppression is a framework that I do not believe has ever caught on.  Imagine the power that could be garnered by the joint voices of the millions and millions of people around the world who are oppressed, not only for their race, but also gender, sexuality, physical ability  economic status, etc.

Page 377
I tell sincere white people, “Work in conjunction with us–each of us working among our own kind.”  Let sincere white individuals find all other white people they can who feel as they do–and let them form their own all-white groups, to work trying to convert other white people who are thinking and acting so racist. Let sincere whites go and teach non-violence to white people!
We will completely respect our white co-workers.  They will deserve every credit.  We will give them every credit.  We will meanwhile be working among our own kind, in our own black communities–showing and teaching black men in ways that only other black men can–that the black man has got to help himself.  Working separately, the sincere white people and sincere black people actually will be working together.  

Although I’ve always thought that integrated efforts are best, something about this approach appeals to me. I think my draw to this separate-but-equal concept relates to my previously stated concern about the possibility of efforts to help those need actually perpetuating the differences between groups.  I agree with Malcolm X’s statement that the strongest efforts for advancement for communities should come from within those communities.  I think the concept of groups working separately but towards a common goal is intriguing and I wonder if it is truly possible, or if separation will only ever lead to more inequality. This approach reminds me of what is being done by the Violence Interrupters, a Chicago group that works within their own communities to stop violence at its source as it is happening.  During a Q&A session following a screening for a documentary about this group, I witnessed a White individual ask, “what can I do to help?”  The response:  give us money, show the movie to your friends, and let us do this work ourselves.  http://interrupters.kartemquin.com/.

My thoughts and reactions to this autobiography are numerous and I invite feedback and further discussion.  Although I am still in the beginning stages of my personal racial discovery, this book has provided me with valuable insights and guidance.  Without hesitation, I would place it among my top three favorite books of all time.