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.