I have never put much thought into being white. I’ve thought a lot about other aspects of my identity—my femaleness, my Christianness, my Americanness—but my whiteness somehow escaped introspection until this past winter, when a speaker in one of my classes had the students get together with a partner to discuss the prompt, “what makes me proud about my ethnicity and my physical appearance.” My partner was a Korean woman, who quickly named her black hair as a point of pride. I sat there in a stupor, staring at her hair, realizing that I had never, ever thought about this before, and that I didn’t particularly want to be thinking about it now. I was drawing an uneasy blank on any points of potential ethic pride. When it came time to report our discussions to the class, the white students all expressed similar discomfort with the exercise. One blonde-haired, blue-eyed woman voiced what I was thinking: she felt guilty talking about her ethnicity or appearance in positive terms, because people who looked like her had propagated so much evil on people who didn’t, because they didn’t.
After the class, I continued the conversation online with a couple of classmates, one of whom was eager to reassure me that I carried no guilt for the sins of my ancestors. I hadn’t enslaved anyone, he said; I was against racism. I had done nothing wrong. All races have done evil things, he said; white people are not uniquely racist, uniquely oppressive, or uniquely violent. And white people have done some remarkable things as well as some horrifying things; white people built a system of government that is, as he put it, the envy of the world. White people walked on the moon. White people fought the Nazis.
I put mental asterisks by the items on his list. White people built the American system of government on the backs of slaves, in the wake of genocide. White people walked on the moon because they were still the only people in the country with the resources to get there, 200 years post-slavery. White Americans fought the Nazis because Hitler declared war on the United States—and anyway, millions of non-white Americans fought in WWII. And I hadn’t enslaved anyone, but as the progeny of people who did, I benefit from a system that was birthed in a racism that favors people who look like me. And for reasons that feel inaccessible to me, I’m uncomfortable with the kind of individualism that assumes that I bear no responsibility for the sins of my foremothers and -fathers.
But I’m equally uncomfortable, I’m coming to realize, with the blanket acceptance of guilt and self-hatred that seemed to me, until a few months ago, to come with the territory of being a white American in the 21st century. One part of my classmate’s response did strike me as shockingly true: white people are not uniquely racist or uniquely oppressive. White people are not inherently bad. White people are not bad. White people are not bad.
I had a conversation a few weeks ago with four friends over dinner, and our conversation turned to race at one point. I was with two black women, a Korean woman, and a white woman. As I began talking about my experience with being white, I found that I was throwing qualifiers out left and right (as in, “It feels off-limits, as a white person, to talk about the difficulties of being white…but I’m sure it’s nothing, in comparison to the racism you’ve experienced”). It feels awkward to speak about there being anything hard about being a white person in the United States in 2012. It feels like a cultural given to me that whiteness is easy—easier, perhaps, than it should be. And of course, it is easy. But it’s also hard, and I want to break through my self-imposed moratorium on talking about its hardness. It took me six months to write this blog post because I didn’t want to spark responses espousing the kind of quick, unthinking support for the goodness of whiteness that seem inevitable and which seem to me to come from a defensive pride (which is rooted, somewhere, in fear) in white racial identity. But I hate equally, now, the quick, unthinking condemnation of whiteness. There has to be a third way. I need some kind of paradigm for understanding what it means to be a white American, a paradigm that rejects with equal fervor shame and pride, a paradigm that is in equal parts compassionate toward and understanding of the other and the self. It seems to me that both false paradigms rob us of love—shame, because self-acceptance is the birthplace of genuine other-acceptance, and pride, because our struggle to be thought valuable is completely self-focused (and conceals our fear that we are not).