On being White

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).


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15 responses to “On being White

  1. Seth R.

    The unique thing about western European culture wasn’t that it had slavery – all the cultures had that.

    The unique thing about “western” culture is that it abolished slavery. They were the first culture to actually feel bad about doing it and start self-examining about it.

  2. Seth, a quick Google search tells me that Cyrus the Great (of Persia) has “the West” beat by over 2,000 years in the abolishing slavery department. But even if that weren’t the case, I would doubt very much that Western Europeans were “the first culture to actually feel bad about doing it and start self-examining about it.” And even if that were the case, I wouldn’t find much to celebrate about being the first to think that there is something wrong with ripping human beings from their homes, shipping them in chains to another continent against their will, and forcing them to carry out the wishes of other human beings in dehumanizing conditions for the duration of their lives.

  3. Sarah,

    Interesting blog post. As you probably know I’ve wrestled with issues of race, racial heritage, and moral culpability regarding things like slavery and genocide. All of this stems from the fact that I am half-white and all-American.

    I think you do raise a good point in that it is difficult to talk about the “challenges” of being white when the dominant culture in the U.S. and the culture that has been at the heart of the most recent global colonial project has been white. The person of reference in the U.S. is a white person, though they will be in the minority in the U.S. in our lifetime. This all sets it up to make it sound preposterous to talk about the challenges of being white when then entire American system is slanted in favor of that dominant culture.

    That being said there still are unique challenges, assets, experiences, and insights that Anglo-American individuals and Western European culture can offer the world. While I think we do need to be critical of our past, think about it more, and de-construct a world shaped by the invention of race and the history of colonialism, this does not automatically discredit the experiences or insights of individuals or communities from the dominant culture.

    Thanks for writing,

    – SF

  4. Seth R.

    I don’t think I’d agree with you that the abolitionists didn’t have much to be proud of.

  5. Sarah, I really like this post because it reminds me of all the places I am afraid to go in conversation. And of course, I’m even afraid to comment on this post. Thank you for daring. Fear, shame, and pride—such wretched demons.

  6. Seth, your point seems to be that there is something uniquely good about the West in relation to slavery. That makes utterly no sense to me. Besides that white people in the West were not the first to abolish slavery, nor the first to be introspective about slavery, they weren’t even the first people in the West to think it was wrong…enslaved Africans had a significant beef with it. And before them, I’m guessing enslaved Native Americans probably weren’t too keen on slavery either.

  7. Kevin,
    Always enjoy hearing your thoughts.

  8. Sarah, I’ve been thinking so much lately about the topics I avoid in conversation. I’ve been listening to a few comedians lately who don’t avoid anything, and it’s been the most refreshing thing for me. I’ve been feeling crushed lately by the weight of the things it feels out of bounds to say.

    What makes it hard, I think, is that it seems like most people are so quick to reinforce the dominant mores–when you step out of line, people seem eager to shame you back into submission.

  9. Seth R.

    Sarah, the Africans came from a society that embraced slavery as the natural order of dealing with people from other tribes.

    Where do you think the white slavers got their slaves? Do you think small bands of Europeans were mucking around in the African bush catching malaria while rounding up innocent villagers?

    Not even close. They BOUGHT their slave stock off local AFRICAN warlords – who obtained the slaves through right of conquest. Which is something that most Africans accepted as the natural order of things – the conquered as much as the conquerors.

    Africa is not some innocent actor in this equation that was simply “put upon” by evil white men. They were full accomplices in the system.

    The Persians and others may have abolished slavery in their own societies – but none of them managed to impose the norm of opposition to slavery on the rest of human society as successfully at the Europeans did.

    I’m not here to whitewash any past evils. I’m just here to say – let’s have a little perspective please rather than just self-flagellation.

  10. Mrs. H.

    Just to interject a bit here–African slavery was wildly different from the chattel slavery practiced by Europeans. For one thing, it was possible for Africans enslaved by Africans to obtain their freedom. They generally spoke the same language as their captors, kept their cultural identities intact and, get this, they were still considered human beings. Chattel slavery is one of the most monstrous developments in human history. Africans and Native Americans were regarded as nothing more than expendable livestock. Torn from everything they knew they were forced into abominable conditions where they labored literally until they dropped dead, the mindset being that there was an inexhaustible supply of labor and it was cheaper to work slaves until they died than maintain them in anything remotely resembling humane circumstances. Comparing chattel slavery to African slavery is an apples to oranges affair. The European model of slavery was definitely something “put upon” Africans. I’m sorry, but European culture has nothing to be proud of when it comes to slavery.
    Yes, they abolished it. After hundreds of years of unapologetic practice. But the abolitionists weren’t all Europeans, and not all Europeans were abolitionists, not by a long shot. And let’s not forget that slavery was abolished in the US for political reasons, not moral qualms. Britain would have withdrawn support from the Union if Lincoln had not issued the Proclamation…

    – Nicole

    • Chrissie07

      Slavery always ignored family ties. However, you are forgetting Arab Muslim slavery. It went one step beyond. For women, it was sex slavery. The men were castrated. This is now slowly comingn to the surface. Arab countries should have as many black as the US. They don’t because the men were eunuchs.

  11. Seth R.

    Sure, Africans didn’t have the same economic system the Europeans had either. There was no industrial revolution in 1700s Nigeria. So there was no reason to introduce mass-production economic models onto slavery in Africa anyway – so we don’t really need to congratulate the Africans on declining to practice slavery in a way that wasn’t even economically possible for them in the first place.

    And it was possible for slaves in European countries to become free as well. America too. Difficult – but possible.

    • Mrs. H.

      Perhaps we should instead congratulate them on declining to practice slavery in a way that was completely morally repulsive? Maybe that’s why they didn’t do it?
      As for freed slaves in America, c’mon. Being a freed slave in America was perilous at best. Fugitive slave law practices made it possible for even people who were BORN FREE to be sold into slavery, let alone those who had been released from bondage. Also, it’s not like being a freed slave gave you any practical rights, and you didn’t become part of the community.
      The “European slavery was not that bad” perspective absolutely does not fly. The Atlantic slave trade was a uniquely barbaric system and we still feel its ripples today. If you think the American economy would be where it is today without hundreds of years of slavery to build it up, then you are sorely mistaken.
      To connect this with Sarah’s original post, Whites today owe much of what they enjoy socioeconomically to the unarguably evil practices of their forbears. They are at the top of a system designed to favor and support them while subjugating others. The abolition of slavery or the passage of the Civil Rights Act did not instantly level the playing field. People of color still experience discrimination on an institutional, systemic level and refusing to recognize that is, well, it’s racist.
      So no, the solution isn’t for White people to go about bowing and scraping and flagellating themselves constantly for wrongs like slavery. However, to suggest that everything is hunky dory now and Whites don’t have anything to be held accountable for today is insulting, irresponsible and dangerous.

  12. Seth R.

    The only reason Africans didn’t practice the exact same system is because they never got the chance to do it.

    Unless you are trying to make the argument that Africans are genetically and morally inherently superior to Europeans.

    Is that your argument?

    I have nothing to congratulate Africa over on this matter. I don’t congratulate George Washington for not invading Moscow, and I don’t congratulate Africans for not practicing a form of slavery they were economically incapable of practicing in the first place.

    Certainly not in light of the fact of how brutally African tribes treated each other. The African continent has not a single jot of moral superiority over the European continent as far as I’m concerned. In fact, in many ways, they were more brutal than the Europeans, not less.

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