uprooting racism (#2): “let’s talk” to “white benefits?” p. 7-42

For explanation of this read-along see the Uprooting Racism page.

Welcome to the second week of Uprooting Racism. Today we’re reading the first section of “Part One: What Color Is White?” the section exploring whiteness as a racialized category, and how being assigned whiteness by society confers privilege both individually and across generations.  Below are my reading notes, organized by chapter.

Let’s Talk

We [white people] assume we are white. It may seem like I’m stating the obvious. Yet there is something about stating this obvious fact that makes white people feel uneasy, marked. Why notice? What’s the point of saying, ‘I’m White.’ (p. 9)

I’ve learned over the years to be in (imperfect) awareness of my whiteness. I grew up in a majority-white community, went to a majority-white college and graduate school, and married into another white family. I work in a majority-white workplace, in a majority-white profession. It’s actually on the Internet — that place where we were all supposed to magically transcend our gendered, racialized, class-bound, dis/abled, otherwise marginalized selves — that I actually learned the lesson of habitual self-recognition; the naming of identities, privileges, and marginal selves. I’d be curious, demographically, if people who came of age within networked publics have learned to catalog their identities more consciously due to having to identify themselves with language and labels in online spaces.

“I’m Not White”

Some of the white people [at a workshop] said, ‘But I’m not white.’ I was somewhat taken aback because although these people looked white, they were clearly distressed at being labelled white. (p. 10)

If, when you move down the streets of major cities, other people assume based on skin color, dress, physical appearance, or total impression, that you are white, than in US society that counts for being white. (p. 11)

What parts of your identity does it feel like you lose when you say aloud the phrase ‘I’m white.’? (p. 11)

My Euro-American heritage is — as far as my family genealogists can tell — German, Dutch, and Scottish. I grew up in a community in which Dutch heritage was, on some level, presumed for most white folk and white my strawberry blond hair and blue eyes I never would have passed for anything but white. That I didn’t think about being white as a child is, actually, one of my strongest reminders that I am white: the invisible social privilege of being white, and of thus not having to learn about racial inequality as a function of survival.

I don’t think I feel I lose any particular aspect of my identity in naming my whiteness, though I think (in the past more than now) it has been hard to hold whiteness (racialized privilege) in tension with my more marginalized aspect of self (home-educated, queer, female, politically leftist in a deeply conservative community, agnostic in a community of committed Christians). Intersectional thinking has taught me a lot about how to understand contextual margin/center dynamics and be able to understand white privilege without erasure of other ways in which I am not privileged within U.S. society.

“I’m Not Racist”

Just as it’s not useful to label ourselves racist, it is not useful to label each other. White people have committed some very brutal acts in the name of whiteness. We may want to separate ourselves from them by claiming that they are racist and we are not. But because racism operates institutionally, to the benefit of all white people, we are connected to the acts of other white people. (p. 15)

Y’all seen Jay Smooth’s “How to Tell Someone They Sound Racist,” right? Let’s refresh:

(On a side note: This works for so many -isms! Substitute [marginalized experience here] and you can confront people strategically on their classism, sexism, ableism, religious bigotry, transbigotry, anti-gay arguments, etc., etc. so forth and so on. I think of this strategy in basically any internet conversation ever. Including certain conversations recently on and about a certain listserv.)

“To the benefit of all white people.” It sucks, but we can’t get away from the fact that — as people who are read as “white” — we benefit from the accrual and continued violence and prejudice of other white folks. We need to name it when we see it — but not in an “I’m not one of those white people,” ways. More in a, “What you said was racist, quit it” way. To one another.

What Is Whiteness?

I grew up learning that racial categories were scientifically valid and gave us useful information about ourselves and other people. (p. 21)

How can you respond to people who say that there are specific differences between races? (p. 21)

I would say, “as a child of the 1980s, I didn’t grow up believing racial categories were scientifically valid…” except of course that there are still plenty of people today who believe there is a scientific validity to racial theories.

While I would have reflexively rejected the notion of biology-based racial inequality as a child (I was very much into “fairness,” and inequality isn’t “fair.”), I probably wouldn’t have had an evidence-based argument to hand. I thank my reading in feminist and queer theory for my skepticism regarding scientific studies, actually, since feminist scientists and social scientists, women and sexual minorities have repeatedly documented the ways in which what is “known” through science is very often flawed by confirmation bias: we expect to find (gender, sex, and racial) difference, and thus design studies using definitions that enable us to confirm our beliefs.

I think I do lack the “elevator speech” about science and how it has been used to structure racialized difference over the past several centuries. As a historian, I am very aware of the historical context of the concept of race, and how the boundaries of various race categories have flexed over time (for example that the Irish were at times considered “black”). Like gender performance or sexual behavior, what racialized identities signify about an individual person varies wildly from place to place — and interacts with all of the other ways in which our identities are embedded within society. These understandings of historical context and social construction of identity are so interwoven into my ways of thinking at this point that I’m unsure of how effective I am at arguing with “the opposition.” In my experience, I have very little success arguing with “the opposition” when it comes to gender or human sexual variety either.

If anyone following this read along has been successful at prompting thought on this front, I would like very much to hear what your approach entailed.

In this chapter Paul Kivel explores the “clusters of meaning” around whiteness — how it signifies not just one’s supposedly “superior” embodiment, but also more classical cultural identities as well: Western Christianity, American, and Masculine (“Blonde — the best kind of white!“). When you put Western Christianity, American citizenship, and (presumed straight) masculinity together, you’re looking at a construction of racial superiority that actually takes an incredible amount of work to maintain. As Kivel observes:

Word and Pictures

A chapter on the racial coding of language and image — how the villains in films are often seen in the dark, for example, while those coded pure and good are dressed in white or light colors, filmed well-lit, etc.

Calls to be mindful of our language often bring the “political correctness” crowd out of the woodwork, but I think it is important to consider the origins of words — I’m a word nerd, among other kinds of nerdery — and at least since stumbling through the process of learning not to call God “he” have first-hand experience of how possible it is to change habits over time. “Lame,” for example, is a pejorative I’ve been working to drop from my casual conversation, as are references to negative ideas or actions being “crazy” or “schizo.” We have other words, more precise words, we can use to express that something is a poor idea, is boring, is whacky or inconsistent. I’m not perfect with this — I’m sure you could do a keyword search on my blog and find numerous uses of “crazy” or “insane” to mean “what the hell is wrong with this person?!” — but I’m working to get better at this. And racialized language is something we need to be mindful of, too, particularly as people who benefit from white privilege.

White Benefits, Middle Class Privilege

It is not that white Americans have not worked hard and built much. We have. But we did not start out from scratch. (p. 32)

I grew up middle class — maybe even upper-middle. Three of my grandparents and both of my parents had gone to college. For three generations of my family there have been people with advanced, professional degrees and doctorates; grandparents and parents have owned their own homes, not had to rely on public welfare programs (apart from social security and medicare). I married into a family in which homeownership and higher education were similarly part of adulthood, though on a slightly more precarious scale. Despite the fact that my current household is living paycheck to paycheck, our multiple masters degrees, extended family assets (representing a social safety net of sorts, should we need it) and cultural capital position us to hang on — even if only by our fingernails — to a middle-class existence in the midst of a teetering, toppling economy.

Have y’all read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations” (The Atlantic, 21 May 2014). It’s the sort of thing I feel white Americans ought to bookmark and re-read on a quarterly basis for awhile until it actually sinks into our psyches and forces us to initiate a nationwide movement to effect reparative justice in this country.

White Benefits? A Personal Assessment

On Paul Kivel’s website, you can find a version of the white benefits checklist that appears in Uprooting Racism. Some sample benefits to consider while thinking about our own family histories (with my own responses in bold):

Your ancestors were legal immigrants to this country during a period when immigrants from Asia, South and Central America or Africa were restricted.You live on land that formerly belonged to Native Americans.

Yes and yes. (Doesn’t the second “yes” apply to pretty much everyone in the U.S.?)

Your family received homesteading or landstaking claims from the federal government, or if you or your family or relatives receive or received federal farm subsidies, farm price supports, agricultural extension assistance or other federal benefits.

I don’t actually know about this one; at least one set of great-grandparents were farmers during the New Deal so I would suspect so.

You lived or live in a neighborhood that people of color were discriminated from living in or you lived or live in a city where red-lining discriminates against people of color getting housing or other loans.

Again, I would suspect this was at least informally true of the (entirely white) “historic district” neighborhood I grew up in, and I live in Boston now, where there has been a virulent history of race-based “red lining” and other forms of discrimination in housing.

You or your parents went to racially segregated schools.

This one is not the case, for either my parents or myself.

UPDATE (10/3 10:51am): It was pointed out to me on Twitter that above I describe growing up in majority-white communities and attending majority-white schools. So perhaps a better answer to this question is that I experienced de facto segregation. Neither I nor my parents experienced the formalized policies of “whites only” segregation, which is what I took Kivel’s question to mean. However, it could be read both ways, and yes, in college and graduate school I did my formal learning in majority-white spaces.

You live in a school district or metropolitan area where more money is spent on the schools that white children go to than on those that children of color attend.

Yep. No question.

You live in or went to a school district where the textbooks and other classroom materials reflected your race as normal, heroes and builders of the United States, and there was little mention of the contributions of people of color to our society.

I didn’t go to formal school until college, so didn’t use textbooks. My parents worked hard to ensure our books and other media were diverse — though I’m sure there is always room to do better. In part because of some of my early outsider status, I’ve approached history from the outside in throughout my scholarly career, which has been a good de-centering exercise. I imagine those opposed to the new A.P history exams would be appalled.

You attended a publicly funded university, or a heavily endowed private university or college, and/or received student loans.

I attended a private college for both undergrad and graduate student, made possible by my father’s employment with the college (undergrad) and federal student loans (graduate school).

Your ancestors were immigrants who took jobs in railroads, streetcars, construction, shipbuilding, wagon and coach driving, house painting, tailoring, longshore work, brick laying, table waiting, working in the mills, working as a furrier, dressmaking or any other trade or occupation where people of color were driven out or excluded.

Most likely. What I know of my immigrant ancestors’ occupations, they included such work as horse trainer, millner, farmer, and postmaster. 

You have received a job, job interview, job training or internship through personal connections of family or friends.

Yes. 

I encourage you to read the whole list and complete it (mentally or actually) yourself.


Next week we’ll be reading p. 43-76. Please do join in reading along!

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