Waking Up To Whiteness: My Journey Into Race

A small local group of parents, community members, and educators recently invited me to give a presentation on my racial journey. This is what I prepared.

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Waking Up To Whiteness: My Journey Into Race

How’s the Water?

“There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys, how’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’”David Foster Wallace

For those of living in North America, the water surrounding us is made up of racism, structural inequality, and white supremacy. Although these currents affect different people in different ways, they affect everyone. Tonight, I’m going to speak on my journey to recognize the water around me. Before I start, I would like to thank you all for letting me tell my story tonight. My racial journey is unremarkable, but I hope it will resonate with white folks in the room who are looking to get into this work themselves.

An Unremarkable Upbringing of Privilege

I’ve benefited from my family’s status as white since birth. Both of my parents hold advanced degrees and were able to use their comfortable salaries to keep me fed, clothed, and educated. I’ve never had to worry about where my next meal would come from or whether or not I’d be able to afford college. This isn’t to say that everything was always perfect. Like so many others, my family has struggled with depression, substance abuse, and trauma. But unlike others, our whiteness and privilege helped guarantee us access to quality medical care, financial assistance, and whatever else we needed to keep the scales tipped in our favor.

Like the majority of my friends, I grew up in a primarily white neighborhood. The teachers and students at the schools I attended were also predominantly white. This never bothered me, as the inability to understand segregation as a loss is a hallmark of whiteness. The fact that I could live a purely white existence without ever thinking about what was missing speaks to the profound anti-blackness that flourishes in America.

Politically, my upbringing reflected a slightly more progressive brand of suburban liberalism. My parents openly supported democratic candidates, believed in a woman’s right to choose, and disagreed with the wars in the Middle East. They supported affirmative action and interracial relationships. I can’t ever remember my family having extended conversations about race, oppression, or inequality. I do remember that my parents regularly hired an African American man named James to help out with yard work. My father told me that James struggled to get a consistent job because he wasn’t able to drive. When I asked why he couldn’t drive, my dad told me that James had been unfairly targeted by unjust laws. The fact that I remember the conversation nearly thirty years later speaks to the impact it had on me.

Race was almost never mentioned during my childhood. If you had asked me about racism, I probably would have answered that it was bad but not a problem where I lived. I was already being socialized into a post-Civil Rights culture where racism meant saying the “n” word. My friends and I never did that (at least not in public), so how could we be racist? I wouldn’t have been able to talk about my racial identity because I didn’t think I had one. Race was something Black people had. White was the universal norm.

Early Memories of Race

Race didn’t pop up on my radar until I started sixth grade. All throughout elementary school, Jeremiah was one of my friends. Jeremiah was African American. He, three other boys, and I were inseparable at school. We cracked jokes together, looked up dirty words in the dictionary, etc. We were excited to enter middle school together. But after the first week of 6th grade, I realized that Jeremiah wasn’t hanging out with us anymore. He had been spending his time with a group of African American kids. I remember being a little upset, but the segregation felt natural. 5th grade ended up being the last time the two of us ever spoke.

After Jeremiah, the OJ Simpson trial is my next memory of race. The verdict was announced during my 7th grade English class. Every teacher in the school had turned on their televisions to hear the verdict. When the jury announced the decision, African American kids and teachers burst out of the classrooms and celebrated in the hallway. I remember looking on with irritation and a weird sense of smugness. Reflecting back on it now, I had already internalized the us/them, white/Black binaries that are essential to how Americans think about race. This was their victory and their celebration.

In high school my friends and I would drive around Arlington. Our late night wandering would often take us through Hall’s Hill, an historical enclave settled by newly freed slaves. Everyone I knew referred to Hall’s Hill as “the rat raps.” This is obviously disgusting. It equates people of color with vermin that need to be exterminated. We also frequently referred to each other as “diorgen”s, which is negroid spelled backwards. During college and grad school, I took classes on race, class, and gender. I studied categories of difference, colonialism, and patriarchy. But I was never asked to confront my whiteness. Privilege and oppression remained abstract concepts to study in the classroom, not to apply to my own life.

The Era of Safety Pin Box

I’ve always considered myself a “progressive.” Up until this year that meant denouncing individual acts of racism, vocally supporting affirmative action, and being aware of chattel slavery’s legacy. I hung my head for Michael Brown and the other people of color regularly murdered by police. But it all felt far away. Black death and racism were background static I could keep on mute.

And then the 2016 Presidential election began. News outlets started reporting increases in hate crimes against Muslims and other minoritized groups. The cultural climate shifted. In response, white folks started wearing safety pins as a sign of allyship. The initiative was started by white women and immediately co-opted through Etsy and other online boutiques. I even wore a safety pin to work one day. And then I saw a few posts on social media about something called Safety Pin Box. The posts all carried an infographic comparing wearing a safety pin with subscribing to SPB. It’s a monthly subscription service for white folks who want to do something about oppression. The money you spend goes directly to Black women. Every month the SPB team (all Black women) sends out tasks for the subscribers. Last month we researched the intersections of reproductive justice and the African American community.

Emboldened by my experiences with SPB, I decided to dip my toe into the waters of social justice. So in March I approached a colleague about designing and implementing a unit on identity and race for my 7th grade English classes. He helped me gather resources and agreed to lead the class through some activities. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I felt that I had to do something. The fact that reading a few articles was all I needed to feel comfortable teaching a unit on such complex and divisive topics speaks to my sense of privilege. I just assumed I could do it and that it would go well. At the end of the year, students told me how much they had enjoyed the last unit. I went into summer feeling like a bonafide social justice warrior.

And then the alt-right marched in Charlottesville. I watched the continuous loop of angry white men with torches in a state of shock. How could this happen in 2017? I kept asking myself. I turned to Facebook to voice my outrage. Luckily, Safety Pin Box members were there to call me out. Where was I for Trayvon Martin? Tamir Rice? Michael Brown? And where would I be in another two weeks when the news cycle moved on to something else? For some reason, it all started to click. I was determined to make Charlottesville the moment when I reoriented my life towards racial justice. And nothing has been the same ever since.

You Must Be Fun at Parties

After Charlottesville, I began investigating my whiteness. This meant, and continues to mean, exploring the innumerable ways in which white privilege affects my life. For someone like me who tops nearly every social category, privilege informs everything I do. And as whiteness scholars have explained, those with the most privilege know the least. This is because whiteness is the norm, the default by which all other bodies and perspectives are measured against. Because of my white privilege, I’ve never had to grapple with issues of race. I don’t have to learn how to navigate spaces because every space I inhabit has been shaped by people like me for people like me.  

White folks struggle to have informed discussions about race because we’ve never had to. For the most part, we live, work, and enter into relationships with other white people. We feel entitled to extreme racial comfort at all times. White folks’ inability to handle racial discomfort is termed white fragility. We have been able to completely insulate ourselves from race-based stress. As a result, whenever race comes up, we become frustrated, upset, confused. When pressed, we can become outright incoherent, stammering, stumbling over our words and speaking in circles. In an attempt to combat this, I try to dedicate time every week to study race, whiteness, and critical race theory. Like with most topics, the more I learn, the more I understand just how little I know.

My journey has come with a fair amount of personal, professional, and familial stress. Waking up to whiteness means finding myself at odds with almost everything around me. School curriculum, the police, generational wealth, who lives where, who is in power. It means forcing myself to see white supremacy in everything. I’ve strained my closest friendships. My friends on social media have turned away from me, no longer engaging with or commenting on anything I post. I don’t blame them. I’ve bugged them to pay reparations, to get behind Black women, and to denounce white supremacy. I’ve even slipped photocopies of essays about racism and white privilege underneath the doors of white people I know who live in my building. If I don’t do these things, then I feel the narcotizing sleep of white supremacy creep back in.

For a long time I believed that I had the choice to either perpetuate white supremacy or fight it. Racism doesn’t function at the level of the individual, however; it’s structural. This means that as a white person I have essentially no choice but to perpetuate racism and white supremacy. This can be tough to swallow. So many of us have grown up thinking that we’re not racist. That as long as we keep the “n” word out of our speech and value diversity, we’re in the clear. But now I know that’s not the case. There is almost no way I can detach myself from systems of racial dominance.

But I can educate myself. I’ve learned about the origins of whiteness in colonialism. How our founding fathers used pseudo-science to claim African Americans were biologically inferior in order to reconcile the reality of slavery with the rhetoric of equality. I know that Bacon’s Rebellion drove colonial elites to grant special privileges and status to poor whites, creating America’s first racial caste system. And perhaps most importantly, I now understand that race isn’t an identity; it’s a status conferred upon you by society. Whiteness is property, it’s citizenship, it’s a way to maintain privilege for some at the expense of others. It is a destructive and toxic club that must be abolished.

Life is a work in progress, and this is where I am now. Learning about whiteness so I can denounce it. Learning from and following Black women/femme in the pursuit of liberation. Constantly making mistakes, having my white feelings hurt, and then coming back for more. Thank you.

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