The Invisibility of Whiteness
“Ultimately, to be white is a moral choice. White people are imagined. White people are white only because they want to be white.”
– James Baldwin
Dave McFayden grew up in a working class neighborhood off Summit Avenue. He’s 44 and works in Facilities Operation at UNC-G. Growing up, there we’re no black people in his neighborhood. He never really noticed his whiteness until a black kid his age, around eleven, moved in. “We rode the same bus and that kid caught hell.”
“Ten, eleven, twelve year old boys like to create fights,” Dave continues. “So, basically, everybody on the bus decided that he and I were going to fight. We got off the bus, and I could look in his eyes and tell he was terrified. Surrounded by all these…punks.”
Whiteness, not blackness, is the foundation of racism and blindness is a function of whiteness. Whiteness infuses our world to such a degree that it is invisible to us. It is ingrained to such a degree that it takes an effort to think about it.
We are blind to everything our whiteness entails. We believe that everyone has the same opportunity and possibility of experience we do, if only they want it or work a little bit for it. We believe our suffering is equivalent and, in a sense it is, all suffering being suffering. We do not understand the suffering of those not white. We don’t have the same bar to clear.
The history of whiteness is one of our deciding, long ago. Historically, we decided we were white; in order to elevate ourselves, in order to enslave others, in order to construct a higher moral ground. We, as white people, separated ourselves: it wasn’t God, or the natural order, or some kind of genial meritocracy. We made the decision then conveniently forgot it had been made, accepting it simply as ‘the way of things’.
Deonna Kelli Sayed and I came up with the idea for a Story Booth on Whiteness because we both deeply believe that stories, and people, are more interesting and meaningful than politics and ideologies. We believe it is in stories that people might meet and begin to understand each other.
We eventually decided to provide only one context before the interviews, the above quote from James Baldwin, which is, of course, political in its own way. And the question: When did you first realize you were white? In the interview itself, we added one more: What is Whiteness?
The first two sessions filled within two days so we added another, ending with eighteen 20-minute interviews. This is, by no means, a scientific or representative group. The participants self-selected by their willingness to come downtown to talk with us for a short period of time. They were people who, for one reason or another, wanted to talk. We list their ages because it’s important to know the generation involved and how recent some of these experiences are.“I didn’t want to fight,” Dave explains. “He didn’t want to fight. But we’re standing face to face, this circle of kids around us.”
“Right across the street, this screen door slammed open and this old guy, he was a Vietnam vet, he started yelling at us, something about the war and people being the same and his best friends were black, and everyone just scattered. Except for me and this kid, just standing there looking at each other. Toe to toe.
So, it was like, What do you want to do? We ended up, like, riding bikes or something.
In my neighborhood, but not in my household, there were always racist jokes and comments. The kids, their dads, were like that. And whether they accepted him, I don’t know. But Pookie became my best friend.
Being friends with him changed my complete perception about life in general and other people. I didn’t want to hear people’s racist jokes. I’m sure there were times when I was just a coward and went along. Just because I’m with too many people to do anything and what am I going to do? I’m sure I didn’t like myself for it.
As I was 11 turning 12, my mom wanted to know what kind of birthday cake I wanted. I said I wanted a rebel flag birthday cake. I was a kid, I didn’t know. Here’s my best friend standing right beside me when I’m blowing out the candles. It’s weird now to look back on it.”
Shelby Smith is 22; she works in public health. “My high school was racially diverse, not so much economically diverse. I grew up in a relatively upper class area. I think there was a lot of in- and out-grouping in my high school where I spent my time with people who looked like me. My high school was very clique-y.
My parents were definitely the type who instilled in me, well, everyone’s the same, we’re all humans and whatever, and I never really thought critically about that and how racism really wasn’t just individual acts of meanness until I was a little bit older.”
The idea of color blindness, that it’s possible ‘not to see color’ and that we’re ‘all the same’ is a way of pretending to talk about racism without confronting our own whiteness and the history of that whiteness. It is the belief that we can just begin again from square one, wiping everything else away by sheer will. Our will, the white will. We, as white people can again decide what the conversation should be.
Only white people can believe in colorblindness. Everyone else knows better.
All Lives Matter is a current version of this belief. Of course, all lives matter. But, that isn’t the point or purpose of the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s a bit like telling someone with Stage Four cancer that appendicitis matters too. All Diseases Matter!
Shannon Jones is 28; she’s a bookseller: “Racism was painted very much like hate groups, and the extremes of it, and I knew my parents weren’t that. It seemed all of the very well meaning, loving, white adults that I was close to understood the distinction between black and white, even if I didn’t.
There was this idea of colorblindness. But then you noticed things in their behavior. On the one hand, you can tell you have well meaning adults in your life who don’t want you to grow up with the same hang-ups about race they did but they kind of did an over correction a little bit and you still noticed the remnants of it in their lives.
People who, if you asked them, would never consider themselves racist, still had this very slight distinction in their heads between someone being black—that was like a set of things they expected—and someone being white and a set of things they expected. Eventually, I could see that it was possible for these adults I was close to be well meaning and be kind and be close to black people and still have these racist tendencies.
I mean, not everybody’s kumbaya-the-same like they tried to teach us in elementary school.”
The invisibility of whiteness, the way it permeates our culture, has meant that it’s been impossible to identify a white community. This community is visible, monolithic even, to those who are not white.
Kari Thatcher works in Public Health Research. She’s 37.
“I didn’t realize there was a white community until about five or six years ago. Not until I started getting interested in issues of race. That’s one of the features of whiteness, I think. It’s that we see ourselves as so individual that we don’t actually realize that we have a lot in common with each other as white culture.”
“I’m really kind of curious about whether it’s possible to call whiteness a race, even though it’s certainly a thing. It’s real.” Andrew Saulters is 33; he’s an editor at Unicorn Press.
“Of course, when my great-grandmother came to this country in 1919, Italians were not considered white. Through the passage of time, that’s no longer true. What if whiteness thinks of itself as the sort of thing that isn’t? Like, it’s the baseline, the blank slate. Then everything else is added to. That seems to make a lot of sense in how white people think about themselves.
I see white people doing this: checking out of the fact of whiteness by claiming some other minority participation. Like I know I’m white, but I grew up poor. Or, I know I’m white, but I’m from the South.
It seems that being white means never having to apologize. It seems that whiteness implies a certain unconscious untouchability. If you want to give up being white, you can’t really do it. But it’s not like that’s a problem for white people.”
If you can’t give up being white, if you can’t deny it or change it, what are the options? Each of us approach the problem in a different way.
“I used to be very angry about my whiteness, other people’s whiteness, but that’s shifted,” Saulters said. “I think if you don’t look at other people like You have a place in this movement too, then you are hurting the movement.”
Christina Dominguez is an educator. She’s 29.
“I think one place most people can access these issues is around popular culture. Something as simple as, why does BET (The Black Entertainment Network) exist? Why are there award shows just for black entertainers? Same thing for Latino folks. White people will ask this all the time.
If you can get them to think about how little they, their actual lives, are represented in the media, then they begin to see how little these other groups are represented.
As a queer person, I think about the time I took my Dad to an LGBT Film Festival in San Diego. Right before, he’d said something like, Why does Pride exist? Why do you have a separate film festival, I don’t get it. And I said, Dad, let’s just go.
And after the movies he said, I understand now. I’ve never seen stories like this. I’ve never seen characters like these in movies.”
Alex Rae (24) and Julia Singley (23) are members of QPOCC, The Queer People of Color Collective. They were interviewed for StoryBooth together. Both are white and both were drawn toward anti-racism work partly through their sexual orientation.
Julia: “I came to this work through three things that I love and love about myself, that is, soccer, food, and queerness. I grew up playing soccer with folks in diverse communities and, through that, came to understand that what I have access to is different from what others have access to. Some of that had to do with food and food security.
Also, coming to understand myself as queer fearlessly, then understanding that my liberation is contingent upon some sort of institutional change.”
Alex: “I’ve lost friends, and I know people who’ve lost friends and family, because of our commitment to doing this anti-racism work and to always bringing it up, not remaining silent when a racist joke is made.
Really, the only thing that I’ve come to through all my bumbles and mistakes and times I’ve just made people feel alienated, when I’ve lost friends or gotten in fights with family members, is that I have to be coming from an authentic place of love because if it comes from anywhere else like self righteousness or trying to feel like a good white person, all those places just end up in burnt conversations.
But then, sometimes, I just get mad and yell at people.”
“A lot of people, I think, associate racism with who you are, not one small aspect of your thinking process,” explains Shannon Jones. “Like I’m not a bad person and I’m not racist, therefore I’m never racist ever whereas even I’m trying to constantly make sure like, Oh, did I cross the street because I was threatened by a large man walking by or did it have something to do with the fact he was black. I’m constantly checking myself on what am I really thinking with these actions. That last process never occurs to a lot of people I know.
I still, to this day, have trouble calling out my father for racist tendencies. My mother’s are very few and far between; a very occasional slip of using the wrong phrasing or something. There’s this little bit of something in there subconsciously from her childhood and growing up in the ‘70’s in a fairly conservative household. With my Dad, you can tell that its still an active part of how he deals with people in the world.
I think the conversation needs to be reframed so that people don’t get so hostile because it’s seen as a reflection on them, the whole of who they are. It should be framed as, You’re a good person and if you want to keep improving yourself as a human being, then maybe be aware of these couple of things.
To be in my twenties and sort of blink and look around and think, Oh, I assumed the whole narrative of Oh, you just work hard and do what you’re supposed to do then these things will happen for you.
And I think, but wait, that’s just not true.”
Shelby Smith has had similar experiences when attempting to talk with her parents.
“My parents are conservative which already sets the tone when I want to talk about social issues. I can’t even find a place, like a page of the book, that we have in common to even start moving forward on. I can’t get enough words out before they start the denial.
In DC, they were talking about expanding the Metro to a community that was very affluent, very rich, very white, and my parents thought that wasn’t a good idea.
The neighborhood would lose its character. And I said, That sounds pretty racist. And they said, Why do you say that? We weren’t being racist. We just think it will change the neighborhood. I asked In what way? And they said, Well, you never know who’s going to come in. And I said, Who is that person that you’re talking about?
By the very nature of me insulting that system, I’m also insulting their livelihood, because they’ve reaped the benefits of it. And I’ve also reaped the benefits of it too.”
Shelby pauses for a moment.
“I think that the most important thing is that we shift from being what I used to think of as an ally, you know, amplifying people’s voices, to speaking about whiteness and white privilege because I think that’s part of being an anti-racist white person.
We can’t keep talking about people of color because that’s not our role. There’s a lot of people who don’t want to do that because there’s a power dynamic they’re giving up when they do.”
Adrienne McKinney is a Certified Public Accountant who has become interested in whiteness through a talk radio show she enjoys and their continuing on-air discussions of police violence.
“I’d gone to a service at one of the churches, one Sunday evening in July. I just kind of slipped into the back; I wanted to listen. There were representatives from different churches, people from the Police Department.
There was a young man from Black Lives Matter and I wanted to talk to him, but I really didn’t know what to say. I just went up to him afterward, and said, Please accept this in the spirit that I’m asking, but, I don’t know what to do and I don’t know how to help this problem. And if you can tell me what I can do, I will try and help you.
And I think it startled him a little bit. He had been very energetic and he got very, very quiet and after a moment he said, Just keep talking. Just talk to people.
I think you stumble around. And you have whatever conversations you feel comfortable getting into. You try and muster up the courage to have those conversations.”
Race is a created distinction but it carries the weight of history. It’s not like the kid in high school who wears funny clothes and is made fun of for it; once his fashion sense shifts, he might find himself more accepted. Race is unchangeable, no matter what you might do.
Racism and racial bias are in the hands of the white people. We created this system by announcing we were white and, therefore, somehow better. We continue to announce it every day. We can’t help but do this; it is so much a part of the way we move in the world. It takes constant adjustment to be able to interfere with biases within us.
Each of us is left with our own path. Some of us try to talk with those close to us, some of us go to meetings, organize, demonstrate. The people who spoke to us for Story Booth were beginning, or continuing, some sort of conversation, if only with themselves.
They weren’t expecting forgiveness or absolution. They wanted to understand, or at least make the first small steps toward understanding. At a time when ideologies on both sides can crush conversation before it ever begins, this can be a courageous act; simply to want to talk and begin to find a new language in which we might be able to hear each other. That can be as simple as making a new connection or renewing an old one.
“They moved out one day and they were gone. And I didn’t see Pookie for years,” Dave McFayden explains. “And when I did see him, my wife at the time was in the hospital for surgery and this guy happened to be going down the same hallway with his wife and we saw each other for, like, all of five seconds.
We just looked at each other but we each had to go, you know. That was 1998.”
“Within the last month, I’ve reconnected with him. Via Facebook. I think I have the right phone number. I’m a little nervous ‘cause it’s been so long. But, I’m looking forward to this reconnection with somebody I lost touch with at the age of 12.”
Steve Mitchell’s short story collection, The Naming of Ghosts, is published by Press 53. He has a deep belief in the primacy of doubt and an abiding conviction that great wisdom informs very bad movies. He’s co-owner of Scuppernong Books in Greensboro, NC. You can find him at: www.thisisstevemitchell.com