"White Oprah Winfrey"Regular reader S, a self-identified black man, sent the following email, which he said I could reprint:
(from the Mugcut Gallery
at Acting White)
(from the Mugcut Gallery
at Acting White)
I have a question for Macon the White Guy—can you tell white folks to stop telling me they don’t see my blackness? I can’t count how many times I’ve heard someone say, in a way that I guess is supposed to be a compliment, “I don’t even notice that you’re black!” or, “You know, you don’t really seem black to me.” And “I don’t even see race. I’m colorblind.”
Sometimes white people pat me on the arm when they say this. It usually seems like they’re trying to reassure me of something.
The message I get is a different one from what I think they want to say. I think they want to say something to me about themselves, like how open-minded they supposedly are. But what I’m hearing is that old racism, as in, “You’re a credit to your race.” I feel like I’m being told that I’m better than other black people (which is actually, “better than the image I have in my head of black people.” And you’re going to tell me that you don’t even see race?!).
So my question: what do you think is going on in these white heads? And my first question too—can you tell white people to stop doing this? Then white people could be a credit to their race.
I think you told them better than I could, S, but okay, I’ll tell them too—all you white folks reading this blog, stop telling the black people you know that they don’t seem black to you, and/or that you don’t see their blackness. It’s embarrassing, for them and for you.
Telling black people that they don’t seem black to you is an insult to their racial group, and it says more about you than it does about that racial group. The second comment of this sort, that you don’t see race, is simply and obviously untrue—you’re saying you don’t see a black person’s blackness because that person is black.
T asked what’s going on in white folks’ heads when they say these things, and I think he’s pretty much answered his own question. They’re saying something that's more about themselves than about the person in front of them, projecting something from their white psyches onto that non-white person in front of them. That projected something is often an anxiety, or a fear, about how he or she is coming across to a person of another race.
So in a way, another common motivating feeling here is a good one—a desire to establish a good relationship with a person of a different race, based on an expressed willingness to treat that person the same as he or she would treat anyone else. Anyone else who’s white, that is.
And therein lies a problem with such comments—the message after all is, as T points out, that the non-white person being addressed is somehow different from other members of that group, and so somehow more like people outside that group, and more like an individual. Somehow, that is, like white people. So you can see where the path of this logic leads—it’s ultimately good for a black person to not seem black to a white person because white people are better than non-white people. This isn’t what the friendly white person is usually thinking consciously, but the unconscious bias that favors whiteness does emerge in such instances.
Another form of white projection usually going on here, and perhaps a more benign one, is the common white tendency to see other whites as individuals, instead of as “white people.” White people tend, of course, to be most comfortable with other white people, though again, they’re not seeing them as white people, in the sense that, say, black or Mexican American people see and understand each other as black or Mexican American people when they’re together.
So because white people see themselves and the other (white) people that they’re comfortable with as individuals, when they get to know a member of a non-white group that they normally think of in homogeneous, non-individualized terms, they want to see that person as an individual too. Thus, the common statement, “I don’t even see you as black,” can often also be translated as, “I’m getting to know you as an individual. You’re emerging that way from the black, group-based associations that you’d been conjuring up for me before. It’s nice to get to know you as you.”
Given the training into whiteness that white people go through, and the common tendency that such training induces to not even see one’s own whiteness most of the time, it’s not surprising that so many whites have such thoughts and feelings about non-whites that they’re getting to know as individuals.
What white folks should realize in all this is that they should keep such thoughts and feelings to themselves, instead of verbally projecting them onto non-white people. They should also work against two of their common, socially induced tendencies--to overlook whiteness, and to overemphasize non-whiteness.