The ways of white folks, I mean some white folks . . .
When I write on this blog about "stuff white people do," I hope it's clear that I'm always writing about stuff SOME white people do. Rather than making blanket statements about all white people, what I'm usually trying to point out is what I've come to understand as common white tendencies.
As a white person, most of my own white ways were not evident to me until I had them pointed out by others. Those others have usually been non-white people, who often understand the ways of white folks better than white folks themselves do. When I recognize a common white tendency in myself now, I usually try to counteract it.
These days, white folks were all told as children that they should avoid broad generalizations about groups of other, non-white people. However, being categorized into any racial group does induce tendencies, and I think those can be addressed without constant qualifications about how one is not talking about all members of the group.
Over at one of my favorite blogs, Too Sense, One Drop wrote a very helpful post on this topic, explaining in part:
There are times when I speak in broad generalities, when it seems as if I am accusing all American white people of being guilty of the acts that I am discussing. I'm not doing that. I know full well that there are an awful lot of white people who want no part of racism, and who are working to overcome racism within themselves and within our community. I try to be one of those people every day. But it's difficult to talk about large societal issues, and group behavior, without treating people who fall into a certain category as if they are part of some monolithic group. I don't always communicate in my writing what I am thinking subjectively, which is that of course not all of us in the white community do the harmful things I'm writing about.
Since I'm also writing this blog in an effort to promote understanding of the ways of (some--most?) white folks, I've been thinking lately about what certain white people do. White anti-racist activists, that is. One thing that some white people do is work for the benefit of non-white people. I think of this blog itself as a form of anti-racist activism, but of course, white folks have many other options for fighting racism.
A friend of mine, for instance, seems to put her entire self into that fight, in part by working with children on an Indian/Native American reservation. I asked her recently how she thinks of her own whiteness while she does that work, and she sent me a letter in response.
I think my friend's letter does answer my question about her whiteness, and after asking her permission, I'm posting it here. It strikes me as an admirable expression of white self-awareness, and both of us invite any sort of response. (If you're so inclined, you could leave a comment, or write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org ).
One other possible way to think about this letter--Resist Racism recently offered a provocatively entitled post, "Why I Hate White 'Anti-racists.'" I'm wondering if the author of that post would also hate my friend.
(In the interests of legibility, I'm posting this letter without the usual italics that I use for longer quotations.)
I am what some people call a “do-gooder.” I like to help people, to encourage them in some way to make the world around us a little better. My desire to help others is often expressed by volunteering with non-profit organizations that provide services for low-income, at-risk children, youth, and families. In my desire for social justice, I have volunteered and worked with faith-based organizations in the Philadelphia area, Chicago and northern Illinois, Mississippi, and most recently on an Indian Reservation in the upper Midwest. I am white, and most of the people I have worked with have been POC, primarily African-American and Native American.
When I first stared volunteering, almost twenty years ago, I admit I was condescending and patronizing, desiring to alleviate the “plight” of those poor people – a pretty typical white do-gooder. I began to realize that I was “white.” and that I had a lot to learn about being white. I began to see things from another perspective, to see myself as a white person.
Perhaps it was the sudden realization that the roles were reversed, and I was often the only white person – wondering what “they” thought of me: was I was welcome? what did they say about me after I left? I remember driving through my inner-city, predominately non-white neighborhood the day after the Rodney King verdict, and going into a neighborhood store to get a bottle of iced tea to drink. I suddenly felt very aware of my whiteness and the privileges that go along with that whiteness.
I saw in myself the condescension, the paternalism, the assumptions that white was normal and right. It was not pretty to see the arrogance and ethnocentrism in the white world around me, and in myself. My motives were sincere and genuine, but I was blind to my attitudes of racial superiority and white privilege. I began to see myself as a learner and a receiver, instead of a teacher or the one with the solutions. This has been a long and often humbling journey of realizing that I have been and still am being trained to be white.
Recently, I was visiting friends and volunteering on the “rez” at a small Lakota-led parochial school. While I was there, I kept thinking about your post about white people being trained to be white. I observed two situations that illustrated this concept of white training.
As I was working in the office, a white retired real estate agent was visiting the school to help with acquiring some property for expansion. He commented, “I don’t sense that these people [meaning the Lakota residents] want any help. Do-gooders come here to help, yet it doesn’t seem that the people take advantage of it. What are do-gooders supposed to do when they don’t want help? What about you, why are you here? You’re a do-gooder.”
This man’s motive was sincere in that he truly wanted to help, but he could not see his own white assumptions and impositions. He seemed to assume, like many white people, that POC are incompetent, that poverty, alcoholism or drug abuse are their own fault – in other words, blaming the victims. White people often do not recognize or want to admit that white privilege and influence like their own created the systemic issues that continue to exacerbate the problems of low socioeconomic status and the accompanying isolation and exclusion.
In addition to helping with some office work, I also volunteered in the classroom, by helping Native American students with their schoolwork. The teacher there, a white woman in her mid-twenties, a para-educator, has no patience with the children, and can’t wait for school to be over. She is clueless that the actual source of her frustration is her expectation that the children act like white suburban children. Clearly, though, that’s an unfair expectation because these kids come to school weighed down with problems that would break many adults.
Over half of the kids have parents in jail and live with other family members. One 11-year old boy hasn’t seen his mom since he was three. He often says that it really doesn’t matter if he comes to school because he is just going to end up a drunk Indian anyway. A nine-year old girl is afraid when she goes home because her mom and uncles are always drunk.
This woman has lived here for over a year and a half, and she still looks at the children as an outsider, as a white outsider. She cannot put herself into their world – she cannot accept them as they are nor give them hope for the future. It’s heartbreaking to listen to her and watch her interact with the children. I wonder if this is what the old boarding schools were like – trying to make “white Indians”!
So – am I any different from these two white do-gooders? I hope so. My response to the white retired real estate agent’s question is that I try not to come as an outsider imposing my solutions to what I perceive as problems. I come as a learner, seeking to learn about the Lakota people and the challenges they face, hoping to better understand their world. When I come to the rez, I ask them what they want me to do to help them accomplish the vision they have for their own reservation. The poverty and alcoholism are overwhelming – I admit that I want to “fix” the problems of the rez. But, I also realize that as an outsider, a white outsider, I really do not understand and I really cannot just jump in and fix whatever is wrong.
The problems are the result of hundreds of years of injustice that cannot be quickly or easily solved. I do not have the solution, but I want to do something to help those on the inside who have more understanding and influence than outsiders do. I want to come along beside and be a partner, not the “great white hope” with all the answers. I do not volunteer out of guilt or shame for the centuries of past white injustice and their continuation into the present, but I do acknowledge and admit that it is wrong, very wrong, and that I have benefited from it. I volunteer not only to help, and to balance the scales of justice, but because I want to learn, to understand a little bit better, and become more culturally sensitive.
However, volunteering is only one small part of my process of growing in cultural awareness. The most important and most effective way for me to become more aware has been through relationships, through genuine friendships that are strong enough to talk honestly and openly about racial and ethnic issues. I appreciate my friends who are honest with me and can confront my whiteness, friends who I’m there to help but who are also my peers. I hope these are friendships based on mutual respect and appreciation.
I also hope I will continue to grow in recognizing my own whiteness and ethnocentrism. I hope I am growing in understanding. Although I began this process of recognizing my whiteness and how it affects my worldview some years ago, I realize that I have a long way to go, that it takes work and intentionality to become more aware and sensitive.