If you're a person who fits the category of "white," how often do you actually notice that you're white?
I propose the concept of "white moments." These are moments when something happens to a white person -- usually something positive, or good -- that would have happened differently if he or she were not a white person.
These also tend to be moments that the ordinary white person doesn't notice as a white moment. As a moment, that is, in which something happened differently because they were white than it likely would have otherwise.
I also propose a corollary, "non-white moments" (or if you prefer, "people of color moments"). These are moments during interactions with white people when something happens to a non-white person that would have happened differently, or even might have happened differently, if he or she were white. It's also a moment that the non-white person -- as opposed to the white person in a white moment-- is likely to notice as a racial moment.
Non-white people, that is, are more likely than white people to notice how their race affects, or may affect, the things that happen to them. If this is true, then this difference is part of a more general difference: non-white people generally understand racial realities, including their own parts in them, better than white people do.
In Revealing Whiteness: The Unconscious Habits of Racial Privilege, Shannon Sullivan explains how the psychoanalytic concept of "leading ideas" can help to understand common white ways of thinking and being, including this particular mode of white oblivion.
Freud points out that "leaders" of groups are usually thought of as individual people, but that the members of groups also follow big ideas that function like the people who lead groups. Such leading ideas are often conscious, but they can also be unconscious.
Also, a leading idea can be more conscious for one group than it is for another. Generally, the leading idea of "race," especially one's own race, is more of an unconscious leading idea for whites than it is for non-whites. As Sullivan writes,
Because the white supremacist consciously affirms white supremacy as her leading idea, she is consciously aware of her membership in a group of white supremacists. In contrast, it might sound strange to describe a person as unaware of what groups she belongs to, and Freud does not discuss this as a possibility.
But people who are not aware of their leading ideas often are not aware that they belong to a particular group and that the group's attitudes affect the way that they view and interact with the world. This is certainly true of many white people with regard to their membership in whiteness. The seeming naturalness and resulting invisibility of white privilege often prevent it from being recognized as a leading idea.
In contrast, Sullivan adds, members of racial minorities tend to be highly aware of their racial membership, "because it often is forced upon them by a racist world."
Michelle Johnson attempts to quantify the black experience of this phenomenon in her book, Working While Black: The Black Person's Guide to Success in the White Workplace. She calls the overt, relatively frequent black awareness of being perceived as black "the 15 percent difference":
What I think many whites, including (ironically) even liberal whites, don't get, is that even though our experiences as black people can be 85 percent the same as white people, some days that 15 percent difference is the only difference we feel.
Johnson explains that this difference comes about in moments when a black worker in a largely white workplace either knows, suspects, or wonders if what just happened had something to do with his or her race. Johnson is careful to note that not all blacks feel this difference in the same amount, and that different jobs will produce different percentages. "One could say," she writes, "that when you're a leader in the civil rights movement, your 15 percent is actually 100 percent."
Of course, different people of color will also feel this difference differently, and in different percentages. I'd like to hear, for instance, what percentage of time a Korean American feels his or her race in largely white settings, or a Latina, or an Arab American, or an Indian in England, or an Indonesian in Australia.
These will all differ, but the main point here for me as a white American is that when I interact with others in largely white environments, I'm almost never encouraged to know, suspect, or wonder if what just happened had something to do with my race. As a result, my awareness percentage in those terms could well be below one percent. And so, paradoxically, one of the "leading ideas" of whiteness is the false idea that being white has next to nothing to do with who I am and how other people treat me.
One thing that white people are often encouraged to do in anti-racism discussions is take note of their "white privilege," as Peggy McIntosh does in her pioneering article on the topic. I try to do that, and doing so has actually become something of a habit for me. I often pause in the midst of a day's events to think about how much easier the day is going for me, simply because I'm white (I wrote about such a pause here).
One thing that I think even fewer white people do is notice, during ordinary, everyday moments, the dynamic relevance of their whiteness -- aside from white privilege. Notice, that is, that they are white, and that it does affect how many situations play out for them, whether or not those situations clearly involve "privilege."
And yet, when I do think of such moments in my own life, they always do seem to boil down to privilege. At the very least, any moment I can think of in a largely white setting that seemed to play out in a particular way because I'm white also went more smoothly or easily than it would have otherwise. That smooth easiness is a form of white privilege.
For example -- was the following just a "white moment," or a moment of "white privilege"?
I went to a movie the other night with a white friend. As the previews began we found seats, as we always do, in the third row. We like being that close to whatever big fantasy world the filmmakers have put together; also, we can sit in the middle of the screen, and rarely have anyone sitting next to us. Plenty of arm-room that way.
But last night the theater was crowded, so a white woman ended up sitting next to me, along with her white male partner. As she sat down, I removed my arm from the armrest between us.
"Oh, that's okay!" said the blond, thirty-something woman cheerfully. "You can put your arm back. I'm not worried about catching cooties from you!"
My friend and her friend/partner heard this, and all four of us laughed. I've noticed that strangers often use such cheerful, joking comments to put each other at ease. The laughter assures everyone that we're all okay with each other, and with being thrust together like this, into a sort of intimacy that we wouldn't otherwise share.
However, as we all turned to the screen, sitting sort of together now in the dark, I also realized that we could all laugh about her "cooties" comment, and laugh more easily, and more together, because we were all white.
What if, that is, I hadn't been white? Would she have even said that to a black man or woman? Or someone clearly Hispanic, or Asian? "I'm not worried about catching cooties from you"? And if she had said it to someone of another race, what might that have meant, or implied?
She might not have even chosen to sit next to me if I hadn't clearly been white -- there were some other empty seats. Again, if I'd been a member of a clearly different race and she had chosen to sit next to me, she might not have said that. Or, she might not have said that, but still thought it. Or rather, some version of it: I better not sit next to him -- I might catch cooties!
As the movie began, I also thought about how I was probably the only one among us four who thought about what it meant to be white in that moment. I don't mean to pat myself on the back for that. But I do mean that I'm more aware of what it means for me to be white than I used to be.
That awareness makes me understand my own life better, and how it typically goes for me, and how I got to where I am. It helps me understand how my becoming white has meant adopting a distorted and oblivious view of the world, and of my place in it. This better understanding of the daily workings of my whiteness also makes it a little easier to understand how others got to where they are, and to think about them, and react to them and treat them differently, and I hope better, than I would otherwise. It also motivates my social activism, my efforts to reject the complacency encouraged by my whiteness by joining anti-racism efforts.
The movie, by the way, was that muddled racism allegory, District 9. The theater was almost full, and most of the viewers were white. As we watched, I noticed something else that I think a lot of white people there didn't notice.
When the cartoonish villain who was a black guy (a Nigerian gang leader) got his head blown off, most of the audience laughed. Later, when the cartoonishly villainous white guy (a murderous mercenary) was also decapitated, most of the audience was silent.
I think that together, those two moments in time became another white moment.