Monday, August 31, 2009

rarely notice their white moments

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.


  1. I feel like there's another group (or group of groups) to add to this one: people in interracial relationships (as well other people who have a close family member of another race for whatever reason).

    For no real reason other than coincidence, all of my adult relationships have been with people of other races (though not the same race) - There have been times in certain relationships when I feel hyper aware of the way my significant other is treated by other white people and wonder my role in that. I'm also very very aware of the stares and while I admit that when I was younger, my feelings were complicated, I now just get pissed off, for better or worse.

    This isn't something I've ever put much academic thought into though...thanks again for bringing it to light!

  2. Oh man, District 9. I usually never notice audience reactions, since I tend to get into my movie viewing experiences, so I can't really get into what I noticed at the movies. But while eating lunch with the friends I saw the movie with someone brought up the Nigerian (they were Nigerian, right? I can't remember now) mobsters and I commented on the fact that I thought it was weird that they managed to make a movie based in South Africa and still make ALL the main characters with big speaking roles (who were "good" guys, though I didn't think anyone was a good guy by the end of that movie except for the alien Christopher) were all white. They managed to make every single "bad person" (mobsters) a black African, but everyone else was white (aside from one guard and the secretary dude... but they may have been in the movie a total of 5 minutes each). My friend was like "but it's south africa. there are a lot of white people in south africa." I mentioned that they managed to make all the evil mobsters black with no problem. And in all the crowd shots I saw a good equality of white and black people. So why make only mobsters black? Still, they insisted that south africa is whiter than I believe it to be and they left it at that.

    I really had no idea how to feel about the movie. Or my friends' comments about it for that matter. I didn't really expect much from them, they are my more conservative friends, FAR less likely to get into hour long sociological discussions with me since they know I'm all "I'm liberal hear me roar." Recently, though, I have really started to notice the incredible white-ness of television and movies (thanks in part to this blog and me just starting to get much more informed on issues after I graduated from college 2 years ago). And with a movie whose setting alone made it so easy to make a fairly mixed racial cast, it just weirded me out. And disappointed me.

  3. Not so sure how I feel about white people moments-- something about the term strikes me as odd. I just think it's important that privileged people often pause throughout the day to imagine how scenarios would play out if they were members of an oppressed group.

    This post did make me think of
    the song White People Problems, which is hilarious and spot-on.

  4. PMS Rhino...I was totally bothered by the movie too (for more reasons than just the racial ones - I pretty much thought it was a crappy movie regardless). It was like "let's make an allegory about race, but just to really hammer the point home, let's have an all-white cast?"

    But...the Nigerian cat food scam? Priceless.

  5. Macon -

    regarding the interaction with the white woman sitting next to you. I'm trying to find the part of this scene which exposes something negative, i.e. something racist. Or to put it another way, is there something surprising about the way the interaction played out?

    Is it strange to you that, with all things being equal, people are more comfortable with people of their own race? Doesn't race indicate a certain common culture or background, a sort of starting place, a kind of "something-in-common?" Would you be offended if a woman of a different race didn't make the same gesture of a tension-breaking joke as that white woman did?

    I guess if I had to choose, I would see your experience as a "white moment," rather than an example of "white privilege." Actually, I think it would be more precise to call it a moment where "race POSSIBLY greased the skids." Not a very catchy name, I know.

    And while indeed race can "set the stage" in a social interaction, there are many regions of the US where it's only one stage-setting factor among many. In LA, the exact same situation could play out between latino and asian and white and black and armenian and jewish etc. movie goers with the racial element there (it's always there, of course) but way, way less important. But that's LA.


    When I initially saw the trailer I thought there'd be a good chance of seeing positive portrayals of black people, but no. When I watched it, I thought all of the black people in Africa and the anti-hero is white? Really?

    Then when it was pointed out to be an allegory on race, that point seems even MORE ridiculous.

  7. I didn't find the anti-hero as a white man offensive at all. He had to become one of the aliens to see what it's like to be that alien. Why would a black anti-hero have to see the other side to understand what it feels like? It wouldn't make sense. Maybe what made some feel ill-eased was the knowledge or reminder of white privilege as the norm, rather than the exception, and they are a direct part of it.

    As for the lady in the theater, I'd doubt she would have said that to me nor would she have sat next to me. Most often that not when I attend a movie, even if it's packed, some patrons feel hesitant to sit next to me. I'm 5'2 (barely), all of 125 lbs, and I wish I didn't have to mention, lighter-complected. You'd think I wouldn't pose a threat. So, yeah. I'm all too familiar of the "white" moments.

  8. o.k., this is like the 10th+ time i've heard about the largely white audience cheering/laughing at the death of the nigerian crimeboss vs the silence of the evil white mnu dude. smh.

    i've experienced this a lot of times. cliffhanger was one where it got a standing ovation when stallone killed leon. shit was unsettling for the group of us, the only black faces in the packed advanced screening.

    district 9 is chock full of xenophobia. imagine a movie set in the states with either mexicans or arabs depicted the same way but after and during a rash of brutal murders and riots perpetrated against them based on immigration and 'crime' with media and politicians justifying it. district 9 should get the same reaction and condemnation or at the very least some frackin' scrutiny

  9. For a blog called "stuff white people do", you sure do make it about yourself a lot. I see your points you make about whiteness in general. And I can't say I disagree (though I think when it comes to that 30 year old white woman you could give her some benefit of the doubt. Her whiteness might make her more likely to only sit next to a white guy, but that does not mean it is either likely or the only factor she considers.)

    But why do you insist on centering yourself in your articles time and time again? Making the point that white people in general do not notice their whiteness is one thing, but you continually bring it back to something along the lines of "I think that I was the only white person to realize this", or "I am more aware of racial realities than other white people I know."

    You say that you are not trying to pat yourself on the back, but then why do you constantly emphasize how different and anti-racist you are? And when I say emphasize how anti-racist, I mean when you say it, not when you write informative articles. There is a difference between saying you are something, and doing something that demonstrates that.

    I am not sure I can trust a white anti-racist who attempts to convey their anti-racist ways by emphasizing their good versus other's bad, to me that white person seems more intent on proving they are anti-racist than moving towards anti-racist progress. Indeed, assuming the worst in that white woman while emphasizing how you unlike anyone else noticed it seems to do exactly that.

    If this is not your intention, then I am sorry, but white people often hijack the conversation about racism as a whole and make it individual. If you are writing a blog about "stuff white people do", you could focus on that. I'm not trying to tell you how to write your blog but I have noticed that whenever commenters ask you why you don't write about other races, you point them to the title of your blog and explain that is outside its scope. But then you go and take significant parts of your articles out to make it personal? It seems that is at odds with your own explanation to me.

  10. I never really thought about this before. We don't have many minority ethnic groups here (Northern Ireland) but I wish we did. I used to live in London before and it was much more interesting for all the different people I could see every day.

  11. I am de-lurking to say I definitely have white moments. Sometimes it is the stupid stuff I do as a white person. Mostly unthinking, until after it happens, but that is a part of being white - in the end I get away with it, unless I hold myself accountable.

    Also, I notice it when I am being waited on or waiting on people. I work with self-represented litigants at a courthouse in a relatively well-to-do area in California that is surrounded by a less economically privileged area. When white people come in, they often don't think they should have to wait in line with everyone else. They think that we treat people who are Spanish speaking people "better" than we treat whites. It amusing and infuriating all at once.

    I cannot count the number of time that people have turned to wait on me when more than person is waiting when a person of color has been waiting for longer than I have. This happens regardless of the color of the person waiting on me. I also can't began to count the number of times that white men have cut in front of me like I am invisible (I am white lesbian woman) or reached in front me to get something when I was looking at something in a store without saying "excuse me" or nearly forcing me off a sidewalk if I don't step aside to let them by. These are white moments with a healthy dose of sexism thrown in for good measure.

  12. they applauded the death of the white mercenary in my viewing.

  13. I have moments that I call the
    "crazymakers," in which others having their white moments exert their conscious and unconscious privilege in ways that drive me crazy. I can't begin to count how many times people have recoiled in terror when I check them on it. Their shock increases when they feel they've come to "know" me in a certain way (purely their own assumptions and lack of interest in my true personality) and expect me to let the behavior slide.

    I admit, a big crazymaker is being ignored or considered "less than" when I've waited patiently for help at the store, airport, restaurant, etc. Or when individuals near me in these situations act like I'm not there. For example, I often visit a Farmer's Market near my home in Takoma Park, Maryland. The food choices are quite good, seasonal, and primarily locally grown. However, I may stop shopping there altogether because the mostly white patrons, many of whom I believe consider themselves "progressive," are some of most rude and self-absorbed excuses for people I've witnessed at these markets in all my life.

    I've seen several folks often bring HUGE, hard-to-control dogs, which are banned on the grounds for health and safety reasons, express entitled frustration over being corrected about Marmaduke's disruptive presence. As if nobody's kids are running around, or people like these dogs sniffing their crotches or the green tomatoes they're about to buy. Then, there are the ones who nearly make mincemeat out of your toes with their monster stroller trucks, or deliberately use them to block the path to something they want, even if you're in the right. The idea is, "I have a cute baby here. It's your duty to part the Red Sea for me regardless of what your needs are." This same courtesy, however, isn't extended to the moms or daddies of color, or even some of the hobbled older folks I see who come after their church services end.

    Other times, I have held items in my hands, with money, and shoppers have shoved *their* items in front of my face to pay. Not a good move, ever. They usually get a nasty "Excuse me?" and back down, perhaps with an audible grumble. Those are interesting situations, because I don't easily acquiesce. The worst are some of the aging hippies, who have no problem pushing you and your obstructive collard greens out their way to reach their intended destination. Worst is the "how did you get here" stare, which is priceless considering the entire area borders several older, Washington D.C.-based, historically black neighborhoods.

    For the most part, outside of the market situation, residents in the surrounding communities -- black, white or otherwise -- are generally nice. I'm not sure why this particular space brings out the privilege monster. All I know is, I've dealt with this mess all my life, and the older I get, the more people will get told about themselves when they cross me.

  14. I'm sorry but I feel like you're being too hard on that woman... it sounds to me like she was just being nice. If she had made that comment to a non-white it could have been perceived as racist, thus she might not have made it in order to be sensitive to the person sitting next to her.

  15. Vick wrote:

    "Is it strange to you that, with all things being equal, people are more comfortable with people of their own race?"

    To me, yes, it's strange. I don't pretend to be "colorblind" or anything like that. Of course I can see "race" by which I mean I notice what people look like and what categories our society has created for various differences (and that these "race" categories are not immutable but are different in other countries and cultures, not to mention at different times in history).

    But being around people with various external differences does not make me more or less comfortable. It would be a very strange generalization to think that all people of my "race" (or with or without my disability) are more comfortable to be with than someone of another "race" or disability.

  16. V -

    You said: "It would be a very strange generalization to think that all people of my "race" (or with or without my disability) are more comfortable to be with than someone of another "race" or disability."

    You might think it strange, but it is absolutely common. People voluntarily associate by race all the time, constantly. We could speculate about why it happens - but we don't need to argue over whether or not it happens, do we?

    I guess my question for you, given that it's such a common phenomenon that we witness all the time, is why do you think it's strange?

  17. There's no doubt in this world that that was a "white moment" (I like that term and am gonna start using it). I was kind of wavering until you turned the tables and wondered what would've happened if she HAD said that to a POC. I would've been like, "Excuse me?"

  18. She probably wouldn't have said it, because she would have feared it being perceived as "you people" like as in "I know you (black) people don't have cooties"

    When I am walking down the street and pass a black person I always end up thinking "If I say hello to them, will they think i am just trying to be friendly because they're black?"

    I need to cross the street but I am scared to jaywalk because the black person about to cross my path might think I am trying to avoid them (because I'm white) and not think "gee maybe she just wants to go to the convenience store and there are no cars coming"

    I am constantly thinking in the back of my head that I am going to say the wrong thing or do the wrong thing,
    Or that a black person will think I am racist or that I did something or said something or DIDN'T say something or do something because they are black.

    I don't have this problem or issue with anyone of any other race, and as much as I want to stop having these thoughts cross my path, people are here blogging about why we should constantly focus on race and concern ourselves with color just in case we are in a situation where we might come across as racist...

    Lets all sit around and hate ourselves for being white because we should have known better.

  19. I think that every time I speak out in class about something that I'm having a white moment. If a black woman were to duplicate my actions in the classroom, she would quickly be labeled an "angry black woman". But when I do it it's "passionate" or "outspoken".


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