Wilcox served as the book's editor, and in his introduction he writes,
White Is is not a sequel to Black Is. It seeks to produce a different perspective. Black Is elicited white sympathy and Black self-pity. White Is is designed to provide white Americans with a mirror with which to examine themselves.
The full meaning of "white is" unfolded as the young people involved in writing the book began to see and identify the meaning of being white in America. The group, composed of Jews, Blacks, Puerto Ricans, Indians, WASPS, and Chicanos, discovered that they were forming a portrait of the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant "authentic American deception" that had blinded them all. . . . it was the first time that many of the young people had engaged the issue of their own right to be human in such an open setting.
At some points, White Is is a clear product of its time (for example: "White is allowing the blacks to fight for their freedom in Vietnam"). In many other ways, the book remains an effective and instructive mirror for today's white people. For the purposes of this post on a common and ongoing white tendency, I'd like to focus on this single image and caption from White Is:
The point that I see this 40-year-old, teenager-inspired cartoon making is that ordinary, everyday elements of daily life have been arranged to benefit white people, and not necessarily other people. If something as simple as a bandage indicates that "white" is the assumed default racial status in America, then in what other hundreds, even thousands of ways is that true? And what are the effects on non-white people, of this mountain of evidence that in their own country and society, they've been placed somewhere off to the side of center stage?
White people tend to assume, often without realizing that they're doing so, that the ways the world around them has been established, organized, and supplied are the most convenient and best ways for people in general. However, those ways are often instead the most convenient and best ways for white people, and not for others. And yet, white people usually fail to even see that.
The "band aid" that the black man in the cartoon is wearing is "flesh-colored." The problem (which you'd think the manufacturers of bandages would've seen early on as an obvious problem) is that a "flesh-colored" bandage doesn't match the skin color of a lot of non-white people. I don't know if the "band aid" in question was actually marketed as "flesh-colored," but I'm pretty sure if ordinary white people of the time were asked to describe its color, that's the term that many or most would've used. What this means is that many white minds accepted a delusion that many non-white minds did not -- the false notion that "flesh" is "white." The logical-but-absurd extension of that term is that if human "flesh" is actually "white," then non-white people aren't actually human.
Again, it's a profound set of points that Preston Wilcox and the teenagers he spoke with made over 40 years ago, points that can still be hard to see -- for white people, that is. Surely non-white people often have no trouble seeing that what white people think of as normal and natural ways of doing things are actually common white ways of doing things. Just as this conception of "flesh" actually stands for "white" flesh, so "white" commonly stands for "normal." The word "white" itself often gets replaced by the word "normal" -- in white minds. But again, often not in non-white minds, or so I'd guess.
The African American scholar and teacher bell hooks has noticed this difference between the minds of her white and her non-white students. While whites never actually forget that they're "white," many do tend to become so accustomed to thinking of themselves as "normal" instead of as "white" that when others point out that their being white has real significance in their lives, they're dumbfounded.
As hooks writes:
In those classrooms there have been heated debates among students when white students respond with disbelief, shock, and rage, as they listen to black students talk about whiteness, when they are compelled to hear observations, stereotypes, etc. that are offered as “data” gleaned from close scrutiny and study.
Usually, white students respond with naive amazement that black people critically assess white people from a standpoint where “whiteness” is the privileged signifier. Their amazement that black people watch white people with a critical “ethnographic” gaze, is itself an expression of racism.
Often their rage erupts because they believe that all ways of looking that highlight difference subvert the liberal belief in a universal subjectivity (we are all just people) that they think will make racism disappear. They have a deep emotional investment in the myth of “sameness,” even as their actions reflect the primacy of whiteness as a sign informing who they are and how they think. Many of them are shocked that black people think critically about whiteness because racist thinking perpetuates the fantasy that the Other who is subjugated, who is subhuman, lacks the ability to comprehend, to understand, to see the working of the powerful.
Even though the majority of these students politically consider themselves liberals and anti-racists, they too unwittingly invest in the sense of whiteness as mystery.
One of the crucial things that hooks highlights here is the validity of this racially critiquing non-white gaze upon white people. Why is it that whites are generally oblivious to that gaze? mthgk, a commenter on this blog, once wrote, with succinct precision, what I think is an answer: "White people don't seem to understand that the power structure they have created, predicated on whiteness itself, forces non-whites to categorize whites racially." It seems that white people don't know they're being watched because they don't know their own strength.
Again, just about every white American is of course aware of their group membership -- of their being "white." The point here is more that because their racial status rarely causes them problems, they don't think about it much -- in most cases, I'd bet, not even once a week, let alone once a day. And to the extent that they don't think about it much, they instead think of themselves as just plain "people." They also think of other white people as just plain people. But then other people are certain kinds of people -- "black" people, or "Mexican" people, or "Asian American" people, and so on. So in that state of mind, who becomes just plain, normal people -- that is, "people" -- and who becomes abnormal -- that is, not quite "people"?
In that common white state of mind, to be able to perceive oneself as a member of the norm, instead of as a suspect-at-best and less-than-human-at-worst outsider, is a "privilege." Privileges are what they are because other people don't have them. More specifically, in terms of race, privileges are what white people have because they, as a group, have denied them to non-white people. As a group, they have had, and still have, that power. In this sense, then, the white "norm" actually isn't a norm -- it's a special, privileged, and empowered status. Again, though, the true, enormous significance of that status to their own lives rarely occurs to most white people. And in a lot of cases, when that significance gets pointed out to them, they react like bell hooks' students did, with disbelief, anger, and frustration.
Actually, for many decades, the company that made Crayola Crayons produced a crayon labeled "Flesh." As the company's web site now notes, that name "was voluntarily changed to 'peach' in 1962, partially as a result of the U. S. Civil Rights Movement."
In 1988, Peggy McIntosh published an article that eventually put the concept of "white privilege" on the cultural map. She identified and clarified the extensive presence of white privilege in America's social landscape, especially by providing a list of 46 examples from her own life. Here's just one of them:
I can choose blemish cover or bandages in “flesh” color and have them more or less match my skin.
Nowadays, 21 years later, it's easier for non-white Americans to find matching blemish cover and bandages. Indeed, the term "flesh-colored" seems a thing of the past, a relic as bygone as the equally nonsensical one-drop rule.
But then, what kind of slip-up was it when an Associated Press reporter recently described the color of a dress, worn by Michelle Obama no less, with that apparently undead term?
The first line of reporter Samantha Critchell's AP story about this night in the Obama's lives read, "First lady Michelle Obama chose to wear a gleaming silver-sequined, flesh-colored gown Tuesday night to the first state dinner held by her husband's administration." Critchell's mistake was later changed, to "cream-colored." That she wrote "flesh-colored" in the first place, and that the phrase got past at least one editor, both suggest that in some minds at least, the default color for skin, or "flesh," is still a color close to "white" skin. It's rather amazing that Critchell wrote that when the "flesh-colored" dress was worn by Michelle Obama, a person whose "flesh" is far away from that color, a seemingly obvious contrast that again renders the term "flesh-colored" absolutely nonsensical.
So that term is easy enough to expose as bizarre nonsense (if you ever hear anyone use it, all you have to do is ask, "What? "Flesh-colored'? And just whose flesh would that color be?"). It's still very useful, though, as an example of the power of white presumptions. Presumptions, that is, of social, cultural, and political centrality. This is also the power to symbolically, and in some ways literally, obliterate the humanity of non-white people.
One way that obliteration occurs is when white people think they're talking about just plain "people," but they're actually talking about "white people." I used to do that, and I probably still do in some situations. But now I find that common white tendency chilling. Frightening. White speakers, and usually their white listeners, often fail to realize that their universalizing assumption that the group of unmarked "white" people they're talking about does not include all people. And that it actively excludes them. I suspect that on the other hand, non-white people often do realize that's what's happening -- that the "people" in question are actually white people, and that non-white people have been erased from the picture.
Recently, this presumptuous and obliterating white habit jumped out at me when I was watching a movie set in the American South. I sometimes like documentaries, and this one's actually supposed to be about "the South." It has an on-camera narrator, a white singer/musician who travels around rural areas and pontificates poetically on "the mood" of "the South," and by extension, on "Southerners." However, as I kept watching it became clear that those who this wandering narrator was really describing, but never identified as such, were "white Southerners."
I started watching for black people in this moody portrait of "the South" and "its people." By the end, after the wandering narrator had met dozens of individuals and crowds full of many more, only two black men had appeared. Each of these men surfaced briefly in the background, only to vanish without a word. Perhaps, although they'd probably lived in the South all their lives, the filmmakers didn't deem them "Southern" enough (and perhaps this was an unconscious thing -- perhaps), because they weren't "white."
I hope to write in more detail about that movie in another post. The typical white blindness that film displayed -- to whiteness itself by not actually naming it; to the underlying presumption that white people are the default for just plain "people"; and to the blithe power on display in its shoving aside of nearly all black Southern people, denying their very presence and humanity -- all of that eventually became infuriating.
When will my people ever stop acting like they're the only full-fledged human beings on earth?