Wednesday, May 14, 2008

find it odd to label whiteness "white"

(wearing 1 cup of white self-raising flour)

In Locomotion, a novel for young readers by Jacqueline Woodson, a young black child named Lonnie Collins Motion tells his story. The novel’s format is unique—a series of sixty poems written by eleven-year-old Locomotion (that’s Lonnie’s nickname), who writes them at the prompting of Ms. Marcus, his white teacher.

Throughout his poems, Locomotion gradually reveals that his parents have died in a fire a few years earlier, that he’s separated from his sister, and that he’s staying with a woman he knows as Miss Edna.

In one of his verse-style poems, Locomotion reveals his ability to see the significance of something that his teacher seems unable to see as at all significant—her own whiteness:

Last night this commercial came on TV. It was this white lady making a nice dinner for her husband. She made him some baked chicken with potatoes and gravy and some kind of greens—not collards, but they still looked real good. Everything looked so delicious, I just wanted to reach into that television and snatch a plate for myself. He gave her a kiss and then a voice came on saying He’ll love you for it and then the commercial went off.

I sat on Miss Edna’s scratchy couch wondering if that man and woman really ate that food or just threw it all away.

Now Ms. Marcus wants to know why I wrote that the lady is white and I say because it’s true. And Ms. Marcus says Lonnie, what does race have to do with it, forgetting that she asked us to use lots of details when we wrote. Forgetting that whole long talk she gave yesterday about the importance of description!

I don’t say anything back to her, just look down at my arm. It’s dark brown and there’s a scab by my wrist that I don’t pick at if I remember not to. I look at my knuckles. They’re real dark too.

Outside it’s starting to rain and the way the rain comes down—tap, tapping against the window—gets me to thinking. Ms. Marcus don’t understand some things even though she’s my favorite teacher in the world.

Things like my brown, brown arm. And the white lady and man with all that good food to throw away. How if you turn on your TV, that’s what you see—people with lots and lots of stuff not having to sit on scratchy couches in Miss Edna’s house.

And the true fact is alotta those people are white. Maybe it’s that if you’re white you can’t see all the whiteness around you.

Locomotion ends his poem with a profound understanding about a fundamental difference between white and non-white self-awareness. While non-whites carry around a conscious sense of their own racial makeup wherever they go, most whites are blithely oblivious to their own.

This white oblivion to a significant part of one’s social identity has an array of consequences. One of the worst is the common white belief that non-white people pretty much see the world the way they do. A result of that belief is that when non-white people say that race still matters, white people often ask in return, “What in the world are you talking about?”

Another consequence of the common white inability to see the whiteness all around themselves is the discomfort they tend to feel when that whiteness, and their own racial status, are pointed out to them.

In her luminous book Learning to Be White, the theologian Thandeka describes the results of a revealing experiment that she likes to conduct with white people. She calls this experiment “the Race Game.”

My luncheon partner, a fifth-generation Smith College graduate with a New England genealogy older than the state and a portfolio perhaps as wealthy, wanting to get to know me, asked what it felt like to be black.

I was not offended by her query. Her face was open; her eyes were friendly and engaged. She simply believed that nothing from her own background or experience could help her understand me. I knew better. I had been assigned a race by America’s pervasive socialization process, and so had she. I thus believed that if she drew upon her own experience of being “raced,” she might then be able to see what we had in common.

But how could I make her conscious of the racialization process to which her own Euro-American community had subjected her? Searching for an answer to this question, I invented the Race Game and invited her to play it for a week.

The Race Game, my luncheon partner very quickly discovered, had only one rule. For the next seven days, she must use the ascriptive term white whenever she mentioned the name of one of her Euro-American cohorts. She must say, for instance, “my white husband, Phil,” or “my white friend Julie,” or “my lovely white child Jackie.” I guaranteed her that if she did this for a week and then met me for lunch, I could answer her question using terms she would understand.

We never had lunch together again. Apparently my suggestion had made her uncomfortable.

African Americans have learned to use a racial language to describe themselves and others. Euro-Americans have also learned a pervasive racial language. But in their racial lexicon, their own racial group becomes the great unsaid.

I wanted my luncheon partner to give voice to her whiteness as the racial unsaid in her life. By consciously referring to this unvoiced color, she would become aware of what it feels like to take and maintain a racial identity in America.

Or so I thought. . . .

Why was the very prospect of playing the Race Game so daunting?

As both of these examples point out, the labeling of whiteness with the word “white” is daunting to most white Americans. Because they’re just not accustomed to doing that, being pushed to do so makes them uncomfortable.

But is that all there is to that discomfort?

Are there more feelings, or thoughts, or suspicions that arise when the great unsaid gets said?


  1. "Another consequence of the common white inability to see the whiteness all around themselves is the discomfort they tend to feel when that whiteness, and their own racial status, are pointed out to them."


    As the only black person living in close proximity to white people, I find that many, if not all of them, have a 'white frame' of reference. It is extremely difficult and just about next to impossible for whites, generally, to see the world (including American History) view of non-white people.

    I find that when I broach the subject of whiteness, blackness or race, and how we are all affected, programmed and conditioned - often unconsciously - by the scripts we're handed according to the color skin we wear to my white church family members, I am often met with silence, or a type of response that suggests that no one in the church family has, or could ever mistreat me because of my race, and that I am 'the racist' because I desire to discuss these things openly and honestly.

    I can only trust that God has a hand in this personally hard experience, and that the final things He brings forth is beautiful and sweet.

    I find this blog very, VERY helpful. Thank you much.

  2. "the labeling of whiteness with the word “white” is daunting to white Americans."

    IF you made a blanket stereotypical statement like that concerning any other ethic group, you'd be labelled a racist.

  3. Ah yes, thank you SH, I forgot that my points about common white tendencies have to be constantly qualified. That way, hawks like you won't decontextualize my sentences and claim think I'm making racist claims about ALL white Americans.

    I changed the post by adding the word "most" to the sentence you quoted.

    Happy now?

  4. Thanks for reading carefully, maria, that's helpful.

    SH, as it happens, One Drop over at Too Sense has a post today on this very issue! He addresses your concerns about generalizations far better than I have, saying 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. I'll continue to try to make that point more clear in my posts.

    So. What he said.

    You should go read the whole thing--it's exactly what I would say about the difficulty of ALWAYS qualifying what I say, versus the understanding I should be able to call for in readers that I am not, of course, talking about ALL white people, but rather, common tendencies.

  5. "OH! AS IF all things were equal!! No, he wouldn't. Minorities do this all the time. Did you miss that part?"

    At the risk of stating the obvious, saying that "minorities do this all the time" is exactly the same kind of general comment that you claim to find offensive. I strongly suspect that you are not offended so much by generalizations as you are by generalizations about white people.

    Perhaps more to the point, I am virtually certain that you make those very same general statements about white people on a regular basis, only without the "white" label. Be honest now, when you talk about "people" being one way or another, or doing one thing or another, who are you picturing in your mind? A white person? A black person? An Asian? If no racial identifier is used at all, what do you assume to be the race of the person being described?

    One last point: by definition, a white person talking about other white people isn't being racist. He's speaking from his own experience, about his own community, which isn't at all what racism is about.

  6. One of the things that makes white people uncomfortable about self-identifying race in the way you discuss is association with those people who DO call themselves "White" - uniformly unreconstructed racists. If I was to propose making a student organization called "White Student Union", I would probably be contacted by White Aryan Resistance, the White Citizen's Party, and the Imperial Clans of the USA for membership.

  7. That's a fair point. However, if those of us who do not want to be associated with racism allow the haters to be the only ones who use the term "white", we surrender our good name to them. We allow them to define what it means to be white. Just as educated black men like Obama have to struggle against those in the black community who define "blackness" in a limited fashion (e.g. arguing that to act and speak like Obama is to "act white"), and have to work to enlarge and enrich the definition of blackness, those of us in the white community who want that title to have a more positive meaning have to actively work against the racists.

  8. Great points, Jaydub and One Drop, thank you for making them. I'll just add that as must be evident to readers of this blog, I agree that anti-racist sentiment, thought, and action by white people is better if it includes more white self-awareness than most whites (and, probably, most white anti-racist activists) have.

    Enlarging and enriching the conception of whiteness is a good thing too, maybe as a step toward, or as part of, an effort to make its ongoing social reality more visible and "salient" (as scholars like to put it) to white people. Trying to make whiteness a positive thing, though, is of course a difficult task, given its very foundation in superiority, and in running away from that which it (supposedly) is not.

    Given that, I wonder just how can one embrace or claim one's whiteness itself. That's a real conundrum wrapped inside an enigma for me.

  9. Is ALL whiteness, i.e. white people in all areas of the world, founded in superiority or are you only thinking of whiteness in America? Is there not any country/state/city/town/village in the world where whiteness is embraced and not regarded as superior by non-whites?

  10. anonymous, I think it's possible that "whiteness" occurs somewhere in the world in a different formation than the one my blog generally refers to and analyzes. However, I know of no such place--I'd love to hear about one.

    Generally, whiteness arose as a foregrounded identity marker in response to other, supposedly non-white people, and especially as a justifying part of the efforts to dominate non-white people. In early American history, Europeans weren't "white" before they came to America, and in early South African history, the people who became "Afrikaners" didn't think of themselves as white beforehand either--the marker arose in relation to supposedly inferior, supposed "blackness."

    Perhaps when white farmers were kicked out of Zimbabwe, the non-white Zimbabweans thought of the whites among them in terms other than superiority, but I don't know enough about that situation to say for certain.


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