Thursday, July 17, 2008

struggle when asked what being "white" means to them

If I had an ethnic base to identify from, if I was even Irish American, that would have been something formed, if I was a working-class woman, that would have been something formed. But to be a Heinz 57 American, a white, class-confused American, land of the Kleenex type American, is so formless in and of itself. It only takes shape in relation to other people.

Here's a short film by Christopher J. Rock in which he asks white Americans what being "white" means to them. Like most white Americans, his interviewees find this a difficult task.

Rock has posted this film on YouTube, where he asks for comments because he's thinking of expanding it into a full-length film. If you have ideas or suggestions for him in that regard, you can go here.

One topic you might address in the comments here: Why do you suppose white people often find it so difficult, and even uncomfortable, to talk about their own racial membership?


  1. About an hour ago, out of frustration in reading personal ads on Craigslist, I emailed two women in the W4W section about their racism. One of them stated emphatically she did not want to date anyone "of any ethnicity," which I read as a code for whites only.

    I was interested to see in the short video that each identified their background by their families historical connection to mostly European countries. That was super common where I grew up in Chicago too. It was a common question - what are you? And I remember by first gf who was from Kentucky puzzled by the question because she was like I'm white, who knows where my ancestors are from? I wonder if this is something that only those of us who remember grandma talking about the old country do? Or if it's a cop out like many of my POC friends think.

    And lots of white people I know also struggle with it because of feeling like media and advertising determines what white culture is instead of this perceived idea that people of color have cultures created outside of all that. And yet, media and advertising is run by white people.

  2. What do you think of the conclusion to the video? It would seem to run counter to the theme of this blog, which is to sort of explore whiteness as a (goofy?) stereotype.

    This also seems to be where you have been running into trouble with other commenters here on your blog, in this willingness to postulate, and extrapolate from these postulations, generalized racial phenotypes.

  3. I think a lot of white people just don't think about being white, so they don't have much to say about it when asked. I also think there's something in the collective white psyche, if there is such a thing, that avoids the subject because of the bad associations with a white supremacist past. Who but openly declared white supremacists would identify with that?

  4. the linden branch,

    Maybe I interpreted the conclusion a little differently from how you did. The narrator quotes Dyer on how whiteness is a norm; then he says no group that becomes aware of that about themselves would probably like it, so then he asks, how are we supposed to counter that? Then he asks if positing a stereotypical white person would be the answer, since, I suppose, that would make white people no longer the norm. I took this question to be rhetorical--a way of saying, No, that's not a solution either. I say that, because he then goes on to say that these friends of his are actually unique individuals, and the real solution is "education" (about . . . ?)

    I wrote that out for me as much as for you, because I find the ending somewhat muddled. Maybe it's just the beginning of a longer project?

    At any rate, as my post's title suggests, I posted the film here because the other parts interest me--the ones where these white individuals have trouble explaining what being white actually means to them. Maybe the narrator/filmmaker himself has that trouble too!

  5. I think a lot of white people just don't think about being white

    You know, we all hear that a lot but I'm trying to understand what are the thoughts Whites have when it comes to so-called "race" issues?

    I don't know how it's possible to have an opinion about "race" issues, and I assume a lot of Whites do, when you don't think about being White/Black, etc.?

    So, for me at least, I don't know what that means (a lot of white people just don't think about being white).

  6. I don't know the exact period, but earlier in history (in Europe, I don't know this for America, but I guess it's the same) white skin was a symbol of belonging to the upper class/aristocrats. Women for example protected themselves with long dresses and parasols from direct sunlight.
    The working class whites worked out-side and got a darker skin-color.
    So it was a conscious decision to remain white (skin-color and social construct).

    I don't know how it's possible to have an opinion about "race" issues, and I assume a lot of Whites do, when you don't think about being White/Black, etc.?

    So, for me at least, I don't know what that means (a lot of white people just don't think about being white).

    I think it is similar to religion [or this example is flawed, I don't know] and in this case Christianity as the dominant religion in Eurocentered nations (and therefore the 'norm'). Those who actively practice their religion also actively think about it.
    But many people are just Christian because their parents are. They know that they are Christians but if you ask them what it means for them to be Christian they will have problems to tell this. It is something they grew up with.
    Now in Germany because of growing xenophobia and Islamophobia Germans remember their Christianity. Religion was in Germany quite unimportant, but now it becomes important again and many Germans join the Christian Church again. When there is something about the abduction of Christs somewhere on earth in the news, there are the voices "we must help them, they are one of us" [vs. the 'other' Islam].

    Therefore, I think whites know quite early very exactly which group they belong to and who is the alleged other. But they do not have to practice whiteness actively because they are already the norm, and therefore they do not have to actively think about their whiteness. But this knowledge about them being white immediately pops up to the conscious level whenever they come across somebody non-white.

  7. and edit: I mean Christians not Christs

  8. I'm really late to the conversation, so I doubt anyone will read this, but just in case!
    I think the point being raised in the video is the fact that in the context of American society, being white is the norm, the standard, the control group, what have you. This is why it is so difficult for white people like myself to describe what it means to be white; as a culture we have this idea that white=standard so deeply embedded into our social understandings that it's become a social fact. White people all have ethnic backgrounds, but the way that we have constructed and understand 'ethnicity' means something other than Caucasian/Anglo-Saxan. Seen in this light, it's easy to understand why white people don't have an ethnicity.
    I think the next step is awareness of this cultural assumption, that ah-ha! moment.

  9. As per Girl from Wisconsin, I'm pretty late into the discussion, but I hope my comment helps the conversation along.

    It doesn't mean anything to me, it's just the colour of my skin.

    My ancestors might have rich or poor, kind or cruel, sane or mad, pillars of society or axe wielding maniacs. Other than having some vague knowledge that at some point in my father's line they were Welsh, I don't particularly know and I don't particularly care.

    I am what I am. What I am is me here and now, not my ancestry. And given the nature of European history, even though my skin is pretty damn milky, it's highly likely I'm of mixed racial heritage anyway.

    The point where it does become a concern is when I start to worry about how others perceive me because of the colour of my skin.

    For example, when I was younger if I happened to catch someone's eye as I was walking down the street I would look quickly away. Not because I in any way thought they were deficient or 'other' because of skin colour (or whatever other type of characteristic), but because I worried they would think I thought of them as such. I worried they might interpret my having glanced in their vicinity as staring and/or uneasiness with their presence and they would then think I was some kind of red-necked white supremecist.

    Then I thought for a bit on my subconcious actions and decided that by my actions I was probably creating the impression I was trying to avoid in the first place. So I started doing the exact opposite. Whenever I happened to lock eyes across a crowded street with a complete stranger I would stare until the other person moved their eyes away first - I did this with everyone, regardless of skin colour. Since I've always be a very shy, awkward type of person this was more difficult then it sounds. As a social experiment it was very interesting. It's amazing how often whites tended to look away either immediately or within a moment, and how often non-whites didn't.

    However, I have to add the disclaimer that it may have more to do with the fact that, for a female, I am particularly tall. Besides the obvious side-show freak aspect of my height (as I seemed to get a lot of stares from asians in particular), I could also be perceived as being physically imposing if you didn't already know me well enough to know I'm just a big teddy bear.

    Then I re-thought my position again and decided that trying either to avoid everyones eyes or alternatively outstare every stranger who met my eyes was just too much fuss being as I live in a city. So these days I just skim across the top of people's heads and check out their hair styles. If I do catch anyone's eyes and they stare at me for longer than 2 seconds (around the point it starts to become uncomfortable) I'll turn and face straight towards them, put a cheeky grin on, start to widen my eyes, then cross my eyes at them. You can tell the people gearing up for up a pissing contest vs the people who are staring without realising it this way. Plus, on occasion I get some lovely positive, human reactions. No one has tried to deck me yet!

    Given that humans are social animals I tend to think where trouble comes into the whole 'racial' thing is where we start trying to place our position in respect of others, or try to determine how they view us in return.

    So, as I said initially, my skin colour means nothing to me. But I tend to worry about what it means to others when they look at me. I also think this inate human attempt to understand your social position within a broader group is probably the reason for a lot of prejudice generally, and racial extremists specifically. Unable to cope with the complexity/stress of trying to find their place within society, extremists adopt a defensive position of attack. By becoming prejudiced they protect their 'self' view from damage by the external reality.

    Egos are weird things.

    Either that or they're indoctrinated into the "truth" of their blind prejudice from birth, as if a family religion of some sort.


Please see the "commenting guidelines" before submitting a comment.

hit counter code