Wednesday, August 18, 2010

I'm A Color-Less Child Who Don't Know Right From Wrong...

Race came up a number of times in the past couple of weeks, in conversation with my mother and her partner Sandy as well as, for example, on Bruce Reyes-Chow's recent Facebook comment.  These conversations about race have all been with primarily white people, all middle-class-seeming from what I can tell.  I found myself trying to make the same point about whiteness.

When whiteness is part of a race discussion, it is the backdrop.  Whiteness is the blank, forgettable paper upon which the beautiful rainbow of diversity can be painted.  "Ethnic" means anything but white.  "People of color" is the same.

This is not some kind of "reverse racism" rant - that being said, the invisibility of whiteness is the problem.  When whiteness becomes just another ethnicity, we will have dealt a powerful blow to racism everywhere.  It is no longer a game of measurement against one ethnicity which is treated like it is the assumed position, but rather a game of comparing ethnicities subjectively and relativistically - this one is unlike this other one, but similar to this other one, etc.  With any luck, we eventually stop playing the game altogether.

When whiteness is the backdrop; when white is not just another ethnicity, it becomes the default.  It becomes the assumed basis on which we discuss race - race exists as a comparison to whiteness.

It isn't as if white is not a distinctive ethnicity, just like any other ethnicity (granted that all ethnicity is invented and constructed).  You just have to listen to...any standup comedian for any length of time, or read Stuff White People Like, to get the idea of what white ethnicity means, insofar as any ethnicity means anything.

We need to get the point where we are all people of color - only one of those colors is "pale".

Here are a couple of my longer comments from BRC's Facebook page:

I think that the idea that white people are somehow "not ethnic" or have no color just perpetuates racism, and I see a lot of that in this conversation, as I do in most conversations about race. Whiteness is treated, even by most of the commenters here, as the "default" position, as if there was nothing distinctive about whiteness. It is the blank page upon which the beautiful rainbow of diversity is painted, it seems.

This is deeply unfortunate on every level. Until "white" is just another color, just another ethnicity, racism will rule the day. As long as we divide everything along lines of white vs. "ethnic" or white vs "color", we're still defining everything in light of whiteness. Isn't that what so many people have struggled and suffered so much to avoid?

As for BRC's comment - cool. I don't really understand what he means. When I'm in a group of all white people (which happens all the time as a Presbyterian) we don't even notice - again, because we're not "ethnic" , we don't have "color", we're just white people. Blank. Monochromatic. The cultural and phenotypic default setting.

And this language of white vs. color allows us to continue in that illusion, even though it is harmful to non-white people."

And to clarify:

"I think that's actually what I said - or what I intended to say. Race is an artificial construct, even if you change the terminology to "ethnicity". As long as whiteness is the artificial construct that is made the backdrop for all others, the unjust system will be propped up. If whiteness is just another ethnicity, then I believe that is a concrete move toward equality. Part of the power of whiteness is it's cultural invisibility - many act and speak as if white isn't particular, as if only "color" is particular. This is worse than acknowledging white as a particular construct, in my view, because it is all tacitly based on the assumption that white is standard and everything else is a deviation, when in truth, ethnicities are all constructs."


Erin said...

One of the big problems here is that there are people who really don't agree with you about what it means to be 'white'.

Whether or not we like it or it makes any rational sense, there are white people who do, in fact, compare everyone to themselves. Being 'white' IS their baseline for comparison, and anyone 'other' to them, is inferior.

I can agree with the concept that by using 'white' as a basis for comparison, we are perpetuating the concept that white is the standard and everything else is a deviation. That point deserves some exploring.

Interesting points things to ponder. Thanks for the post!

Aric Clark said...


Of course there are people who use white as their baseline for comparison. Mainly - nearly everyone. That is the problem Doug is I think correctly pointing out. It is false, and acting on this false idea has created concrete demonstrable harms. Thus the false idea must be rejected and replaced with a true one, which is that "white" is concrete and definable as an "ethnicity" or "race" just as much as any other ethnicity or race. They are all social constructs belonging to the same category or relativity.

Right on, Doug. The question is how to translate this into a personal discipline of changing our minds. How can I become conscious of my whiteness as a concrete socially constructed reality?

Doug Hagler said...

@ Erin: No question almost everyone in the "race" conversation, when they say "race" or "ethnicity" or "color", they mean something they are comparing to whiteness. I even think this probably served a purpose for a while, since "history" until a few decades ago was universally "white male history". You've gotta break that somehow.

Also, no question there are racists out there who compare everything else to whiteness and have whiteness as their idea. I just hate it when progressive folks buy into this kind of language, rather than treating white as just another ethnicity, with it's own distinct ethnic traits like any other.

The thing is - these things are wrong, and perpetuate racism, and should be resisted. That's what I'm talking about - resisting.

@ Aric: I think making fun of whiteness is a good start. If you can make jokes about whiteness, you have to understand something about whiteness and it's absurdity first. All ethnicities are absurd, in my view - they're socially constructed categories that only make sense if you don't look very closely.

Also, not turning down opportunities to hang out with other cultures and ethnicities, especially in their homes, or where they're comfortable. Try to list every difference. Ask respectful questions.

Ultimately, whiteness is as goofy a category as any other ethnicity - you can generalize, sort of, but it isn't very meaningful. Just like black people act a lot of different ways, so do white people; and don't get me started on the absurd idea that the label "asian" means anything. Asian what - Pakistani? Japanese? Mongolian? Those are pretty different.

That being said, having dinner with a black family is different from having dinner with a white family pretty much everywhere you go. The differences are also quite real. There is 'asian' culture that can self-identify in contrast to white culture - or so I'm told, anyway.

Maybe start sentences with things like "As a white man". Call yourself out. "I don't know if it's because I'm white, or what, but I sure do love artisan cheeses and breads."

I try to keep in mind the goal - to reduce the pain I cause or am complicit in; to believe people when they say that something I do or represent causes them pain.

Erin said...

i am agreeing with what both Doug and Aric have to say. however, i'm contemplating situations i've been in, when i was the only white person in a group of non-white people, and how painfully obvious my own privilege suddenly became.

i think many people, when confronted with their own privilege, shut down and work harder to maintain the us vs. them mentality.

really, we've got our work cut out for us when it comes to disassembling the social constructs of race and ethnicity.

Doug Hagler said...

I've gotta say, though, that few things are as aggravating as being lectured about my privilege by a person living in their own million-dollar house when I've just gotten an eviction notice. I get that being a white male gives me advantages from the start, but it doesn't mean my life has rained cash every moment.

To me, it's no less obnoxious for someone to assume they know what it is to be white and male than it is for me to assume I know all about being non-white and female, or whatever other difference you can come up with.

The only way forward I see is to actually talk about privilege - where it exists, and even where it doesn't.

Erin said...

i think part of my issue with all the race discussion is that i think much more in terms of class-based differences, which cross racial and ethnic lines.

we can do all this work around any -ism, but if we aren't getting at the fact that discrepancies based on wealth, money, power and influence cause significant problems, then working through privilege associated with race sorta just feels like a band aid, not a solution.

Kari said...

A related post from the blog Sociological Images titled, Why Do the Japanese Draw Themselves as White? (and yes, the link is long, sorry)

Doug Hagler said...

@ Kari: Thanks! I have always wondered that about Anime, actually. At the very least, Anime has always looked like a view of race that is different from our own.