ALLAN G. JOHNSON'S BLOG
Proud to Be White?
I remember that day when I was teaching a college course on race and how quiet the white students became when the focus shifted to black people fighting oppression by promoting pride in being black. Black is beautiful. And then there was a pause in the conversation and the white student wanted to know if she was allowed to feel proud of being white.
It came as no surprise. Who, after all, doesn’t want to feel good about who they are, especially when they’ve had no say in what that is, told from the moment she was born that she was white. And born into a racist system of privilege that is also not her fault. So why, then, she wants to know, should black people be the only ones to feel proud of who they are?
She is, of course, ignoring the rest of what people of color have to deal with that she does not. Even more, she is asserting privilege by expecting that race should not be a source of loss or unhappiness for whites.
But that isn’t what stands out in my memory of that moment. Her question is rhetorical. Her tone makes it clear that she believes the answer is no, and she thinks it isn’t fair. Yes, she knows she is white and that white privilege is real and oppressive and wrong. But she also sees herself as a human being like anybody else. Being white does not mean she will be strong or resilient or successful in life, that she will be grounded, safe, or secure in who she is. It will not make her wise or happy or immune to tragedy and grief, or to loneliness, depression, and despair.
In fact, being white makes her vulnerable to that moment when the fraud of whiteness itself suddenly becomes visible, and all that she unconsciously takes for granted about race whenever she looks in the mirror or walks out in the world is suddenly thrown into doubt. It is the vulnerability that made James Baldwin feel sorry for white people for having to depend upon the ridiculous belief that being white makes them better than everyone else.†
I understand why black pride would exist. If your body is arbitrarily made into an object of contempt, disparagement, ugliness, and disgust, then to reclaim that body makes all the sense in the world.
But if something as arbitrary as the color of your skin has been made into an exalted cultural ideal, the purest expression of what it is to be not only human but, beautiful, superior, and fine, and that turns out not only to be a myth and a fraud, but a cultural invention whose sole purpose is to justify exploitation, injustice, and oppression, then what is one to make of that?
That is the bind that she was in, as am I and anyone else identified as white. And, wanting to feel good about who we are, it is tempting to seek refuge in not looking too closely at what it is exactly about being ‘white’ that should make us feel good about ourselves, not to mention proud.
It cannot simply be the color of our skin. For one thing, that isn’t something we have any hand in bringing about, no more than my being tall or having brown eyes. ‘Proud to be tall’?
Then there is the idea that ‘white’ is just another word for ‘European,’ as if I am to derive some sense of who I am from a continent that includes Russian, Italian, Finish, Greek, French, German, Polish, Czech, Norwegian, British, Scot, Irish, Spanish, Swiss, Portuguese, and Dutch, to name just the ones that come to mind.
Not to mention that at one time or another, Italians, Greeks, and the Irish were not considered white by those with the power to decide such things. And Jews no matter where they were from. And that for most of history, no one in ‘European’ countries thought of themselves as white even when they were well aware of people who looked quite different than they.
The fallback position is that ‘white’ stands for the idea of European, the whole thing as a point of pride, as in European Civilization, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment. All right, for the sake of argument, but then why not just say that? What does ‘white’ signify that ‘European’ does not? And what is the message in the meaning?
The painful fact is that what the ‘white’ identifier says, and all that it says and ever has, what the word actually means when you get right down to it, is that if you are white, you are inherently superior to anyone who is not.
Proud to be white. Proud to be better than them. Proud not to be you.
What I said that day is that one of the contradictions of whiteness is that we don’t get to feel proud of being white unless we ignore what it means. Unless we forget that the idea of whiteness and the fiction of race (which is all that they are, cultural ideas and fictions) have a history. There was a time not that many centuries ago when they did not exist.
But she had now come to know too much to shield herself with ignorance and forgetting. And she was resisting the bind this puts us in—how to see and feel about ourselves as white—that is part of the legacy of race that we inherited the moment we were born.
We did nothing to deserve this. But neither do people of color deserve what is handed to them.
Part of what makes the bind so difficult is the belief that the only alternative to pride is shame—that if people of color now get to feel proud of their ‘race,’ then whites must be ashamed of theirs, what I think I saw in her face that day.
But there is another possibility. As a cultural cornerstone of white privilege and racism, the idea of whiteness is a shameful thing with a shameful past and present. But as a human being, I have no reason to feel ashamed because I happened to be born looking like someone identified as white.
If not pride or shame, then what?
Grief, for one, for the injustice and unnecessary suffering, and the unavoidable complicity of white people, and what that does to our lives, whether we know it or not.
And compassion. And anger.
And a resolve to carry the painful reality that it means something to be identified as white, that it matters in how the world happens and shapes people’s lives, including my own, and to not feel free to join the Great White Dream that none of this exists, or matters, and even if it does, it will go away on its own without anything required of us.
If white people are to feel proud of anything with regard to race, I would say let it be how we live the inescapable bind we are in, and how we respond to the challenge of consciously being white in an oppressive system of privilege that we did not create, but that belongs to us now.
If you liked this post, you might also want to read, “The Hijacking of Political Correctness.”
†James Baldwin, “On Being White . . . And Other Lies.” (1984). Reprinted in David R. Roediger (ed.), Black on White: Black Writers on What It Means to Be White. New York: Schocken, 1999.
To learn more about the history of whiteness and race, see Theodore Allen, The Invention of the White Race, 2 vols., 2nd ed. (Verso, 2012); Audrey Smedley and Brian D. Smedley, Race in North America: Origin and Evolution of a Worldview, 4th ed. (Westview Press, 2011); and Basil Davidson, The African Slave Trade, rev. ed. (Back Bay Books, 1988).