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UNRAVELING THE KNOT
ALLAN G. JOHNSON'S BLOG
Proud to Be White?
Friday, February 28, 2014Posted by on
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).
Aloha, Mr. Johnson, Jan Murray from Hawaii here, with a short comment. Since this statement also refers to my experience as a woman, albeit a white one, it seems to indicate that this article was written by a white male.
“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.”
Women’s bodies are still ALL of these descriptors. And as a 65 year-old, knowing that men in general want young(er) women in their beds and as partners they find attractive, then no matter how wonderful a partner I am, I will not (in general) be wanted or desired by any man.
I agree with one of your previous messages, that white people are seldom aware of being white. In Hawaii, I am aware of being white every moment of every day.
And I am not proud of being white, based on the atrocities that white people have committed all over the world throughout history. Both of my grandfathers were evil, abusive and privileged men. Women and children are not safe, and men are the reason why.
I’m clearing blame and anger in me. And as a side note, I hear ‘enlightened’ men refer to how angry women are at men. It’s invisible to them, apparently, how angry men must be to have committed such rageful acts against women and all humans.
Do you think it’s time to engage us in the next step of possibilities?
Mahalo for your work on behalf of all people in the world.
“Women and children are not safe, and men are the reason why”
My brothers and I were physically abused by our mother. She nearly killed the three of us when her idiocy led to a fire in our home. The ONLY reason my brothers and I are alive today is because our grandfather got there just in time to save our lives.
Following your “logic” my mom is the victim and my heroic Grandpa the villain. Do you think my brothers and I deserved to die that day?
Considering the recent events in this country concerning race ‘relations’–two examples: Michael Brown and Eric Garner–out of curiosity as to what might pop up, I Googled the words ‘proud to be white’ and found this. I now wish I’d scrolled further. Since you claim to be a teacher, Mr. Johnson, you’ll likely agree that knowledge is the most powerful tool available. And since you recommended reading subject matter along the lines of political correctness, I suggest you become knowledgeable on a new term floating around–one invented BY the politically correct: ‘black fatigue’. It’s blatantly clear you’ve very limited or no contact or associations with anyone black–it also seems highly doubtful you experience even a brief encounter with blacks in the public places you frequent. Do you honestly have ANY comprehension of TODAY’S blacks? Your comments concerning white privilege basically state that it’s alive and well and still in full swing. I sure as hell am not privvy to white privilege so I guess I should attend the seminar the local blacks are due to put on in February–BLACK history month–entitled ‘Recognizing the Signs of White Privilege’. That aside, I do acknowledge you wrote this blog before the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and the violent rioting that followed. Those rioters are the embodiment of today’s blacks–a race of people that excuse and justify bad behavior by calling it their CULTURE. BLACK PRIVILEGE is what’s alive and well and in full swing, Mr. Johnson. Oppression? WHERE? Which is why, as a white person, I REFUSE to be made to feel accountable for the CHOICES blacks are making and absolutely INSIST people have the right to be proud to be white. I highly recommend you discard the 1950s version of a black person and research the 21st century one before you publicize another article. (As a final note, I support the opinions of the 2 people that posted ahead of me.)
“Those rioters are the embodiment of today’s blacks–a race of people that excuse and justify bad behavior by calling it their CULTURE.”
The demonization of subordinate groups has a long history in North America, beginning with calling Native Americans “savages” and continuing today with the cultural stereotyping of blacks as criminal and immoral (see, for example, The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America, by Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Harvard University Press, 2010). Such descriptions serve more than anything to justify controlling members of subordinate groups, including through the use of prisons and violence as we’ve seen recently in the militarization of police forces across the country.
Privilege is not something that individual people have, as a possession, but is systemic and based on social categories. For more on this, see my website essay, “What Is a System of Privilege?” Since the comment refers to political correctness, readers might also want to see my blog post, “The Hijacking of Political Correctness.”
Allan, thank you. It is both painful and empowering to perceive the privilege we have enjoyed — to let go of the illusion of “power over” that white people take for granted. But it’s scary, too — and people are afraid not only to look at their own privilege, but to be made uncomfortable, as some other comments on this post seem to reflect. There is plenty of pain to go around in this culture of control we have inherited.
I recently read on Tumblr a quote from Steinbeck: “Maybe everybody in the whole damn world is scared of each other.” (Of Mice and Men)
We need to stop being afraid and start being honest about our feelings of regret, sadness, and grief over the injustices we’ve unwittingly and even unwillingly benefited from. Maybe, if we try that, we can stop being afraid, start forgiving ourselves and one another, and open the doors to a new way of being.
As far as race being cultural or just something made up by white people, that is false. The fact that someone’s DNA can be used to identify which race they are proves that race is not just an idea. Different races do exist, and that’s nothing to be upset about.
It is a matter of established scientific fact that there is no basis for the idea that race is more than a social construction. Consult any textbook on genetics or human biology and this is what you will find. That the belief in biological race persists attests to the power of culture to shape perceptions of reality.
DNA absolutely cannot be used to identify race. Skin colour does not indicate race. Europeans are not “white”. Africans are not “black”. Race makes even less sense in Asia.
It is certainly true that race has no basis in scientific fact. It is also true that many people who grew up outside the U.S. come to this country not identifying themselves as black, but when they arrive, they are shocked to discover that, as a cultural construct, race is all too real in this country, and it is that which determines how they are treated. In Africa, for example, they may not be black, but here, they are.
I agree that race “makes no sense.” Which is putting it nicely. It’s crazy. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist or powerfully affect people’s live.
White privilege is just another word for racism towards light skinned people. Very clever though, how can one defend themselves from something that they didn’t say or do ?
This is based on a misunderstanding of what I mean by ‘white privilege.’ See “What Is a System of Privilege?” and “Aren’t Systems Just People?“
I have also thought about what ‘white’ means that ‘European’ does not. I agree with what you say. On the one hand it signifies superiority over those deemed non white, while simultaneously representing the ‘simply human’, non raced’ category against which every one else comes to embody race. The term ‘white’ with its sense of purity and absence works better than ‘European’ for this purpose I feel.
In addition to this it is surely beneficial for white supremacy to operate on a colour coded basis, with a white/black dichotomy at its heart, so that with certain limitations it can be applied as is convenient in any given place or time. Using geographical labels such as ‘European’ would not facilitate this so easily. Of course you could still argue that certain people ‘native’ to non European countries are genetically European, but the colour code makes it so much easier to include non Europeans should you wish to. Of course it can also go the other way, with as you have already mentioned certain European groups being excluded from whiteness historically, which would not be possible had ‘European’ always been the marker of privilege. And although non European groups have rarely been granted white privilege, the colour code potentially leaves the door open should it become beneficial to do so.
I speak from experience being of half South Asian and half Northern European descent. My first realisation that racism was based on a colour code and not your literal skin colour was when I was a young child and a girl threatened to beat me up before hesitating and asking ‘Are you actually coloured or have you just got a tan? I experienced a lot of racism especially as a child, but there have also been times when I have been perceived as white. Usually this is due to having been mistaken for Southern European, but there have also been people who know my heritage but still insist I am white. ‘Well what are you then, black?’ one friend of European heritage asked. At the other extreme my partner told me he sees me as black, but all East Asians and native North/South Americans as white (because he cannot see them as black, whereas he can all South Asians).
It would be disingenuous of me to say I am indifferent to which colour I am assigned. While my experiences have shown me race is not a biological reality, they have also taught me that which colour you are assigned is the difference between benefitting from white supremacy and being victimised by it to varying degrees. In the absence of a neutral position I would be lying if I said I would prefer to be victimised by a system than benefit from it. I must stress I have not suffered nearly as much as some people currently and historically globally. I live a privileged Western life and the racism has been mainly psychologicaI. I cannot pretend I prefer being assigned non whiteness though.
Still at the end of the day, I am a ‘person of colour’ due to my experiences of being racialised. And that’s all I really see it as meaning, just that, ‘racialised’ negatively against a concept of superior whiteness. None of the colours we are assigned mean anything more than which side of the power divide we find ourselves placed on. Certainly not an innate biological identity or anything to be proud or ashamed of.