Essays

On Labeling White People

I read a book review from a blogger a couple of week’s ago in which she casually wandered into discussing whiteness and white privilege without a thorough examination of her own white privilege. The book — a popular young adult novel The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas about police brutality now in theaters — in which the blogger, a white woman, stated that being labeled ‘white’ was racist. As a white woman, I disagree.

Our black, brown and indigenous brothers and sisters have implored those of us that are even the slightest bit white and woke, to please, please talk to our family and friends about racism and white privilege or what bell hooks calls “IMPERIALIST WHITE SUPREMACIST CAPITALIST PATRIARCHY.” Probably more than a few of us white people have tried and failed to adequately communicate with family and friends about these issues hence: 11/9/16. It could be a lack of diplomacy and communication skills. Listening willingly and genially as myopic white people — sometimes skillfully, but oftentimes rather crudely — battered their way through the reasons why Mike Brown and Trayvon Martin deserved to be gunned down (or otherwise known as judged, juried and executed in the street; another metaphor you might be more familiar: a modern day lynching) has never been something I had the patience for. I continue to try and bridge that divide regardless—depending. Oftentimes, I would reply “that’s racist,” and they heard nothing beyond that. I continued trying to get through.

Do white people inadvertently contribute to the problem of systemic racism confronting such apathy so delicately? Should we face the ugliness of racism diplomatically? Do our confrontation and communication skills need work?

Personally, I confess that I’m not the best person to sit by and willingly listen to this form of white privileged justice because I am an emotional, passionate, rebellious, outraged woman. I spit and sputter my way through attempting to explain why that’s racist or biased because our system is racist and biased. I’ve failed. Many times. I try to explain to these unaware white people that my confronting them with this is like when I was a kid and my dad would be rip-roaring drunk and there would be these triggers to his behavior that we as a family danced around delicately; those things we saw that were not discussed. When I tried to confront the triggers directly with both parents, I was quickly admonished and told to keep quiet. Regardless, it never worked and he started beating the shit out of mom anyway. Even then at nine years old, I wasn’t one to simply sit passively by and allow that to happen. I did get a few bumps and bruises, but nothing I couldn’t handle in the bigger scheme of things: what we call domestic violence and I’ve spoken out against it then and since. I cannot stand by and allow people to be brutally beaten, murdered or oppressed regardless of who they are and there are so many triggers that allow this to happen.

I’ve attempted to communicate these anecdotes to family hoping my stories could build a bridge. This while understanding the intersection between racism and domestic violence and that these issues are both disparate and shared for all women (Black Women Struggle More With Domestic Violence & Native American women are being murdered and sexually assaulted on reservations and nearby towns at higher rates than other American women.).

There was the time late into President Obama’s second term when one member of my white family — a bougie blonde white woman — laughed off my anger and diatribe of racism that President Obama and black people faced with a tinkle of laughter and a flourish of hand: “We no longer have racism; we have a black president.” I stuttered in response: “But…but…but you’re white. How could you possibly know that?” She declined to answer with another pert and dainty laugh. I dunno why my shock at the time. The woman was an avid Fox News automaton and melodramatically staged her faux outrage at my critiques and dislike of capitalism and the conservative ideology as if I professed her a murderer to be hanged at sunup. Every critique was taken as a personal attack. I learned early in life discussing anything anathema with her was like yelling into a black hole. Confronting her or any of my rather large white Christian family with their racism was like combat in a minefield.

What the white blogger reviewing Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give doesn’t understand is that being white is considered the standard or mainstream (like being a man is the standard) and that’s where the privilege and power are because white is the racially dominant group here in the States. Her entitlement in not being labeled white is how she perpetuates systemic racism. Labels, like whiteness, are assumed by unaware white people. Names like Becky and Brad — those simple average American names — are the standard and if someone has a name that’s not so standard, they’re promptly labeled and made to feel like an other.

What is otherness?

The idea of ‘otherness’ is central to sociological analyses of how majority and minority identities are constructed. This is because the representation of different groups within any given society is controlled by groups that have greater political power. In order to understand the notion of The Other, sociologists first seek to put a critical spotlight on the ways in which social identities are constructed. Identities are often thought as being natural or innate – something that we are born with – but sociologists highlight that this taken-for-granted view is not true. — Dr Zuleyka Zevallos, an applied sociologist of Latin-Australian background.

I urge you to read the rest of Dr. Zevallos’s post and her blog.

David Roberts from Vox writes:

…simply discussing race at all kicks up those effects among the racially dominant group. Or to put it more bluntly, in the US context: White people really don’t like being called white people. They don’t like being reminded that they are white people, part of a group with discernible boundaries, shared interests, and shared responsibilities.

After all, one of the benefits of being in the dominant demographic and cultural group is that you are allowed to simply be a person, a blank slate upon which you can write your own individual story. You have no baggage but what you choose.

In most situations in the US, a woman is a female person. Someone part of a racial minority is a black person or a Latino person, etc. Gay people. Trans people. Immigrant people. All these groups are [adjective] people, people with an asterisk, while a white, heterosexual male is simply a person, as generic as he chooses. His presence is taken for granted; it rarely occurs to anyone to question it. A white man in khakis and a polo shirt can walk into almost any milieu in the US and, even if he’s greeted with hostility, be taken seriously. His legitimacy is assumed.

The power and privilege that come along with that — being the base model, a person with no asterisk — are invisible to many white men. Simply calling them “white people,” much less questioning the behavior or beliefs of white people, drags that power and privilege into the open.

David goes on to say that “Identity politics is something only white men have been allowed to avoid.” The rest of us not so much.

“Identity politics” — dragging around the baggage of one’s identity, constantly being forced to reckon with it, to work around the stereotypes and discrimination it attracts, to speak for it, to represent it — is something that is forced on other groups, not something they choose.

Emily Bazelon writes about whiteness in White People Are Noticing Something New: Their Own Whiteness:

…as long as white people continue to see ourselves as the norm and the neutral, we haven’t replaced as much as we might imagine. We continue to act as racial managers, clinging to the job of setting the culture’s terms and measuring everyone else’s otherness against those terms.

I didn’t comment on the white woman’s review. I unsubscribed from her blog and no longer read her reviews. Am I avoiding confronting her? Yes. Is it my duty as one white woman to confront another? Maybe? Yes? Probably? Her post and writing, in general, indicated an unwillingness to listen to another perspective even after reading Ms. Thomas’ beautifully written novel on that very subject. I had no desire to debate with yet another person that refused to educate and examine their own self and privilege. After forty-plus years of trying, I’ve become skilled in picking out the racist and willfully obtuse white people that refuse to even budge. As Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom says: know your white people. I am of the opinion that there is no benefit in exchanging ideas with fascists. There is no saving some people. They are who they are and there’s nothing we can do to save them from their own ugliness. At this point, if they still continue to support Trump and the rest of the Republicans after all that’s happened? I don’t want anything to do with them.

I honestly don’t know if my contribution to help educate white people on systemic racism has helped with everything that’s happened recently. Since the election, I cannot even be in the same house with family for my own sanity and self-care. I did forward them a link to one of the above articles. I doubt they’ll read it. I occasionally still try even after forty plus years.

I label white people—especially white men—exactly that: ‘white people,’ and guess what? White people are uncomfortable being called white people and that’s why I do it.

Categories: Essays

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