To Build a Bridge, or To Take Sides: A Response to NPR Code Switch’s Episode “Can We Talk About Whiteness?”

“I like to talk about whiteness right out of the gate as not just an identity but that which is embedded in various institutions and structures and practices.” -Catherine Orr, Beloit College

Jim Crow. Black flight. Trayvon Martin. Ferguson. Mass incarceration.

We hear so much about racial tension in the US: articles, Nightly News reports, push notifications on our phones, Facebook rants, conversations over coffee. We talk about people along defining lines, as black, Latino, woman, transgender. But, for all of the apparent discussion, there’s hardly any talk about whiteness.

NPR has a new podcast series out called Code Switch, and its premiere episode was released on May 31st. Tagline: “Race and Identity, Remixed.” The series will explore, in depth, how the racial fibers of our culture and our history influence our identities and the interactions we have with each other.

They begin the series with an apt title for its first episode, “Can We Talk About Whiteness?” With a heavy-hitting panel of experts, they break down what it means to be white in American culture and why we talk so little about it in the national discourse. To start, they brought in Peggy McIntosh of the Wellesley Centers for Women, a well-cited author on race and whiteness, who observed:

“I’m never asked to speak for all of the people of my racial group. I can be pretty sure that if I asked to talk to the person in charge, I will be facing a person of my own race.”

Just as the Romans had civis romanus sum,” whiteness is a cloak of protection that one can use in the United States to shield themselves from unwarranted questions, looks, searches, and arrest. And yet, “a lot of white people don’t want to think what’s good in their lives has anything to do with race instead of hard work or talent or merit.”

That’s understandable. This idea has been both determined and reinforced by history; it doesn’t take too long to come up with examples of how whites have succeeded and subsequently “whitewashed” history to perpetuate the belief that white people everywhere work harder and deserve all of the successes they have achieved.

No surprise, then, that whites hold this belief so strongly and refuse to acknowledge the role that their race has played in their identity and their social status. However, those who are not white do not have this same privilege to determine their social identity divorced of consideration of their race. In many cases, their identities are determined for them based on how they look and from where their families originate.

This sort of cultural and racial imperialism, unfortunately, is the norm in America. But, most recently after Mizzou, Ithaca, Yale, and other campus protests over race, this norm is continuing to be challenged, and many white students are beginning to notice. These demonstrations have jarred the cloak of whiteness in these students closer to a state of “wokeness”, but that doesn’t just happen in an instant, like nirvana. That comes with two-thousand pounds of questions and conversations and discomfort.

In the podcast, Will Johnston, a white student at Clemson University, was interviewed about how he has responded to having his whiteness intellectually challenged in the classroom and on campus:

“I didn’t know how lucky I actually was to be born white.”

Tough discussions followed this revelation. But, “if you’ve been dealing with privilege, then equality feels like oppression.” As Chenjerai Kumanyika, professor at Clemson University, put it on Code Switch:

“Race isn’t real. But [white students]…kind of seemed like they wanted to hold onto it…I realized a lot of their self-identity was organized around whiteness. And that was something…[they felt] ready to throw off. It’s just associated with all kinds of problems.”

We, as human beings, are quick to judgment but slow to understand. There is a productive way to come to terms with whiteness, and then there are other manners that are less productive:

“…there’s a way in which if they are [talking about social justice], they feel like they want to be the good white person, and especially if they’re signing up for a class in whiteness…it’s kind of for some folks I think looking for a racial alibi, a way in which, ‘if I learn the language and if I learn the history and then I become the good white person, right, then that sort of sets me apart from the sort of structural racism that still nevertheless has benefited me.’”

This going-through-the-motions approach does not achieve any deep understanding of whiteness nor any true change in character and perspective in terms of racial identity. Sadly, though, this is not an unusual response, and it can even be seen as checking off the requisite boxes to pass onto the next checkpoint. To put it in the words of Gene Demby, co-host of Code Switch: “so you’re a white kid who took one of these classes about whiteness. And you reach a bunch of bell hooks or Ta-Nehisi Coates. You’re very far along in your path to wokeness.”

Demby goes further on about a broader 10,000-foot criticism of the discussions about whiteness and wokeness, both in academia and in the political arena:

“…no one is trying to have that conversation [about whiteness] in a way that’s about sort of bridge building. It’s about, like, picking sides. And so if we can’t even get people to talk about it in the safest possible space [a classroom]…I guess it should not be surprising that we have the crudest variation of that conversation in our political space.”

So, how, then, can we have the conversation in this consensus-generating manner rather than in a consensus-breaking way?

What can white students do, looking down the barrel of history at the burden of their privilege, to build these bridges and move forward?

Demby, with his tongue firmly in his cheek, mused, “should you only be talking about whiteness around other white people where it’s the most comfortable?”

Let’s see how the panelists answered:

“So, I’m saying to [my students] — listen, if you want to be someone who’s a changemaker, you’re going to have to look at how your interests have been organized by these weird concepts.” — Chenjerai Kumanyika
“Well, it’s super high stakes [for students after they graduate in terms of race]. But it doesn’t always have to be grand gestures…I think what I’m trying to do is teach intellectual habits. Like, here’s a set of questions that are going to work for you in just about every situation. And it has to do with understanding who you are in the room and the history of how you got there and also then allowing the questions that we’re answering in here to come to you in various situations — in your job, in your family, and things like that…if we’re going to start changing the way this world is structured, then let’s start with our own individual lives.” — Catherine Orr

There is clearly no clear and distinct prescription to shedding whiteness, no laundry list of actions and words on a sheet of paper dispensed from a doctor (a Ph.D, rather, not an M.D.).

But, that’s not the way the world works.

It all starts with each of us taking a long hard look at ourselves and our place in this culture, in this country, and in this world around us, and taking steps in our lives to be more self-aware and understanding in our approach to each other, our lives, and our selves.

The journey to wokeness is paved with good intentions…and traveled upon by consistent action.

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