Call Me White
I’m coming to terms with a label that never felt comfortable
It’s been very hard for me to accept the word “white” as part of my description. It’s not that I didn’t understand my ethnicity, but rather that there was baggage I associated with that word in my mind.
It turns out that I’ve lived with a blind spot for a long time. I’ve adapted to it so well that I have been completely unaware of it and the word “white” has been the main thing hindering me. Like a bottleneck.
It hasn’t been easy to find words to talk about all this.
I was born in Texas, lived my early years in Oklahoma, and I moved to Mexico City at the age of eleven. Barely five months after the move, my youngest brother died in an accidental drowning at the age of three. This tragedy divided my life. It was the end of my childhood and severed all my connections to the past at a formative time. After that, I was fully immersed in Mexican society, schools, university, work; my identity was shaped abroad. It wasn’t until I returned to the U.S. at the age of twenty that I discovered that while I hadn’t ever been Mexican — I didn’t fit in here as an average American either.
It’s very clear to me what it means to be white in Mexico. I saw the racial delineations all around, stark and obvious, and while I lacked Spanish blood and being American had its own stigma, I experienced the benefits of being white and understood what they were. At times, this privilege was a source of distress to me, but mostly I just accepted it.
When I returned to live in the U.S, I chose the Seattle area because it seemed to be free of racism and prejudice. At the time, I wouldn’t have formulated it this clearly, but I definitely wanted to distance myself from the racist mindset I had detected in places where I had lived as a young child.
At first, it was hard to adapt since I lacked so much of the social understanding people catch from their home culture. And I hadn’t expected culture shock in coming “home” to the States. There were times I thought I would never fit anywhere.
Eventually I adjusted and formed a life here. I found a way to connect with our country and myself as an American, but I never thought of myself as white. In my mind, that word wasn’t about identity, it was about prejudice and arrogance and older generations’ mindset toward people that were different than them. In my limited experience, these were the people I had heard using it.
I didn’t understand all the undercurrents that went with the word “white”, but I sensed them and was concerned about them. I didn’t want to use the word “white” when referring to myself because I hated to imply that my color had anything to do with my value. It doesn’t. It seemed like I would be associating myself with racists who used this label as a badge of superiority.
All the while, I lived with the benefits of being white, expecting fair treatment and opportunity in every realm of society, and being upset if it wasn’t given. Of course I ran into situations where being a woman or looking small and weak impacted how I was treated. Sometimes being disregarded or ignored, often being given extra consideration and kindness. How much of that was impacted by being white?
When instances of racial abuse like the beating of Rodney King became national news, I longed for justice, but felt helpless. I didn’t understand the issues or know what to do about them. When I became exhausted from them, I went back to my own life, and focused on solving my own daily issues.
Only a white person can do that, go back to “normal” life without racial tension.
In all the ways I prepared my children for life as adults, I never taught them how to survive in a world that was hostile to their color. It never occurred to me. We included people of various backgrounds and color throughout our lives and I’ve listened with compassion to some of the stories of mistreatment suffered by Hispanic friends. Black friends have been more guarded and perhaps saw no reason to trust me with hurts pertaining to their ethnicity.
For decades, I thought of the civil rights movement as having accomplished all it needed and the injustices of the past to be in the past. I didn’t encounter them in my daily life.
I thought that instances of racism happened in other parts of the country, in isolated events that upset me, but I was unaware of such things happening in my neighborhood.
How have I been so unaware? Because my world was small.
How could I be confused? Because I’ve relied on understanding built within my small world.
How could I have tried so hard to be loving and gracious to all races and so clueless at the same time about what life is like for them?
I thought of myself as an individual. This is my American heritage, one that we are fiercely proud of. I didn’t want all that pride, but I was trained well. The idea is that our behavior, (in spite of the popular tendency to blame our faults on our parents), is our own problem, and any responsibility we feel to make up for bad behavior is directly connected to our own deeds. We are trained to compartmentalize: Apologize for this. Don’t apologize for that. And we absolve ourselves of the deeds of those around us.
But we don’t live in a vacuum. I haven’t formed my own world and I can’t evaluate social problems as if I were only an individual. I belong to a family, to a neighborhood, to a community, to a culture, to a society, to groups, organizations, associations, and a specific ethnicity.
White people have caused great distress and harm to people of color. Maybe I never did those things, but I can’t separate myself from this unhappy heritage anymore. Whether I admit it or not, I am influenced by it.
People like me are one of the biggest problems. Many of us have never wanted anything to do with racism but have been ineffective at best in battling injustice. We don’t know… and we don’t know what we don’t know. We’re no help to those who are suffering injustice every day because we’re blind to the insidious ways they are impacted by racism. Our ignorance is almost as destructive as the behavior of willful racists because WE are the only reason so many of them get away with it.
If I want to be part of the solution, I need to stop separating myself in my mind.
The counterbalance of the individual vs. the community is a pivotal issue. As white people, we get offended so easily when racial things are discussed because we take it personally. On the one hand, we are quick to defend ourselves. On the other, we guard our private worlds and withdraw from the community nightmares.
But racial issues aren’t about just you and me. They are vast, far reaching historical dilemmas that have torn our country asunder for hundreds of years.
The wound isn’t healed yet.
The blood flow isn’t staunched yet.
The infection isn’t cleansed yet.
Maybe I didn’t cause this, and you didn’t either, but we will never be a part of the solution until we step into place as a part of the whole. As members of society who care about truth and justice, we can listen, without getting angry or defensive. We can engage those around us and learn what our part is in repairing the damage.
And we will no longer feel like we have to clarify that we aren’t like those white people. We won’t get defensive at the vocabulary used to discuss racial issues. We’ll be able to look past our reflections in the mirror and forget about our tiny individual worlds.
In the past, I have thought of myself only as an individual, as someone who loves, listens, chooses kindness, values equality and all races. But it was blind of me to think that I’m not a part of the majority, that I don’t have to consider what the rest of the country is doing. It’s time for me to be loving and kind on a whole new level.
As one of many.
To consider the wrongs that have happened in our nation as something I must address with the same humility I would if I alone were responsible.