My First Attempt at Being White
Having not known who W. Kamau Bell was prior to seeing him perform early last week, I wasn’t exactly sure of what to expect. My expectation was that I would be served some truth regarding my privilege — some truth to laugh at, some truth to feel uncomfortable with, and probably some truth I hadn’t heard before.
W. Kamau Bell is black. I am white. He, along with a lot of other black people in the packed 600-some lecture auditorium, are not only black, but they are proud.
I am white, and I have not been proud. Well, maybe I used to be, but on the whole I just haven’t thought about it. I know this because when a young white man was brought on stage that night and asked to lead “say it loud — I’m white and I’m proud,” there were no exclamation points, no ALL CAPS or claps. Anyone who knows me can attest to the fact that I have a voice capable of ringing ears when I’m emphatically cheering for something (i.e college basketball). And that night the five or six strangers around me were probably the only ones who heard what felt like a mouthful of cotton candy. I couldn’t help but put a sarcastic tone on it the first time. But is that insulting?
The second time was a bit louder, but came out like a question. Am I proud? NO. NO NOT AT ALL. I NEED TO PRETEND THOUGH. Right?
The third time was my original quote. Quieter than the second, louder than the first, and without the inflections of either. Then, it was the black peoples’ turn:
SAY IT LOUD!
I’M BLACK AND I’M PROUD!
And then some whoops and claps, but not only that. You could feel the shift in energy — there was enthusiasm and pride and the knowledge of shared experiences I have no comparison to.
How does a white person feel in this situation? Awkward. Guilty. Angry. Sad. Humble. Thankful? Nothing?
You guys need to be proud of your whiteness. Find things that are good and celebrate those.
I’m paraphrasing the above quote, but yes, a black guy told me to be proud of my whiteness. Not like the KKK, but like an acknowledgement. I think. To be honest, this is hard. Over the past three hundred odd words I’ve already told myself that there is no flow here, and questioned what difference I will make in writing this.
Do I share this with blacks, Asians, Hispanics and Latinos, LGBTQ, those with disabilities or a different religion to prove a point? Evidence that I am “a good white person” and they should pay attention? Or do I only share with the people I know (mostly white people in my very red state) and pat myself on the back for my 2 cents? Isn’t that the point, to get other white people thinking and talking about this?
Before I share anything, I’ll just try to list a few ways my life has been better by being white. Something I had no control or choice over, but has ultimately benefited me in multiple areas. As I said, this is my first attempt, so I recognize that the list will be lacking. I’ve grown up believing I’m just a regular-old-person, not a white person, been taught my normal is the normal of everyone else. If people would like to point out what I’m missing, I’ll appreciate and surely learn something, but it also shouldn’t be your job.
- I’m a white female living in Indiana, which means I’m likely making about 76 cents for every dollar a white male earns, even if we’re doing the same job. If I were a Hispanic or black female, I would be making about 90 cents for every dollar of a male who identified as the same. Better right? Except, I’d be making $8,000 or $13,000 less than a white lady. If I were in that situation, I feel like I wouldn’t give a shit about my male counterparts, and instead be asking “what about making the same as white people?” Since I am not, it may be different. Perspectives welcome.
- If I were any other color, my odds of completing a Bachelor’s degree would lower (unless I identified as Asian). My odds of graduating high school would be lower, and if I *did* get to college, my family’s SES might make or break me, or I’d be playing the wheel of scholarship roulette. Add in a disability or chronic condition (for myself or anyone in my family), and it’s even more unlikely.
- It so happens that I do have a pre-existing condition. Glossing over the bonfire that is congress’ progress on the ACA, being white has helped me out here as well. If I get sick, I’m more likely to get treatment. I’m more likely to recover, and I’m more likely to live longer, because I am a white person in a predominantly white, safe town — but I can also conveniently access a couple cities and mostly avoid dealing with the “bad sides” of said towns.
- Speaking of the “bad sides.” To me, cops are cool. Growing up, I had a good friend whose dad was (and still is) everything an officer should be. I’ve never had to think otherwise, never felt like I couldn’t trust them, always believed they were brave and hard-working and doing the best they could. I still do, but at the same time, I’m more aware that it’d probably be different if I were black or Latinx. Maybe very different if I were living somewhere else.
I’ve been thinking of Kamau’s request for white people to find something to be proud of frequently. I’ve concluded it can’t be anything related to “first” because if white people were the first to do something, there’s about a 100% chance a legal, social, or economic barrier prevented anyone but a white person from having the resources or taking the credit. What even is my white culture, if not bits taken from somewhere else? I know it’s a little bit Norwegian, thanks to some great-great grandparents; there’s a rumor that a great-great-great (great?) grandma was Cherokee, which I have no validity to, and otherwise it appears I’m a mix of German, Irish and British. ‘Otherwise’ meaning I opened up a trial ancestry.com account and have been attempting a treasure hunt for my roots. Besides confirming that my relatives have been in the sameish area since the 1870s (save for the Norwegians), I seem wholly unremarkable. How many other white people are the same?
In conclusion, my first attempt at recognizing I’m white has resulted in more questions than answers, more discomfort than reassurance. I’m proud of my individual accomplishments, but of my whiteness? I think that will take a while. Which is fine — I’m also making an effort to listen to/read voices other than my own. In itself, this won’t solve anything, but I can at least reduce the number of white people naively believing the system isn’t rigged by one until I learn more.