If I Were White
Maybe I’d be cruel. Maybe I wouldn’t develop my empathy and would see the world as mine for the taking.
Sometimes I wonder what it’s like to be white.
I wonder what things I would have accomplished if I didn’t have to fight so damn hard to be seen or heard. I wonder what opportunities I would have gotten…would I be a full-time writer? Would I have multiple high-profile publications under my belt? I wonder how my life would be different without the systemic obstacles placed in my path. Like my first-grade teacher who, for months, didn’t believe I knew how to read and would punish me for the slightest perceived infraction despite my constant boredom in her class. This teacher went so far as to tell my mom, who helped teach me to read, that I didn’t know how. Because the word of a white woman who only met me that year supposedly carried more importance than the word of the Black woman who raised me. Needless to say, I didn’t stay in that class.
But I wonder, would she have believed I could read if I were white? Would I have been punished for talking out of turn, or would my behavior have been interpreted as boredom and warranted additional attention? Would I have been placed in a more rigorous academic setting without having my parents fight for teachers to recognize my abilities?
Maybe I’d have been lazy, skating by on the assumed approval of those around me. Maybe I’d never learn to be persistent, creative, inventive, and adaptable because there was never a need. Maybe I’d never develop the traits that make me proud to be me. Or maybe I would have anyway. I’d still have been a woman, just a white one.
Would she have believed I could read if I were white?
Maybe I’d be cruel. I’m a fairly intuitive person. Maybe I’d use that ability to manipulate those around me. Maybe I wouldn’t develop my empathy and would see the world as mine for the taking.
Maybe I would have voted for 45 because I felt my whiteness was being threatened.
There is one thing about being Black that makes me profoundly sad yet proud at the same time. It is knowing that my ancestors managed to weather and survive a torment that killed many others. It’s knowing that we survived what most could not and what nobody should have to, and we continue to survive because that is what we do. We adapt and we survive.
We aren’t coddled and catered to by society. We aren’t awarded prizes for existing. In fact, we often experience punitive interactions for daring to think ourselves equal. We are reminded time and again that our place is in service to white people and that our continued existence is at their inclination. An approval that can be rescinded at any moment.
I wonder, if I was white would I have embraced that behavior? Would I be someone capable of the reflection necessary to divest myself from whiteness? Or would I meld with that identity and embrace the monster U.S. society encourages white people to be?
I watch my significant other wrestle with this. I know he wouldn’t see the racism in America as clearly as he does if I hadn’t challenged him. I know that it’s my constant pushing that makes him think about his environment and the people in it, and to ask the hard questions about the things happening around him. Once, I asked him how he stays with me, knowing that I will always push him to examine his whiteness and the nasty shit that comes with it. He said, “I love you and that’s my burden to bear. I learn to live with it. I learn to manage the pain. But don’t stop doing what you need to do because it hurts me. That’s not your fault.”
Sometimes I forget it’s not my fault. Sometimes I forget that we are both born into a system designed to oppress me while benefiting him. I’m glad he can remind me of that.
But for him, the hits keep coming. Last week I watched my significant other’s (SO) heart break a little bit more as he listened to his parents defend the GOP and 45. I won’t call him “woke” because that’s not true. What he’s become is more aware of the callousness of the white people in his life, and it’s fucking him up. He’s finally reached the point where he openly recognizes and criticizes whiteness and he’s become better at seeing the harm it does. It is both beautiful and tragic, because now he feels isolated from people he loves.
Seeing his loved ones imbued and empowered by their whiteness was his normal, and now it hurts. It hurts for him to realize the people he thought were independent thinkers were just obnoxious and disagreeable. It hurts to see them support laws and policies that inflict unnecessary harm. It hurts to hear them defend the institutions they claimed to be against. It hurts him to know that what he sees in them was once who he was, and most likely would still be had he not been forced to confront it.
He sees the people who raised him choose 45’s hateful rhetoric, listens to them defend their decisions, watches them support his dangerous bullshit, and still loves them. Then he looks in the mirror and sees that same whiteness as part of him and knows that he was fucked up, still is fucked up, and has to continue to fight it. His beauty is in his willingness to own that selfishness and inhumanity that he once wielded like a sword and shield to protect his sense of self. His appeal is in his bearing of that pain and his willingness to work for a better future.
He looks in the mirror and sees that same whiteness as part of him and knows that he was fucked up, still is fucked up, and has to continue to fight it.
We’re living in racial polarity: I grew up learning from the world to hate myself, my Blackness, and everything it represented. He grew up learning to love himself, his whiteness, and the innate superiority tied to that. Now, I’m learning to love and appreciate everything I am, as he learns that his whiteness is a monster consuming the world. His whiteness is a greedy narcissist that refuses to share, and his humanity lies in working to slaughter that thing he was raised to protect above all else.
I don’t know what it’s like to see my friends and family be openly complicit in the destruction of others. My parents never denigrated others. They worked in service, gave to charity, ran neighborhood organizations. Their only resentment was for the systems they struggled to survive in…and even that was sporadic because they adapted and survived as best they could.
If anything, my SO’s continuing divestment from whiteness will foster resentment in those who once supported him. I feel his pain. It is similar to the pain I felt when I realized I didn’t understand the core of whiteness, which is that it must protect itself and its sense of superiority regardless of cost. It was the moment I realized that I’d made myself a victim of my husband’s whiteness and that I wasn’t strong enough to walk away.
It is in this way that I understand the difficulty in ending relationships with people you love because of their racism/sexism/homophobia/ableism/transphobia/sizeism/etc. Love doesn’t conquer all but it will lure you into a complacency that allows those your love to fuck you over time and time again. It is an insidious feeling that convinces you to sacrifice your well-being for others. It tells you the pain is worth the reward, the well-being of the one you love, be it your friend, your parents, your SO, or your children. We are taught that personal sacrifice for the well-being of others is always worth the pain it may bring.
I lived the pain of subverting my Blackness to keep white America comfortable. Now it’s time for beneficiaries of whiteness to see the pain and destruction they are inflicting upon the world, themselves included. It is time for the beneficiaries of whiteness to see that the pain they tolerate for that ideal is too destructive for humanity to continue to bear. If you must suffer, it’s time to suffer for healing instead of harm. It is time to release that toxic ideal and make the world a better place for everyone, not just white people.
I lived the pain of subverting my Blackness to keep white America comfortable.
It’s time to let the greed, rage, and false superiority go. Embrace the pain and forge yourself into a better version of yourself. Recognize there is space for everyone and that much suffering is the result of false scarcity. When you choose to suffer, choose to do it for the benefit of everyone, not a superficial ideal rooted in superiority. Caring for others is a worthy hill to die on. Embracing humanity always is.
My Blackness is, in many ways, my humanity. It is the lens through which I view the world — with compassion, empathy, honesty, and strength — qualities I developed in stark opposition to whiteness. Qualities that whiteness sacrificed in its need for the veneer of dominance. And while I wonder if the lack of these qualities are inherent to whiteness, I know that my Blackness is the excuse white people used to dehumanize me.
My Blackness is, in many ways, my humanity.
I don’t wonder why white people need to strip their humanity as they attempt to destroy mine. That is not a question for me. As James Baldwin once said:
“What white people have to do is try to find out in their hearts why it was necessary for them to have a n*gger in the first place. Because I am not a n*gger. I’m a man. If I’m not the n*gger here, and if you invented him, you the white people invented him, then you have to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that. Whether or not it is able to ask that question.”
It’s past time for white people to ask themselves that question…before their inhumanity destroys us all.