Tuesday, February 22, 2011


What are you?

Out of context, this is a jarring, unexpected question. The first time I was asked this question, I was stunned into speechlessness, unsure how to answer it. Umm, a human? A woman? were the first thoughts that ran through my head. What exactly was this person asking? After a couple seconds of surprised silence, I figured that she was asking about my racial/ethnic background. Having my physical appearance send people into confusion for most of my life, it wasn't a huge leap to assume that the woman asking me this question was having the same dilemma. I had simply never been asked in this way before. Most people were a little more subtle, asking where I was from. Having been asked this question many times, I'm always curious to know where they think I'm from. I've gotten answers ranging from France to Russia to Mongolia to America.

The discussion of race in America is complex, with many nuances and perspectives. There can be no generalization of the experience of minorities. Each has a different history, and with that history, different feelings. However, there is no doubt. Being white has inherent privilege. Should we feel guilty about it? Although I may not have been the person who created the systems (slavery, segregation, general social discrimination, etc), I am a beneficiary of someone else's disadvantage, for white advantage came at the cost of another's loss. So what do I do about it now?

My professor calls it cultural labor. This basically means I need to work to reverse stereotypes. That I have to be intentional about entering the worlds of people different than I am, with the desire to learn. With the courage to admit my privilege. And yes, I am privileged. Though I am not only white, I don't stand out among whites, appearance-wise. In seeking a job in the corporate world, I have a white name. Of course, I strongly believe that my privilege extends much further than these two examples, but they are a start. After admitting privilege, I also admit that there are many things about other minority experience that I have no understanding of. Hopefully conversations can happen from this point.

After this conversation, what has changed? Have I and this other person suddenly eradicated institutional racism in one fell swoop? I wish. But hopefully from here, more conversations can come. Hopefully healing can begin. Hopefully these conversations will be occurring among the people who actually do have the power to enact legislation that can begin to fix this massive, unspoken (at least among white people) issue that perpetrates the entire nation.

These are some of my thoughts as I learn about what being white means in the US. In the world. I've started and restarted this post many times, but I wanted to get some beginning thoughts out. I heard an author once say that she hoped that we would be discussing race with our children just as you would discuss sex and drugs. I had never thought about this, but I totally agree. However, as I sit here thinking, I realize that is another sign of my privilege. Not having the issue of race be in my face everyday, not having to be aware of my race in every interaction. Many minorities are extremely conscious of their race and racial domination from an early age. These conversations probably happen at much higher frequencies among minority families--not so with white. I've gotten the sex/relationship talk, as well as the drug talk, but I never got the race talk.

Something to think about.

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