Learn to See Whiteness

I read a white person saying that labeling white people as white was perpetuating “the problem.”

Colorblindness has been discussed over and over. If you are new to the idea that “not seeing color” contributes to racism, please dig a little deeper. While sure; in an ideal world we would no longer recognize the color of our skins as separating us, it is deeply problematic to pretend the differences don’t carry real life consequences for people today.

But what about whiteness? Let’s be very clear. There is a difference between “Caucasian” and “white.” According to Wikipedia;

“The Caucasian race (also Caucasoid or Europid) is a grouping of human beings historically regarded as a biological taxon, including some or all of the populations of Europe, North Africa, the Horn of Africa, Western Asia, Central Asia and South Asia. The term has been used in biological anthropology for many people from these regions, without regard necessarily to skin tone. First introduced in early racial science and anthropometry, the term denoted one of the three purported major races (Caucasoid, Mongoloid, Negroid) of humankind. Although its validity and utility are disputed by many social scientists, Caucasoid as a biological classification remains in use in forensic anthropology.”

While Caucasian as a biological classification is problematic by itself, it is not the same thing as white. Whiteness is a social/political label originating in the 17th century. This coloring of Caucasian descendants in European colonies had and has a purpose. Namely; identifying a class of people with priority over all others. White cannot exist without its binary; black. Whiteness is inextricably linked to anti-blackness.

The hyphenation of African-American, Native-American, Asian-American, Mexican-American, etc., is a response to whiteness. Because; the word “American” is specifically used to define cultures and values which are “white.” Baseball, hotdogs, apple pie, and yes, Chevrolet, are all symbols of white culture in America. The history of this country tells a tale of white domination and supremacy over all others. The Founding Fathers were all white (men). The captains of industry; white. This country has its roots in white supremacy.

Of course, we do have the 13th and 14th amendments to the Constitution which serve to legally include non-white people into the community of America. And of course, no person is legally barred from participation in governmental, economical, or educational institutions based upon the color of their skin. This is widely known and perhaps part of the root of why white folks often have a hard time being called white folks.

Despite the legal framework which is supposed to create equality in our country, equality does not exist. There are historic reasons for this. There are contemporary reasons for this. The most evident and easily identifiable reason is bigotry. On an individual level, bigotry does not have a lot of power. However, backed by white supremacy, white bigotry does indeed have power. And everything that is “American” is backed by white supremacy.

One way that whiteness works is to define what “normal” is. From the beginning of our history, the Indigenous have been portrayed as “savages” and “un-civilized.” The project of Manifest Destiny was born from a belief that it was white folks natural right to occupy this entire continent; despite the cultures that already existed here. The “Kill the Indian; Save the Man” project of Indian boarding schools, was an effort to erase Indigenous cultures and replace them with American (white) culture. Slavery created a binary of free vs. non-free based upon skin color (granted; there were white slaves, however this practice did not last as long nor have the same impact as the enslavement of African people). Jim Crow provided a normalization of white culture and a further “othering” of non-white peoples. Black folks sat at the BACK of the bus, because this was less desirable than the front. It continues to be expected of African-Americans (and all other hyphenated identities) participating in education, business, and government, to adopt mannerisms and language patterns that are “normal” to white Americans.

As Europeans immigrated to America, they were often discriminated against as hyphenated peoples. Italian-Americans and Irish-Americans were possibly the most notable. However, by a neat little trick, Italian-Americans and Irish-Americans were able to de-emphasize their ethnic heritage and center their whiteness in order to gain acceptance into American society at large. This option has not been open to Indigenous and African-American peoples, because of the phenotypical markers (read; skin color) which can not be overlooked. So while an African-American may assimilate entirely into American (white) culture, they continue to be black, and thus subject to violence and discrimination. Simply review the incessant criticisms of President Obama which center around his blackness. Achieving the highest office of the land should be an indication of his complete assimilation into American (white) culture. But he is still attacked based upon his skin color.

Identifying whiteness does not create or perpetuate division. The division was made long ago. The problem at hand is that whiteness has been made invisible to white people through framing it as “normal.” What we regard as American today is a product of historically white economic, governmental, and educational institutions. Who knows what America would look like today if Africans had been accepted equal to Europeans? Who knows what America would be today if Indigenous Nations had been respected as sovereign, equal to our respect of European Nations? We can’t know what results that would have produced. Certainly; it would not be the America we know today. What we can know is that today’s America is born from European values, systems, ideas, philosophies, traditions, and such, permeated with white supremacy which excludes, devalues, destroys, or assimilates anything which is not white.

(I can just hear someone pointing to rap music as proof that America values blackness. This is another conversation about the commodification and consumption of black culture for white appetites. It does not indicate that Black People are equally regarded in our society as White People.)

For healing of racial division to occur, for the oppression of People of Color to be alleviated, for the violence to end, white folks MUST learn about being white. That which has been invisible, must become visible. We need to understand how our whiteness is preferred in America. We need to understand why. It is only with this understanding that we will be able to disrupt white supremacy and focus on the project of equality. This can not be achieved by simply eliminating the labels of color from our vocabulary. Because those labels are naming actual divisions in our society that continue to oppress People of Color to the benefit of white folks.

Just as any illness can not be cured by simply ignoring it, whiteness must be understood in order to be healed. We must name it and interrogate it. We must actively subvert whiteness. This is our task as white people in America today. It is only through these efforts that we will be able to abolish the oppression of non-white people, once and for all.


Silverback Gringo


3 thoughts on “Learn to See Whiteness

  1. What I read is this:
    Everybody, please celebrate your culture, be visible, fight for your rights – which is surely okay or even great.
    But: white people, please shut up. Try to be invisible, even try to abolish yourselves (“whiteness”).
    There are now a number of concepts/ buzzwords that turn everything to do with “whiteness”/ being white into a negative, undesirable aspect. “White fragility” means, white people, please don’t talk back, don’t complain. “White nonsense” means white people, please don’t voice an undesirable opinion (and you don’t get to define what is undesirable). “Abolish whiteness” or “fight against white supremacy” means, please make yourself invisible (on TV or in public etc.) or fight against your own interests.
    White people are the only ones who can be racist and who can commit “cultural appropriation” (in an age of a gobal economy, where trends spread across nations and continents). I personally am not a fashion type, I don’t need to commit that sin. This targets mostly young people looking to follow a trend in defining themselves against their parentes’ generation. And now they are discouraged to do so.

    To me this means “treat everybody equal, do not talk down to people because of their color/ race”. So, this mostly targets racist people – meaning, *sigh* that I have to say so, “consciously racist people who seek to put down others due to their race.
    Interestingly, disabled people who had the same experience of being singled out, stared at, talked to differently, treated in a negative way, demanded to be treated as everybody else and most people today do just that!
    Now, if I am supposed not to not see color, I am supposed to talk to a Native American colleague differently than to a white or an Asian colleague. Given that we all share about the same language level, so that there is not need to adopt a different vocabulary or grammar because someone might not understand certain idioms etc., what exactly am I supposed to adapt to “see color”? And would that not be racist, treating the Asian colleague differently from the white one just because they are Asian?

    What I understand in a lot of these kind of discussions is “white people, please shut up”. Do not talk “above” other races, do not “defend” yourself, i.e. talk in your own interest. Now, if I personally was willing to oblige, to not cause a stir, to not cause offense, I might do so.
    What I am wondering is, how should a (white) parent react? Should they teach their children that indeed all non-white people are so *fragile* that they need to be handled with care, never to be opposed, that they are always right, that every demand, especially if asked with the accusation of being racist is to be followed without questions, because questions = white fragility?
    Analogy: I can call you a bully anytime. If I do so, you have to oblige with my demands and prove you are not bully. If this makes you feel as though I am bullying you, notice that I can never bully, not matter what I do, but YOU bully by default, not matter how much you try not to. Don’t try to prove your not-bullying by being extra nice to me, that’s bullying. Don’t ever talk back or disagree with me, cause that’s bullying. Do everything I ask of you, or you’re bullying.
    Now ask: Why are these children so paranoid to be called bullies? Because they were told that that’s something bad that people should avoid AND they were brought up to be “nice” people.
    Which brings me to the next term, the “good white person” = white person, never try to be nice, never try to be decent, accept that you will always be racist, but only do what you are asked to do. Don’t be too nice, but accept that being not too nice can be interpreted as racist.

    All that will probably drive white people, who have of course never had a change to reject being white people, to reject whiteness. Whiteness tells them to shut up, tells them that no matter what they try, they are “bad” people, especially when trying to be the opposite, that their very existence oppresses others, no matter what they do and that they had best not talk in their interest (centering whiteness = if I talk about bullying or crimes committed to me by non-whites, I am surely centering whiteness).
    So, yes, best do away with whiteness. In a country such as the US, where race is crucial to identities (asked in application forms, relating to one’s culture etc.) doing away with whiteness would leave white people race-less (or does it mean “doing away with white people altogether?). That wouldn’t be bad, as everything associated with whiteness is already negative and shameful.
    Abolishing white supremacy would mean what exactly? I have not yet come upon an answer. No more white people on mainstream media, okay. No more fashion etc. for white people, okay. What else? Changing history lessons away from European history (what about Europe itself?). Changing art lessons to teach less European art (that would indeed enrich them, no qualm about that on my side). Changing language lessons away form English as a main (foreign) language? We already have different languages that can be learned at school – French, Italian, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese and more recently Arabic. Learning languages is a good thing that fosters understanding and communications among people from different countries, no qualm with that. Apart that English today is the language of science. Should that be changed?

    What I read a lot: Xyz is “too white”. That leaves no positive solution for white people. That tells them “don’t go into Xyz, there are already too many of you there”. The solution for “well-meaning white” – another negatively used term! – is to withdraw from these jobs, scenes, even protests (too many white women at the Women’s March in Washington, right?).

    So, what did we learn?

    White people, shut up. Withdraw. If you want to help, be silent, don’t engage, don’t give an opinion, don’t show up, don’t take the job.
    The flip side of this approach?
    People of color will be looked down by the potentially fragile whites as so fragile as not to be bothered with their presence, let alone ideas.
    So, withdrawal and seeing color. Seeing color with the idea of putting everyone’s interests and feelings above one’s own (you know: White feelings, another negatively connotative term!).

    While whiteness is supposedly oppressive to everyone and reigning supreme, most terms nowadays associated with whiteness – all of them mentioned above – have negative connotation. Not ONE term to do with whiteness has positive connotations. That may not be a problem for both of us who may focus on different aspects of our identity, who may be able to live with the idea of being obsolete, an obstacle to others, the oppressor, too loud, too visible etc.
    But how will our children cope?
    How will white people be able to raise children that grow up with a positive self-perception while learning that everything to do with their race is negative, that they are even inherently racist, that they better not engage, better accept everything from non-white people?

    One thing is for sure: They will not be colorblind. They will know that they come last, they are the oppressor, they better not have an/ a different opinion. Will that be healthy for them?
    Will that matter?
    This remains to be seen.
    Will anyone else care, will there be classes to uplift sad white children?
    Probably not.
    White people need not to be uplifted.
    One thing I am wondering is why some people seem to think that uplifting People of Color, which certainly is a very positive thing and to be encouraged, needs to go along with putting whites in their places, i.e. silencing them, making them self-conscious.
    Never really understood that one!
    Obviously, the goal cannot be that one day we will all get along, as that would mean not seeing color, but seeing individual persons and their needs as well as talents etc.
    That, I have hear, is not a good thing and needs to be discouraged.
    We are never individuals, we have to comply with the identity we are given by our, group, starting with our race.
    So white = bad, oppressor.
    No possibility to escape that one.
    Children will understand that oppressors should be bullied.
    So that problem is solved.

    It pains me to understand that we will never arrive at a time where we can live peacefully and equitably together.
    But I have learned now that it is not possible.
    Not being allowed to do otherwise, I will shut up, sit back and wait to be told what to do next and how to view myself. And how to raise my children.

    1. Sorry it took a while to approve your comment. I haven’t visited the blog in a while. I will draft a response soon. Thank you for your input!

    2. I’ve read your comment a few times. I do appreciate and understand the conflict you are speaking to.

      “White” is not a “thing.” It was invented for the specific purpose of privileging some people over other people. It is a construct, which continues to impact our society.

      In teaching my own children about race, what I stress is to understand the power dynamics of race as being the problem. It isn’t “white people” as people; it is the privileging of white people above People of Color.

      It is difficult to answer your comment without this understanding about the system of race in contrast to the individual. As a white man, I can certainly behave and speak in a way that does not perpetuate racism and bigotry. But, this will not change the fact that I will be privileged as a white man. I will still be treated by society differently than a Person of Color is treated.

      Learning to see whiteness is learning to understand how white supremacy infuses our culture. Disrupting this does not mean white people come last. It means that we must stop putting ourselves first. Just for the sake of a visual representation of this; first and last only apply when we are standing in a line. If we were to sit in a circle, none of us are first and none of us are last.

      There is no shame is recognizing how the power structure of race has privileged some at the expense of others. It doesn’t mean “all white people are bad.” Rather, it means that the “well meaning white people,” have a responsibility to disrupt the system which has placed them first in line.

      The reason we need to “see color” is to help us understand how whiteness is working in the world, so we can do the work of disrupting. If we just accept how society treats us, without recognizing the privileging that takes place, nothing will change.

      I hope you re-read my piece above and try to understand these things as systems in which we are all caught. Until we see the system, we can not re-work it. For white folks, part of that is seeing how whiteness manifests.

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