Wednesday, December 14, 2016

What does it mean to be "white" in the USA?

Since American Neo Nazis and other racists (or, as they call themselves, the alt-right) really want me to be proud of being white and embrace my whiteness and blah blah blah - what in the heck does being white in the USA even mean?

There is no scientific nor internationally-agreed definition of white. None. Zilch. A white person is a person identified by society as white and a person that identifies that way himself or herself, however that person defines what white is.

I guess being white also means having most-recent ancestry from Western Europe (have to say “most-recent” because, ultimately, we’re all from Africa) and having an appearance that says so to most people who would look at the person in question.

For me, it also means living in a society where I’ve been in the majority race all my life, as have my parents, their parents, and on and on.

And most certainly, being white means privileges not enjoyed by other races, at least not to the same degree. And it's those privileges that define white people in the USA.

What privileges?:

  • No matter how poor a white person is in the USA, or how he or she has been brought up, if he or she can get into a college or university, and/or get a well-paying, even high-profile job, people in those spheres aren’t going to look twice at that person per skin color and ask “Should YOU really be here?” Even working overseas as an aid worker, no one looks twice at me in my work - unlike my African colleagues, who I've witnessed treated as somehow “less” by local people when we've worked together in the field, such as in Afghanistan. White privilege is global, truly. That doesn't mean you don't sometimes struggle professionally, as a white person - but it means that the perception by American society that you are white does not stand in your way as race does for other people in a variety of situations.

  • In the case of getting stopped by police here in the USA (and most other places), white people are far less likely to be arrested for the exact same offenses that send a non-white person to jail, and far less likely to get a prison sentence for the same offenses that would send a non-white person to prison. When we get pulled over, we do not have the same level of fear that a non-white person has. That's privilege.

  • Most of the police, firefighters, school teachers, elected officials and non-elected officials all around us in the USA look like us. We don't wonder what any of those people might be thinking based on our skin color when we are dealing with them, because they are "like us".

  • If you are a more recent arrival in the USA and you’re from Germany or England or France or Sweden or wherever else in Western Europe, and you are perceived as white, some American white person will say excitedly, “I’m German too”, or whatever, based on some distant relative that had a kind of German name or something. Regardless, you will get a warm welcome: I’m one of you and you’re one of us! - a reception far different than other immigrant groups. Not one person has ever asked my German husband if he's here legally. That's not a privilege shared by immigrants from Africa, Asia, etc., or people of African descent who have citizenship status in Western Europe.

  • It means you probably voted for Donald Trump. The overwhelming majority of white voters did. White voting men went 63 percent for Trump versus 31 percent for Clinton, and white voting women went 53-43 percent. Among college-educated whites, only 39 percent of voting men and 51 percent of voting women voted for Clinton. He received the strongest support from white voting women without college degrees: 62 percent. And if you are a white person and didn't vote for Trump, as I am, it means you probably live in a place where most of your white didn't vote for Trump, as I do, and you are stunned that he won, as I am - though I still have strong ties to the South and could see the passionate, widespread support for him there, expressed on social media.

  • Over the next four years, white people, even those that didn't vote for him, can sincerely say things like “What the President is doing really isn’t going to affect me” or “We’ll be fine” or “I don’t have time to worry about this” or "I'm going to take a break from political talk and I'm just not going to worry about this for a while." They can, and many will, stay silent while Hispanic students are told “hey, go back to Mexico” in their schools, while Muslim Americans are harassed, while women who are pregnant that seek an abortion are forced to carry a pregnancy to term. Those things have been accelerating over the last two years, fueled by state-level events, and now, they will all have a Presidential endorsement and drive - but even so, most white people in the USA aren't going to be affected by such. Most white people in the USA are Christian, or perceived as such, rather than Muslim. Like me, they don’t have to fear family members being deported, have health care that isn’t Obamacare, and don't rely on a government program for the family's welfare, like help with a child with disabilities. White middle class folks will be able to access abortion - they'll be able to take off work all the days necessary to drive to a clinic far away, once for the "official" pregnancy test and state-ordered anti-abortion speech and once for the actual procedure. Most white folks don’t have family members in the military - we put that yellow ribbon on our cars and "like" the Wounded Warriors Facebook page and, ta da, we support the troops! Most Americans, white or not, don’t travel overseas. Most white folks don't live next to a field that a large multi-national company wants to mine or use for oil transportation. Most of us don't live next to a body of water that is polluted by industrial waste, or in danger of being so. Most white people will be able to put together financing so white children can go to college. That's privilege. That's why white folks can say "We'll be fine" and "It isn't really that bad." Because for them, they will be fine, their neighbors will be fine, their colleagues will be fine, and it really isn't that bad. 

Most white people don't have a home, a car, and security handed to them on a silver platter. Most work hard, face obstacles, and struggle sometimes. Many are on the receiving end of injustice, not because of their race, but because of a range of other circumstances. A person isn't bad simply because he or she is privileged compared to other people. And what should white people do with that privilege? That's not the subject of this blog.

The subject of this blog is - what does it mean to be "white" in the USA? Past the aforementioned, I’m not sure how else to define being white in the USA. White people don’t all listen to the same music, don’t all watch the same TV shows, don’t all eat the same foods, don’t all have the same holiday traditions, don't have the same belief systems regarding religion and ethics, don't do the same things on the weekend, don't play the same sports, and on and on. And I don’t believe that being white makes me somehow superior, or inferior, physically or intellectually, to any other people, because of race. I don’t believe I have any particular abilities because of my race. I most definitely have prejudices and privileges, but my experience over half a century has never, ever confirmed racial superiority or inferiority of any group, and, in addition, science has proven racism is bullshit:

We now know that the way we talk about race has no scientific validity. There is no genetic basis that corresponds with any particular group of people, no essentialist DNA for black people or white people or anyone. This is not a hippy ideal, it’s a fact. There are genetic characteristics that associate with certain populations, but none of these is exclusive, nor correspond uniquely with any one group that might fit a racial epithet. Regional adaptations are real, but these tend to express difference within so-called races, not between them. Sickle-cell anaemia affects people of all skin colours because it has evolved where malaria is common. Tibetans are genetically adapted to high altitude, rendering Chinese residents of Beijing more similar to Europeans than their superficially similar neighbours. Tay-Sachs disease, once thought to be a “Jewish disease”, is as common in French Canadians and Cajuns. And so it goes on. -- Adam Rutherford, former geneticist, now science writer and broadcaster in the UK; his most recent book, Creation (Viking 2013), concerns the origin of life, and genetic engineering and synthetic biology.

In other words, I don't think the American Neo Nazis and other racists (or, as they call themselves, the alt-right) want me in the white tribe, despite my oh-so-Western European pedigree confirmed a while back by Ancestry.com (still disappointed there wasn't anything at all outside Europe in my DNA).

I am white, I am privileged, and I cannot turn away from the fact that organized racist groups of white people are rapturous at the Trump election, and he's done little to distance himself from them. Trump supporters don't cheer very loudly, or at all, when he talks about jobs or an improved economy or helping people living in poverty; they cheer the loudest when he talks about deporting immigrants from Central America, when he talks about registering Muslims that are in the USA and blocking anymore from coming, and when he talks about locking up opposition candidates. Trump voters vote from and live in a place of fear. They fear that having black and Hispanic and Asian and Arab neighbors, elected officials, police, firefighters and school teachers is somehow going to erode what they value and what they are. They fear that hearing people speaking something other than English in Wal-Mart somehow is going to make English disappear. White people that scream when Toni Morrison is added to a reading list of great American writers for school children to read often haven’t even read Faulkner or Steinbeck or Twain. They aren't at the Shakespeare festivals I enjoy, both because they aren't known for their love of great literature, even when it's written by a white guy, and because, heaven forbid, there's a black American guy playing Hamlet.

But oh, heavens, don't call them racists. Or privileged!

There are things associated with white people, particularly white people in the South, that I do, truly love: I love old-time country music, the more honky tonk the better. I grew up Baptist, for the most part, but church-hopped, and though I'm an atheist, I'm pretty much always down for a church potluck. I love fried chicken and mashed potatoes and grits (things that the white people around me here in Portlandia are not at ALL down with). I laugh at old episodes of Hee Haw. I listen to NPR and read The New York Times. I love Shakespeare. I love The Beatles. I love the standing stones of Northern France and Scotland. I love Celtic anything. I love men in kilts. Damn the term "cultural appropriation": I welcome anyone, no matter what race or culture with which they identify, to enjoy all those things with me, or not. Let's go listen to some old-time country music, let's eat grits and watch Hee Haw, let's go dance amid standing stones in a kilt to The Beatles, if any of that floats your boat - I don't care what your Ancestry.com results say nor where you were born.

I'm fine with being white - but I'm not fine with being privileged. I'm ready to be lead by people that aren’t white, that aren't privileged. If you are going to lose your health insurance because of a repeal of Obamacare, please tell me what you want me to do. If you are an immigrant, or have family that are immigrants, and you fear for their safety or that they will be deported, please tell me what you want me to do. If you are a Muslim living in the USA, please tell me what you want me to do. If you are a woman that's been denied access to abortion, or that lost your job because of the time off you had to take to access abortion services, please tell me what you want me to do. If you are a member of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe or any tribal group here in the USA that are fighting for jobs, fighting for land rights, fighting against environmental degradation, please tell me what you want me to do. Point me in the direction of that nonprofit, that activist group, whatever, that ISN’T lead by white people and is trying to address social justice, environmental issues, public school education, women's rights and all the other things I care about. I’ll stuff envelopes for them, I’ll keep the web site updated, I’ll write social media messages, I’ll monitor the press, I’ll write press releases. And I’ll stand in the back, or off to the side, at organizational meetings and at public events, and let the non-white leaders stand in the spotlight, stand in the center of the video frame, and frame the message, and deliver the message. I'm ready to be lead. I'm ready to learn. And I'm ready to be an ally.

Also see:
Disclaimer: I’ve used the terms white and non-white. That’s offensive or, at least, inappropriate, to some people. But I reject the term Caucasian for race - it’s a racist term created by a German physiologist who believed that white people originated in the Caucasus region of southeastern Europe. And I don’t like the term people of color, as it implies I, as a white person, have no color. White is, indeed, a color. Vanilla is, indeed, a oh-so-delicious flavor. So I went with the word white.


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