White people talking (in Maine?!)

Dear Maine,

Oh how I love you, you splendid land (of white people). I love you for your natural wonders, your “upta camp lifestyle”. I love your work ethic, your spaciousness, and your sense of community. Yes, you are a great state indeed.

But, I’m afraid Maine that you’re teaching your children a HUGE LIE.

Or at least, you definitely taught this child one. You taught me that race didn’t matter, and you sent me out into the world blissfully ignorant of and tremendously uneducated in the racialized nature of our world.

When I was six years old, I actually thought black people had darker skin because they had lived in the southern part of the country where the sun made them more tan. Why else would people have different skin colors? Who else could live in the world other than white people made darker by the sun?

Well eventually I figured out that black people living in the U.S. didn’t just happen to tan a lot, but there was a thing called slavery and that it sucked, and that a lot of America’s black population lives in a reality still burdened by this ugly past.  But I also came to believe that ended long ago and that we now live in a happy equal society.

In high school, I believed I could date a guy of another race and it didn’t matter one bit. And for all intensive purposes, it didn’t matter to me then. Maine is so overwhelmingly white that in my community there is little option but for anyone else to assimilate into the dominant white culture to a large degree. And so, well, I barely even took note of his skin color. If and when I did, I was simply proud of my “post-racial relationship” (not that I knew the term at that point, or that that term appropriately describes what transpired then).

So wow, when college hit I was ahh-mazed. People of different races often sit together at different lunch tables!? People often date within their race, and can experience difficulties when they date people of other races!? The city of Providence is divided by socio-economic lines that just happen to align perfectly with racial lines!? Our public schools are still majorly segregated!? People have more or less difficulty getting jobs based on the assumed ethnicity of their names!?

Wait… race still matters? But, but… I thought that ended with Martin Luther King.

I had some serious learning to do.

Mid-way through freshman year I went to a meeting. A group called “White People Talking” was hosting a gathering for white people to talk about race. I had seen a flyer and I was intrigued. So one Friday afternoon I snuck off to check out this very foreign concept.

When I went to that meeting I felt dirty. I of course associated white people getting together exclusively as part of a long history of segregation, inequality, and general horribleness. But I am so thankful I went.

What I found was a group of primarily white people talking about their experiences as white people. To me, being white from a white state, this awareness and deliberateness about race was a definite first. Indeed, the exploration left a permanent mark on my understanding of being white (in that I am in fact white and that I can in fact talk about it). I can’t remember exactly what was discussed because I was so swept away by the sheer fact that such an event was transpiring before my very eyes. But I do remember the sensation of rather uncomfortably observing tricky moments of white people trying to express experiences and feelings. And that feeling hasn’t gone away. In fact, I’m still feeling it right now.

Until recently, I’ve never just sat around and discussed whiteness with friends or family. It’s just something I had never learned how to comfortably talk about, for fear of sounding racist or naïve or dumb.  (Note to self: make sure my future kids acknowledge and grapple with whiteness.) Moreover, I was never forced to talk about it. It didn’t consciously factor into my existence as a person.

BUT HOLY CRAP ITS PART OF MY EXISTENCE!

In conversations that I have had with white people in more recent years, I’ve enjoyed discussing the “challenges” of being white, or better put, the lack-thereof.  For instance, reflecting with those very aware of the fact that sometimes the privilege of “finding yourself” is an experience limited to those with the resources (who in the race/class spectrum are largely white) available to travel, to work for nearly nothing, and to do that soul searching (yayyy Fulbright!).

Which is to say, what more can white people possibly have to talk about, other than privilege? We don’t have a culture, right? (Or… do we?). We definitely don’t have a fight, a struggle (other than consumerism/imperialism). We don’t have to talk about our experience with whiteness because we are the oppressors, and oppressors are taught not to talk about their dirty oppressing acts.

And plus, in white dominated spaces, what would spur us to talk about whiteness? White people can go days without thinking about race. I mean, maybe you think, “oh, there’s a __________ person”, but rarely are we forced to think “how am I representing my race right now? Are people judging me on my clothes or my skin color? Will I have any white friends who get where I’m coming from? How can I make my race not an issue at this meeting?”

This is something I didn’t fully appreciate until I came to Colombia and felt, well, what I imagine what a black person feels like in Maine (or so I’ve been told at least). EVERYONE LOOKS.

Here in Colombia, when I consider drinking a lot, or speaking in public, or well, doing anything, I always think… white, white white. What will people think of white people based on my actions? I am the sole standard in this situation so I better not mess it up.

Let’s put it another way. For all you white readers… write a list of five adjectives to describe your identity. How many of you put your gender, your occupation, your familial status? How many of you put white? (Or how many of you wouldn’t have put white if I hadn’t prefaced the question with this essay?).

Why don’t we see our whiteness? Why don’t we feel it? Identify with it? At least in the case of Maine, maybe its because we’ve come assume that we’re the common standard and that “race doesn’t matter”.

Which is probably the biggest lie ever told. 

So, how should we identify with whiteness? How can we be aware of race in such a way that doesn’t just otherize everyone else? How do we avoid dangerously de-racializing ourselves?

Now, go talk about it. 🙂 

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One response to “White people talking (in Maine?!)

  1. Kasey

    A thought-provoking post! I feel like I’ve had similar experiences. Along the same lines… able-bodied is another adjective that most people wouldn’t immediately use to describe themselves. Still, I imagine many people with disabilities would have that in their top five. Interesting how the ways we choose to define ourselves can reflect society’s power dynamics. Keep writing! 🙂

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