What Does it Mean to be “White”?

/ 21 January 2011

Being “white” goes well beyond the physical skin color. Us white folk are commonly considered the majority, and with that we are given special privileges, known as “white privilege”. This topic is one that is hard for us to talk about, but it is a very important topic for us as the United States enters an increasingly global community, most of which is not a white community. Tim Wise makes some interesting points about what being white like him means in his book White Like Me. To fully experience and understand what Wise is talking about we need to not only think about the words on the page, but also connect those words with our own experiences of being white in this globally interconnected community. Over the next few pages I’ll be examining these dynamics in light of the book and my experience, my hope is that it will help you to understand the complexity of this hard issue of race.

Wise tells us about what he believes being “white” means by illustrating every one of his points with an example from his own life’s experiences. As such, the proper way for me to delve into examine this question would be to use examples from my life. So as I go through the various elements of being white here, starting with the largest of these, the notion of white privilege. Everyone has their own ideas of what being “white” is made up of and how to go about attempting to explain it in english words, so obviously these are mainly Wise’s views enhanced by some of my own.

The most sensible place to start this discussion would be to mention the place and way we first encounter being “white” and its associated privileges: at birth. Our birthdays are where we usually consider our life to begin, sometimes our conception 9 months earlier is where we say we begun. But whichever date you use we were born into our whiteness, we never got to choose it. Therefore this way of life that being “white” truly is dates back all along our family trees. The skin color is the human eye-visible factor that assigns us these privileges in society, but those privileges are something that ultimately date back to the very birth of the society we live in. Wise takes this whole idea and summarizes it when he states “…that to be white is to be born to certain advantages and privileges that have been generally inaccessible to others…”. I’d hope that there is a certain subset of those of us that are “white” that, if we could change our whiteness, would.

Now that we’ve established where we gained this fortunate (or it really unfortunate?) trait of being “white” we can delve deeper and explore what white privilege is. This privilege can be seen all over our lives. The most prevalent example of it historically would be slavery followed by segregation. Many white folk were in the same conditions as blacks, but skin color alone made us look nicer, more trustworthy, so we got a better place in society. We had no need to do manual labor for others and not be paid, we could pretty much go wherever we wanted (and the black areas weren’t as appetizing anyway). Wise’s first example of white privilege is one that comes at a time for each of us when we’re mostly oblivious to white privilege, grade school. Everything from the informal recess to the educational tracks we’re put in, and those classes therein, is tainted with white privilege. Schools themselves, as a whole, were once split. Us white folk, who reap the benefits of white privilege, had better schools (and real choice in which school to attend in some areas), where our black neighbors and friends were forced into dirty, decaying, schools. The end of segregation ended most of this, thankfully, but we still have to turn to integration school districts (one of many examples being the East Metro Integration District in Saint Paul where I went to school between 6th and 10th grade) to see white privilege fall almost completely away and students of varying skin color, and residential situations, intermingling.

One element of being “white” that many people exhibit (but far fewer wish to acknowledge) is that we can be completely ignorant to race (some may even deny its existence). White folk are the majority, but we aren’t 100% of the population by any means. Both white privilege and the other aspects of being “white” are great enough in quantity that we find ourselves hardly thinking about our advantages, or the general problems that encircle race. I agree with Wise’s comment that blacks (and all other racial minorities) “…understand race long before white people do.” They’re the ones disadvantaged by this unequal system, so it’s perfectly natural for them to understand race before we do. In my own life I feel like I’m not ignorant at all regarding racial issues, but only someone of a minority could say for sure if that claim is true or not. What really brought this point to light for me was the example Wise uses, where he is taught about race by two classmates over recess, in the third grade. If there is anything that I say here to follow up on regarding what being “white” is, I would urge to put aside racial ignorance and at least further educate yourself and your peers on the divide that there is between us privileged white folk and the increasing minorities.

Alongside racial ignorance we have potential situations where white privilege acts as the sole thing keeping us afloat. In this situation we may have someone who’s against white privilege, but because he or she is sustained by some element of it refuses to, or can’t, give it up. Wise used some pretty solid examples from his life of this sort, all of them encircling a father who was pretty mean to his mom and so elite clubs at school were his refuge. I myself have never, that I’m aware of, leaned against white privilege for survival purposes, but it isn’t hard for me to imagine the situations in which this would be needed. However, I’m sure that in my past, and possibly present, I’ve known people who have used white privilege as a safety net.

Being “white” tends to go hand in hand with having a sense of belonging in society. As sad as this may be, we generally look down on blacks with scathing eyes. Segregation’s end helped to make blacks feel a little more in the right place (as has, hopefully, Obama being our president), but from as low as the corner store owner to as high as police officers and beyond, us white folk will be more in their favor than blacks. In some instances this puts blacks in jail for things we’d get away with (or just need to pay a fine). Even as our society matures into a globally interconnected one we have the age-old issues of who we accept where, and how much we accept them.

There are endless examples and dynamics of what being “white” means. I could literally spend way more time, producing many more pages, on discussion it. As such I’ll stop here and let you digest and interpret what I’ve written. This is one of the hardest topics for us white folk to discuss, and yet at the same time one of the most important and controversial ones. Making changes to the extent of making more people “white” would be hard, but seem necessary for us to create a racially equal society. As our country enters the global community more fully (largely by its own power growing thinner) creating an equally beneficial society is crucial. Being “white” isn’t all skin color as I’ve hopefully shown here, so why can’t other minorities have the same benefits?