Sunday, November 13, 2005

Okay, I'll be honest. I'm supposed to be doing homework right now, so I'm just going to half-ass this first post. It's a journal entry from a class I'm taking on social justice issues and systems of oppression. As usual, I'm talking about whiteness. My entry has been structured in response to a number of questions my "journal-reader" has put to me in a previous entry:

So first the response to your questions:
1) What made me start looking for whiteness?
Action Dialogues. [A group I am in on campus that uses Agosto Boal's theatre of the Oppressed techniques to spark dialoguea bout racism on campus.] While designing the syllabus, we were considering a lot of readings about whiteness. At first, it didn’t seem like such a big deal, but when we started to discuss it in class, I realized I totally had no clue what whiteness was. I think I am not the only white person that this is particularly disturbing to. Really, when I realized that I was part of a race (didn’t realized that before) and that I didn’t know what that meant, it really created a dissonance for me. So I had to start thinking about it, and I started to think about it all the time. If I saw artwork or architecture or clothing or space, I would ask, “Is that raced? How is it raced? Is it racially inclusive? Is it racially exclusive? What class is it? Is it white? White upper-class? White working class? Etc.” And so it went. Now it’s just a part of my thinking. Last night I was watching “The Panic Room” and I turned to my fiance and I said, “that Panic Room seems like a racially white architectural idea. I just can’t imagine someone who was culturally Indian or Latino putting a Panic Room in a house.”
2) Whiteness is the opposite of solidarity
Okay, I admit it, I can’t take ownership for this one. I read it in a book on whiteness somewhere and it resonated so strongly with me that I never forgot it. Unfortunately I guess it didn’t resonate strongly enough because I’ve wanted to give credit where it’s due for the longest time, and for the life of me I can’t find the book I got it out of. I think the reason this statement seems to carry so much punch in it is because of American whiteness’s relationship to community. In my experience, the only forms of legitimate community in American whiteness are organized, contained, scheduled, or strictly defined. Organized sports, school classes, meetings, self-help groups, even the healing process, or the dispute mediation process…having healthy bodies and resolving conflicts are two of the most important things I think there are in the human world, and in white American culture, doctors and lawyers are the only legitimate or legal ways of doing these things. They are also incidentally some of the highest paid professions out there. But these things are things that can be done by a community- maybe not brain surgery so much, but the healing process, yes. And as far as disputes go…let me just tell you that there is nothing that pisses me off more than the legal system. Being witness to a nasty divorce and custody dispute makes me realize that it is a terrible, terrible culture that reduces the resolution of a conflict between two people to a $10,000+ war-of-paper between a series of lawyers who are totally unfamiliar with the emotional, familial past that exists between these two people and their children in common. I feel like white American culture distances itself as far as possible from humanity. Human interactions are contained by time, prescribed certain physical distances, postures, and rhythms to be followed, given certain places where they can take place with certain members that should or should not be present. I’m not saying that this doesn’t happen in other human cultures, but the regulations in white American culture seem particularly strict to me.
So I guess what I’m trying to say is that…I don’t know what the definition of solidarity is, and I don’t really want to look it up either. (That’s another thing I’m a little weary of: definitions.) To me, solidarity means strength in differences, respect for differing points of view and ways of being, and a faith in the power of working together to reach a shared goal, even if that means that people will differ over what the goal is, or how to go about getting there. Solidarity also means that the people will always take precedence over the procedure. There are many ways that we structure our lives to strive towards excellence in its many manifestations, but I feel like in white cultures in particular, the people often come second to the method, or the goal: you know, “the end justifies the means.” I think solidarity emphasizes the worldview that the means is the end, and if the means are corrupt, the end was never worth reaching. In general, I think whiteness is directly opposed to a definition like that. It doesn’t matter how you get there in American white culture. The idea is that you GET THERE, even if it means you neglect your friends, lose touch with your family, dominate other people’s voices and contributions, and just kind of push a very individualistic agenda. Other people? What other people? I’m just trying to do my best. Fuck you. What? Did I hurt your feelings? Oh, sorry. Wait, no I’m not.
Okay, clearly it’s a WAY over-generalized and hyperbolic explanation, and it is only one side of white culture. Just give me a sec, I’m fleshing it out, m’kay?
3) People losing themselves in it:
Along the response to the last question, I think that before I was aware of being raised in white culture, I had really lost a lot of my humanity to it. I didn’t have any perspective on why I was doing what I was doing, or how I was doing it, or the ways that it hurt me and other people in my life. Fortunately I was raised in white culture, so I never had another set of cultural beliefs to lose to it in the first place, but that doesn’t change the fact that if you are culturally white, I think the culture requires one to distance one’s self from things like sexuality, emotion, one’s physical well-being, meaningless undirected fun and socialization, and other “base” aspects of life…the more you distance yourself from these things, the better white person you are, as the cultural identity stands today. Screw that. That’s not a culture I’m proud of, or that I want to be a part of. Which leads me to:
4) What do I like about whiteness?
GREAT QUESTION!!! I’ve finally reached the point recently where I can truly take pride in being white, and in actively re-creating a positive, white, anti-racist identity. I love being white and being aware of racism, because I have an incredible power to say whatever I want about it, and to be taken seriously. And I have noticed this semester that when I do this, things change. White people are generally so silent about race that they have no clue about what to do about it, or how to change it, or what role they play in it. It is so incredibly powerful to understand privilege, and how it operates through you, and how not-acting is perhaps the loudest action you can do when you are aware of privilege. I think that white folks- once they understand and see white supremacy and white privilege—will continue to wallow in guilt until they do something against racism. Because if you really, really get it, you understand that not doing something is actively racist. Actively racist. Because power is in the hands of white folks in America, and unless you do something to change that, it will stay there, and racism will continue. That knowledge is worse than the initial pangs of white guilt, and it would eat at me relentlessly if I didn’t do something about it. The good thing is, I know I can always do something about it every day: conversations. Conversations are what we need now in this time of silence. Conversations of listening, conversations of respect, and conversations of challenge and discomfort. And that is what every white person can be proud to start and lean into, and know they are changing something with every word. Because every word is one word that was never said before. If I just keep it humble, and keep it real, and walk in that place of “arrogant humility,” I think I can stay proud of whiteness, and take agency with it.
5) How has my experiment with talking to people about whiteness gone?
Honestly? I think I got fired for it. I really do. Up until Friday, I worked at Barriques coffee shop in Middleton. My boss called me and fired me because I took four pastries. The policy is that you can take as many pastries as you want after close, because otherwise we throw out all the old ones. That week I had come in to buy some coffee, and to pick up my paycheck really late at night- a couple hours before closing. Both times I had the kids with me, and both times they wanted cream cheese danishes. Both times there were still more than five danishes left, and at 8:00 at night, this means they’re not going to be sold. Trust me. Both nights, I asked the girl who was working if she though it would be okay if I took them, since they were going to be thrown out in a couple hours anyway. She said yeah, but apparently “yeah” means “no” to her, because she told my manager, who subsequently fired me. No warning, no nothing. Just, “don’t come back.” Now honestly, this was an issue of interpretation- I genuinely didn’t think I was stealing because to me the pastries were about to be garbage. If someone would have told me, 'don’t do that again', I wouldn’t have. You don’t just fire someone for something like that. Seriously, it’s ridiculous.
Honestly, my boss was looking for a reason to fire me for a long time, and I could tell. I had talked to just about every person I worked with (they’re all white) about whiteness and racism. Some were interested, but others got really uncomfortable really fast, and so I just left it for another time. I’m not stupid- I’m not going to push it if they just shut down. I’ll revisit another time. I’m not in a hurry.
I asked my boss too, and she got pretty defensive, although she gave a pretty good answer. Incidentally, she had been an Afro Am studies major, so she gave the typical bottled, “well being white means I’m privileged, and I don’t get pulled over, etc.” answer, but then she attacked me for how I asked her the question. She said, “well, because I know you do that kind of work, I felt like you were looking for a particular answer, so I didn’t feel comfortable answering it.” I said, “Thanks for telling me that, it will help me ask the question (what does it mean to you to be white in America?) in another way in the future. Like, “hey, I do a lot of research on whiteness and I’m just interested in asking folks what they think it means to be white in America. There’s no right or wrong answer, and I really don’t want you to try to be PC about it. You can answer it however you want. No judgments here.” She said that sounded fine, but she changed the subject after that.
When I asked one co-worker, she just told me flat out that she didn’t want to talk about it—that she was depressed enough already—and when I asked another, she went off on how blacks were lazy and served them right with Hurricane Katrina, etc. So I tried to keep that conversation going as long as I could, explaining why poverty affected black folks to such a disproportionate degree in America. She said, “I’m not a racist,” and I said, “Yes you are, so am I. We all are. It’s part of living in America. Racism acts through us whether we want it to or not.” Then she said her stomach hurt and she went to go make herself some tea. I think word got out that I was starting up difficult conversations.
Man, I don’t know what else I could have done…I had waited until I had been working with these folks for more than two months before I dropped the topic. I treated it as delicately as I could. But people just didn’t want to engage, and I don’t want to think that I just flat out can’t engage in conversations like this in the workplace without worrying that I’m going to lose my job. Because I’m telling you, it wasn’t because of the damn pastries.


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