Maybe White People Really Don't See Race — Maybe That's The Problem
July 9, 2015 1:01 PM   Subscribe

For the majority of white people, race is something that happens to other people. Whiteness is a default that needs no name — all deviations must be categorized and given a "race." If race is always something that happens to other people, how are you able to see the part you play in the system?
An essay by Ijeoma Oluo (previously, previouslier) for Scenarios USA.

A friendly reminder, if applicable: White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.
posted by divined by radio (73 comments total) 55 users marked this as a favorite
 
Wow, this is very interesting. I grew up in a suburb that was 80% white (and 17% Asian, 2% Black), and for sure, my first experience with race was recognizing that there was a little girl in my class who was Black, maybe first or second grade. She and her siblings were the only Black children in my elementary school. It's strange, though, because I also grew up in a community that was primarily Jewish, and I remember defining myself much more by my parent's religion than by my race.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 1:13 PM on July 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


I've always viewed the word race as having been constructed by white people as a way to denote the amount of "humanness" a person gets to have based solely on that person's physical features . So for me, when I talk about race I feel like I'm using a word invented by white supremacists and I feel really crappy using it. But if the word race means to most people "the culture and context you grew up in" and not "you were born with dark skin and big lips" then I'll work on getting over my issues with the term "race". Because I do feel like the term is based on bad science that was used to prove white superiority and I have a hard time engaging discussions using that term. I prefer to talk about things in terms of ethnicity and culture.

The worst part is when I try to unpack how I feel about this and accidentally erase someone. Because I know how that feels.

Being white though, I'm willing to use the word race if that's the preferred term that people like to use. I don't wanna be stepping on toes.

Thought provoking article.
posted by Annika Cicada at 1:21 PM on July 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


Yeah true, and when race and the impact of racism are brought to our (white people; I am white) attention, I think a common well-meaning but misguided response is to want to erase it again (i.e. through taking colour-blindness as an ideal, e.g. "race doesn't matter", or "race isn't a real genetic thing" - which it isn't, but it absolutely is a real social thing with real implications for real people).
posted by cotton dress sock at 1:23 PM on July 9, 2015 [4 favorites]


I would say that I became aware of my whiteness as a thing in itself only when I was about twenty, when I read bell hooks's book Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations. I would say that I had some awareness of my whiteness when I was eighteen or so and on my own in the city for the first time - I became aware that I was, for example, the only white person on the bus or in a store, and I was both uncomfortable and worried about making other people uncomfortable.

Maybe this is different for younger people - certainly, Slate and Salon now publish stuff about race that would only have appeared in Z magazine in the nineties.

One thing I notice: when white people talk about first our recognition of race at all (as in some of the examples she cites) we usually pull up an example of being distressed or confused by the racism of others. I can't remember anyone saying "when I was first aware of race, I [acted racist in some way]" even though I bet that's true for a lot of us. My first remembered awareness of race in that way was split - I remember that Gordon on Sesame Street was my absolute favorite and I was conscious that he was Black, but I also remember that I was nervous of the Black kids I would see when we went to visit my aunt in Chicago. My first real memory of this is when I was watching a montage of children on the Electric Company and reflecting that I knew it was wrong to be nervous of the other kids, but obviously the nervousness must have predated the thought. I had picked up somewhere at a very young age in a very white place - and not from my parents, who clamped down hard on anything they saw to be racist; they're not perfect but there was certainly no overtly racist talk in our house - the idea that Black kids were different and possibly dangerous.
posted by Frowner at 1:24 PM on July 9, 2015 [4 favorites]




Your parents don't have to tell you when you're a little white kid, it's in the cultural air we breathe. In my case, my parents did tell me, because they were racists. But for whatever reason, possibly Sesame Street, I was not convinced that black people were all bad. Which doesn't mean I didn't say and do racist things, of course.
posted by emjaybee at 1:39 PM on July 9, 2015 [9 favorites]


I grew up in the 70's and 80's in a very overtly racist part of Dallas Texas where everyone, regardless of their own skin color, judged themselves and everyone else around them on how dark/not dark you were. So for me I am acutely aware of "color" and constantly checking my biases. I get though, how people who grew up in more "politely racist" areas would be totally unaware of their internal racial biases.
posted by Annika Cicada at 1:44 PM on July 9, 2015


have people seen this quora answer? i am worried it might be in the article, or another comment, but can't see it. it's a good illustration of "how whites think" (at least, it's consistent with how i think).
posted by andrewcooke at 1:55 PM on July 9, 2015 [39 favorites]


I still remember the first time I connected race with skin tone. I was in the first or second grade (I was in the same room with the same teacher for both grades, Mrs. Maple, who I now know was black) and we had been given coloring sheets as something to do in between assignments.

I'm fairly certain we had done a "diversity" lesson in my Campfire group, because I somehow knew there were "black" people and "white" people, and I knew including "black" people was important, but I clearly didn't know "black" people weren't actually ...black, and I didn't connect "black" people up with my dark skinned teacher and the round table of dark skinned children in our classroom. So here I am, coloring in my playground and making sure there is one of every race I knew of in my playground. And I clearly knew "black" people had it harder, because I'd decided that meant the "black" person should have the prime spot at the top of the slide because it was only fair; people who had been given less should get more in compensation. And so I was carefully trying to color in this person with my black crayon when Mrs. Maple came by and saw what I was doing.

I can only imagine the mix of feelings she had, seeing what I had created - especially given I know with the hindsight of memory that our class was explicitly segregated. I have no memory of what she said, but I knew I had done something wrong, I didn't know what or why, and that somehow "black" didn't mean what I thought it did. I have been, on and off, reacting to the mix of my intentions, my actions, her reactions, and the larger context for most of my life.

I don't remember learning that I was white, but my chafing through the label to accept my privilege was the work of decades.
posted by Deoridhe at 1:55 PM on July 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


I wonder how much of this obliviousness is due to race vs how much is due to not being a minority? I suspect white people raised in Hong Kong, say, would be a bit more aware of race than white people raised in Canada or the US, though both groups are still privileged.
posted by peppermind at 2:01 PM on July 9, 2015 [12 favorites]


s. I can't remember anyone saying "when I was first aware of race, I [acted racist in some way]"

I will. I was in grade 1. The memory is so vivid that I remember exactly where and how I was sitting in the classroom and good many of the little kid thoughts that went through my head. It's one of the strongest memories I have at that age.

Without going into the story. The situation was about a girl in our class and a good many of us were acting in racists ways that spanned from being mean to doing and saying things with no intention of meanness. The girl was kept home that day so our teacher could address it. She started by reading us some sort of story about Zebra in a group that had no stripes (I just remember that part) which led to some sort of conversation about differences in people and about how people act when people are different. Not only was that the first time I recall comprehending these differences but that OMG people were mean to people just because they looked different way and in my case people could be mean to people because of these differences EVEN IF THEY DIDN'T MEAN TO.

I don't remember how the teacher explained systemic racism and being unintentionally racist and mean to 6 year old me but it sure worked. I felt like shit because I liked the person and it was upsetting that she was upset and was going through this thing that even if I didn't totally understand it I knew it was just wrong at a deep level. I pondered the whole being mean without thinking you were being mean thing from then on. (Of course it evolved over the years from this simple understanding)

Looking back I'd say that the zebra story time in grade 1 was a formative childhood event. I acted racist as that little kid and thank goodness was surrounded by enough aware adults that were able to teach me and others in a way that we could understand and learn from it.
posted by Jalliah at 2:02 PM on July 9, 2015 [12 favorites]


For me it was kindergarten.

There was a little boy who was brown in our class. He liked the Muppets and drawing. We became fast friends the first few days of school.

I asked my mom if I could go over to his house after school and she said no. In a fit of brattiness, I asked why and she said, "Because we don't go over there. We're white."

After much discussion on the playground with my other friends and the little boy, we determined that his mother was the same color as the rest of us, while he and his dad where Black. He informed us that we, like his mom, were White. And this was Different.

Excitedly, I went home and told my mother that I could go to my new friend's house because his mother was White and therefore it was okay to go to his house. She frowned and said, "No. That makes it even worse." And then I got in trouble for sass.

I never did get to visit him. He moved to a different school shortly after 1st grade.

Racism is a cancer to everyone it touches.
posted by teleri025 at 2:06 PM on July 9, 2015 [34 favorites]


When I was a teenager I was offered a spot in a summer residential journalism workshop for POC kids (I am white; I was told not all the spots were able to be filled, I hope this was true).

Anyway, I was the only white person in a group of about 20 kids (almost all black). We lived in a dorm for a couple of weeks and created our own newspaper. This was the first time I'd ever been in the minority. It didn't really hit me until we went to a Juneteenth Day celebration and were told to interview people for an article. I think I was the only white person within a couple blocks and wow, I felt awkward. So self-conscious, so conspicuous. Wondering if they're staring at me because I'm white. Wondering if they're wondering what the fuck I'm doing there because I obviously don't belong. Wondering if I'm behaving correctly because I don't want to be "that stupid clueless white person." It was stressful!

And a lightbulb went off... is this how people of color feel all the time in public? The difference is that I could just go home. I lived in the city but Milwaukee is so segregated that I could very easily go for days never talking to anyone except white people.

I totally agree with the author that white is regarded as neutral (or the absence of race) and I don't think too many of the white people I know have thought about it. They don't have to.
posted by desjardins at 2:10 PM on July 9, 2015 [24 favorites]


Buzzfeed just put out a really moving video of a privilege exercise that I had hoped would go a little more viral than it did (I had to root around to find it on Buzzfeed even though I saw it linked several times yesterday).

I grew up steeped in casual racism while simultaneously skeeved by overt racism (my grandmother was somewhat obsessed with public water fountains and toilets etc, and even at 5 or 6 I was privately like 'lady, there is something wrong with you'). It took me until well into adulthood to really think about the programming that ran silently in my head and even start to disassemble it.
posted by Lyn Never at 2:14 PM on July 9, 2015 [19 favorites]


I wonder how much of this obliviousness is due to race vs how much is due to not being a minority? I suspect white people raised in Hong Kong, say, would be a bit more aware of race than white people raised in Canada or the US, though both groups are still privileged.
peppermind

Isn't that implicit given the context of the piece? She's talking about the dominant white majority in America. I doubt she's trying to say that racial obliviousness is a genetic trait of all people with white skin.
posted by Sangermaine at 2:17 PM on July 9, 2015 [4 favorites]


This article is absolutely dead-on. Getting to "not see color" is, in itself, a form of privilege.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 2:18 PM on July 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


Huh. I'm white and my first conscious memory of race awareness was that some girls I wanted to play with in kindergarten were excluding me because I wasn't Chinese. This was in Los Angeles.

It never before occurred to me that it might be unusual to be white and have my first memory of racism be racism that hurt my feelings and not someone else's.
posted by town of cats at 2:21 PM on July 9, 2015 [3 favorites]


I am mixed race Hawaiian/Czech, raised mostly by my White mom, but in Hawaii, where pretty much all the other kids looked like me (and often their parents resembled mine, in that the parents would be of different races or ethnicities). It wasn't until we moved to the mainland and to a majority White town that I was conscious of being made other/exotic/different from the norm.
posted by rtha at 2:23 PM on July 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


Everyone should watch Lyn Never's link. (I got choked up when I got to #11 on the list and realized that everyone can take a step forward now.)
posted by desjardins at 2:24 PM on July 9, 2015 [5 favorites]


My very first memory of race was when I was about 4 or 5 and growing up in Athens, Ga. We were at Bell's grocery store in the center of town. There was an elderly, black gentleman that worked there.... I saw him all the time... One day, precocious little me decided to leave my mom and go up to tell him some kind of story.. I don't remember now. My mother had the usual, medium freak out when she realized her child was gone from her side and when they found me, happily chatting away with this kind, older man, I slipped my hand into his. I remember his surprise and the way he jumped back, telling my mom and the store manager that he hadn't done anything wrong. He was just talking to me. This was the mid 70's and a black man, holding the hand of a young, white girl was not ok. My mom was cool, she was just glad to have my chatty ass back. Everything was fine but it took me years to figure out why my buddy at Bell's had been so afraid when people thought I was missing and was found in his care.
posted by pearlybob at 2:51 PM on July 9, 2015 [10 favorites]


I somehow managed to make it almost to age five without realizing I was half aboriginal. I had asked a little boy in my junior kindergarten class to come to my birthday party, and when he asked his mom, I overheard her telling him that no, he couldn't, because "those people don't keep a clean house."

This confused me, because even then I was aware that our house and my grandmother's house were a lot cleaner than the houses of my friends or my father's side of the family. Shoes had to be on the mat, toys on the shelf, laundry in the basket. I asked my mom what that woman had meant, and she said: "She thinks we're dirty because we're Indians."

That shocked me - because I knew what an Indian was. Indians were on TV and in my picture books, wearing buckskin and headdresses. I even knew that my father's foster sister and her husband and daughter were Indians, because the rest of that side of the family were white and someone had felt the need to explain it in my hearing. I had probably even seen several aboriginal actors on the blithely multicultural Canadian kids' TV shows I watched, but none of them who looked like me ever explicitly said "I am an Indian." I knew one of my father's friends called me and my mom "Squaw and Papoose" and that it annoyed my mom, but I had no cultural reference for it.

Up until that moment, I was aware of race, but I had somehow managed to put myself on entirely the wrong side of the line. I guess because up until that moment, I had been allowed to be unmarked - just a person - and that meant assuming I was white.
posted by northernish at 2:51 PM on July 9, 2015 [24 favorites]


have people seen this quora answer? i am worried it might be in the article, or another comment, but can't see it. it's a good illustration of "how whites think" (at least, it's consistent with how i think).

I think it's a good illustration of how white Americans think, but the author's claim that the reason that she didn't think about her whiteness was because white Americans constitute a majority - I think that doesn't really adequately explain why white people don't think about their whiteness. It's not just that white people constitute a majority, it's that white people constitute a majority AND most white people only have white friends. It seems like "not really being aware of one's whiteness" comes more from lack of exposure to people of different races rather than simply being the most populous race in America.
posted by 23skidoo at 2:56 PM on July 9, 2015 [6 favorites]


I do feel like the term is based on bad science that was used to prove white superiority and I have a hard time engaging discussions using that term. I prefer to talk about things in terms of ethnicity and culture.

I see this line of reasoning used by white people a lot, and I think the fundamental fallacy made here along with a generous dollop of colorblindness is that, despite both culture and race being social constructs, there is an assumption that culture is something fixed, infallible, and sacred rather than something shaped by the reactions of human beings to their environments, social or otherwise. There is an assumption, that in North America, an unquestionable environment of white supremacy where people are absolutely judged and treated differently due to their physical appearances, that culture is distinct from race and can be meaningfully separated. Technically, I'm "Chinese", but I grew up here. The word "Chinese" used in its traditional context cannot encapsulate the experiences that I've had growing up as a visible minority in North America.

My culture is sitting together with all of the Vietnamese and Korean and Japanese kids during lunch in high school. Even though we all hailed from different countries and spoke different languages and had different cuisines packed in our lunch boxes, we all had the same experiences: experiences of other kids in kindergarten pulling up the sides of their eyes and mocking us. Experiences of being told that we should go back to our own countries. Experiences of teachers pigeonholing us and talking down to us. I formed an American Sign Language Club and commandeered the use of a classroom during lunchtimes - all of the Asian girls in my program ended up flocking to it because they wanted a language they could secretly sign to each other behind the teacher's backs. Sometimes white kids would come and join in, but despite us being friendly to them, they'd end up dropping out - uncomfortable with being the only white face in a sea of yellow. So it became our place, a place where we could be honest about ourselves rather than pretend to be a paradigm of white assimilation lest the white kids pinch the sides of their eyes and laugh at us (to be fair, they'd do it anyway, but at least we could be mad about it there instead of pretending we were in with the joke lest be subject to further escalated mockery.) These days, I've begun to adopt the term "yellow", because I think it better encapsulates race relations here in North America. "Asian", although it has served me well, is confusing for me because the way I'm treated compared to browner Asians, is completely different. I'm treated the same way as Korean and Japanese people. I have less in common with Indian people and Pacific Islanders. We are treated on merit of our physical appearances here in North America; so we group together based upon that. Besides - I like the fierce bite of "Yellow Peril Supports Black Power", after Asians have been defanged and whitewashed by model minority propaganda for so long.

My culture is celebrating a bastardized version of Christmas. When my parents immigrated to Canada, they quickly realized that in order to gain some social security nets, they needed to assimilate and pretend to be engaged in the dominant white culture. So they joined a church, despite not believing in religion, and not having any prior exposure to Christianity except in the abstract. They soon left after they established their roots enough - primarily by associating and forming a bloc with other immigrants. But all of the holidays here, and thus time off, is rooted in Christianity. My parents couldn't get time off for Chinese New Year. Besides that, my sister and I didn't get time off from school then either, and no way would Asian immigrant parents have the pull to take kids out of school for whatever whims like the richer white parents did. We needed a time for family, so Christmas became our time instead. These days, we still put up a Christmas tree. But we still wrap and steam baozi, dumplings, and wonton, and have a big potluck.

My culture is one of being a social chameleon. I was taught through acute observation of my parents. When I was a young child, my mother was stopped by a police officer for jaywalking. Upon the policeman’s first tap on her shoulder, my mother underwent a jarring transformation. The mother I knew, who was eloquent, suddenly spoke with an accent and halting words. She was fiery, yet her posture shifted to a frame that was diminutive and submissive. She was intelligent, yet her wits were now as slow as if she were made of clay. She stammered an apology. The policeman let her go with a pitiful look and a warning. “You’re a role model for your son,” he said. It was only after he was long gone that she reverted back to her usual self.

My point is: my culture is not something that you can take and put in a museum, while ignoring that I exist right here, in the moment. My culture is organic, human, and resilient. It finds ways to grow and adapt to overcome adversity. Right now, the biggest adversity you have tossed at us is that you have steeped us in a climate of white supremacy. So the way we have responded to that is that we've named it. We could call ourselves "Chinese" and "Korean" and "Japanese" instead of "Asian" and "Yellow". We could never use the word "race". But that won't change the fact that when I walk into a store or into a school or into an office, I'm not seen as "Chinese", but as someone who has yellow skin, slanted eyes, and black hair. I'm aware of the way I'm seen by North America; no dancing around terms will eliminate the way I'm treated. My identifier as "Asian", as "Yellow", is an assertion for white people to take ownership of what they've created; and to recognize that their exertion of white supremacy upon us, over decades and centuries, has created lasting impact and trauma upon our culture and identities, in ways that could never be erased by forcibly aligning me with a traditional historical image of dragon dances and silk-embroidered gowns - because it is more convenient to imagine me in the absence of a lifetime of influence under racism and generational trauma from racism, than it is to acknowledge that the me right now exists from a culture that has been irreversibly shaped by racism.
posted by Conspire at 3:15 PM on July 9, 2015 [70 favorites]


I've always viewed the word race as having been constructed by white people as a way to denote the amount of "humanness" a person gets to have based solely on that person's physical features .

Listen, I get that the focus of this opinion piece and debate is centered in the West, but "white people" did not invent the concept of race. People have been aware of race, and a host of other distinctions, between themselves and others for as long as humankind has been around.

There are plenty of racists in Asia, South America, Africa and literally every where else there are people. White people, of a certain pedigree, do enjoy privilege of varying degrees around the world, but I promise you that a white person living in, let's say China, will experience plenty of racism, both garden variety and systemic.
posted by Maugrim at 3:20 PM on July 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


Re: Construction of the idea of "race" 1 2

The etymology of "race" as a word or concept is super interesting- in the early 1600's, "race" was still mainly used to denote family or occupational groupings, so I could say my family and I are of the "dgstieber" race, as opposed to the "maugrim", or the "conspire" race.* As the English expanded their reach, and so dealt with new groups of non-english, the definitions of in-group and out group shifted, so that by the 1600's, you could talk about an "English race", as opposed to an Irish or a Scottish race. This process continues, always in service of war or the market, until we get to the late 1700's, when the concept of "race", as commonly recognized, emerges.


*I just picked the two MeFites whose comments were above mine as examples, these names aren't supposed to mean anything.
posted by DGStieber at 3:36 PM on July 9, 2015 [3 favorites]


The piece is about white people in the US, Maugrim. And here in the US, race is a white construct. The whole "three-race system" (black, white, asian) used in physical anthropology? Made up by white people. The laws that defined people racially? Made up by white people. Race-based chattel slavery? Defined and enforced by white people.

Sure, race is a social construct that is present pretty much everywhere in the world. But in the context the article is referring to, it was specifically constructed by white people. The fact that this white supremacist construct isn't completely universal doesn't mean it doesn't exist.
posted by KathrynT at 3:36 PM on July 9, 2015 [9 favorites]


It seems like "not really being aware of one's whiteness" comes more from lack of exposure to people of different races rather than simply being the most populous race in America.

Being most populous is what makes the lack of exposure possible. It's not that a lot of people grew up in an underground bunker, it's that there's so many white people that it's really easy to not be around not-white people.
posted by Lyn Never at 3:42 PM on July 9, 2015


I suspect white people raised in Hong Kong, say, would be a bit more aware of race than white people raised in Canada or the US, though both groups are still privileged.

As a white person who grew up (birth to age 17) in a poor, predominantly black neighborhood I was aware of race as far back as I can remember. Even if you didn't want to be aware of it there were always people more than happy to remind you. It was inescapable. It sucked, it hurt, it made me angry and resentful which I guess is how it goes. My anger subsided a bit when as a teen I started making new friends in different, whiter, neighborhoods and I spent less and less time in the projects in which I had spent my entire life but was still the outsider. It was in high school that the idea of white privilege "clicked" with me (even though I had never heard the term). This is where I should say I had some sort of positive epiphany that gave me some insight into what minorities have to deal with but that's not how this story goes. My privilege became my shield, my weapon. Go ahead fuck with the white boy, it's okay, he knows deep down inside that things are going to get better for him soon. For you? Probably not.

Not only did I not reject my privilege I embraced it, demanded it even. Pre-pay for gas? Fuck You! Store security? What the fuck are you looking at?! You will not treat me like you treat them. Unearned privileged? No, I felt as if I had earned every last bit of it a hundred times over and I was going to collect.

Flash forward a couple of decades and I'm older, and hopefully wiser, and I have neither the energy nor the inclination to carry that chip on my shoulder but I try to remain aware that there are people who don't have the choice to let it go because our society won't let them. So, yeah. I don't know what the point of that was but it felt a bit cathartic just to type it out.
posted by MikeMc at 3:49 PM on July 9, 2015 [6 favorites]


God, that privilege exercise is depressing. I took ten steps backwards and not nearly as many forward as I would have liked.

I first became aware of my race when I first became aware. There were discussions over what to call my race, even. It was never easy to choose on a form. If "other" was an option, or "fill in the blank," that's where I belonged, apparently. My father, the crazy bigot that he was, preferred that the blanked be filled with "AmerAsian" because he said there was no such thing as white, just American.

He also told me when I was a really little kid, like one of the first things I ever remember him saying to me, when I spoke to him in Korean, he said, "If you keep speaking Korean you will grow up to be stupid." And then I just stopped, and now at thirty-five I seriously cannot even remember how to say anything other than "hello," "shoes," "come here," "thank you," and "let's go." Oh, also, "behave yourself." I cannot, however, write these words, or read anything, in Hangul. I can't even order in Korean at a Korean restaurant. It is humiliating.

When I was in my teens I went through years and years of tearing my hair out about these popular kids who just didn't like me. And I couldn't figure out why. One of my friends from high school said, years later, "Well, obviously racism was probably a factor," and I was like, "What? What racism?"

I honestly hadn't contextualized anything that ever happened to me as racist, except for very literal events like little kids on the playground singing "slanty eyes" at me. I never considered, in all the time I was growing up, that people might be biased against me, because my father was white and raised me to believe I was white, too, and to behave as a white person would.

In my late twenties, I got a letter from a kid I'd gone to fifth grade with in Mississippi, in which he apologized vaguely for being a jerk to me. I wrote back, and was all, "You were a jerk? That's cool, I forgive you, but ... umm ... can you do me a favor and tell me something? What did you do???" And he told me he was racist! And I had no idea! I just always thought, until I grew up and was given a reason to think otherwise, that the kids in Mississippi thought of me as basically white. Only they didn't. The only person who ever thought I was white was me.

I guess sometimes you don't even have to leave the house (or your own brain) to experience racism firsthand.
posted by brina at 3:52 PM on July 9, 2015 [23 favorites]


My identifier as "Asian", as "Yellow", is an assertion for white people to take ownership of what they've created; and to recognize that their exertion of white supremacy upon us, over decades and centuries, has created lasting impact and trauma upon our culture and identities, in ways that could never be erased by forcibly aligning me with a traditional historical image of dragon dances and silk-embroidered gowns - because it is more convenient to imagine me in the absence of a lifetime of influence under racism and generational trauma from racism, than it is to acknowledge that the me right now exists from a culture that has been irreversibly shaped by racism.

A million snaps for the above, but your entire comment was incredibly powerful, Conspire. Thank you.
posted by Ashen at 3:58 PM on July 9, 2015 [7 favorites]


I've lived off and on in Japan for 20 years, and I have a basic understanding of what Americans call "race."

While I have encountered nothing more than could be classified as "minor annoyances" (I was denied entry to a strip club in Mishima once, and that's about it), I am very aware of how my children are treated.

They attend school for part of the year in Japan, and it has been very important for to have good relations with the teachers and principals. For our older son, it worked really well until this year. He's gone to the same school since kindergarten, and everybody knows him. He has experienced some bullying, but he's physically bigger than the other kids, and also outperforms them in class and, most importantly in sports.

Unfortunately this past year he had a new principal, vice principal and home room teacher, and was treated like an outsider initially... until everyone, including the other teachers, convinced them that "he's one of us."

In contrast, a girl whose mother is from the Philippines just stopped coming to class because of bullying, and there was no one there for them.
.
I'm not exactly sure if we experienced privilege, because I'm pretty convinced that it was my son's linguistic ability and EQ that has allowed him to succeed. It doesn't matter that I am a "white foreigner" since I rarely interact with the teachers.

Our younger son went to daycare/kindergarten and absolutely hated it. The other kids sometimes called us "gaijin" on the street. It didn't really bother me, and encouraged my sons (and my wife) not to worry to much about it, since the kids are pretty obviously stunted dullards with no future beyond (maybe) working at the local nylon factory.

On the other hand, quite unlike a person of colour in, say the US, I've never ever felt menaced because of my "foreignness" in Japan. With the exception of that one strip club 20 years ago, I can go where I want, when I want, and the same will be true for my kids.

Still, I do think the entire idea of "race" is a construct because what really *ought* to matter is culture. Look at President Obama. His mother is "white" and his father was "black", and yet he self-identifies (and is identified as) "black."

I encourage my kids to identify as both "Japanese" *and* "Canadian." You can be both. I also try to get them to never identify as being "half" Japanese, since race does not actually exist, outside of being a artificial, imaginary social construct.
posted by Nevin at 4:01 PM on July 9, 2015 [3 favorites]


It's not that a lot of people grew up in an underground bunker, it's that there's so many white people that it's really easy to not be around not-white people.

That and segregation. My home state is roughly 11% black, but that wasn't true of my classmates, my coworkers, and so on. Even when I had black classmates, which depended a lot on the relative wealth of the neighborhoods belonging to the school district, we didn't interact much - I did not make many black friends. My social networks have been overwhelmingly white.

The university where I'm attending graduate school is roughly 15% black, but the undergraduate class is only about 4% black. I've taught entire classes without a single black student in them. My department has only two black graduate students.

Sure, there are some places in the US that are overwhelmingly white, but that doesn't explain the whiteness of white social networks everywhere else. Maybe what you're saying is that this kind of segregation is one-way - that it is possible for whites to exist in white bubbles because of numbers. That makes sense, although it's still not just a numbers game; inequality plays a huge role. For example, if black kids had the same access to higher education as white kids, more white kids would have black roommates, classmates, etc in college.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 4:03 PM on July 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


Being most populous is what makes the lack of exposure possible.

Yes and no. The isolation of white people in the US (and I believe in a lot of other places) has a long history in redlining, in sundown towns, in white flight from urban centers, and in the current trend of gentrification. It's also established and maintained by a systematic appropriation of culture that emphasizes not only people of color as different but also as consumable, as costumes that white people can put on and take off. The maintenance of white as not-really-a-race is integral to our power to claim and believe we have access to and knowledge of everything. White people as everything in our stories (white Jesus! white Noah! white people robbing casino's blind! white Ang!) is incredibly pervasive and centuries old; I don't think we can underestimate the power of those stories.

I've been trying to educate myself on theories of Settler mindset, of the mindset of colonialization, and it's been startling to me how I've internalized my right to knowledge of everything and access to everything. I may talk a good talk, but deep down I want to be "the good white person" who is accepted by marginalized people (given cookies! dear gods what is wrong with me?) - and that is a bullshit orientation to have when trying to dismantle white supremacy because it takes anything good I'm doing and recasts it as my story, instead of recognizing everyone has their own stories and I'm not that important most of the time. I don't have any answers now on how to change it; I'm trying to practice shutting up, listening, and understanding the limitations of what I can know and where I can go. I think it's one of those things a lot of white people will run into as we try to be less racist, though; almost all narratives position us as central, and we have bought into it on a subconscious level.
posted by Deoridhe at 4:05 PM on July 9, 2015 [8 favorites]


Being most populous is what makes the lack of exposure possible. It's not that a lot of people grew up in an underground bunker, it's that there's so many white people that it's really easy to not be around not-white people.

I just looked up the numbers, and the USA is 77.7% white. That's a majority, but it's not so great a percentage as to explain, by itself, why so many white people aren't interacting with any people of color. I can understand why white people have more white friends than not: there are more white people than not in the USA. But 0 friends who are people of color? That really can't be explained away by saying "there's lots of white people in the USA".
posted by 23skidoo at 4:05 PM on July 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


I just looked up the numbers, and the USA is 77.7% white. That's a majority, but it's not so great a percentage as to explain, by itself, why so many white people aren't interacting with any people of color. I can understand why white people have more white friends than not: there are more white people than not in the USA. But 0 friends who are people of color? That really can't be explained away by saying "there's lots of white people in the USA".

Because the distribution of minorities isn't even across the geographical united states. There are huge swaths of geography where it is 90%+ white.
posted by Justinian at 4:12 PM on July 9, 2015 [8 favorites]


I read the comment I responded to a little quickly and now, on a re-read, I think I understand what the poster was getting at.

The fact that this white supremacist construct isn't completely universal doesn't mean it doesn't exist.

I don't think that's what I suggested? Rather, that it would be very strange if it didn't.

As I mentioned above, I'm aware of that the focus of the article is the US. And the author is within her rights to write about race in that context. But the observation that a dominant group might not see race (or whatever it is that distinguishes them as the dominant group) because they're not forced to is something that's experienced by a huge number of people across the world. Most countries are significantly more homogenous than the US in their racial/cultural/ethnic make up.

I guess my point, insofar as I have one, is that while racism in the US has its own history and character, it is not unique and neither are the white people who unthinkingly perpetuate it.
posted by Maugrim at 4:13 PM on July 9, 2015


The problem was always that when racist mindsets hear "race is a social construct" they don't hear "race is a social construct that, critically, is arbitrarily pretending to be otherwise, e.g. attitudes that incorrectly root themselves a biological or essentialist worldview". Not hearing the complete point results in trivial red-herring counterarguments like "but cultural relativism bad" or "but everything is a social construct".
posted by polymodus at 4:13 PM on July 9, 2015


I'm in one of those "YMMV on how white I am" ethnic groups, and it took a while for me to realize all the ways I didn't fit in with whiteness, and to see race and the way it worked in the world. My classrooms growing up were fairly diverse, to the point where I never felt especially weird for being a recent immigrant or having an obviously non-Anglo name.

9/11 was the final blow to any illusions I had for sure. But I remember one moment that sticks out to me. It was Persian New Year or one of the Eids or something and I mentioned my plans for the holiday to a white friend, and they said something like "oh wow, I wish I had like, a culture like that! I'm just, y'know, generic American!" And I just recall feeling blankly astonished and thinking "YOU HAVE LITERALLY ALL OF AMERICAN CULTURE. ALL OF IT. THAT'S ALL YOURS. LEAVE MY SHIT ALONE."

That's really stuck with me. I hadn't quite realized the extent to which I saw myself as set apart from the dominant white American culture, or the extent to which I didn't entirely see it as my culture. I've lived here since I was about four years old, I'm a citizen, I have no problem identifying as American. But American culture? I still don't really feel a part of that, though there are plenty of ways that I undoubtedly am part of it.

Realizing that the monolith of American culture was so omnipresent and encompassing that those who are part of it don't even really see it as a culture...that was an epiphany for me. And that's inextricably linked to whiteness in America for me, and all the ways it's the invisible unexamined default.
posted by yasaman at 4:17 PM on July 9, 2015 [10 favorites]


Because the distribution of minorities isn't even across the geographical united states

Yeah, where I grew up my high school was 99.9% white. Every person I knew was white. Etc.

Now I live in city where white people are a minority, and have friends from many different races and countries.

Had I never left suburban Georgia, I would have continued to mostly experience other races as people I saw from my car, rather than people I interacted with. (Like, if we went into Atlanta to do things, obviously I saw lots of black people. But they didn't live where I live or go to school where I did).

At least before I could drive, I don't know how I could possibly have had non-white friends. And within a year of that I moved across the country and its been night and day.
posted by thefoxgod at 4:17 PM on July 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


The problem was always that when racist mindsets hear "race is a social construct" they don't hear "race is a social construct that, critically, is arbitrarily pretending to be otherwise, e.g. attitudes that incorrectly root themselves a biological or essentialist worldview".

Bit of a mouthful, so I just stick with "race is a social construct."
posted by Nevin at 4:18 PM on July 9, 2015


I just looked up the numbers, and the USA is 77.7% white. That's a majority, but it's not so great a percentage as to explain, by itself, why so many white people aren't interacting with any people of color. I can understand why white people have more white friends than not: there are more white people than not in the USA. But 0 friends who are people of color? That really can't be explained away by saying "there's lots of white people in the USA".

Years ago there was an interesting article in The Atlantic that described a computer simulation. The idea was that the program was describing a racially diverse neighbourhood. There were very few rules that the simulation followed, but one of them was that every "person" or unit wants to live next to at least one other unit that is similar to them. The simulated neighbourhoods segregated very quickly.

Even without explicit discrimination, it's very easy to end up in a racially homogenous environment.

(I've since looked for the article but haven't been able to find it.)
posted by Maugrim at 4:20 PM on July 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


On the other hand, quite unlike a person of colour in, say the US, I've never ever felt menaced because of my "foreignness" in Japan.

Good point --- when I am in Japan I definitely experience the sense of "otherness", especially in my wife's prefecture where I have maybe seen two other white foreigners in all my visits combined. As a pale 6 foot white guy, I stand out like a flaming beacon.

But I don't feel scared or worried. Sometimes people are patronizing or weird, but thats not anywhere near the same level of problem.

(Actually it bothers my wife more, as she is one of those people who always wants to blend in to the crowd and does not like attention ---- and walking with me thats impossible).

My wife has been living in America for less than a year, and so far has not experienced any noticeable racism. Which means her experience is almost certainly radically different from a Nisei or Sansei Japanese who went to school here, etc, even though they might look the same outwardly.

She and I have the same basic experience with race, of growing up as the majority race in a country. Racism is something we are aware of, but have little experience with.

Since we live in a city with a large non-immigrant Asian population, people don't automatically assume she's a foreigner the way they they do with me in Japan. Although this is probably influenced by the kinds of places we go and the kinds of people we are likely to interact with (as I have certainly heard many Americans of Asian descent say that people automatically assume the opposite).
posted by thefoxgod at 4:27 PM on July 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


Good point --- when I am in Japan I definitely experience the sense of "otherness", especially in my wife's prefecture where I have maybe seen two other white foreigners in all my visits combined. As a pale 6 foot white guy, I stand out like a flaming beacon.

I live in rural Fukui, but things have definitely changed or improved over the past 20 years. I'm not sure if you *do* actually stand out. You might just be perceiving it that way.

However, relevant to this discussion, it's funny how in Japan "white foreigners" are, by and large, considered to be "the only foreigners" or "the right foreigners." Other non-Japanese ethnicities and either disliked (Chinese, Koreans), or ignored.

I learned recently there is a large Filippino foreign worker population in rural Japan. They work in restaurants and in food processing. You would never ever normally think of them.
posted by Nevin at 4:33 PM on July 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


On the other hand, quite unlike a person of colour in, say the US, I've never ever felt menaced because of my "foreignness" in Japan.

I lived and traveled to quite a few cities in Asia, including places that some people might consider "dangerous," and the only time I've ever really felt scared for my personal safety (I'm white) is in the US.
posted by Maugrim at 4:39 PM on July 9, 2015


However, relevant to this discussion, it's funny how in Japan "white foreigners" are, by and large, considered to be "the only foreigners" or "the right foreigners."

Yes, my wife and her family have admitted that when they think "foreigner" they think "white people" and really, "Americans".

In fact, they tend to assume all white people speak English and are from America (or possibly Britain).

I'm not sure if you *do* actually stand out. You might just be perceiving it that way.

Yeah, I mean its hard to say really. My wife perceives it that way, but whether its true or just what she thinks is true is hard to separate out. The Japanese I know certainly _believe_ foreigners are still looked at that way, even if they themselves don't do it (so its possible everyone simply thinks everyone else is doing it, but no one actually is).

That said, I can count on one hand the number of white people I have seen in Yamanashi outside Kofu Station. (Although I suspect closer to Mt Fuji the situation would be different, but a small town in NW Yamanashi doesn't get many... or any... tourists).
posted by thefoxgod at 4:48 PM on July 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


Years ago there was an interesting article in The Atlantic that described a computer simulation. The idea was that the program was describing a racially diverse neighbourhood. There were very few rules that the simulation followed, but one of them was that every "person" or unit wants to live next to at least one other unit that is similar to them. The simulated neighbourhoods segregated very quickly.

You're looking for Vi Hart's Parable of the Polygons.
posted by CrystalDave at 4:49 PM on July 9, 2015 [4 favorites]




@CrystalDave

Cool! Thanks!
posted by Maugrim at 5:05 PM on July 9, 2015


[Wow, no, we are not playing the "but what about white people?" card here. ]
posted by restless_nomad at 5:24 PM on July 9, 2015 [21 favorites]


I have usually not taken full advantage of my privilege as a White Male, but I know I might not be alive today if not for it. I am still benefiting today for my ancestors repression of people who were not like them. But, no, I'm not giving it back, I had enough problems when I DIDN'T take advantage of it.
posted by oneswellfoop at 5:24 PM on July 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


[Also, a bunch of stuff was deleted, and I'd appreciate it if everyone would refresh the thread and move on. Grease, do not do that thing here. If you're unfamiliar with basic concepts around discussions of racism, please go do some reading before making a bunch of claims here. Thanks.]
posted by restless_nomad at 5:26 PM on July 9, 2015 [7 favorites]


In the introduction to The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir says: "A man would never set out to write a book on the peculiar situation of the human male. But if I wish to define myself, I must first of all say: ‘I am a woman’; on this truth must be based all further discussion. A man never begins by presenting himself as an individual of a certain sex; it goes without saying that he is a man."

The opposite of the Other is the Default, and you don't have to specify or even think about the default, any more than you need to click on "two legs" when you order pants online.

White is "the default" in this country (and "male" is the default everywhere I've heard of). So to that extent there's a kind of "duh" aspect to this article...but many people haven't made it to "duh" yet and if this is the first time they're introduced to the concept of Not Being The Other, then it's a good article for that. The statistics and quotes do a good job of driving the point home.

(As a side note, I always find myself getting a little uncomfortable when I read "race is a social construct", just because I've heard things like that too often from people I think of as libertarian or conservative and in my head I tend to fill it out as "race is JUST a social construct and THEREFORE race is not REAL and THEREFORE racism isn't real because how can you have an -ism about a nonexistent thing and THEREFORE we don't have to think about racism". Possibly I'm being unfair to these people. But my response would be "the United States is a social construct, and people live and die, benefit or suffer, from that construct, and that's enough reality for me to take it seriously".)
posted by uosuaq at 5:52 PM on July 9, 2015 [12 favorites]


Heck, traffic lights are social constructs, yet they're real and have pretty important consequences.
posted by desjardins at 6:35 PM on July 9, 2015 [7 favorites]


I wonder how much of this obliviousness is due to race vs how much is due to not being a minority? I suspect white people raised in Hong Kong, say, would be a bit more aware of race than white people raised in Canada or the US, though both groups are still privileged.

I'm not white, but I grew up in Hong Kong in the 80s and 90s. This was certainly my experience. I didn't personally experience direct racism until I moved to Australia in my late teens. Up until that point, I never really thought about it, except as some sort of historical curiosity - "Huh, racism. Yeah, that was a thing that happened in the old days, right? Like the Black Death and World War 1".

It was a very sheltered childhood. My international school was incredibly multicultural - some 80 nationalities were represented in the student body. But a full 50% were white British kids. I never heard a racist word said in 10 years of schooling there from any of them.

The attitudes in Australia were a shock that literally took me years to get over.

That said, Hong Kong has for decades been massively racist and oppressive to Filipino domestic workers, under both the British colonial-era government and the current SAR government.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 6:49 PM on July 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


Oh man, that privilege of not seeing race. At a young age I was self-hating and idealized whiteness. I don't think my white friends had any idea how much I envied them and hated myself. For everyone who doesn't see race or who doesn't have to think about their own race - that privilege was obvious to me even as a child, and it fucked me up. How amazing to not be seen in a narrowed way, to be "allowed" - by yourself and others - to be a complex, rich person with no preconceptions or expectations. To have a default white western culture that was so ubiquitous it disappeared completely. I wanted that so badly! I wanted to erase myself and live as a totally blank white person who could self-actualize and cultivate whatever they wanted of themselves, who didn't have to see any race because they had no race.

"I don't see race" - the next time you say that or hear someone else saying it, picture the flipside of that thought, a young person of color who can barely stand to look in the mirror, trying with every last ounce of their willpower to erase themselves.
posted by naju at 8:29 PM on July 9, 2015 [17 favorites]


Man, if there's one thing I've learned over time as a white guy, it is just how easy I have it, and just how hard it is for most white guys to ever look beyond themselves.

Chiming in on the "white guys living in Asia" bandwagon (because this is the internet, where white guys in Asia live), having lived in Japan for something like the past seven years now, there's definitely a sense of being an "outsider" (which is no doubt partially just because, once you graduate from college in pretty much any society, it becomes a lot harder to meet new people), but as has been mentioned before, there's not a whole lot of downside to being a white man in Japan. I mean, hell, it frustrates me every day that working as an actual translator rarely pays better than simply working as a token white American at some English shop.

The thing is, this myopia is pervasive to the point where op-ed pieces on the Japan Times ("It's technically not just a blog!"™) go "viral" among the expat community on, say, Facebook, and I'm frequently annoyed that they tend to be some white man complaining about his oppression because he's been inconvenienced mildly or even just not given the special treatment that he expects as a white man. The message is virtually always "pity the poor straight white men," rather than "holy crap, I now have even the tiniest taste of what it must be like to be someone who doesn't look like they're of European ancestry living in America, and I am so unbelievably lucky." Like, sure, people always ask you where you're originally from with the expectation of some other country, but people don't constantly do that in the country you were born in and have lived in your whole life.

If only perspective were something they could teach in classes other than art.
posted by DoctorFedora at 11:36 PM on July 9, 2015 [8 favorites]


This article for me was a really good explanation of a concept which reflects so much of my own experience and explains things I've heard about from people of colour. It is very "well duh" in that respect. But for all its obviousness it's not an easy concept to articulate: either you're the white person who doesn't know that you're White, or you are a person of colour who has never not been aware of this stuff so how do you explain it to someone who doesn't realise it exists, or you're of mixed race and getting confusing and contradicting messages.

I have been aware of race since I was very young, and have never intentionally said or done a racist thing. I first became aware of privilege since late high school, and have been working since then to be aware of and mitigate unconscious and systemic bias since then although my understanding wasn't very deep at first. But I didn't realise I was White until a couple of years ago, when I started following more people of colour on Twitter. Just being a lurker on some conversations was a real education. Maybe in a few years I'll be able to tell you what being White even means to me, but for now I'm just going to let that fact absorb into my worldview and see how I go.
posted by harriet vane at 11:41 PM on July 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


But my response would be "the United States is a social construct, and people live and die, benefit or suffer, from that construct, and that's enough reality for me to take it seriously"

Yeah. Money is a social construct. Class is a social construct. Beauty is a social construct. Hell, international borders are a social construct. Just because something is a social construct doesn't mean it's arbitrary or meaningless or ignoreable. Imagine trying to buy a BMW for two buffalo nickels and a firkin of salt and patiently explaining to the saleswoman that "I don't really see money, you know? After all, rich or poor, we're all the same on the inside."
posted by KathrynT at 12:40 AM on July 10, 2015 [10 favorites]


As a white woman who lived in South Korea for a few years, I've experienced racism, though it was mostly of the benevolent variety - people being shocked when I spoke the language even slightly, etc. I had to deal with being fetishized because of my race a lot, and the creepy and sometimes scary behaviour that inevitably comes with that. Even so, I'm well aware that I received much better treatment than people of other minority groups living there and I always had the luxury of going home if I couldn't deal.

I won't pretend I fully grasp the horror of racism, but I've got enough imagination to be grateful that I've never experienced the full brunt of it, and enough empathy to not pretend that it's not a serious advantage.
posted by peppermind at 2:44 AM on July 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


I teach Introduction to Physical Anthropology to a lot of students at a large midwestern public university. Our field is morally culpable for a lot of the problems with the way the modern US deals with (or does not deal with) race. Just like we like to congratulate ourselves on standing on the shoulders of giants and building our science and learning about humanity and furthering human consequence, we can't forget that a lot of those shoulders were elevated in pursuit of eugenics and measuring nostrils and forehead bumps and hair texture to give the air of Truth, Science, and Knowledge to racism.

One of the key concepts in that course is the relationship between race and modern human variation (i.e., most variation that we see in modern humans does not actually separate "the races"; skin color is non-concordant with nearly all traits, etc. etc. etc.), and the fact that race is indeed a "social construct." However, another key concept of the course is that for humans, our biology is filtered and interpreted through our culture, so something can be just a cultural construct - like race - and still be incredibly meaningful and full of consequences.
posted by ChuraChura at 3:38 AM on July 10, 2015 [5 favorites]


Years ago there was an interesting article in The Atlantic that described a computer simulation. The idea was that the program was describing a racially diverse neighbourhood. There were very few rules that the simulation followed, but one of them was that every "person" or unit wants to live next to at least one other unit that is similar to them. The simulated neighbourhoods segregated very quickly.

Even without explicit discrimination, it's very easy to end up in a racially homogenous environment.

(I've since looked for the article but haven't been able to find it.)


Maugrim - I think that's Jonathan Rauch's Seeing Around Corners.
posted by you must supply a verb at 6:10 AM on July 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


First off of all people here on mefi I understand the importance of social constructs in general having meaning and impact to people's lives and therefore having importance.

That said there are so many people I've talked to about this in my local sphere that think race means some genetically deterministic thing that actually separates us from each other in some biologically essential way. That's what I have a problem with in regards to the word race. My work specifically is to answer this question for myself: "How do I use the word race without participating in reinforcing the biologically essentialist 'race is genetic' notion that a lot of Americans were raised to believe?"
posted by Annika Cicada at 7:00 AM on July 10, 2015 [3 favorites]


I just looked up the numbers, and the USA is 77.7% white. That's a majority, but it's not so great a percentage as to explain, by itself, why so many white people aren't interacting with any people of color.

Aside from the pointed-out fact that this represents an average, there's also the huge disparity in economic status and mobility. The people with more money and power can more easily control access and choose destinations where there are fewer lower income folks.
posted by phearlez at 8:40 AM on July 10, 2015


I, Racist. Also about talking race with white folks.
posted by phearlez at 8:44 AM on July 10, 2015 [3 favorites]


Aside from the pointed-out fact that this represents an average, there's also the huge disparity in economic status and mobility. The people with more money and power can more easily control access and choose destinations where there are fewer lower income folks.

I moved to Oregon a few years ago. The homogeneity is quite striking, and incredibly broad. Census data shows that of 100 Oregonians, 1.8 are black. Washington has double, at 3.6 percent.

There's a wide variety of reasons for this. The Pacific Northwest did not import slaves; Oregon made it illegal for blacks to settle in the territory; and metro sundown laws all contribute. Even if attitudes in the state have changed in the past 50 years, the historic impact of racism and discrimination are not so easily overcome. You can't exactly bus in enough diversity when the numbers are that skewed. With even the slightest bit of income inequality it seems plausible that kids in, say, Beaverton can graduate from public education having never sat in class next to a black child, whereas my own Midwestern suburban neighborhood was comparatively more racially diverse.

Undoing that is going to take a lot more than I think people are willing to put in, or admit to.
posted by pwnguin at 11:01 AM on July 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


@you must supply a verb

That's the one. Thanks!
posted by Maugrim at 1:31 PM on July 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


"How do I use the word race without participating in reinforcing the biologically essentialist 'race is genetic' notion that a lot of Americans were raised to believe?"

Speaking for myself, I have a hard time really addressing this because I feel like it implies a lot of loaded assumptions about my priorities and conception of race, that don't actually relate to my experiences? Like, the whole reason why I wrote my last comment addressed to you was to try to convey what race actually is to me. Trying to describe it through experience was my best shot at it, because there's just no vocabulary out there to adequately convey what it feels like to have a racial identity to a white person - but I think what I was trying to get at is that it's very, very complex and muddled with culture, that abstract academic definitions of "this is what race is" just aren't very helpful. There are so many contributing factors to race and racial perception, and biology is absolutely one component, even though it's not the only one. Especially in North America, I absolutely am treated on the merit of my skin color, my hair color, my facial features. I absolutely do develop solidarity and identity blocs based upon these unchangeable genetic features. These absolutely are important topics in racial spheres - this is why we have colorism, this is why we have discussions about passing as white. So in the first place, I'm not really interested in addressing your question head-on because it seems to come from some abstract conception of what race is, that is completely foreign to my own experiences.

But then it makes an assumption about priorities that is also foreign to me. Like, my biggest issue right now is that white people don't talk about race. I don't really care what people really think about asians or black people or whatever, deep in their hearts. Bioessentialism is already engrained into every aspect of our society and culture. White kids learn that growing up, they can be anything. We PoC have our job prospects limited and pigeonholed based upon stereotypes, our education, our criminal profiles, our housing, our everything. Like, I don't care if this is something people deeply hold in their hearts or not, because they've already won. It's already there and cemented into the basic foundations of our society. And now white people are trying to whitewash that concrete wall and tiptoe around it as if it weren't there. I don't care about changing people's hearts, because we tried that already and it just led to colorblindness - and a big part of it was because you know, even if white people can consciously convince themselves that we're all ~*equal*~ and ~*human beings*~, we live in a society where PoC have concrete barriers for them everywhere when white people don't. And white people are just going to point to that and go, "see, bioessentialism exists" because they constantly see us falling down time after time again except the ~*exceptional ones*~ who technically don't count as one of those nasty PoC ("we have a black president now!") I can't change hearts because the evidence is right there for racist white turds to interpret as they please, no matter what they say. I want these concrete walls down first.

Then the third part of it is, like the author of the piece phearlez linked and a hell lot of other PoC, overt racism is a lot of the time a way better situation for me than covert racism, because people are at least honest. I can only judge people by their actions. I don't care that white people have these terrible racist notions buried deep inside of them because this is par for the course - don't kid yourself by saying that you don't. And I don't care that white people who are aware of these terrible racist notions inside of them and want to be allies are angsty about the way they sound to other white people when they talk about race to the point that they can't talk about race until they beanplate it, because hey, us PoC are dealing with the exact same thing, and somehow I don't end up being super fragile and delicate and tip-toey when I'm talking about Asian anti-black racism or internalized racism or whatever.

And then it goes back to the fact that PoC can never ever convey what it actually is to have a racial identity to white people. We spend literally every second of our waking lives thinking about race, feeling race, being aware of race. You guys don't. Don't kid yourself if you think that when we say the word "race" it means the same thing to you. So I mean, this is the exact situation that you're having here with other white people, that you say "race" and it means a totally different thing to them. And I don't know, we still talk about race. We still flesh it out, clarify it, fumble and attempt to dig into it. Of course people are going to be on different levels of understanding when it comes to the word "race". That doesn't mean it's not a concept we communicate, or at least try to communicate with.

I don't feel like I've done this topic even an iota of justice here, because again, I totally lack any vocabulary to explain race on a truly significant level to white people. But just trust me when I say that it's not a priority for me, and it's not something that should be beanplated.
posted by Conspire at 1:43 PM on July 10, 2015 [10 favorites]


Thanks for writing that, Conspire, it helps a lot.

I'm not suggesting to just up and pretend we are all equal now and that racism doesn't affect you profoundly. I'm not saying "there's no such thing as race". What I feel like is, the way we've built it is so fucked up. We have to confront it, face it, talk about it. Which is what I want to do. I understand if I am irritating you a bit with my comments. I apologize if that is the case. I'm not taking this discussion lightly and I have a lot of respect for everyone who has addressed my comments and questions.

What I'm seeing now, that I didn't see before, is that the way we have constructed our world around the concept of race in turn creates a social identity around those biologically essential factors we were born with. That even though those factors at birth do not completely determine a person's human qualities and capabilities, the forces, ways and rules of the world around us as we grow up most certainly do. And that's where your race comes from, and how I am able to ignore it. And being white, it doesn't matter how I see it, because I can choose not to if I want. But how it affects you matters, because you can't. So I respect what race means to you more that my own internal wrestling with my notions, because at the end of the day those are just notions in my head that are free for me to change, while your lived experience with race comes at a huge cost to you that I don't have to bear.

Hugs. I appreciate it.
posted by Annika Cicada at 4:24 PM on July 10, 2015 [5 favorites]


Nothing to add except thanks for having the patience to listen to me despite my somewhat touchy and direct tone, Annika Cicada. Hugs!
posted by Conspire at 6:21 PM on July 10, 2015 [6 favorites]


I don't remember the first time I noticed racism, but I have spent much of the last 10 years actively trying to notice it and change the way I react to race/ethnicity/skin as a white person with all the usual white Canadian programming and blind spots.

A recent blind spot revealed: I have a black coworker who I've become lunch friends with. It was her birthday recently, so I went to buy her a card at a Papyrus shop. Standing in that store, I suddenly saw it:

EVERY person depicted on a card, whether in a photo or an illustration, was explicitly white. Every one.

I had never seen it before. It was chilling and it raised personal questions. Had I never bought a birthday card for a black person before? Signed, yes: selected, no. We mix primarily at work. Come to Toronto and I will bring you to public places full of only white people and we can talk about how 49% of the population self-segregates so effectively. How else could I have made it to 34 years old, my adult years all in Toronto, without noticing that all of the cards are made explicitly for white people?

I ended up buying a card with pretty words and no people because there was not a card in the store celebrating her beauty, her skin, her hair, her shape, her existence at all. I stood in the doorway for a moment watching streams of people of every skin tone walked by. But only my skin exists on the cards.

I talked to the manager, another white woman. Gingerly. I laughed. "I feel silly not to have noticed this before, but ..." Trying not to cause offence by describing her store to her. This gentleness reveals our race awareness. We KNOW to tread light. We do know.

She agreed, asked me to make a complaint on the website form because my words would travel further there. I did, again gingerly and in all positive terms ("Toronto has everyone and we like buying each other cards! Help us out!"). I got a letter from them saying they were working on it, that it was a new initiative this year, for a North American card company to consider the celebrating the existence of North Americans who aren't white.

And how can I shame them for it, when I saw their cards as neutral until 34 years old?

And can the invisible white-only perfect celebrating world of our birthday cards be completely unconnected to the lack of concern in the news when Lecent Ross, 14 and black, was shot and killed here this past week? Is she not one of Toronto's children? Is her face not recognized as "us"? Clearly we have more attention for a dead raccoon's memorial than a dead girl's.
posted by heatherann at 6:28 AM on July 12, 2015 [7 favorites]


EVERY person depicted on a card, whether in a photo or an illustration, was explicitly white. Every one.

I take it Hallmark's Mahogany line of cards hasn't made it to Canada yet. Odd that.
posted by MikeMc at 8:55 AM on July 12, 2015


It may have, but I was at Papyrus, not Hallmark.

Is there a line of cards that depicts non-white non-Black people as well?
posted by heatherann at 9:55 AM on July 12, 2015


Is there a line of cards that depicts non-white non-Black people as well?

I do see Spanish language cards but I haven't noticed any South or East Asian cards.
posted by MikeMc at 11:01 AM on July 12, 2015


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