Letter to a White Student Who Doesn’t Want to be Call “White” in a Class on Race
Reading Time: 8 minutes
By: Kimberly Pollock – Confluence Daily is your daily news source for women in the know.
You are being brave enough to express your honest responses to the reading, which is not an easy thing to do. You are showing empathy for people who are not like you in terms of race that is genuine. And when you feel uncomfortable about the way that white people are being called ‘white folks’, you are open about this discomfort. And I validate that when one has always thought of oneself as an individual and not as a member of their race, it must be extremely uncomfortable to be grouped with everyone else in your race.
I know this to be true because it hurts when it happens to me as a person of color, and it happens to me every day of my life. Black people are always referred to as members of their racial group; brown people are always referred to as members of their racial group; Asian people in the U.S. are always referred to as members of their racial group; and indigenous people are always referred to as members of their racial group. And this is done because it benefits white people for us to be seen through a filter of race.
One of the concepts that support this class and help to explain why I teach this class the way that I do, is to help white students learn to see the world through a filter of race not in terms of how race impacts others, ( white people always associate the word race with “the other”–people of color). It is important that white people learn to see the word race in terms of themselves. It is important that white people learn to think about how their whiteness impacts their lives. White people must learn to see themselves as a member of their race.
And why is it important that white people learn to see themselves as white people, as white folks? Because they see all the rest of the people of the world in terms of race. The most important privilege of whiteness is being able to see oneself as an individual only. Because of the way that race functions in our society, the privilege of individuality lies with whiteness. White people don’t have to be associated with all other white people. When a lone white person does something, no one holds all white people responsible for what that white person did. This is the biggest privilege of whiteness: individuality.
People of color are always conscious of themselves in two different ways. Yes, they are individuals, unique, amazing and wonderful! But they are also always aware that they are members of their race. They will always be aware that when someone of their race acts, it will impact, be attributed to all the individuals who are also members of their race. When one black person in a hoodie does something wrong, it is held against all black people in hoodies. When a single undocumented immigrant commits a crime, we believe all undocumented people to be criminals and must close our boarder. When some Asian Americans are new to the country and are still learning English, other Asian Americans have been here for 5 generations and yet white people still compliment them on ‘how good their English is,” when they were born in Denver.
Only white people get to complain about being grouped in with other white people as discrimination. Individuality in terms of race is privilege based in race.
And until white people as individuals understand the way that their membership in their race, their whiteness impacts their lives, we cannot have an authentic, open discussion about race, because while people of color are always held responsible for everything everyone of their race does, white people can associate with whiteness when it benefits them, but don’t want to have to ‘be white’ when we talk about the bad things that white people, whiteness has done. This is the problem with race-based privilege. This is why white privilege matters.
Many white people think that people of color want to talk about white privilege to make white people feel bad and guilty. But this is not the case. The reason I need white people to understand their privilege based in race is because without understanding that race is not about hate but is about not having to be held accountable for your actions.
Whiteness is like a cloak of invisibility when it comes to race. The actions that individual white people do and the things that happen to them are never seen through a filter of race, so the things that happen to them because of their race don’t count–they are never seen in terms of race because we cannot talk about whiteness without ‘hurting white people.’ And those with power set the rules of engagement, so we don’t talk about things that happen because of whiteness. Instead, when we talk about things through a filter of race, we only see color. Let’s take an example from gender to understand this first.
Because race is a serious subject matter, let’s look at gender and race, and how our language helps us to accept rape. When we talk about rape, we use a passive voice. We write sentences where the object takes the place of the subject. We say, “Women were raped.” Women are who were raped–this makes them the object. But who did the raping? There is no subject in the sentence. There is no one doing the raping. The person who raped is therefore not held responsible for their action. We almost never call men rapists, but when women are raped, someone must be a rapist. By never calling men rapists, it makes it difficult for us to hold men accountable for their sexual behaviors.
And the ultimate proof of this is the new law in Alabama which bans abortion without any exceptions for rape and incest and holds doctors who provide abortions guilty of felony murder with a punishment of up to 99 years. The doctor would get a heavier punishment than the rapist. The men who voted in this law are holding women accountable for male sexual behaviors, their gender-based privilege gives them the privilege of ruling over women’s bodies. And although most men are not rapists, all men benefit from the sexism here.
And this is exactly what still happens between people of color and white people. Whiteness has control over our lives and bodies, and whiteness benefits from the control of people of color. The easiest place to see this is in the rates of mass incarceration of people of color when white people make up the majority of people who commit crime in the U.S. (If you don’t believe me look it up.) (Most of the mothers on welfare are also white, btw).
Understanding that all human bodies are racialized is important because it is linked to history and everything since the landing of Europeans on what they called, “The New World”. Through the system of race, white people are not held responsible for their actions because of their race. And people of color are held responsible for everything that happens because of their race. This is the biggest privilege of all! By claiming individuality, white people rid themselves of responsibility for racism. And if whiteness and white people are not responsible and do not see how they benefit from racism; we cannot stop it. We cannot solve a problem that white people don’t even know they don’t understand, but that they have caused (as a group) and benefit from (as both individual and group members because of group membership).
And I have written all of this to say, that until white people understand their individual and group membership roles in terms of how their race impacts their lives–the same way that people of color already understand ourselves as both individuals and members of our race–then when we try to talk about race, we are not speaking the same language. White people are almost always talking about themselves as individuals, and people of color are talking about all of us as members of our race.
Ninety percent of the people of the world are people of color. White people make up only 90% of the world’s population. And for the past 60 years, we have been trying to solve racism by ‘trying to make people of color equal to whites.’ We have always been equal. Instead of trying to ignore the race of people of color, why not treat white people as people with race? Why not treat them like people who things happen to because of their race, just as we do people of color?
Instead of saying that things happen to people because of their ‘blackness’, or ‘Asian-ness’, or ‘brownness’, let’s talk about all of the things that happen because of ‘whiteness.’ How many people got jobs because they are white? How many could buy homes, get loans because they are white? All but one of our nation’s presidents have been elected because they were/are white. So what is wrong with electing Obama because he is black? Didn’t his experiences with race give him qualities that other presidents have been lacking?
Racism happens because white people are white; not because people have color. And I am not saying this because I am trying to hurt white individuals. I want us to understand why race exists, so we can decide if we want to keep a system that is the opposite of the values we claim to hold as U.S. citizens. And I want to give my students the knowledge to make an informed decision about what perspectives they decide to use as they look at the world. I want you all to understand how race functions in the world so that you can make informed decisions about your own actions. This is the purpose of this class.
If you can see the impact that your actions make in the world through a filter of race, then you can decide how you want to act and be responsible for what you do. If you don’t know the impact of your actions, you do not have the ability to change your behaviors, and we all need white people to change their actions because the racial impact of their actions hurt others, and many people don’t know it, or know it and deny it’s truth.
So Dear White Student, this is why it is important that all of you understand why it is important that white people understand that they are indeed white people. This is not a racial slur; it is a description. I am not offended when I am called a black person, because I am black. I love my blackness; it is who I am. And while my blackness is not all of me, all of me is black. (Think about that one for a while!) Thank you again for giving me a chance to teach about seeing the world and oneself through a filter of race.
Now for the questions everyone wants to know. HOW DO WE SOLVE THE PROBLEM OF RACISM? First, we need to understand what needs to happen.
We need to have our share of the power in terms of our population. Like our U.S. founding fathers, we need to have representation in terms of our government, our judicial system, our policing system, education system, every institution, federal, state and local.
And this is what many white people fear. Many white people do not see this as sharing power and authority, but as loss, which it would indeed be. This is the difficulty with racism, and this is why just being nice to each other and loving each other won’t work to solve racism. And once we have accomplished shared power and authority, abolishing privilege, I’ll talk about what comes Second!
Racism is the patterns of privilege, power and authority granted to one group over others based in race.
There is no mention of hatred anywhere near that definition. Love may conquer hate, but Racism is not Hate!
And that is the final purpose of this class. To help students understand that Racism can only be solved through a shift in power and authority, so that we can begin to make that change happen.
Kimberly Pollock is an activist/educator, writer, visual artist and equity consultant in the Seattle Area. Founder of the Cultural and Ethnic Studies Department at Bellevue College, she has taught classes with a focus on race and gender for over 30 years. She can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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