I thought today I would take some time to explain shifts in perspective. I have always been interested in paradigm changes that upset the arbitrary. Sometimes these have come from hard conversations with friends who pointed out my assumptions or ignorance, sometimes these come from just watching people out working in the world, many times these have come from historical research using original documents and many times these have come from the extreme privilege I have to travel and see things from a different angle. My students have also explained and demonstrated so many things to me: from being more aware of gendered language, to reframing discussions about consent and body image to going vegan to sharpening my ability to see class and race to educating about trans and fluid gender struggles to explaining how hard it is to be masculine to calling me out on my classroom responses. The list is very long and I still have so much to learn. Let me say this again, I still have so much to learn but I hear the call to talk about whiteness and so here is what I can say today.
I am a single mother with no partner, I have a job that is barely a middle-class wage, I do not have a car, I have lost many things in my life and I have struggled.
However, today I would like to point out how thanks to my immense white privilege, many of these hard times can be reframed. It is so easy for white people to have the knee jerk reaction of well, I suffered too, my life hasn’t been easy, I didn’t get everything I wanted. I know this well. I have suffered. Things have been and continue to be hard but here are a few reframings to consider.
- I graduated from college with student loan debt and had to work most of my undergraduate years. I didn’t get to do anything fancy, had no car and lived cheap. BUT I came from a family whose white privilege meant we were conversant with how to get into college, how to get financial aid, and yes, some relatives eventually gifted me the money to pay off my loans. As a white person, I knew I could appeal financial aid and residency decisions and that the various people in charge at the university would listen to me. I was able to make noise, go where I wanted and pick the college of my choice because I had a lot of social capital to do so. I was easily able to persevere through the jobs and the financial troubles to excel at school and finish. I knew how the system worked because of my family and how many of them had attended and worked at institutions of higher education in positions of power. When I didn’t have money I could go stay with my cousins or eat dinner with my friends who did have money or complain to my godparents. I was surrounded by people who had some resources, financial or strategic.
2. I have raised a child all by myself and it has been very lonely. BUT never, ever, ever as a white person did I have to worry about the state intervening, about the neighbors calling social services if I yelled at my son in the driveway or that in court I would have a disadvantage because of my skin color. I never felt unsafe or worried that I would actually lose my child because of my bad parenting moments.
3. The obvious one. I do not like having encounters with the police. They pull me over plenty. I have had arguments with them. However, in all of my years of poor driving, I have only gotten one actual speeding ticket. When I totaled two cars because I ran a stop sign at age 16, I was never cited. The judge took one look at my white freckled face with the big bruises, said, I guess you’ve learned your lesson young lady and dismissed me. I looked ‘innocent’ because I was white. The second time I totaled two cars (this one maybe not entirely my fault), the police were so worried about me out in the cold that they gave me a ride home in a squad car and waited to make sure I would be okay. I know they treated me like this because I am white. Since I drive crappy cars at odd times of the night, I have often been pulled over for the most ridiculous reasons like not signaling within the right number of feet or pulling into the far lane after exiting a gas station. But every single time they have just given me a warning and I went home. I smiled at the officer and played the game and was done. I am pretty sure that at 2 am in West Eugene they weren’t expecting me to be a grumpy white lady and that things would have turned out very differently if I hadn’t been white.
4. I have a small boring house that I can only just afford and I’m never going to be able to remodel it or probably move to a bigger place. It is not very cute and it looks just like all of the other houses on the street. Most of my friends have much nicer houses. BUT I was able to buy a house in the US because I have inherited money and been gifted money from my relatives who in turn inherited or were gifted money from their relatives and so on down the line. We have capital because our grandparents and great-grandparents were white, were landowners, were able to escape global conflicts because of connections, were able to make money grow into more money. If my ancestors in the US had been enslaved people, this accretion of capital could never have happened because zero doesn’t grow into a house down-payment no matter how many generations.
5. I was abandoned by my father and have carried this loss with me all of my life. It has hurt and it was traumatic. This is one of my core wounds. BUT he left because he needed to or wanted to. As a white man, he was not taken away from us to be incarcerated or killed by a militarized police force. He just up and left because of his own personal demons, not because of the demons of the race relations of the United States. My personal story is just a personal story, it is not because of the color of his skin that we lost him, it is not because of an institutional system that targets men like him. He was an addict and an alcoholic but because he was white, this did not lead to him being incarcerated or killed.
6. My dear stepson died at age 14. It was terrible. I still miss him. BUT his cause of death was entirely natural, it was something that could not possibly have been prevented. While he lay in a coma in the ICU another boy was also dying that same day, innocent victim of a drive-by shooting in the inner-city neighborhoods of Rochester, NY where decades of poverty and terrible policing have led to more and more violence. My stepson’s race had absolutely nothing to do with his death. It was a tragedy but an individual one. The other boy’s death was statistically highly connected to the color of his skin, ultimately preventable, not something that ever, ever had to happen in a humane world.
7. I am in France now and I feel like an ungainly slob going into the very fancy boutiques. I feel like the salesladies are giving my hips the stink eye and I simply cannot afford 50 euro lace panties. BUT I can go in any store here or in the US and even if I feel a little out of place, because I am white, I will not be followed or made to feel like I should leave. I can pretty much walk into any fancy place in the world, even in scruffy clothes, and because I am white I will not be asked to leave even if I really, really don’t belong. I can go sit in a big city hotel lobby if my feet are tired or wander into conventions or conferences without a name badge pretty easily. I am not rich but I am white and so I have a ticket to most events.
8. So here I am in France and I have gotten terribly lazy about my accent and people often ask me where I am from, sometimes even when I don’t speak because I probably smile too much. It’s annoying BUT never, ever do they assume they know something about my kind of people or my way of being in the world because I come from another place. As a white woman, I don’t have any particular characteristics attached to my identity. People don’t ask where I am from because of the color of my skin and when they find out where I am from they just believe it because I am white. I don’t have to justify where I was born or my parentage. It’s a light conversation usually that doesn’t put me in a racial box. When a non-white friend says they are from Indiana or wherever, people interrogate them because they have to be ‘from’ somewhere else. My mother is not American but because I am white, I get to be ‘from’ wherever I say.
This is a short and incomplete list but I want to explain how, although my life has been hard because I am a human being on this earth, these hardships have not been compounded by the color of my skin. My hardships are my own story and not due to my race. Of course I have much to say about how the patriarchy has slammed many doors shut in my face but not because of my race, not because of my race, not because of the way I look. People are afraid of me because I say sharp things but not because of my skin tone, not because of my hair, not because of my race. There are many things I didn’t get to have in this lifetime but the reason is never, ever because of the pigment of my skin, because of society’s ideas about my ethnic group, or because of my family’s history with the institutionalized racism of the United States.
Please, please point out anything you think I missed. I’d like to come up with more examples. My son and I are preparing our return to the US and of course I have mixed feelings about this but it seems like now more than ever it is time for educators like me to do the hard, hard work and to show up.