When some of my white friends say they don’t see color, they are trying to say they are not racist. That they see other people as individuals, not as members of races. Earlier in my life, I probably would have said that about myself.
I am beginning to see that attitude as part of the privilege that goes with whiteness. And as racist.
Individualism Keeps Us from Understanding
Certainly each human being is unique. Nobody’s saying that’s not so. But the attitude of “individualism,” saying that our obvious group memberships, such as race, class, or gender are not important or relevant to our opportunities, that they don’t matter, obscures several key dynamics of racism. For one thing, it denies the significance of race and the advantages of being white. For another, it denies the social and historical context we all live in. On a literal level it’s plain silly. We see color everywhere else: in the sky, houses, curtains, clothes. We certainly see it on people.
Still, I had a tough time seeing that this idea of individualism is a white privilege, that it is in fact racist. I just didn’t get it. Whiteness is not usually the first thing white people see about each other. We don’t have to. We are the dominant class. We don’t understand that our whiteness has power, that our entry into a space with people of color can dramatically change the atmosphere in that space. We don’t feel that whiteness has power. We don’t understand, on a visceral level, that it is the first thing many people of color will see about us.
How It Makes a Difference
A few years ago, my friend Teresa moved to Whidbey Island, an idyllic area north of Seattle, one that has spectacular scenery and a lively artists’ colony. The island also has a history of hosting white supremacist groups, the most notable probably being The Order. Members of The Order robbed at least one bank, and murdered attorney and disc jockey Alan Berg before their leader was killed in a shootout with federal agents on Whidbey in 1984.
Teresa wanted to volunteer at a local non-profit community group whose mission includes education of racial biases and systemic inequity. They also offer youth mentoring. She thought she’d be ideal, even though she’s white. After all, she’s married to a Black man and has two biracial daughters. Besides, she’s a bright, capable woman who has run primary school programs and a number of other community-oriented organizations. Most organizations were thrilled to have her as a volunteer. But when she met with a representative of the group, she says she was “all puppy-dog enthusiasm,” but found the African-American woman she talked to be restrained and reserved. Teresa left confused, and says that in earlier years she might simply have let her initial hurt feelings end her interactions with this community organization.
She says she now supports the organization, and thinks the other woman’s response was appropriate, because, “My whiteness precedes me into spaces with people of color. Trust ought to be earned.” It was a humbling lesson, she says, to realize that we may think we are individual white people, but to others we are often part of a collective ‘whiteness.'”
The Face of the Oppressor
Whiteness means more than just social and economic advantage. White people have actively oppressed others throughout our history. We have a funny, passive way of saying these things: Native Americans “were pushed off their lands.” African Americans “were held as slaves.” Mexicans “have been exploited” in menial jobs and then deported when they became inconvenient. Asians “were kept from immigrating.” No: white people pushed off the Native Americans, enslaved Africans, mistreated Mexicans, excluded Asians. People who looked like us did all that.
We bear the face of the oppressor. Even the gentlest of us may inspire fear just by being the color we are.
I think it must be hard for any person of color to trust any white person, especially one they don’t know. In doing this anti-racism work, I have realized what a generous gift I have received from my friends of color when they give me their trust, and show me such honesty and patience.
“The Most Segregated Hour in America”
Those of us who regularly attend a place of worship think of that place as a sanctuary, a safe place, and maybe we think everyone ought to feel comfortable there. White members of denominations that have worked for racial justice often long for people of other colors to join them. That doesn’t happen much. Eleven o’clock Sunday morning is still, as Martin Luther King, Jr., famously said, the most segregated hour in America.
My Unitarian Universalist denomination is overwhelmingly white, even though we have a 200-year history of fighting for racial justice. That history is admittedly a little bit checkered, but we have sustained what most of us believe to be a welcoming philosophy. We mention proudly that two white Unitarian Universalists, Viola Liuzzo and Rev. James Reeb, died in Selma working for voting rights. We long for more diverse membership. While we do have at least two large churches with diverse congregations, most of our congregants are white people.
One problem is that any person of color walking in the door is going to see a sea of white faces. But there’s more to it than that, as Rev. Thomas Perchlik, the minister at my church, explained to me. He says congregants sometimes say to him that they know people of color who “would be perfect,” who believe as we believe. Then he asks, “How many people of color have you personally invited?” Usually the answer is “none.” Part of that is because we don’t evangelize, and the person he’s talking to probably hasn’t invited any white people, either.
Rev. Perchlik points out, though, that part if it is our white blindness to the local histories of redlining and exclusion that created our white communities. “That’s the first problem,” he says. “We are actually perpetrators of a segregated social system, and we do it totally unconsciously.” While it’s a good idea to do some workshops, he says, you can’t just do them once. “You have to keep doing them. We need a serious reawakening every few years. We embody all sorts of things we don’t even realize.”
Moving into White Neighborhoods
If it takes courage, and it does, for a person of color to enter a large room full of white people, imagine how much more it takes to move into a white neighborhood. Just googling something like, “Chicago Housing Riots” will give you a lot of sobering reading material.
About eight years ago, my husband and I were selling our house in Montgomery County, Maryland. Four of the ten most diverse cities in the United States are in Montgomery County. We lived in one of them, and yet our little neighborhood was almost all white, with a sprinkling of Asians. We knew our neighbors enough to know their attitudes. The white family next to us had changed churches so they could go to a more diverse church downtown. The house in back of us was occupied by an interracial couple. We’d seen people of several different colors at backyard barbecues, going into neighbors’ houses. This would not be a hostile neighborhood for a person of color to move into.
How Can You Say “Welcome?”
But how to communicate that? When we were interviewing real estate agents, we said we knew there was coded language for letting different people know they were not welcome. Was there anything we could legally say that would let them know they were?
Not really, the agents told us. Not only is “steering” a major no-no, but they really didn’t know of any such language. We did decide to hire the agent who spoke Spanish, and I wrote an ad that described the neighborhood as “welcoming,” and asked him if that would be okay. He said it would.
He held one open house for us. At the end we had three pre-approved bidders, all offering more than the asking price. The best bid came from an African-American woman, and we happily sold her the house. Eight years later, she’s still living in our old neighborhood.
No Big Answers Yet
This is just one anecdote, and it’s not conclusive. I want to know how a Black real estate agent, for example, can determine if a predominantly white neighborhood would be safe for their Black clients. I’ve called a few such agents and left messages. They have not called me back.
I’m not surprised, really. It’s an awkward set of questions, and they have no idea who I am. I probably sound “white” on the phone. If I were in their shoes, I wouldn’t call me back, either.
But I’ll keep working on it, because I’d really like to know.
Remember my friend Teresa? The white woman married to a Black man, with two biracial children? I told her this story, and her face lit up. She said, “If my family heard that word ‘welcoming,’ it would make us happy. I know what that means.”
It’s a start.
This is part of an open-ended series, “What Does It Mean to Be White?” about my personal journey in anti-racism. I appropriated the title of Robin DiAngelo’s book after being in a workshop on it. It is a rich source book, and I’m still learning from it.
The two Unitarian Universalist churches I mentioned with markedly diverse congregations are All Souls in Washington, DC, and All Souls in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Each has a history unlikely to be duplicated elsewhere. All Souls in DC was active in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s, and, according to folklore, the church basement was one of the few places people of all colors could eat together in Washington, DC. At the Tulsa church a predominantly white congregation welcomed a large group of African Americans pushed out of their local Pentecostal church. And, no, not all UU churches are named All Souls.