White woman looking in mirror.

I’ve been a white American for more than 70 years. You’d think I’d know what it means.

Being White Means Nothing

Racial inequality has plagued this country since its beginning, and I’ve been conscious of that for more than half a century. Still, as I set out to learn what I could from the current wave of anti-racism work, I had no answer for the title question of Robin DiAngelo’s book What Does It Mean to Be White?

My first reaction was a sputtered, “Nothing.” I thought we don’t have any particular culture, or any defining features. We don’t even see “white” as part of a description. Unless we say someone is “Black” or “East Asian,” we assume them to be white.

Because we’re the default. I’ve recently realized that even that way of seeing ourselves and our world is racist.

It’s true light skin means almost nothing genetically. The concept of race as we know it is an artificial construct. There is a lot of ambiguity on what constitutes a race, and enormous variation within so-called “races.”  One interesting demonstration showed that two scientists of European ancestry (James Watson and Craig Venter) were more genetically similar to Korean scientist Seong-Jin Kim than they were to each other.

Being White Means Everything

Even a quick glance at American society would show the dominance of white people. We’re 75-percent of the population, and, even if you take away those who are white Hispanic/Latinx, we’re still 60-percent. The eloquent words of Reverend Michael Eric Dyson when he wrote about American Christian churches apply to our whole society. [Americans portray] “truth as white, facts as white, reality as white, beauty as white, normal as white, moral as white, righteousness as white, theology as white, Christ as white, God as white. And America as white.”

The January 6, 2021, insurrection at the United States Capitol gave us a dramatic lesson in what it means to be white. Law enforcement agencies, notably the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, didn’t even bother to put together a threat assessment beforehand. They usually issue such assessments before big demonstrations, or even smaller ones. They issued one for the Black Lives Matter demonstrations in Washington, DC last June. Those demonstrations met with a heavy police presence and the National Guard. The mob that gathered at the U.S. Capitol met no such resistance. They were able to rampage out of control, beating police officers, killing one of them, with a very small chance of being tear-gassed, arrested, or even stopped. Why?

“The Invisible Obvious”

Because most of them were white. So are most of the higher-ups in law enforcement and the military. R.J. Eddy, a former counterintelligence official who runs the private intelligence firm Ergo called it “the invisible obvious,” things that might be sitting right in front of us, but they’re invisible to us because of our biases. Eddy said, “[I]t was very hard for these decision-makers and these analysts to realize that people who look just like them could want to commit this kind of unconstitutional violence and could literally try to and want to kill them.”

In other words, the security establishment assumed that because the demonstrators were white like them, they couldn’t be dangerous. Their biases told them that it’s people of color who are threatening and violent, not white people.

Tell that to the people of color who had to clean up the Capitol after all those white people rampaged through it. Not only did those white people smash and steal, but some of them thought it appropriate to celebrate their victory by sh*tting on the floor. The Seattle Times columnist Naomi Ishisaka wrote, ”People of color, who were least responsible for the damage, were left to literally and figuratively clean up the mess made by unchecked nationalist violence.” A repulsive demonstration of white privilege.

Racism Becoming More Obvious to Whites, Including Me

I certainly haven’t been blind to racism all my long life. I grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, with segregated schools, separate sections on city buses, and “Colored Only on Thursdays” signs at the city zoo. I’ve had a lifelong interest in my country’s history, and so have discovered horrific story after horrific story. I’ve blogged about some of those:

How we see cowboys, those quintessential American heroes as all white, when they weren’t: Mythology and the American Cowboy

When Virginia Governor Ralph Northam mistakenly referred to the first Africans to be brought as slaves to this country, a mistake I bet he hasn’t made since, I wrote about Slavery, Indenture, and My Family. Some of my ancestors were indentured servants, and there’s a big difference between what happened to them and their descendants and to people held as slaves.

About this country’s history of lynchings, and how We Can’t Blame It All on the South.

Being white has everyday privileges

It’s not all about horrific stories, though. Some of it’s just everyday living. Not too long ago, my husband and I went out to do a few errands. We went one town over to shop at a specialty store. Then we decided while we were there we’d run some other errands at national chain stores, and finish up the day with dinner at one of the local restaurants.

It only struck me later how easy it is for us to do something like that because we’re white. We didn’t have to worry about being followed by security, or refused service, or searched, or asked for extra forms of identification, or any of the other indignities not-white people are subjected to every day. It means that when I see the flashing light of a police car pulling me over, I think it’s an inconvenience: I must have a broken taillight or an expired registration. I don’t wonder if I will survive the encounter.

But now that I’m realizing this, what do I do about it? I’ve already been working for voter registration and voter empowerment, and I’ll keep on doing that. I just finished an eight-week discussion group on white privilege, and I’ll write about that soon. I’m just starting out on this path,  looking to learn, and searching out opportunities to do more. I’ll keep writing as I go.

Further Reading

First up is Robin DiAngelo’s What Does It Mean to Be White?: Developing White Racial Literacy. Get the newest edition of this book. I’d also advise reading it in a group over a period of weeks. There’s a lot to digest, and it can be “text-booky,” as one of our participants pointed out. But it’s clear and well organized. One reviewer wrote, “Reading it took me from ‘well-meaning but clueless’ to ‘fledgling woke’about how whiteness works in America.”

Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race is an easier and more personal read. Oluo is bi-racial, and she writes poignant and memorable accounts of some of her interactions with her mother.