Tuesday, January 27, 2009

What Does It Mean To You...

To be White?

I am taking a Race and Racism class in which we watched a movie called The Color of Fear. It was an interesting video where someone got a bunch of different ethnic groups together to discuss their prejudices and experiences with Racism. At one point in the video someone pointed out that the White guy had no culture and told him to "get ethnic!" So it brought the discussion to be "What does it mean to be white?"

The white people in the video didn't really answer, so the next class meeting we got into a very thoughtful, meaningful, and honest discussion (in a class of over 300 people) about what it means to be white and how other ethnic groups see us. Many people questioned why we have no particular culture, traditions, or language maintenance from our ancestors, and as a result of the discussion I reached the following thought (and shared it with the class):

I don't carry the traditions of my ancestors (British, Finnish, Dutch, etc.) because...well I'm mostly of English descent (?) and come from colonizers who came here to purposefully abandon England. They didn't want English traditions, they didn't want a queen, they didn't want the oppression of the Catholic Church/Anglo-Saxon Church, they didn't want to be English! They became Americans, they became settlers and colonists and the identifying factor then became which Colony (and later which State) you were from. As for my other ethnic descents, I believe they came here seeking better lives, seeking the American dream, and as part of that over time their cultures and traditions were lost as they sought success and acceptance here. My immigrant ancestors are many generations back and something was lost through those generations, whereas some other ethnic groups or people's personal experiences don't have that generation gap to lose traditions and languages.

What it means for me to be White is to be a mix of many different countries and cultures, to be an American, to eat Mexican food one night and Indian food the next, to have Vietnamese neighbors, Mexican neighbors, Black neighbors (I say black because not all blacks are from Africa, or identify with being from Africa as one Haitian student in my class pointed out), etc., my culture is one of strong immediate family, Sunday dinners, and thrift store shopping.

Just as with all purported "races," my experience is an individual one, not a group one. I'm sure that what it means for me to be white is very different than what it means for a southerner to be white, or a Russian, or a French, or and Italian, or a Englishman, or and Irish, etc. There really is no "Race," we are all the human race and just have different personal experiences that shape who we are. I don't deny grave injustices done against those of different color based solely on the fact that they are different than the oppressor, whether currently or in the past, I just deny the idea of Race, or that we are different races. Different ethnic groups, skin colors, or different citizens of different countries yes, but inherently a different Race? nope.

So for you, what does it mean to be white? or whatever you are? What does it mean to be you? Comments are desired but if all I achieve is some introspection on your part, that's ok too.


T.J. Shelby said...

Interesting query. I don't have a definitive answer for that. I mostly see myself as American and not as a white American.

I think what makes America great is that we can all enjoy the great things many cultures offer up to our melting pot.

Christopher Maloy said...

What it means to be white (non-Jewish). Hmmm ... I have a similar answer as TJ. I have always considered myself as American. My brother and I joke that we are of Irish roots, but in reality we have such a mix of blood.

Hmmm ...

I do like to watch the behavior of other people and I have seen cases where people stand closer to their kids or possessions when a black guy is near or show anxiety when a guy with a turban on his head is sitting somewhere close in an airplane. I don't get that treatment from others. Sure a lot of that may be because of the clean way I dress and my clean appearance than with the actual color of my skin (but who knows).

I guess there is a lot of white guilt now and days. At times I feel that it is a mortal sin to call someone brown without malice (even though they actually are).

As a white guy I kind of feel overwhelmed with the political correctness in the way I interact with someone. Personally I feel we have gone overboard on that.

The world is getting smaller and for a lot of our history the whitey has been the one with all the power and opportunity, but I think as we grow up as a human race we are learning to harness as a strength our diversity. How many generations before we are so mixed that skin color is no longer a factor?

Christopher Maloy said...

Great thought provoking question Scott. I like.

Scott H. said...

I too thought of myself as American, or more specifically, as a Californian. I never identified myself as a white-American, or thought I was privileged because of the color of my skin, but this class has caused some introspection. Apart from seeing people shy away from certain colors or whatever (I don't think I've ever done that) we have never experienced someone shy away from us in such a manner, I also have never experienced racial profiling against me, I've never called about a job and had them be excited to meet me until I arrived and they saw my skin color only to go "oh never mind," etc.

These kind of issues and experiences were some raised and had by those of non-white complexion. I never thought of "privilege" in that manner. So it caused this introspection for myself and this inquiry for others.

Think outside the box. The response you gave is akin to what the white-man in the video said, he asked why can't we all just be people, or humans, etc. To which one black man responded: "what you are saying when say 'why can't we all just people' to me sounds like 'why can't we all look and act white like you, why can't we adopt your views and your experiences'" He equated a request for us to be just people as a request to be white like me.

I have never thought of it like that before. I am American, that is all I have ever thought before (and that very thought alone shows the progress in societal thought and the good upbringing I had to not discriminate), but it is interesting to see how some others think. Granted the video was put out in 1994, we are still progressing as Chris pointed out, and it's a great thing.

T.J. Shelby said...

Personally I don't feel any white guilt. However, I do occasionally experience some American shame.

Scott H. said...

I didn't say white guilt, nor have I felt any.

Personally I expected a bit more response to this, other than I'm an American. I'm not trying to run a guilt trip. I don't believe I've ever been racist towards anyone so why should I? I recognize the errors of the past, learn from them, and progress with my current knowledge and experiences.

But why is it so hard to answer this question? Why have I only heard from TJ and Chris? Granted it's taken me about 6 months of pondering this question to get out of my "I'm an American" box and look at where I came from and how that affects me. My realization expressed in the blog of my forefathers abandoning their English heritage to become American is pretty significant for me. My parents having international date-nights and never ever speaking a discriminatory phrase, comment or joke is significant for me. My upbringing as being one of many colors and ethnic backgrounds has shaped me. But it's not the same for all of us.

What makes you who you are? What does it mean for you personally? Your traditions vs. traditions of others of the same "group," your traditions vs. your spouses traditions, what is common? what is shared? what is different? what little things have caused unexpected conflict? What makes you who you are as a person and as a family unit? That's what I mean when I ask what it means to be white? If it makes it more comfortable for you: what does it mean to be American?

Jared said...

What it means to be white?

Honestly? In America today it means you are born with the benefit of the doubt. And I hate typing those words, but it's the truth.

It means innocent till proven guilty applies to you.

It means I don't get followed around in stores to see if I'll steal anything.

These are things I hate about our society, and I hate even more that I even believe it. But it's true. And it's unfortunate.

How's that for an honest answer?

T.J. Shelby said...

Well, since you're calling me out...I'll respond.

Chris is the one who mentioned white guilt so I was simply commenting on that.

I know that you said your upbringing was "one of many colors and ethnic backgrounds" but in the Mormon culture that is not common. We are a very "white" church for the most part.

So while it may be possible for you to have gone through life without "ever speaking a discriminatory phrase, comment or joke", I do not believe it possible to be without prejudice in thought. In other words, maybe you never audibly spoke the words, but you've thought them.

You can't tell me that when you've grown up in a church that still allows to be promoted the ideas that blacks were less valiant in the pre-existence and native americans who were worthy somehow shed the brown skin and became white, that "being white" to you, also means "being righteous".

I bet you didn't share that with your class...

As a prideful middle class American with a decent education and growing up in a church that believes what we did before we got to earth determines where we end up, did you not ever (secretly deep down) feel some morsel of superiority over any of your native third--world companeros from Ecuador during your mission?

I'm just offering thought-provoking introspection. I'm not implying that you're a raging Grand Dragon of the KKK. But I do believe we're all guilty of prejudicial thoughts at one time or another.

You know, I think I was wrong. I probably do have white guilt. Being white to me means I constantly have to be politically correct and persistently show how not racist I am.

Hopefully having a black President, who I voted for (see...that's me showing I'm not racist), will help ease transition into a world where we don't have to define what being a color means to us.

Scott H. said...

First off, Jared thank you for your honest comments, I understand exactly what you are saying and I too hate it.

TJ, I didn't grow up in a Church "that still allows to be promoted the ideas that blacks were less valiant in the pre-existence and native americans who were worthy somehow shed the brown skin and became white, that "being white" to you, also means "being righteous" as you put it. I never heard the idea the "blacks were less valiant in the pre-existence" until I was on my mission, and discounted it as being false after some thought and study (no not immediately), like others have. I don't think the Church promotes the idea, but your correct in that that idea is out there. I am not saying it is not a primarily white Church, I'm just saying that I never realized that fact until recently. I have honestly never experienced those thoughts or teachings in the modern Church, only in it's history. And while the idea had been bounced around in books, I don't think official Church doctrine has considered them as "less-valiant" in the pre-existence (correct me if I'm wrong).

And being white to me does not mean being righteous.

As for prejudiced thoughts, yeah Everyone has probably experienced prejudiced thoughts without expressing them one way or another, so I can't rightly say I'm exempt from that.

On my mission, I can't say I didn't feel superiority over a single companion of mine, but I don't think it was ever because of them being Ecuadorian or being from a third world country. I can honestly say I learned a lot about what happiness truly means from Ecuadorians. Privileged because I was afforded opportunities that they were not? Not necessarily, I had a companion who organized punk-rock concerts in the major port city of Guayaquil and was kind of conceited but who I got along great with. I had a companion from humble, backwater, really third-world upbringing who was one of the best missionaries I ever met on my mission. Then I had companions who I greatly disliked for personality defects (both white and latin). But since your question was more general about their situation as a whole compared to mine, yes I'm sure I did from time to time, but I never expressed it.

Back to the being a member of a "white Church" I must honestly say, you went to the same High School I did, and you know it's not a dominantly white High School. I may have gone to a "white" Church, but I would say the majority of my social interaction took place in the public education system of my upbringing. Most of my friends growing up were non-members, I never hung out at "Mormon corner" once in High School. And I believe in lower grades I was one of the only Mormon's in my classes.

I too though am frustrated at the "constantly being politically correct." People can be racist to white's all they want, but if we even mistakenly imply something prejudiced, we would fall under scorn. Beautiful point by both you TJ and Jared.

My question was not meant to imply that to be white is to be prejudiced, or to have white guilt. An answer could simply be something like: "it means I live in a suburb and work along side those of other ethnic backgrounds." Really, for me in this day of boundaries breaking down, the question isn't one of "what it means to be white, or black, or latino, or whatever" it should be "what makes you who you are?" "what defines your life experience or character?"

Thanks for all the great comments keep it coming if you've got more to say.

Connie H said...

I'll start from the view point that I'm a middle child mutt, so I'm very messed up. I learned early on how to be beat up and then how to beat up depending on who I was with. But that there is truly happiness for all depending on our choices.

With that said my prejudices come from not the outside but the inside. Not my insides but those who I interact and come in contact with. I believe we are are equal until we prove otherwise. I struggle with the idiots, not the intellectual ones, but the moral/social ones, my patients are very thin with them.

I don't view myself as special or in need of being idolized, but I am grateful for the many blessings that have been poured upon my head and i am constantly amazed. I'm grateful for ancestors who sacrificed so severely to bring me my comforts and my religion, and they themselves looked outside of themselves to make the world better. I hope that when I leave that this can be said of me, I left the world better for those that follow. Better for those that I love. Not different on the outside but changed on the inside. I don't have white guilt, but white obligation.

Christopher Maloy said...

Dang Scott! You got mom to post. I have to do a little butt kissing here and mention I liked her last line. It should always be about what we can do for our next generation. I think that is the kind of thought process that moves humanity to a better way of life.

If we can't do it for our future generations then we should just give up.

Jodi Jean said...

i had to come read your post since it came up during dinner ...

excellent post. thought provoking, i never thought about "whites" as not having tradition because we purposfully shed those when we fled england. thank you for that.

i LOVED your comeback to tj. yes we are members of a predominately white church, but that is not ALL of our social interaction. i remember walking to math class and i looked around the CROWDED stairwell and hallway and i was the ONLY white person. did that bother me, not one bit? color was never an object to me, and to be honest it was one of the things i TRULY missed while i was in school in idaho. the campus was on the most part colorless and i missed the diversity. and i also must point out that one of my FAVORITE FAVORITE people in my ward is a black woman ...

if i remember correctly the book of mormon talks about white people being righteous and dark people being righteous ...

i personally like to think of myself as colorblind ... but not idiot-blind ...