Finished Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me yesterday.
One of the things I took away from it (besides the obvious: Jesus Jumped-Up Christ, the racism inherent throughout the system – how do some African-Americans even get up in the fucking morning?) is a concept he repeatedly refers to as “the people who believe they are white.” This struck me deeply, as one of my first social awakenings revolved around the idea of whiteness.
That is to say, one fall day during my first semester of college, I had an epiphany.
The epiphany was, “Holy shit, I’m… white!”
Which, okay, sorta flat on the epiphany side if you take it at face value, but what actually dawned on me was the fact that I had never given any thought to my race before – and if that’s not the goddamn definition of privilege, I don’t know what is. Coming to this realization made me feel guilty, complicit, ashamed. What else hadn’t I been thinking about?
(The fact that it took ’til college for me to have this epiphany, I chalk up to my own ignorance and complacency, the white homogeneity of the community I grew up in, and the pervasive background radiation of Florida racism. Except to be honest, it’s less background and more in-your-face-meltingly Chernobyl racism. Look up Sanford, FL. I dare you.)
Of course I never wanted to be a racist asshole – but I hadn’t learned how to listen yet.
(PSA FROM A WHITE GIRL: NEVER UNDERESTIMATE THE IMPORTANCE OF REPRESENTATION – NOT ONLY FOR THE SAKE OF THOSE WHO ARE UNDERREPRESENTED, BUT ALSO BECAUSE SEEING THEIR STORIES AND PERSPECTIVES CAN OPEN THE MINDS OF IDIOTS LIKE ME.)
All my feels were tied up in, I don’t want to be racist, I don’t want people to think I’m racist, I try my best to not “offend”.
You’ll notice how, in thinking about race, I was thinking about myself.
Not a good look.
I used to be one of those, “I don’t see color” ninnies – thinking that was the “best” way of combatting racism. It’s not. It’s drizzling caramel over a shit sundae: it may look a little better, but still ain’t nobody swallowing it. In my well-meaning but patronizing liberalism, I made so many unknowing micro-agressive gaffes – fuck-ups that still keep me awake at night sometimes, going, “WHY? WHY DID YOU EVER THINK THAT WAS OKAY? WHY WERE YOU SO FUCKING BLIND?”
What finally, truly got me “woke”* was social media – hearing the lived experiences of people of color (cough*representation*cough) – from their own keyboards – not neatly compiled as anecdotes in some gate-kept book, or listed as a dry statistics in a government study on race. It was hearing their first-person accounts of their day-to-day journeys navigating a treacherous system purposefully (absolutely purposefully**) set against them. (In addition, the proliferation of phone-cams and the subsequent posting of police brutality/murder videos online – i.e., physical proof of the stories people of color have been telling for years – decades – centuries! – has gone a long way towards opening even the most tightly-squeezed eyes. Revolting that it took snuff films to do that, but there you have it.) If anything, social media has given a voice to those who have been kept voiceless. Or rather, should I say, marginalized people have taken back their long-silenced voices through social media.
Only through listening – finally, at long last – listening to these voices was I able to fully appreciate my own failings. My mistaken assumptions. The very breadth and depth of my own privilege, one that allowed me to “discover” I was white at the age of 18.
Coates talks about “the people who believe they are white” as a way of pointing up the myth behind “whiteness” itself, at least as it pertains to race. People are Scottish and Belgian and Belarusian and Italian and Norwegian – ’cause newsflash: every single fucking “white” person in America ain’t from here – but in America, there is this monolith called “whiteness” that embraces and subsumes all of these ethnic origins, is entrenched as wielder, arbiter and distributor of power, and by its very name defines itself against “blackness”.
But Coates argues the white race doesn’t exist. And I find myself agreeing.
Now I’m having another epiphany.
“Holy shit, I’m… not white!”
P.S. It doesn’t escape me that in writing on a book about racism, I have centered my whiteness. Like I said. Stilll learning.