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Navigating Whiteness

August 8, 2010

Last weekend, I was saddling up my bike out of the garage when one of my neighbors emerged into the back alley to empty out her trash.  She looked at me as if we were co-conspirators or old friends before conversationally drawling out:

“Another white person!  I thought I was the only one!”

What.  The.  Fuck.

Firstly, for the sake of context: this summer, I live in a majority black neighborhood.  It’s slowly gentrifying, which is saddening – I can’t help but wonder if my neighbors will be driven from their homes when property values skyrocket in the name of “development” – but as is, whites are still the minority by far.

There are few enough whites in the neighborhood that this random white woman feels threatened by virtue of her whiteness.  She doesn’t like being in the minority – which, oh, hey, is the lived experience of most people of color in this country.  In this context, this woman can sense keenly her own whiteness and she DOESN’T LIKE IT.  Heavens, she is forced to develop some consciousness of race!  UNTHINKABLE.

We white folk are taught that whiteness is the norm, the “neutral” racial state – and most of us, comfortably ensconced in majority white environments for most of if not all of our lives are never forced to question our racial status or develop any real understanding of its significance.  Race is something that happens to other people, and when we find ourselves in an environment that is dominated by people of color we FLIP THE FUCK OUT.  EVERYONE MUST NOTICE THAT WE ARE WHITE NOW.  OH SWEET LORD HOW EMBARRASSING.

And while we’re busy flipping out, we tend to disengage from the people of color that surround us and find ourselves, however racially enlightened (or “colorblind” – I hate that word) we may think ourselves, seeking white solidarity.  There’s another white person on the street corner, in the shop, at the metro.  THANK GOD.  Because even though you don’t even see race, you just know that the other white person is trustworthy, and probably really friendly and all-around awesome – and you expect to exchange a knowing look or maybe strike up a conversation or just stand clumped together because it’s another white person and you are like family!

This is what my neighbor was doing.  She is trying to draw me into White Complicity where we agree without speaking that we are so glad that we are not like Those People.  Where we refuse to engage in our living environment or with the people that populate it because we are TERRIFIED of being called out or targeted or whatever we’ve been taught might happen.

I wish, in retrospect, that I had been able to articulate this somehow to this woman, or maybe just refused to engage altogether – but I gave her “what the fuck” eyes and shrugged disbelievingly.

“Oh, so you’re used to it, then,” she said.  I couldn’t tell if this statement was disapproving or her trying to revive our non-existent White Conversation.  I shrugged, got on my bike, and rode away without looking back.  I tried to have a zen moment on this, but I was furious.

Our neighbors?  They are nice people.  They will ask you about your day, tell you about their youth, share vegetables from their gardens, wave at you from the front porch, welcome you if you just choose to engage with them.

I suspect that this woman has lived here far longer than I have, and I wonder if she knows her neighbors at all, or if she ever steps outside of her house without fear.  This is what refusing to address our whiteness does to us, and what white refusal to acknowledge the undercurrent of white supremacy and general racial fuckery everywhere in this country does to our communities.

I wonder if this woman will ever know how lovely her neighbors are, and if she will ever, ever, unlearn what our society has taught her.  I hope so, but I kind of doubt it — and that’s truly, truly sad.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. August 8, 2010 9:47 PM

    Interesting. I just moved to a predominantly white suburb from a predominantly black neighborhood in the city, where I lived for a year, on August 1. I felt similarly to the woman you describe– like a minority. Because I was an ethnic minority in the neighborhood, where I lived. There are some differences between how you describe her, though, and what I took from the experience.

    For one thing, I moved there because rent was CHEAP. I lived in the upper two stories of a duplex shared with my husband and brother-in-law, and we lived above their good friend of many years. Our landlord lived next door. It seemed like a win-win deal. But anyway, I did not like the experience. Being a minority where you live, work and shop can be hard, which is why I understand her apparent frustration. And just getting to know people really isn’t always as easy as some people make it sound. Racial barriers and tension are difficult to move beyond, no matter how badly you want to. On top of that, and please don’t think I’m associating this with the racial demographics of the neighborhood, but it was a very dangerous area. I could not walk three block in broad daylight without being followed and harassed, many times with racially-motivated insults.

    I didn’t want to move to the suburbs, and it’s a temporary thing (living with my mom to save some cash), but now that I’m here, I smile and say hello to my black neighbors (there are a couple of black families in my townhouse community) and have conversations with them, more so than I do with the white folks around me. I do this because I, for a very brief time, and to a much smaller degree than most black people in the US are used to, did experience being a racial minority in my own neighborhood, and I understand now, much better than I did before, how isolating and lonely that can feel. And I know that people in the suburbs, especially the one where I currently live, harbor a great deal of unfair and inaccurate racial stereotypes, and often say things that make me *facepalm* all the time. Even my own mom… well-meaning as she is, she can be really, really clueless when it comes to racial issues, and that slips out too frequently.

    The experience, while I was happy to leave it behind, did cause me to be much more aware of white privilege and minority status. I’m grateful for that, if anything.

  2. August 9, 2010 10:20 PM

    I really love this entry.

  3. September 27, 2010 8:14 AM

    With all due respect, was this the only exchange you had with this woman? You’ve listed a lot of feelings this person might have.

    My experience (growing up with Jewish, Appalachian, Black, Asian etc. family members, and always living in integrated areas, even in my super-segregated peri-Southern rust belt city), is that if you’re living in an area like the one you described, folks just say shit like that. All the time. Especially Black folks do not get their knickers all in a bunch about asking me about my kinky hair or assuming I’m white or mixed or saying I got big ass thighs for a white girl. And the further South you get, the more open people are about race. People just talk about skin color, hair, etc. openly and this talk is entirely different from any academic race conscious talk but it is still such a relief to just talk about race openly.

    • September 27, 2010 2:01 PM

      OK– I’ve been thinking of this all day and I want to make sure to add that I absolutely agree with you that many white folks don’t have much of a perspective on being the “neutral racial state” just like most men don’t get being the neutral gender state.

    • Norma permalink
      September 28, 2010 9:52 AM

      Thanks for the comments, BW. I’d like to share some of my thoughts:

      As a native Southerner, I would agree that we generally talk about race more than in the North. That doesn’t mean that we talk race better or even regularly communicate about race in a meaningful way, especially across racial lines. I don’t think that “folks just say shit like that” means that “shit like that” doesn’t reflect meaningful racial realities.

      And honestly, I don’t know my neighbor’s entire thought process — but the fact that she chose to engage with me over our black neighbor who was tending his yard ten feet away, and on the topic of our shared whiteness, makes me feel pretty certain that she was experiencing some serious racial discomfort. And that’s honestly pretty normal for us white folk when we are, however temporarily, the minority — but that doesn’t mean it ain’t problematic.

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