‘Whiteness Is Not the Absence of Racial Identity, Any More Than Maleness Is the Absence of Gender’

We started talking about race last week, and some of that discussion continued on into this week. Damon Young wrote two posts for us, “Eating While Black” and “I Prefer My Racism Straight Up, Thank You,” that brought in 100 comments. One reader, Kristin Craig Lai, wrote a response post on her blog, dedicated to what Damon wrote.

Here’s an excerpt:

You know what? I can identify a nazi skinhead in my sleep. I know how to tell a nazi punk from the rest of ‘em, no problem. You know what that means? It means I know where I fucking stand. It means that when I see those white laces and the iron cross on your jacket I know not to make eye contact and steer clear.

But when my coiffed middle class (white) boss at my minimum wage job starts talking about “chinamen” that’s a hole other bag of shit. That’s a blind side from someone in a position of authority and I am left speechless, because I need this job.

And when my university professor says “us” in reference to white people and “them” in reference to any people of colour – even when there are people of colour in the class – he is not only contributing to the othering of POC, he is effectively erasing those who are in the room.

One of my favourite profs in University was Andrew Winston whose research focuses on the role that social science and science have played in perpetuating racial stereotypes and racist policies (that’s a simplification but you get the gist). In intro psych we were assigned a book called “The Race Gallery” by Marek Kohn which outlined the history and the flawed science of race based research, particularly in the area of racial classification and intelligence. My take away from that book was that race is a social construct rather than a biological fact. However, and this is the important part, just because something is a social construct doesn’t mean it’s not real.

Race is real because it affects the identities and realities of everyone. Not just people of colour, everyone. Whiteness is not a blank slate, it is not the de facto absence of racial identity any more than maleness is the de facto absence of gender. The issue, for any thinking white person, is how do you inhabit and experience your whiteness? What does it mean to you to hold a racial identity that comes with so much privilege? What can you do to recognize your privilege and address it in a meaningful way? And if you answer that question with anything that sounds like, “Well I’m X so I’m oppressed too” you’re missing the point. Identity is a complicated and ever shifting thing. If you engage in the “more oppressed than thou” game everyone loses. The point is to think consciously and openly about what kind of privilege you benefit from and what that means.

Go read Kristin Craig Lai’s entire post, “Let’s Talk About Race.”

And more from The Good Men Project “On Race.”

Image credit:

“peers” 2006

oil on beveled MDF panel

22 x 28 inches


Represented by Samsøn Gallery, Boston

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  1. Rather than ignore this because “my life isn’t perfect because of ___, so I don’t have privilege”, better to consider that one can be privileged in one way and restricted in other ways (privileged for your race but restricted because of your class, sex, etc.) It can help you realise that even if you haven’t had it well, it could have been worse if not for that bit of privilege.

  2. van Rooinek says:

    What does it mean to you to hold a racial identity that comes with so much privilege? What can you do to recognize your privilege and address it in a meaningful way?

    If I’m so privileged, how come I have to work so damned hard for everything? I’m tired of 11 hour days.

    Oh, wait — I guess that’s where “privilege” comes from. Never mind.

    • Building an identity around Whiteness is troubling because it contains unacknowledged diversity. Much of that diversity may come from the gifts of privilege, education, class, etc., that the White population has in such overabundance. But it has to make us ask: what has a working-class Protestant Southerner in common with a highly educated Catholic or Jew from the coasts?

      It seems to me that building an identity around Whiteness is fundamentally an act of opposition – eg racism, rellgious bias, the platforms of the reactionary right – and that those who do it usually prize some values at the expense of other values. The various visions are all of a zero-sum society.

  3. Sorry, I’m not going to apologize for being a man or being white. This is the way I was born. I can’t help that.

    • Seriously, no one is asking you to apologize, that would be ridiculous and obnoxious.

      What the author is asking is that you challenge the privileges you–often unknowingly and unaskingly–receive from society. As a white man, you are privileged and there’s not really anything you can do about that. But you can educate yourself and learn not to use your privilege in ways that hurts others. Start by reading “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” (google it, you can find copies online).

  4. I’m very confused.

    On the one hand, the author argues that it is undesirable to treat non-whites as “the other.”

    But then the author runs right ahead and throws out the term PoC (People of Color), which serves literally no purpose but to drive a wedge between whites and everyone else, because, after all, who else is excluded from being “of color” except for whites?

    The idea of PoC is bizarre. It posits that the shared experience of being “not white” is somehow so powerful as to justify grouping extremely diverse groups together into one big catch-all category. Where does that leave room for individual or unique experiences? How can you accept the term and still allow for intersectionalism?

    In concrete terms, does someone who is ethnically East Asian, but was born in Orange County and attended UC Berkeley really have more in common with a black man who lived his whole life in Compton than with a white man who is also from Orange County and attended Berkeley? Is being “of color” really sufficient to sustain such a grouping?

    Or is it perhaps better for all of us if we acknowledge that experiences of class and culture are being run over in a mad dash to divide the world into those who are “of color” and those who are not?

  5. Henry Vandenburgh says:

    To me, the concept of white privilege is tough. I wound up going in the Army for two hitches after high school, then working at working class jobs until I was about 37, when I got my masters degree. It had taken me ten years after the service to get a BA. I think I agree with scholars who say that Black people, for example, have sorted into two groups: middle class and underclass. They are few working class good jobs anymore. I think one can say the middle class people of any race are “privileged.” Asians are frequently like Jewish people two generations ago. But it’s hard to say they are not privileged in the same sense whites are. Like Jewish people, they have very high incomes relative to the population as a whole.

    I realize that I don’t have much sympathy for privilege as a identity or cultural concept. Yes, racism is still with us, but I prefer to make an economic interpretation. “Privilege” as a concept offers an infinite regress of unfixible problem.

  6. T. Michelle says:

    America affords privileges to whites – granted not at the extreme levels that it used to – but to deny it says you live in an alternate universe. America even doles out privileges to minorities based on lighter skin tones (look at all of the working actresses in Hollywood and our pop stars). But there are other privileged groups, as my boyfriend pointed out a moment ago. Being young in America gets you privileges, especially in the work force, over older people who actually have the experience to do the job. Being pretty and working in performing arts gets you more attention and a better chance at stardom than just having talent (or even sometimes having more talent). It’s a sad reality of the world we live in. And I think it will be a long time before it changes.

  7. As soon as I see the word “privilege” taken seriously in the context of race or sex, I know that the statement is not worth considering.


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