Race, to me, is far more political than descriptive. Being white and identifying strongly with one’s whiteness are two very different things. While I have never fixated on the color of my skin as some mark of pride that positions me within a favored group, I have ventured to better understand the sociopolitical implications of race for over 15 years.
Growing up in the mostly white suburbs, it was extremely rare for anyone to discuss race. It was not discussed by my teachers at school except in the context of U.S. history or Mark Twain’s novels. I recall glancing somewhat ashamedly at the one black student in my class whenever the n-word was read aloud in Huck Finn. And I recall feeling far more ashamed when members of my family or close (white) friends used it, but I do not recall ever considering the extent to which racism was present in the society I lived in throughout my formative years. I saw racism the way most white people continue to see it—the nasty words and behavior of a few ignorant people.
This began to change early in my college career. I became fascinated with other cultures and signed up for a mini-study abroad trip to Costa Rica. During the trip, I was sitting in the passenger seat of a taxi and struck up a conversation with the driver, who at one point used the n-word to describe Nicaraguans. I was taken aback by his casual use of the word—in English, especially—so I asked him why he used it. He explained that Nicaraguans had darker skin on average than his countrymen. As if this weren’t revealing enough about the realities of racism beyond the U.S., he also explained that the term “gringo,” which had often been applied to me by the locals, was not an insult. It was clear to me that he was happy to have me in his country and serve as an unofficial cultural guide—but only because I was a “gringo” and not a Nicaraguan or different n-word. This made me very uneasy. It’s also quite possible that while we were having this conversation, one or two of my classmates of color were seated in the back (I can’t remember for certain).
Since that moment, I paid a lot more attention to the manifestations of racism and white privilege both at home and abroad. I became unusually comfortable discussing the topic and enrolled in a class that brought white students and students of color together to share differing perspectives on the hot-button racial issues of the day. This led to membership in a pioneering organization that attempted to unite students of all cultural backgrounds behind a banner of social justice. Moreover, I recall being welcomed with open arms in many settings on campus and beyond where I was one of the few white people present. Among my most enlightening experiences was volunteering in New Orleans with a local, black-run community organization after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city and serving as a mentor in an all-black youth detention center. I went on to work for the same institution as an assistant teacher.
While in a few instances I was criticized for not organizing more in the white community, I did not adopt the view that this was my place in the struggle, and I remain skeptical that whites are most effective in convincing other whites to be more tolerant. I, for one, did not change my views on race because another white person insisted—I changed my views because my line of sight was shifted from the myopic to the cosmopolitan. This shift occurred because I stepped out of my comfort zone and away from the familiar suburbs of my youth to the pueblos of Costa Rica, the metropolises of China, and the barrios of Baltimore. Meanwhile, I educated myself on the historical and contemporary reality of racial oppression, and this should be the responsibility of every white American—even those not fortunate enough to attend college.
It’s worth emphasizing, though, that I do not feel obligated as a white person to attempt to compensate for racism. Racial justice goes far beyond repaying debts or assuaging historical guilt. Small individual acts hardly put a dent in the bastion of systemic racism and white supremacy. Guilt is only useful if it leads to action. And it makes little difference what an individual personally owes to such a system of privilege because justice is a burden that we all share if we want to live in a just world. Liberalism, despite its many merits, has so far failed to foster a unifying platform that transcends identity labels, and the most prominent champions of it have tragically and mistakenly ceded the realm of white identity politics to President Trump and his Republican allies.
I believe that we must do everything in our power to relieve this burden using whatever power, money, and talents we possess. This necessitates seeing race as far more than skin color or facial features.
Each Tuesday at noon EST, I will be shining a light onto a unique aspect of my identity hidden below the surface. I ask other writers to join me on this quest. Too often we think of “identity” in terms of physical traits, such as gender or race, and neglect the person within. Both sides of the political spectrum cultivate and manipulate identity to gain votes, but a more authentic identity politics entails more than succumbing to labels thrust on us by academics, politicians, and the media in other to further factitious or provincial causes. This series is a call for us as concerned citizens to determine our own labels and, consequently, our own causes.
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