What does it mean to be white?

[An evergreen reminder: I am a white woman writing about racism so I might share with other white people what I learn—mostly what I learn from people of color—so we can all work toward societal transformation.]

What does it mean to be a good white person? Most of us white people who have lived in white culture long enough that it’s the default—it’s our “normal”—don’t think much about being white. In fact, we spend a lot of energy trying not to think about it.

People of color, on the other hand, are much more likely to include their racial and/or ethnic identities into their overall sense of who they are. Beverly Daniel Tatum explains in “Why are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria, And Other Conversations About Race” that because racism impacts people of color directly in ongoing and regular ways, they are more likely to find their racial identity plays an important role in their understanding of who they are as they are growing up. Most of us white people haven’t examined what it means to be white, or how we fit into the world as white people. Because we haven’t explored the way our race impacts our identity, we don’t know who we really are, we haven’t fully developed; we are not whole.

As I’ve been exploring what it means to be white with my daughters, we have found our tendency is to associate being white with oppression, greed, and violence. And, it’s true, as of this moment, I haven’t yet found a quality that I associate with “white culture” that is entirely positive. But I also know there have always been white people who have fought for justice, who have resisted oppressive systems, and who have lived in ways that did not uphold white supremacy. Those white people have and do exist. I used to think that learning about them would be just another way to excuse (me) white people by saying “look how we weren’t all awful!” but I can see now how it doesn’t have to serve that role. My daughters and I will be studying white racial justice advocates as a part of our larger process of self-exploration.

My own racial identity follows along a path of racial and ethnic identity development (and loops around and returns to where it was and then moves forward and then back—this stuff isn’t linear!) that has been well studied and is described in Tatum’s “Why are all the Black Kids…” book. Here is a table outlining racial and ethnic identity formation, using the data described by Tatum, based on the work of Janet Helm, and then adapted by Lisa Sung in 2002. Can you see yourself in this identity development chart?

The chart says that we white people who explore our racial identity go from “pre-contact & contact,” where we aren’t aware of the “significance of group,” and we see ourselves as unprejudiced, or “colorblind.” We then become aware that racism is impacting our lives. Maybe we say or do racist things (“racially insensitive” if you prefer) by mistake and maybe we lose a friend, are moved to tears after viewing online a recording of violence against people of color, or participate in a “diversity workshop” at work. We move to “reintegration” where we feel tension, guilt, and shame. What does it mean that I’m a part of the group that’s been causing all of this harm?

For me, the cognitive challenges of these new views of myself have been significant. I’ve spent a lot of time in the “pseudo-independent” stage where I “understand the problem of white privilege,” but am “unsure what to do about it.” I can see myself having touched the even more “advanced” areas of racial identity in the last few years, for moments at a time. But, mostly, with some dips and darts into contact-disintegration-reintegration and psuedo-independence, I’m in the phase where I’m trying to figure out what it means to be white (“Immersion/Emersion”); that is, how can I be white and not support white supremacy?

Thus far, I know that historically and presently, being white means that I am a part of a group that created white supremacy, that it is a system that benefits me, and causes me to have an inflated sense of superiority. It is a daily practice to recognize how the qualities of white supremacy (I mentioned in my last post) permeate all of my life, and to practice doing things in different ways. In this way, I am sure I will learn more about what it means to be white.

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Image by Sebastian Unrau from Unsplash

11 thoughts on “What does it mean to be white?”

  1. To be born white, means that you already have the stacks against you. And racism is a compensatory mechanism. To clarify: Last Sunday, catching a taxi cab from a church in Lynn, MA , the First Church of Christ, Congregational, founded in 1632 by the 12th great grandfather of the new Duchess of Sussex and my 10th great grandfather, the Rev. Stephen Bachiler, I had a lively discussion with the driver. He was an African American who’s ancestors were enslaved in the southern states. We agreed and this is back up by genetics, that only the best and brightest of the Africans could have survived the Middle Passage. They were in all probability , the offspring of African royalty. This experience was so unlike that of the American “white” who’s ancestors were among the 100, 000 indentured servants, the “dregs” of European society who made the more gentle crossing. In fact, it is doubtful if these dregs could have , unlike the Africans, even survived the southern enslavement ! May this lady, her children and clones finally see the “light”.

  2. The above comment strikes me as purely speculative. There is no evidence at all for this that I am aware of – genetics would certainly show African ancestry but would absolutely not show they were ‘the best and brightest’ or be the offspring of African royalty. The physically strongest would certainly have had the best chance of survival.

    What we do have plenty of historical evidence for is that every wave of new immigrants has had society stacked against them – the Irish, the Jews, the Italians and so on, have all had integration difficulties at the beginning. However, only the African-Americans were singled out by the obvious physical feature of color, and only they had the history of enslavement and oppression. White indentured servants were not slaves and could expect to work only a predetermined period without compensation to work off the costs of their passage and their start in a new country. Black slaves had no such expectation.

    Nothing was stacked against white immigrants in the same way it was stacked against blacks, and I find the reasoning in the above comment truly bizarre.

    • Jenny Doughty— may I suggest that you review several historical works on the Middle Passage and the small number of Africans who actually survived it . I do know that such evidence is a bit of a bummer —- but such is reality. And another inconvenient fact is that while both black and white indentured servants showed up in the American colonies, the Puritan powers decided to change the tenets of British law , so that these would only be applied to the whites; blacks could be indentured by their masters for life !

  3. On this subject I strongly recommend “Look, A White!: Philosophical Essays on Whiteness,” by George Yancy. More important for whites to read it, than POC, who already know.

  4. Viola Hayhurst – I should be grateful if you would give me the titles and authors of the references you mention as I am currently unaware of them.

    Your last sentence rather undercuts the thrust of your argument, don’t you think? Your assertion in your first post was that the whites had things stacked against them, but then in your second post you say that it was only the blacks who were affected by a change in the law allowing them to be indentured for life. The difference between that and slavery seems merely semantic to me.

  5. All of the same pattern. American whites are wimps and when compared to blacks, rather inferior. But again in the United States — throughout our bloody history — those who hold the gun — do dominate. I am referencing those Liberty Laws passed by the Mass. Bay Colony in 1641 and signed into law by their slaveholder “colony founder” John Winthrop. Whereby English Common Law was altered by the “founding fathers” at that time in order to give permission for their indentured masters to hold their black servants forever. This sounds like the beginnings of slavery to me and by every African scholar that I have talked to. For your answers , perhaps you should really read the works of another brilliant but more modern African scholars, starting — as referenced by one of the readers, “Look, A White!: Philosophical Essays on Whiteness,” by George Yancy.

    • Well we seem to be in agreement that the Liberty Laws were effectively the same as slavery and applied only to black people. I will check out the Yancy book, so thank you for that reference. The ‘African royalty’ assertion you make strikes me as intrinsically unlikely though, given the sheer number of slaves who survived that terrible journey.

  6. My final comment: In a lecture that I heard by an Israel professor who studied enslavement in the American south, she stated that the softness and manners of this region can be explained by the gentility of the “black”. She credited “blacks” thus with given the American south, its manners. In contrast in the American south, its white “brutality” was also noted. Not only by this professor but as well by those British troops, who fighting n the American south during the American Rebellion, were appalled to see among the white Scots- Irish settlers —- that brother would kill brother over just a simple slight ! A genetic determinant could very well be this: no “black” African is found with a Neanderthal heritage, but it is found in ” all white” Europeans. And it must be noted in “correction to your assertion” that even with these positive traits, very little “black” Africans actually survived the Middle Passage.

    • Again, you assert (with no source given for your assertion) that very few black Africans survived the Middle Passage. I think this is inaccurate. Most contemporary historians estimate that between 9.4 and 12 million Africans arrived in the New World, and that about 15% died during the passage, and others died during captivity before the ship even left port. If these figures are accurate, it is not possible that 9.4-12 million Africans were of royal descent in Africa, as you assert. If you have different figures, I would like to know them. We can all agree that slavery was a terrible thing (though of ancient origin as another poster has mentioned) and that the oppression of black Africans by slavery was inhumane and terrible. No argument from me there. But I think we owe it to the truth of history not to exaggerate or make claims that seem not to be based in fact. I think it highly unlikely that the manners of the south owe anything to the gentility of black farm laborers.

  7. Don’t look to “Look, A White…” to address our colonial times and beginnings of slavery (in this country; slavery was a reality for millenia prior to our history). This book addresses the present, and dynamics resulting from centuries of slavery and discrimination in our society. It is an extremely important book.

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