Thursday, August 09, 2007

Wherein I Pontificate on My Whiteness (and provide lots of links)

Apparently it's International Blog Against Racism Week. I didn't know that until today.

People rarely ask me my ethnicity. They never ask about race.

This isn't really very surprising because... well... I'm a pasty white guy with a very Scottish last name. Some people mistake it for Irish, but it doesn't matter because... well... I'm white. And for most people, that's enough. Sometimes people assume, though, that I've got some kind of cultural connection to my Scottish or Irish heritage, but, honestly, I don't. I can tell you about my name... but that's my name, not my family. As far as I can tell, nobody in my family has a clue how our name got here. Nobody knows which ancestor brought it over here, or why, or how... it's a blank spot in my family history. I don't think anyone even knows how far back we'd have to go to find any actually Scottish or Irish family... I'm a fraction of a fraction. In fact, if you did a percentage breakdown "what I am", I've got a lot more Italian, Polish, and Native American in me than Scottish and Irish combined.

If I'm really pressed, I tell people that I'm a quarter Italian (my Grandfather on my mother's side came over from Italy when he was a teenager), and they're usually surprised. "You don't look Italian." I guess not. I certainly don't look like your stereotypical Italian, it's true. Of course, I don't really think of myself as being Italian. I know about as much about Italian culture as Chef Boyardee. The same thing goes for my Polish and Native American roots. I don't know anything about those cultures or identities. All of these things are just numbers to me- they're a pie chart of my bloodlines, they're not significant pieces of my childhood or my cultural identity.

The point of all of that is this: nobody cares. There isn't a sense of shock or surprise when I don't know much about my cultural past. When I can't tell stories about Scottish life, or when I say that I don't know anything about Italy, people don't stare at me with their mouths hanging open. It doesn't bother people that I don't have stories about my cultural heritage. Nobody bats an eye. Not everyone can say this.

Ultimately, what it means for me is that I live in a state where my race and ethnicity are non-issues to me in my day to day life. I have the privilege of living in a world that treats me as the norm. I don't have to think about my skin or my ancestors national origins. Despite the occasional question about my last name, most people never question these things. When someone asks me "Where are you from?" they really are just asking me what city or state I live in. Nobody gets offended when I say "Michigan" and asks "No, where are you really from."

I think that this not being aware of ethnicity or cultural heritage is something that, to a large degree, only white people (at least, in America) get to do. We're treated like the default. When someone talks about the "Average American" there's this sense that what they really mean is "Straight White Middle-Class Male American." It means that we (whites, generally, or white men more specifically) get to go through our daily lives completely oblivious to things about race and ethnicity (among many things).

I can walk around completely oblivious to my whiteness because of white privilege, in a way that I suspect that, say, someone of Japanese descent probably can't. People who are non-white are frequently made very aware of their non-whiteness, and I've often read stories about the really rude and intrusive questions that people will ask, or the assumptions that they'll make, regarding non-whites. The most intrusive question I generally get is the one about my last name. And it's clear that they're really asking about the name, not me.

Yet, some people feel completely comfortable asking someone that they perceive as "Asian" questions like "Where are you really from?" Even the fact that we use "Asian" and "African" as though they were national origins is symptomatic of this problem. We use "Asian" and "African" in ways we'd never use "European" - as though there's no significant cultural difference between Japan and China, or between Ethiopia and Botswana, for example. They're all one giant land-mass of Not White. Of Other.

The point being, I think, that people that we- individuals or society- determine are non-white, and thus "Other", are constantly reminded of this fact. There's a way that their non-whiteness is reinforced that makes it impossible to forget their ethnicity. There isn't the option to walk around forgetting what a lot of white people never really notice in themselves.

None of which (outside of the links, maybe) is particularly groundbreaking. Or, at least, it probably shouldn't be. For a lot of white people, it probably is. I doubt that most white people I know have ever really taken the time to consider what privileges they have by virtue of being white. Most of them would agree that racism is wrong, and that there are ways that non-whites are prejudiced against, but I'm not sure how many of them really consider the implications of being white, and what that means.

I'm also not sure, unfortunately, how to get other white people to see this. It's not like there's a specific point that you can get to where you "get it" either, is there? I've considered this before- white privilege- but still, I'm a work in progress, and I know that. I still have to remind myself about white privilege, or I slip back into forgetting my own color. The recent conversations about race in video games- particularly the RE5 explosion- just shows me how far we have to go.

People are so invested in the illusion of color blindness that they'll ignore and become aggressive against people who don't ignore troubling racial dynamics. Look at the way that people turned almost immediately to racist insults when they didn't like what was being said. Look at some of the defenses that were levied- that it "didn't matter" when it was a white guy killing white zombies, or that people wouldn't care if it was a black guy killing white zombies, so why should it matter when it's a white guy killing black zombies.

I think that dialogue is important, but I really appreciate richlee's approach, too. The refusal to pretend that ignorant questions and offensive stereotyping are dialogue, and to confront the speaker by pointing it out in no uncertain terms.

---edited 5:19 pm---

I think that a comment I read on another site earlier is important to all of this. Author Michael Omi has pointed out, and I think it's absolutely true, that most of the conversation and discourse about race in our country promotes this idea that racism is a comprised of individual, distinct racist acts that are deviations from the norm. These sorts of conversations- and the RE5 conversations were full of that attitude- ignore the larger systemic nature of racism, and the ways that, in fact, racism is the norm. Individuals and their actions can absolutely be racist, but racism is not a problem of individuals, it's a system, and things like the conversations about RE5 are symptoms of that. When people focus on any particular act and how it, by itself, isn't racist because of X, Y, and Z, they're frequently ignoring the bigger picture: that any particular thing- a game, a movie, a book- exists within a larger system. It frustrates people, but you can't talk about things in isolation. You have to consider them within the larger framework of the culture.


Autumn Harvest said...

Hey, I enjoyed this post; thanks for the Asian-related links. As an Asian-American, born in the U.S., I have some mixed feeling about Asian-related questions. I do dislike it when people, having just met me, ask "No, where are you really from?", "No, I meant originally", etc. . . And congratulating me on how well I speak English is not really the best opener. What I don't like about these is the assumption that because I look a certain way, I must not really be American. But on the other hand, I don't know that it's unreasonable for people to look at me, and to be interested in knowing about my ancestry, or ask Asian-related questions that don't assume too much about me. After all, it's clear from looking at me that my ancestors didn't come over on the Mayflower, and I don't think that needs to be a taboo topic. So I have some trouble knowing where the appropriate line is.

Donna Darko said...

Very good. B+

jimmycav said...

Good commentary on the concept of the "other."

If you want to check out some more scholarly/historical stuff on the matter, I'd recommend Stephen Greenblatt's Marvelous Possessions and Edward Said's Orientalism.

Spencer said...

I understand what you're saying, and I agree, for the most part.

It's true that white Americans aren't expected to know detailed genealogies, and we don't care if you don't know yours. But, from my experience, white Americans enjoy asking other white people about their ancestry. This is a favorite topic of discussion for my in-laws and my parents.

Our white privilege is the reason why we know anything about our ancestry.

You said, "It doesn't bother people that I don't have stories about my cultural heritage." I would say that for black Americans too, people aren't bothered when they don't have stories of their cultural heritage.

How many white people care about black ancestry? (And do black Americans ask other black Americans about their name or origins?)

Whites don't let blacks forget their skin color, but are black Americans asked the question, "Where are you really from?" when we think we already know the answer? I bet most white Americans assume blacks are descended from slaves and therefore assume they're descended from Africans. What more do we need to know (said with sarcasm)?

But we don't know. As you mentioned, many white people think of Africa as a country and don't give a second thought to the diversity and history. Frankly, white people, in general, don't care.

How many black Americans descended from slaves know anything about their past?

Africans during the early centuries of slavery who did have writing couldn't take paper records with them on the slave ships. They couldn't keep records of their ancestry once they reached America. Perhaps those slaves allowed to learn to read and write kept some written records, but did they have access to the parents and grandparents who could teach them their history? Families were often torn apart.
And family history could be passed down orally, but how accurate was it?

White people have the privilege that allows them to know anything about their ancestry, compared to people of color.

And it's cruel that American POC are constantly forced to think about their skin color in our society, and yet their history is filled with slavery, violence, and racism, without specific genealogies for individuals. They get screwed multiple times over.

Roy said...

Autumn Harvest: Yeah, I don't understand that sentiment, either- the "you look like X so you're not really American." I mean, hell... you mention the Mayflower thing, and I think that's important. There are families that trace their roots back to China who've been in this country for generations. Me? On my mother's side, I'm only second generation.

Donna: Thanks, I'm glad I've still got room for improvement. =)

Jimmycav: Said's book is definitely on my reading list. I've had several people suggest it to me.

Spencer: Oh, I absolutely agree that white people love to ask where people are from, and who your ancesters are, and you're right, some of that is from privilege. I think that, with black Americans, unless they have a noticable accent, people definitely assume that the person won't know about his/her ancesters. If sie has an accent, I think people are more inclined to move back into the questioning "Where are you from?" thing. Great points, though- I think your analysis sounds pretty spot-on.

Donna Darko said...

I kid around and appreciate that you've written about race and gender.

And comics and gaming. J/K