What kind of white person are you?
People of color may rightly excuse themselves from answering this question. Obviously it’s intended for white people. When it comes to how one thinks and feels about race relations, most white people believe there are two choices. Either you’re racist or you’re colorblind. Individuals did not create these choices. Nor did organizations like the Center for the Study of White American Culture, or even larger organizations like the government. These choices exist as part of our culture itself. Society provides us two models of how to be white.
Everyone is familiar with the racist approach to being a white person. True, there are many ways to define a “racist.” Some would say society itself is racist. But most white people use the term “racist,” at least insofar as it applies to white people, to mean a person who consciously identifies as white, understands it to be his or her native culture, and believes that white people are superior to people of color. According to these terms, nearly all white people used to be racist and even today it’s hardly uncommon to find white people who still are.
The second model for white people is colorblindness. Colorblindness says that race shouldn’t make a difference in people’s lives, and since it shouldn’t, we should all act as if race doesn’t matter. Because race doesn’t matter (or at least shouldn’t matter), we don’t need to mention it at all. In fact mentioning race just creates problems. Thus white people who follow the colorblind approach do not particularly see themselves as white in other than a superficial way. They know which box to check on census forms, but do not believe the status of being white affects their lives. If racists are racially conscious, colorblind people might be said to be racially unconscious.
Racist or colorblind. Most of us are taught one or the other. Mainstream society certainly favors the colorblind side. Conventional wisdom says that to be colorblind is good. To be racist is bad. If those were the only two choices, then we might agree.
But there’s a third choice at hand. It’s not a choice that many white people make, or even know exists. White people can consciously identify as white, understand white culture to be our native culture, and believe — and here is the crux of the matter — that while white people are no better or worse than people of color at heart, we hold an unjustly privileged and dominant position in a racially structured society. This model is new, only about 50 years old, compared to 100 years for colorblindness and 400 years for plain old fashioned racism. Over the course of five decades, this choice has been called various names. We at the Center call it being white and anti-racist.
To be white and anti-racist means seeing the way our society is structured by race, and understanding how one is personally implicated in that structure. It means understanding that to create a multiracial society we need to do more than simply build relationships. We need to work for justice. It means learning how to work with other white people in a way that does not call them out so much as it calls them in as we join together to create a society that affirms the humanity of us all. And it can mean many other things. If this sounds interesting to you, whether you are a white person yourself, or a person of color who is concerned and interested in how white people might help in building multiracial community, please come and explore this option with us on Wednesday, April 29.
In an effort to bring greater attention to our mission of eliminating racism, YWCA Bergen County is kicking off a series of Courageous Conversations to promote cultural competence, acceptance, inclusion, and an appreciation for the diverse cultural landscape that makes up our community. On Wednesday, April 29th, from 6:00 – 8:00pm at Central Unitarian Church, 156 Forest Avenue, Paramus, Courageous Conversations – Building Multiracial Community: What Can White People Do? will be presented by Bonnie Cushing and Jeff Hitchcock of The Center for the Study of White American Culture. Pre-registration is preferred, please click here to register now! For more information, please contact Samantha at 201-345-1895.