What Is It Like To Be White?

Years ago I was fortunate to take a workshop called, as I remember, Beyond Racism. It was put on by the First Unitarian Universalist Church in San Diego.

Several things surprised me. The first was the instructor was white. For some reason I had expected a black teacher. There was one black woman there briefly. Her role was to tell us how difficult it was to be the token black in a sea of whites – something I’d never considered.

I later learned we had a white instructor  because so much of racism, at least in the United States, is a legacy of slavery and institutionalized. While anyone of any color or ethnicity can certainly be prejudiced, as  a member of the dominant culture I discovered I had inherited some racist attitudes I wasn’t even aware of.

Although that kind of statement rang true for me in my being, it took something more for me to begin to understand how pervasive and hidden racism can be, at least in me. It happened when we were sent home to answer the question: What is it like for you to be white?

That question is still ringing through my life and includes things like:

  • I feel safe driving to the grocery store at night.
  • I feel safe when a cop happens to be following me.
  • When a cop stops me, I feel safe.
  • I feel safe in a store if I’ve forgotten my wallet.
  • I feel safe driving in a rich neighborhood even though my car is obviously old, even late at night.
  • I know it’s okay to demand that potholes be fixed on the streets I drive.
  • Even when I lost my driver’s license I didn’t worry about cops or the INS.
  • I’m aware in some stores people know I don’t speak their language – and that they’ve learned mine.
  • In fact I expect signs and anything I read to be in my language.
  • I assume I can pass things like tests for driver’s licenses.
  • When I go to the post office or the library I know it’s okay to ask for help.
  • When I ask for help I expect to get it.
  • I expect to be treated well in banks and government offices and I am.
  • I register to vote with ease.
  • I can freely signup for classes without having to produce a ton of documentation.
  • I assume people will listen to me, and even want my opinion.

This is, of course, a partial list. What it reveals is the ease with which I’m able to move in our mostly white society, simply because I’m white – an accident of birth.

It also struck me, when the question was first posed, that I had never ever asked myself that what it was like to be white until that workshop. The dominant culture had given me certain privileges and I hadn’t even noticed. Over the years there has been, I think, some change to a bit less racism by whites, but it’s not gone. Having a black president has even brought some of society’s racism into sharper relief.

Not too long ago as part of a group that tries to be diverse but has a majority of whites and a white leadership I watched myself initially join in shutting down a person of color who wanted to answer a white person’s expression of anger. The reason I wanted to shut down the discussion? We’d come to the end of the stated time for the event.

Fortunately someone more sensitive than I protested and I was able to recognize my own resistance to change and argue in favor of opening up the discussion regardless of the time. We did and some conversation was begun.

The challenge now is at least two-fold.

First, we need to keep the door open on the conversation about racism as painful as it is.

We also need to heal what’s happened between us, for each of us truly wants that healing.

I suspect, no I know, it won’t happen in another meeting or two or through a special training, although each of those things can help. It will be an ongoing process and at this point willingness is the only thing we can count on.

What’s been your experience with your own racism?

Love and blessings,

Anne Wayman: When Grandmother Speaks

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