How Can White Americans Be Free?
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White liberals, on the other hand, are so afraid of claiming any white identity (for terror of feeling white pride or appearing to deny their white privilege) that they also reinforce the idea that whiteness is empty, nothing — that it’s a default. They act like they have no particular identity. And if you act like you don’t have any particular identity, you are “regular.” But white liberals end up feeling that pain of a lack of identity and they have to look to other cultures to find meaning. This is why white American culture co-opts meaning from everyone else, from African-Americans (Elvis, Alien, Britney Spears) and Native-Americans (spirituality) and Asian-Americans (zen, Martial Arts) and India (Yoga, Meditation).
White people frequently ask me what my ethnicity is. I like to ask them back and they preface their answer with a sheepish expression, “Oh, I’m just regular white” they say, or “Oh, just plain boring white.” They don’t believe they have an ethnicity because The Default has erased European ethnicity to absorb people of European descent (and a few lucky Middle Easterners) into Whiteness.
My best friend of 12 years is from an Italian-American family. When I discussed The Default with her recently, she talked about never feeling comfortable with checking off “white” as a race and wanting to write in “Italian”:
What is being asked for is a statement of your identity, and there is a discord between how I feel about myself (“Italian”) and how the world boxes me in (“white”). I don’t think I deserve a medal for being Italian, or second generation, or for having inherited issues that I think are not necessarily definitive of all the immigrant experience but certainly are related, but I think my family story is one that has not yet ended, that is still being worked through in my generation, and so to say simply I am white is not only wrong, but it erases the idea that any of that other stuff exists.
How can white people be ethnic without annoying everybody by appearing to deny their white privilege? How can white people be free to suffer without appearing to forget the violent injustices of the country and the enormous burden that the myth of Whiteness places on the black and brown consciousness. How does a white Jewish woman share her genuine pain over her large nose and her curly hair without being punched in the face by a black woman? How do white people fight for freedom for their spiritual selves and legitimacy for their external experience when the world is still so racist and they benefit from their whiteness?
I ask you, again, not to laugh.
In order for white suffering to have a voice, white people must realize the largest and most invisible way in which they benefit from their white privilege, and it’s the same thing that’s causing their frustration being The Default. If Person A is actively supporting and benefiting from a system that oppresses Person B, it is very hard for Person B to hear Person A say, “But I’m hurt too!” However, if Person A is actively working to dismantle the system they benefit from but which oppresses Person B, then Person B is finally seen — and Person A’s pain can be embraced. In order to see a person you must see the truth of their pain. If you deny their pain, you refuse to see them. This is what makes black people invisible. And black invisibility is what makes white pain invisible to black people.