Friday, December 16, 2016

Hodgepodge 48/365 - Whiteness

I have become interested in whiteness—or more generally, in race, racism, racialization. I am slowly starting to delve into this idea, this state of being, something I've never much thought about in my life. I've just always checked the Caucasian box, being solidly middle European (German-plus): I had no control, I just "was" white. But of course, "race" is much more than the color of our skin. It's social, it's economic, it's cultural, it's political; it's opportunity, it's privilege (or the lack thereof); expectation or struggle.

The other day on the long drive to south county to do trailwork, I was talking about this with my friend Lynn. She had just finished reading Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad, a book I loved, but she wasn't crazy about it. My take: she was treating it too much as "a story," not enough as an allegory. I also mentioned two other books I read last year that dealt with race—Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me and Claudia Rankine's Citizen, both outstanding examinations of what it means to be black in this country. And of course Trevor Noah's Born a Crime, which I finished just last week, though set in a different country, offers great insight into institutionalized racism. These four works of literature have made me hungry to learn more.

When I say that, I realize it sounds hollow, intellectual: "learn more." Part of the problem with whiteness, or racism, is our (or my, at any rate) apartness. I don't have any close black friends, and never have had. I do follow a couple of young African American women on Facebook, poets and performance/ conceptual artists both, one of them, Natasha Marin, very engaged in exploring race in a healthily provocative fashion. Her background image says, "I've been keeping a wee 'Registry' of the folks who only like my cat posts, but avoid all the political stuff . . . 'Likely Racists.' " (Yes, she does post cat videos. They're pretty cute.) In July she launched a project called "Reparations," which allows white people and black people to connect in supportive ways. Though some see the project as a way to exploit liberal white guilt, Marin calls it a social experiment intended to explore white privilege. (Here is an LA Times story on her project.)

A few days ago on FB Natasha posted the image shown here ☜ (a statement that I do not agree with), and then she asked, "Why do you insist on being white?" The responses are interesting: Natasha does get people thinking. My response: "I don't feel like I 'insist' on being white. . . . When you push me, it's the last thing I'd say about myself when trying to apply qualifiers. I don't care that I'm 'white' (European background). I'd apply a whole lot of other adjectives first. That said, I do notice skin color, appearances. I don't think I judge on appearance, but I notice. But then too, I notice age, I notice dress, I notice whether one is loud or still, I notice how people touch each other. I'm not entirely sure what all that means in terms of race, but I'm thinking about it. . . . Oh and: I would put 'privileged' up higher than 'white' in my list of attributes. I AM privileged (economically, for sure). And grateful for that. And I also don't take it for granted. And yes, privileged and white can go hand in hand. I don't discount that. I can't help the white. I could definitely wreck the privileged. Then again, I can't help the female, either. But there are ways of being proudly, fiercely female. I see no reason to be proudly fiercely white. Though some, it seems, do. Again: I'm thinking about all this in terms of race. It's puzzling, disturbing, but it also makes me feel more human--to not 'insist' on being white."

Lynn told me about a relatively new podcast on NPR, Code Switch, which explores identity. I just listened to the first episode, "Can We Talk about Whiteness?" In it, a classic paper on the subject is referenced, "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack" (1988), by Peggy McIntosh, in which she identifies "some of the daily effects of white privilege" in her life: a list that amounts to fifty items. It is an interesting, telling list—especially if you consider being someone who does not have those expectations. I would like to think that some of the items are no longer valid—though probably new ones have taken their place. Racism is alive and well. Black Lives Matter is a testament to that.

I'm just really starting to dig into this subject, sparked, of course, by the election—the election of an impossibly, arrogantly privileged white man, apparently by a lot of people who are afraid of losing their white privilege, such as it is.

Next up on my reading list: Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, by Ibram X. Kendi. There will be a book report. I think Ralph Ellison's The Invisible Man may be on my reading list this year too. Any others I should read? Shout out!

P.S. Just found "Race/Related," a newsletter on the NY Times website, and a little film about implicit bias

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