"What Do You Like About Being White?": Reflections on Racial Equity

By: Liz Maw | April 1, 2015

“What do you like about being white?"

It was a question I’d never heard asked before. Nor had the few dozen people sitting around me at a North Carolina church.

I was at a two-day workshop facilitated by the North Carolina-based Racial Equity Institute. My workshop participants were a mix of races and professions, with a high percentage of teachers, police officers, church members, and social change professionals in the room. 

Our responses to the question varied. Some answers were mundane – “my hair is easier to manage.” Others were about the fundamentals of race in our society. Power. Authority. Safety. The most common answer was almost an inverse of the question:  “I like that I don’t have to think about it.”

If you don’t think much about your race, it’s because you’re white. Some of the people of color in my workshop were incredulous because they think about race all the time. The privilege of being white and part of the dominant culture is that your experience is considered the norm  which allows you the option of ignoring culture and race. That’s not true for everyone.

I am not an expert on race by any means, but I’ll do my best to mention some of the workshop themes I found most powerful. Our workshop facilitator went through the history of systemic racism on which the United States is founded, perpetuated by government laws well into the twentieth century through segregation. The legacy of this continues with a dramatic disparity in wealth between white people and people of color – white Americans have 22 times more wealth than black Americans, for example.   While  I had learned much of this information  in history classes in high school and college, this was the first time I had contextualized these events as a set of legal actions that have  disempowered and oppressed all people of color – from Native Americans to Africans to Latinos to Asians – through most of United States history.

Workshop organizer Deena Hayes used a powerful analogy of  joining a game of Monopoly after everyone else had been playing for two hours.  The icons would be gone; the properties and hotels purchased. It is almost impossible to win. That’s what it is like for people of color after white generations have benefitted from low mortgages, strong unions, top universities, and full employment.    

Recently, a lot of people criticized Starbucks for mis-stepping on their race initiative. Some chalked up the campaign as a marketing ploy. Others thought the multinational company was doing its part to address a pressing social problem. Personally, I applaud companies like Starbucks that take risks in order to better society and see business as a tool for social impact. As I took away from the Racial Equity Institute workshop, we need to be talking about race more. Being color blind will not help us improve race relations – in part because colorblindness is just not possible, even if you tried, and in part because race is embedded in every system of our society, and we need to really see that in order to move ahead. 

That’s one reason why Net Impact is partnering with the Racial Equity Institute to launch similar racial equity workshops on three campuses this Spring (Mills College, University of California – Berkeley, and University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill), with the support of Symantec and the Levi Strauss Foundation. Our country’s racial legacy underlies our communities, economy, and government, and we want our next generation of leaders to understand this as they enter the working world. Is it possible that Net Impact or our funders might get criticized for launching these discussions? Sure. But it’s a risk we’re willing to take in light of the need, and opportunity for change.

Back to my opening question … what do I like about being white? Reflecting recently on the shooting death of Michael Brown, Tamir, and others, I stared across my kitchen table at my son’s milky skin and blonde hair.  I thought to myself how lucky I was that I didn’t have to worry about him getting harassed, or worse, by cops. The fact that not every mother in America can think this thought is a tragedy. And one that will continue unless we all – regardless of our color, our profession, or our comfort level – dive in to confront race together. 

Comments

Joseph Graves Jr

One of the most insidious benefits of being "white" is that you have the freedom to use misleading and imprecise formulations. This of course results from "whites" not having to/or not wanting to think deeply about the social relations that are engendered due to socially-defined racial categories. As someone who is not "white" I have spent a great deal of time thinking about the meaning of these categories and their consequences. In the introduction to my Emperor's New Clothes: Biological Theories of Race at the Millennium (Rutgers U. Press) 2005 I lay out for the reader the differences between socially-defined and biological categories of race. I am always careful in my writing and speaking to be sure that the audience is aware of which concept I am referring to. This is something I urge all who do wish to think deeply about these categories to do. For example, I never use the term "white" in speaking/writing about people of European descent. This is because the term itself is so wrapped up in undeserved social privilege that I refuse to allow that to this population. I use terms such as African American, European American, or Asian American to speak of broad groups that have origins in those regions. Whenever possible I prefer to speak of a person's ancestry as precisely as I can...such as Irish, Italian, or Nigerian American (if such persons are American citizens). This also underscores that this nation is made up of immigrants...everyone here has ancestry from people with ancestry somewhere else --- indeed all humans ultimately trace their deep ancestry to Eastern Africa. It is also necessary to use parallelism when speaking about groups; so if you use white (a color) than all comparisons should be colors (black, brown, yellow etc). If you use a contraction, than all should be contracted (Euro-, Afro-, Asian-) etc.
Finally it is crucial to understand that while humans descend with recent ancestry from different parts of the world, we do not have biological races within our species. That is why when one speaks of "race" one really means socially-defined race. I always write and say socially-defined race to reiterate that point.

Liz C. Maw

Dear Dr. Graves,

Thank you so much for your comment. I agree the terminology is important and appreciate your approach. I haven't read your book yet but will soon.

Liz

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