I’ve been reading some articles that suggest I should sit down with my whiteness, so I’m doing that. I’m doing this in the spirit of working toward a society without racism. I started working on this last week, but it got pretty long, so I’m writing it in two parts. This is part 1.
American white people don’t start of thinking of themselves as white and, if I may be so bold as to speak for all white people, we don’t even end up there. To start out, we learn about where we’re from, like our city or town or whatever, and what that place is about, and how we’re part of it and what it means to have that place be part of us. We learn about our ancestors. In many cases, these ancestors are immigrants, and we learn about the places they came from. For me, I learned about Massachusetts, I learned about New England, I learned that my paternal grandfather’s side of the family has deep roots there, going back to colonial days. I learned about my paternal grandmother’s Norwegian heritage, where her parents were both from. I dressed in a Norwegian costume for cultural day, or just for fun, I don’t remember, but there are pictures. I felt proud of this background– old timey New England and Norwegian, not that I could tell you much about why. I think it had something to do with the cold.
I felt like those cultures were part of me, that I came from them. I learned too about my mother’s parents, born and raised in Brooklyn, and I thought Brooolklyyyn! Alright! My mom’s grandparents were from different parts of Italy, Naples and Sicily respectively, and I felt a kinship with those people and where they were from. I looked to see if my nose was Italian or Nordic or New England, and I’m still the only one in the family with this nose. I was in high school when I learned about whiteness, and it’s not because I didn’t have non-white friends. It just never occurred to me that their non-whiteness was something other than having different ancestors, that my family hailed from someplace other than theirs.
Whiteness in high school turned out to be a real thing. I switched schools, moving from the hegemonic South Shore of Massachusetts to Philadelphia, and a much more elitist school. The school was dealing with whiteness and blackness and otherness. There was a multi-cultural students union which, from the outsiders perspective, looked like the club for black kids. It was clear that my Italian Norwegian New England multi-culture was not what the founding charter had in mind. I didn’t feel like I needed a club. I fell in with a group of white and Asian girls who made art. Eventually we made a feminist zine.
There was much tumult, as happens when you have a bunch of smart kids with big emotions feeling things about themselves and their identity. Listen, I had no beef, I had no reason to have issue with anyone or what they were feeling. Other people had issues, made a big deal out of things, made jokes. I don’t know if it was worse that I just didn’t really care. I was in choir, other kids were in the MSU, some kids did both. Cool. Our school had a few town meetings to talk about diversity, and how the school needed more of that, more scholarships for people of color. What was interesting to me was that this was the single most diverse environment I’d ever been in. I started noticing race in numbers, and was surprised to find that many of my classes were comprised solely of white kids, and my beloved drama department was racially hegemonic.
The thing that I found confusing about being a white person is that this seemed to mean something to people. It seemed to mean something to a very good friend, a new friend, who I wanted to know better. But my whiteness always seemed to get in the way. Or was it her blackness. I don’t know, and I didn’t care, I didn’t see what the big deal was, and that was a big part of the problem. As the years went by it was clear that I just didn’t understand anything, as far as she could tell, and that was that. We’re not friends now. I still don’t know what I didn’t get, or what she didn’t get. High school is also when I learned that police brutality was a thing, because someone told me about it. I was flabbergasted, really shocked. In my life, police brutality had never come up. I was 17.
In college I decided I wasn’t white. Being white hadn’t served me very well, it had always been a problem. I stopped checking off the little ‘white’ boxes on ethnicity testers and started writing in New Englander on the line for ‘other.’ People would ask me where I was from and I would say America. They would say before that, digging for information about my ancestors, a common get-to-know-you question, and I would get specific, I would say Brooklyn and Boston. I took women’s history courses and studied women writers, because I was in search of an identity, and I figured ‘woman’ must be it. It wasn’t quite. It felt forced to turn my biological reality into a cultivated identity. Using ‘white’ as part of my identity never occurred to me, and even thinking about it now, I can’t think of a more unpleasant concept to include in my identity. ‘White’ is the purview of Nazi’s and white supremacists and noblesse oblige and the KKK. I want absolutely no part of any of that.
I left school for a while, and ended up with a job at an Au Bon Pain. Of the 10 people working at the shop, 3, including the manager, were black men, 3, including me, were white women, and 4 were black women. I felt completely singled out, although this was not, and continues to not be, unusual. I rather always feel singled out, separate, observing. There are a few memories from that job that come up in my consciousness with relative frequency. The manager liked to grab my ass and tell me that ‘black men liked blonde girls,’ even though I repeatedly pointed out to him that it was a dye job. If any of the girls on the line had actually communicated, we could have got him instantly fired for sexual harassment— he was doing similar stuff to all of us. On my break I would sit and read in the break room. An older black woman, who was skeptical of me from the beginning, came up to me one day and asked what I was reading. She was surprised to find that I was reading a book by a black author, and when she saw it was, a play by one of my college playwriting professors, she said with surprise “that’s a black book.”
I never felt more white than working in that shop, and feeling that the other women didn’t accept me as another co-worker, but took me on as a special case, a white college girl. When I left there, it was because I took an internship at the local international film festival, staffed entirely by lefties, who were entirely white women. I made less money, and worked toward achieving much higher workplace expectations. Meanwhile Debra at Au Bon Pain lost her washer/dryer because she was late with one payment. I did my laundry at my parents’ house, and my mom subsidized my meager film fest pay. After the film festival ended, I got a job at a hat shop, an internship at a theater company, a job at a record shop, and then went back to school. In that one year I had five jobs, and after I got the first one, at Au Bon Pain, each one was increasingly easy to get.
I didn’t think of myself as a white person, I didn’t think of myself as a woman. I identified as an artist, a citizen of the world, free from identifiers, conditions, and prejudices. That was the goal, and I lived under the assumption that I’d achieved it.
Part 2 next time.