Do You Know You Are White?

First Black

In looking for a way to share my sermon from last weekend, I came across this CNN piece from last February. Although I appreciate the stories shared in The First Time I Realized I Was Black, I struggle with this because the premise of the question puts the onus on black people to recognize their difference.  Once again, people of color are on display doing the work of explaining racism.  Time and again the work against racism reinforces marginalization by assuming the the position of a white gaze.  I can only imagine what white viewers of this CNN piece think, but I know that my reaction was basically, “well duh!”  Why is no one asking white people when they first realized they were white?  I actually have asked this question in workshop settings challenging people (a racially mixed group) to think about and share when they were first aware of their own “race”.  The difference between non-white and white answers was shocking to me and I’m sure it is indicative of the biggest disconnect in racial discourse.  All of the non-white people who grew up in this country shared recollections of coming to this awareness in childhood and very early in life; all of the white people shared coming to this awareness as adults or even fairly recently late in life.  This means that at least in that particular situation, the non-white people were formed in part by their identity as the “other” while the white people reached adulthood without any sense of being placed as an outsider because of their race.

So, last weekend, as part of our commitment to the Unitarian Universalist series of White Supremacy Teach Ins,  I gave a sermon, Weaving Our Stories that challenges the premise of the CNN piece by asking where do people who identify as bi-racial, multi-racial and mixed race fit in the work and conversations to de-center whiteness and end white supremacy?  How do we do this work without asking someone to make a choice between their identities, or worse casting one as good and the other as bad?  How do we not fall into the racist paradigm of the “one drop rule” that shaped segregation in this country and still reverberates in our language, our attitudes and our economics of race and that frankly fuels the relevance of the CNN piece?  I think part of the answer is built into the complex psychology that motivates anyone’s need to answer the question of “the first time I realized I was [non-white]”  But real solutions to our struggles of race can only happen when white people are also willing to answer the question “do you actually know you are white?”


4 thoughts on “Do You Know You Are White?

  1. I don’t remember my own moment of discovery, but when someone told my daughter she was white, she studied her arm and said, “No, I’m kind of pinkish-brown.”

    1. Thanks for reading Dan! You raise an interesting and challenging point. I’ve often heard this reply from white participants in race workshop settings as well. Let me offer this insight: having the privilege to focus on literal skin color rather than understanding where one is placed by society in a damaging racial hierarchy is exactly why I raise this question. I’m not sure how old your daughter was when she made her comment, but I was aware of my racial embodiment (skin color, features, hair) as being outside of white privilege before I was five years old. Unfortunately, for people of color rarely is racial awakening (even early in life) about our actual skin color…it is entirely about understanding where the margin in “marginalization” is actually placed in our embodiment.

      1. Well said, Adam, thank you. My daughter was in a concrete-literal stage, a moment of innocence that can last much longer when you’re white — not at all the kind of awareness you are talking about, of “white” as an invidious social category, which is so much less visible to those of us who are advantaged by it.

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