Even when we are surrounded by people who are outwardly similar to us–similar points of view, similar bodies, similar gender expressions, similar skin tones–the human mind will still find ways to look for differences. To find some way to justify an instinctual feeling that “they” are not “us.”
Though I grew up as a white child in an overwhelmingly white New England suburb, I still recall often feeling profoundly different than my peers. I can’t count the number of times I drew a blank when I was asked, “which church do you go to?” Because as strange as it may sound, being a nonreligious child of Italian and Swedish descent surrounded by predominantly Irish Catholics was a fairly “othering” experience.
But my perspective on human difference widened deeply in the second grade. The scene is etched into my memory: The entire class was sitting on a rug in the back of the classroom. Our teacher, a matronly white woman, looming tall over us in a chair, was for some reason attempting to explain the circumstances surrounding the American Civil War. She was telling us, in what I can only assume were wildly oversimplified terms, about North vs. South, about the concept of freedom, and about how some states seceded to preserve an institution of human beings owning other human beings–chattel slavery.
And as she explained these concepts to her students, her eyes never once strayed from staring at the only Black child in the classroom.
That teacher, who likely had only been confronted with this situation a handful of times in her sheltered New England career, was telling the other twenty-or-so children in the class: You are all one thing. And this girl is something else. The experience made me profoundly uncomfortable then, and through an adult lens I am mortified that a child would be singled out like that—a child who very likely developed her perspectives on race and difference far earlier than I did on that day.
I recount that story not to advocate for some dated and shameful “we shouldn’t see race” perspective. We absolutely need to see and acknowledge historical, systemic racial oppression, perpetrated largely by white oppressors against people of color. That disgraceful legacy drives so much of the inequality, the classism, and the modern oppression endured today.
Many of my white peers have come around to this perspective in the last couple of decades. But what exactly do white people think of themselves? If we are to do the work to examine the construct of race itself, then what is the construct of the white race?
The very concept of a “white race” is fairly recent in human history. And, as Robert Baird writes in The Guardian, it mostly comes down to two factors: religion and slavery. Before the widespread enslavement of Africans, plantation labor was largely fueled by European indentured servitude. But this meant that plantation owners were exploiting the labor of their fellow Christians, which afforded those laborers certain meager rights. When the labor pool first expanded to enslaved, non-Christian, Africans, however, what few safeguards existed for European laborers could be tossed aside, and the American slave economy was born.
But almost as quickly as that religious justification for slavery began, Christianity spread among enslaved Africans. And if the religious justification became moot, then a racial justification became necessary. Suddenly, an insidious economic incentive arose to differentiate white from Black. No matter how many commonalities existed—from religion to birthplace to culture—white capitalism needed the specter of dominance to ensure supremacy.
When a powerfully destructive system becomes ingrained in society for centuries, it becomes a feature, not a bug. For all the talk of a “post-racial America” in the ‘90s and early 2000s, once the concept of white supremacy was born, it became so pervasive that it festered into every aspect of culture. Of course I grew up not thinking of the concept of “white culture” when that culture had become western global ubiquity. While we’ve recently become more aware of the concept of cultural appropriation, for hundreds of years white people were afforded the opportunity to pick and choose whatever nonwhite cultural innovations we found tempting—from music to fashion to food to even language itself.
Put simply, parts of American whiteness are, inescapably, just distillations of the cultures of those we’ve exploited.
But white supremacy extends far beyond just culture. Economic power, political power, and judicial power have all centered on whiteness for so long, it can be difficult for white people to see the blatant biases we’ve baked into the system that disadvantage—or, more appropriately, outright oppress—people of color.
Black people are abysmally represented in government, suffer from higher unemployment and higher rates of poverty, are increasingly less likely to experience upward economic mobility, and comprise a lower share of high-salaried jobs. Black people are twice as likely to lack health insurance, are five times more likely to be incarcerated, and are wildly more likely to be killed by police brutality. And that doesn’t even begin to expand on the disadvantages endured by women of color.
These oppressive disadvantages are products of the same centuries-old systems that were used to justify slavery. They are the direct descendants of a dehumanizing pattern of otherness used to prop up white capitalism. They are the legacy of that teacher who all but told her students to follow her gaze and spot that one child who stood out.
I’ve been learning in therapy that I have a tendency to hear a loved one’s or colleague’s problem and immediately launch into a stream of unsolicited solutions, when all that’s really required of me is to listen. To validate others by hearing a problem and standing in solidarity. No single white person can undo the centuries of damage that their race has caused. But what we can do is listen. What we can do is learn our history, warts and all. What we can do is sit in accountability and acknowledge the racial inheritance of responsibility—just as an inheritance of oppression has been forced on others.
My early feelings of otherness that could be chalked up to my ancestors hailing from a different corner of Europe or my family’s eschewing of organized religion are now flattened into simply “whiteness,” and engaging with those nuances feels like a privileged luxury. Even though that young boy in New England looked at his fellow white peers and saw nothing but difference, he was inextricably bound to them through the legacy of his race—a race that leaned into that same feeling of difference with catastrophic consequences.
Whiteness, just like Blackness, is a kaleidoscope of experiences. But even kaleidoscopes can be held by a single hand.