Sunday, September 7, 2014
I Thought I Was White: On Coming to Terms with Racial Realities
Posted by Electra Telesford | Labels: black feminism, ElectraTelesford, Inequality, journalism, multiculturalism, post-grad, Post-racial, race, society
I have often been asked ‘Do you think you’re white?’. This is usually a weak reference to my demeanor, which can be misinterpreted as ‘haughty’ on one end of the spectrum, and ‘refined’ on the better end. I stopped entertaining the question long ago, it is blatantly foolish and problematic. However, yes! In some ways I did think I was “white”- just not in the way the questioners thought.
I grew up during the “multi-cultural” 1990s. I remember my school having a Chinese New Year Celebration and discussing holidays such as Rosh Hashanah in class although we did not have any Chinese-American or Jewish students. Multiculturalism is often a structured way of celebrating certain cultural aspects of the other. The idea that we live in a society that does not just tolerate cultural differences but embraces them has lead many people to think that our country is ‘post-racial’. How often have you heard the following:
We have a black president, right?
There are so many interracial couples!
My best-friend is Black!
It would be a failure to not acknowledge the developments that have occurred in our society. Leaders and impassioned citizens alike have made conscious effort to progress towards tolerance and equality. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 made it illegal to discriminate based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. It is easy to believe that the playing field is level when it is not. I repeat, it is not .
Inequality is more insidious than it was before; Blacks are allowed to vote, minorities can sit on any part of the bus, schools are integrated(or it is illegal for them to be segregated), and as a result inequality does not transpire in the old ways. Or, not as often as before. However, a person of color who believes that we live in a “post-racial” and multi-cultural society is in danger.
If they are not aware that they are disenfranchised, they can make no distinction between themselves, and someone who has advantages. Unaware of these advantages, they believe themselves similarly advantaged, and as a result they will be dismayed by their differing results. It’s like blaming yourself for losing a one mile race, unaware that your competitor was given a 10 minute head start.
Many minorities believe the myth of the “post-racial society” that tells them that their race is inconsequential to their lives. The theoretical is continuously contradicted, but it still permeates many of our understandings of race.
It causes individuals to find themselves entirely responsible for issues that are compounded by institutionalized racism. That was me. I have only recently been able to recognize White Privilege for what it is: not what whites are given, but what is withheld from People of Color. This inability to see caused me to hold myself responsible for situations that were largely out of my control. For example, I blamed myself for not getting the scores to enter a specialized High School. The constructive question is this: Why was the school in my black neighborhood sub-par? Those at the sharp end of inequality often cannot recognize it.
Did I think I was white? No, not really. I thought that the hegemonic hold of ‘whiteness’ has been alleviated by years of activism and social change. I’ve had a difficult time reconciling myself to this insight.
It somehow felt more appropriate to blame my follies entirely on my shortcomings rather than a system that is set up for failure. If we ever intend on fixing the system that is in place, we must not be complicit in allowing it to continue; instead we must showcase it as the cruel unjust mechanism that it is.
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