I was home last night in time to watch the exciting end of the women's basketball national championship game. While I have never been a fan of Duke's men's basketball team, I've always liked Gail Goestenkors, the Blue Devils' women's coach. I like her intensity and her passion, and I am chagrined that she can't seem to "win the big one." (Then again, folks used to say the same things about Mack Brown in football and Roy Williams in men's basketball, and they finally broke through.) Duke's 6'7" center Alison Bales was my favorite player in the tournament this year, and in my heart, succeeded in replacing my idol from last season, Liberty's Katie Feenstra. (No, don't get all analytical on me and discuss my admiration for very tall, muscular women who can dominate in the paint.) In 2007, my favorite will probably be the scarily good Courtney Paris, who I thought had a chance to lead Oklahoma all the way this year.
Anyhow, I want to return -- more seriously this time -- to the subject of race. Last Friday, I posted this rather flippant (but partly sincere) ode to my WASP upbringing. In the comments section, Aldahlia reposted some provocative questions (written originally by Lauren from Feministe) for those of us who acknowledge our whiteness:
1. what does it mean to be white? what does it mean to be White?
2. how has whiteness affected your worldview?
3. how has whiteness affected your educational experience?
4. how has whiteness affected your experience with authority?
5. how has whiteness affected your experiences with people of other races and ethnicities?
Asking the first question with and without "white" in capital letters is a good and provocative start. I've understood the lower case "white" to refer to external perceptions about my race and heritage. Folks look at me, and they see a man who is, unquestionably, white. They may not be able to tell I have a mix of English, German, Jewish, Scots-Irish, and Welsh ancestry, but my facial features instantly identify me as looking like the same sort of folks who traditionally have power in this country.
I wrote about some of the specifics of my WASPiness last week. Yes, class and geographic location played a role in my upbringing. I have cousins in South Carolina and Virginia who share my ethnic background, but grew up with slightly different cultural signifiers than I did. (For one thing, in my California family, the first alcoholic drink any of us ever have is white wine; for my southern relatives, it's bourbon or Irish whiskey.) But when folks look at me on the street, they can't tell whether I was raised in Carmel or in a trailer park; whether my parents were professors or plumbers. What they can tell is that I'm a white man, and that gives me certain privileges.
When I was in college, all of my advisors looked like me. With the exception of the Chicano Studies courses I took with Norma Alarcon and Cherrie Moraga, every single professor I had as an undergrad or a grad student was European or European-American. In grad school, I could easily have passed as the son of most of my faculty advisors, all of whom were white men (with the exception of the wonderful Marilyn McCord Adams, about whom I must post soon). Thus it wasn't hard for me to imagine myself becoming just like these men and women someday -- and it wasn't hard for them to see me as a younger version of themselves. Did that have an effect on my confidence? Hell yeah.
When I walked around the Berkeley campus (or the UCLA campus, or anywhere else), no one ever looked at me with a querying "what are you doing here?" People who shared my sex and my skin color founded these universities and run them to this day. I felt an absolute and unerring sense of entitlement whenever I walked through the quads or under Sather Gate. It wasn't arrogance, but rather a kind of confidence that came from always being seen as someone who "belonged". My friends of color could not report the same set of experiences!
In countless ways, my white skin (as well as my sex and my class background) have opened doors for me. In my life, I've been insecure about many things (my neurosis about working out and staying trim gets well-documented 'round here). But I've never, ever, doubted that I belonged anywhere that I went. I've had many "encounters" with law enforcement over the years, ranging from speeding tickets to getting 5150ed a few times in my late adolescence and twenties. Even when my own behavior was self-destructive and bizarre, even when I needed handcuffs, I was always, always, always, called "sir." (The last time I drank, many years ago, I remember being briefly handcuffed by a young deputy. I slurred something along the lines of "I'm not gonna hurt you, buddy"; he laughed and said with remarkable and memorable gentleness, "Sir, we just don't want you to hurt yourself any more.") I've had black and Latino friends whose self-destructive behavior approximated my own -- and they report very different stories of often violent (or at the least, rude) treatment at the hands of the police.
When I walk into a store in a nice neighborhood, even if I'm in jeans and a t-shirt, clerks ask "May I help you, sir?" I don't have security guards following me around, wondering if I'm going to shoplift. When I walk down the street at night, women don't cross over to the other side to avoid me. Is all of this because I'm such a swell guy? Of course not. I'm a reasonably clean-cut white man, and my skin color opens doors and puts people at ease without my having to say a word. That's unearned privilege.
I'm not ashamed of being white. I would not renounce either my skin color or my background, even if I could. (Though I wish I wasn't as prone to skin cancer as I am!) As I wrote last Friday, I love my family and my heritage very much. I love the particular traditions and rituals that I associate with growing up the way I did. I have no patience with those who say that in order to be effective allies to people of color, whites have to entirely renounce their whiteness. But while I won't apologize for my upbringing, I can take positive action to renounce my privilege. There's a huge difference between being ashamed of one's family or skin color (which I'm not) and working actively to end one's own unmerited advantages.
The most effective thing white folks can do, I think, is admit that privilege actually exists. I have no idea how many doors opened for me because of what I look like, and because of my family background. When I was first hired at PCC, several people actually said to me "You're lucky to have gotten that job, Hugo! I'm surprised they didn't hire someone of color using affirmative action. At least you know you got this on your own merits!" On my own merits? Puhleeze! I looked like two-thirds of my hiring committee! I looked like the professors who had mentored me and looked out for me! I went to the same university that my parents, grandparents, and great-grandfathers did! Any unearned advantage conferred by affirmative action pales in comparison to those unmerited privileges bestowed upon me by my appearance and my background! Of course, I was also hired for my teaching skills and my academic preparation. My color and class would not, in and of themselves, have canceled out actual incompetence. But they may well have tipped the scales in my favor when I was given this job I love a dozen years or so ago.
I'll say it again: I'm not ashamed of my ancestors, my family, or my skin color. But I don't deny that these things gave me advantages I didn't earn. What whites need to do is stop perpetuating the myth that our personal successes are entirely unaffected by these privileges. Whenever possible, we need to cop to the reality of these unearned benefits. We need to embrace programs that seek to level the playing field (such as affirmative action) without complaint or bitterness. And we need to stop insisting that all of our achievements were based solely on the content of our character, and not also in part on the color of our skin.