I am not white. The people who analyzed my saliva found major portions of German and English and traces of Finnish and European Jewish. There was no mention of the W word. Living in the whitest state in America, your ancestors are more likely to have come from Europe than Africa. But you are not white. No one is white.
Whiteness is cultural construct, not genetic destiny. Just look at a previously held legal definition of blackness: no one with a drop of black blood could claim to be white. Seriously? This totally violates the research of Gregor Mendel, the monk who first discovered the science of heredity.
In the words of journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates, “But race is the child of racism, not the father.”
Nobel Prize-winning writer Toni Morrison powerfully and poignantly explains the need to devalue black people in “ The Origin of Others.” Early in our nation’s history, rich people began buying kidnapped slaves; keeping them in conditions of abject destitution; beating, raping and murdering them; and splitting families for financial gain. The same rich people needed to consider themselves and be seen by society as decent human beings. So the subjects of their brutality had to be seen as substantially different and degraded beings to justify their actions.
While whiteness is not real, white privilege is. It is not an indictment of any one person as racist. Rather it acknowledges that in our society unearned advantages are given to those of us with lighter skin.
I’d like to describe just a few of the ways I’ve benefited.
When my son was in middle school, he’d lose track of time while hanging out with his friends. I didn’t have to fear that the police would shoot him, perceiving him as a hoodie-wearing thug rather than a soda-and-candy-craving boy. I didn’t have to severely punish him to keep from losing him.
My beloved husband can go pretty much wherever he chooses without people being unduly afraid and reacting accordingly. During hunting season, he can carry a gun to track down the deer for which he has a permit without people suspecting him of packing heat to rob a convenience store, for breaking and entering, or to go after his own species. When he’s driving, he isn’t pulled over constantly, harassed, humiliated and maybe even shot by someone with a mandate to serve and protect.
Growing up, my children weren’t adultified. People tend to perceive darker skinned children as older than their lighter skinned peers and treat them accordingly. In school, they can be less protected. Acts that would be seen as innocent mischief if performed by their lighter skinned peers are seen as deliberate defiance. In the judicial system, darker skinned kids are seen as more responsible and punished more harshly. When it comes to unwanted sexual advances, darker girls are seen as more adult and knowing, and therefore, more ripe for picking.
I’ve applied to the University of Maine’s master’s program in higher education. If I’m accepted, people will assume the decision makers in the graduate school saw me as a good fit for the program. There won’t be talk of quotas or speculation that my getting in kept a more qualified person out. If I fail, it will be seen as an individual shortcoming, not generalized to everyone who looks like me. My success won’t be greeted with amazement; I won’t be exceptionalized as a credit to my race.
There’s plenty more.
I am surrounded by white privilege as a fish is by water. My life is what everyone deserves by virtue of being human.
Those of us who draw advantages from white privilege have an important role in ending it, not as saviors but allies and friends. We can become aware of the many ways in which it manifests. We can educate our families, friends and coworkers. We can speak up when we see racism. We can protest, petition, email our legislators and write letters to the editor.
We are not racist by virtue of skin color; we become racist when we refuse to help abolish the status quo under which we unjustly benefit and by being the people who Coates says need to be white.
Jules Hathaway of Veazie is a writer, community activist, proud mother of three and a student at the University of Maine in Orono.
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