It’s a White Thing, You Wouldn’t Understand

Some time ago I decided to do a makeover and change my race. Not that I am denying my ethnic heritage, Irish/English/French/Canadian/who the heck knows…I wasn’t there back then. I never have and never will experience color prejudice that affects my life. I have achieved AARP membership and have enjoyed white privilege since I was a gleam in my mother’s eye. I haven’t had a free ride to a place where I have a decent paying job and a good life. I worked hard. There were many obstacles. But racism wasn’t one of them.

I am not in any way trying to co-opt anyone else’s real experience of prejudice. And the term, ‘reverse-discrimination’ is not only sloppy grammar, but sloppy thinking. Discrimination is discrimination, in fact a neutral term. Remedies for historic racial discrimination may or may not be fair or effective, and it’s perfectly legit to question any particular attempt to repair the racial breach. But it’s not honest or realistic to leave the advantages of white privilege out of the discussion. White privilege means arriving at the starting line without the weight of racism tied around your ankle. And if you’re Paris Hilton your chauffeur drives you to the finish line. (Okay, low-blow. Paris Hilton carries a secret anguish that we will all learn about when she writes her tell-all book.)

Well, anyway, when I stopped being white, I decided to claim my real ethnic identity, ‘Celt’. My grandfather was an Irish cop, but I identify with the pan-Celtic diaspora of Great Britain, France and Scandinavia, including the Vikings who built American Stonehenge. This is not only romantic, but carries zero political weight because no one knows what the heck I’m talking about. Also, I suffer no racial discrimination, because people look at my freckles and hear my Warwick accent and assume I’m Marshmallow Fluff.

But this brings me to the heart of this essay. It’s a white thing. It’s happened to you and you are never prepared. You are talking with someone and they look at you and feel safe letting fly some awful racial remark. Then you do the typical white thing. You say nothing and just hope they’ll shut up.

That’s what I did for many years, always feeling that it was not the right moment, I didn’t have the words. But then I realized that the moment would never arrive when it would be easy or safe to do the right thing. Perhaps you, gentle reader, are braver and better than I and have always done the right thing. But I felt as if an evil vampire was sucking my breath, and I was speechless. Finally, one day, I spoke up to my fellow white people when they got racist. They reacted as if I had made an embarrassing personal noise, but being gracious they would ignore it.

I didn’t get any warm fuzzies, just a little relief from the weight of complicity in something I wanted no part in.

After that time, it was easier to speak out. I listened to white people tell me that they didn’t mean what they just said, that I was in an emotional state and didn’t hear them right, or that I was wrong because they just knew that anywhere on the planet where the people are all white is an earthly paradise. Why don’t they all just move there, I wonder?

I don’t think about this stuff all the time, but today I was dealing with a sweet elderly man to whom I was providing a professional service. I was even wearing a uniform. He began to tell me about how safe the city was until President Kennedy started getting all those people to go down south and invite other people to move up north. I had a moment of hesitation, but then I remembered that I gave up being white last Lent. I told him that my family is all colors, and I’m not all that white. Now, he was somewhat deaf, and probably didn’t catch the finer points I was making, but it was okay. His head didn’t explode. We just went on to other subjects and no bad feelings. But I won’t bond with anyone over white bigotry, or allow anyone anymore to assume I agree because I am afraid to tell the truth.

Gentle reader, if you are a fan of Spike Lee you will notice I have ripped off some of his lines. A few years ago, I had a secret desire to walk around in one of those t-shirts that said, ‘It’s a Black Thing, you Wouldn’t Understand’. Just to mess with people’s heads. I think, gentle reader, that whatever box you check on the racial demographic forms, you do understand. It’s a universal human thing to want to belong. It’s a universal human dilemma, to be offered a chance to bond around something you know is wrong and unfair. To all you who have always spoken up against racism, I honor you. To all of you who, like me, took a long time to find the courage, I’ll leave you with these words from Spike Lee.

Do the right thing.

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7 thoughts on “It’s a White Thing, You Wouldn’t Understand

  1. Nancy,

    It’s always a pleasure to read your work–whether it’s insightful political non-rant, fiction or personal essays.

    Why aren’t people like you in office?

    Kathryn

  2. I don’t suppose it ever occured to you that there could be some truth in that gentleman’s comment to you. You’re probablyl too young to remember what South Providence was like back in the 30s, 40s and 50s. Too bad. People who knew what “NINA” meant had built a real community then too. Unfortunately, that doesn’t fit with your liberal, revisionist view of history, does it?

  3. Beautifully said Nancy. What a great insight on a hard to grasp issue. If we could all see each other as progeny of the struggles of our ancestors we might recognize the common ground we stand on. Keep it up!

  4. John, I have no doubt that the gentleman’s comment had a great deal of truth to it. That’s the problem.

    I grew up in what would now be called a “traditional” ethnic enclave, and there existed a real sense of community. Unfortunately, part of that sense of community was the exclusion of, and invective towards anyone outside that group. What are now considered ethnic slurs were as common as “please” and “thank you.”

    So, I’m afraid that the revisionism that’s occurring is on your part. You remember the warm, fuzzy community, but forget some of the ugly values that were included.

    As a point in fact, even our venerated (and rightly so) Dr Seuss was quite capable of producing–and thereby enshrining–some pretty overtly racist stereotypes. Don’t believe me? Check out “If I Ran the Zoo.” Loved the book as a kid, still love it even as I cringe at some of the representations of “furreners,” specifically Asians and Africans. It’s awful.

    And if you should look at the book and not see what I’m talking about, that’s my point exactly.

  5. Nancy,
    Once again you hit the nail on the head by refusing to be labeled even if it was to your advantage. Refusing to be labeled, that is stereotyped is very hard to do in this day and age of brand names. Our children suffer from our habit to seek “exclusivity,” which Winston Churchill claimed was the most profane word in the English language because he said that it was the cause of the World Wars.

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