What white person pissed you off? This was the question of unrest heralded from the opposite end of the phone line by a friend at his breaking moment. Although whiteness is one of the most crucial aspects of American culture and society, to turn the looking-glass onto whiteness seems and feels “strange” to most. However, as a critical whiteness consultant this is work that I do daily. WTH!!! Yes, you can imagine the looks of suspicion, blank stares, or gazes of amazement I receive when people first read my business card from the university. What tickles me most, however, are the scores of white people who with reservation offer an “Oh I see,” not wanting to go down that road with the black woman standing before them. On the other hand, oodles of people of color in awe question, “And white folks let you do this; I mean they seriously pay you?” It baffles many people, regardless of race, because not only have we been conditioned to not talk about race and racism in this day and age, through socialization we disregard the fact that whiteness is race, it constructs our society through privilege and oppression, and ultimately it is a worthy and necessary of studying.
Whiteness is so normalized for Americans that it seems unnatural and impolite to call attention to it. You doubt me? No worries, you are not alone. Try this exercise: for the next week while you are watching or reading your local news count the number of times people who are white are described as white when spoken of by whomever is reporting. Are they referred to as a white man, or a white woman, or a white group of teens, and so forth? As you are doing this, also note the number of times people who are not white are referred to simply as people — free of any racial identifier including code words like “urban.” Generally speaking, to be man or woman is to be white, while everyone else is explicitly marked by race. Hence, in a nutshell, critical whiteness studies specifically examine how whiteness is established, understood, maintained and what is its impact on cultures and societies.
At the onset of the twenty-first century, this is quite difficult for many people to receive as we have lived so long with allowing whiteness to go under the radar by not speaking its name. Just as with my brooding friend, after having spent countless conversations and encounters listening to me point out the white supremacist ideology operating in every television show, movie, song or whatever popular cultural reference that we have discussed, he adamantly wanted me to identify: what was the point in my life that made me “dislike” white people.
Although I have explained countless times to my friend that I do not possess a blanket disdain for people identifiably white nor is my investment in critical whiteness studies about such a premise, he still believes that my professional study of whiteness is rooted in some specific traumatic moment. He, like others, thinks there has to be some Hollywood moment when a white person spit in my face and now I want revenge. As a black woman in America, do I have anger? Do I carry trauma and anguish in my psychological and physical being? Absolutely! Until white supremacist ideology is banished from human thought all racialized humans will experience trauma and anguish.
But we must be clear; my work with critical whiteness is not about “who stole my cookies.” My need to critique and actively engage whiteness as a system of privilege is merely a dot on the overall continuum of social justice activism. I rest within a collective of beings wrestling with how to make the principles of social equity a reality—where people experience living and being understood through the content of their character, not assigned complex systems of hierarchy embedded in privilege and power. Despite my demanding friend on the phone being an educated African American male living in twenty-first century United States, he too is unaware of the insidious presence of whiteness operating in his own life. His social and racial being did not keep him from buying into the notion that to address whiteness in this day and age must emerge from a blatantly violent singular reactionary moment. Nor did it register to him that he too bought into and spewed the virus of white supremacy when later in the conversation he responded to my side note about wanting some red grapes and cheese to snack on while we continued talking. With all authority and assertiveness he proclaimed, “That’s it! You wanted to be white! Or you wanted to date a white guy and were rejected…tell the truth! I will figure this thing out about you and whiteness because black folks don’t crave grapes and cheese as a snack!”
Just as I spent the next twenty minutes attempting to answer my friend’s question adequately for him, I have spent innumerable hours, days and years attempting to do the same with other individuals and groups who are trying to understand what motivates my work. In my life’s work I ask and attempt to answer a question similar to the ones raised by Stokely Carmichael: how do we clear away the obstacles that we have in this society that keep us from living like human beings?
The first step is to critically and publicly examine and dialogue about race on all levels. We must problematize the grandiose culture of civility: the pseudo-politeness we label “colorblindness,” “multi-culturalism,” “diversity,” or “post-racial” so rampant in our modern era that impedes us from addressing the circus of elephants in the room. The assumptions and notions we hold about being “civil” keep us from collaborating, truly honoring one another and manifesting the “more perfect union” we say we desire in so much of our national rhetoric.
We can no longer duck tape or sanitize the conversation, like the reckless attempts to rewrite Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or To Kill a Mockingbird, and to read the United States Constitution without reference to slavery. We must continue to name and speak of the disease if we are going to heal from it. Any psychotherapist worth their salt knows that silence makes one a perpetual victim; by erasing the history of racism and discourse of white supremacist ideology from our national conversation we erase the ability for us to name what we are dealing with and to ever truly honor how far we have progressed, even if there are still legions of miles to go. Tacitly ignoring race and racism that thrives so well under the guise of ignored whiteness is a disservice to future generations and our selves.
What do you think?
BIO: Stephany “Stiletto” Rose, Ph. D. is a poet, activist, public intellectual and an assistant professor of Women’s and Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. Article originally published on Dr. Rose’s blog page at http://thedrstiletto.com/2012/02/08/what-white-person-pissed-you-off/