It is time for me to explore something. I feel vulnerable in putting this out here because I’m sure there are many things I still don’t see. Regardless, this is a topic I want to tackle.
I heard a question asked by a black man, “What does it mean to be white?” It’s a great question.
Until only recently I hadn’t given it much thought because I tend to believe and to view the world as “we are all the same”. What if my belief doesn’t match reality…a reality I just can’t see? If I can be honest and put into words what it means for me to be white, I wonder what might happen? Maybe I will see a reality to which I have been blind.
Exploring this question will help me to see things about myself, my life, and my experiences in ways I haven’t considered. Will my answers be considerably different from how a person of color would answer, “What does it mean to be African-American, Hispanic, Asian, or Native American?” I don’t know what all my answers will be, but I’m going to run with the question and see where I end up.
What does it mean to be white? The first thing that strikes me is that I never had to give meaning to being white. I am, and it is. This is the first answer that came to my mind.
That may have just spoke volumes. Did I just hear myself say, “I am the norm. I am what is out there”. It doesn’t mean I don’t know there are other skin colors. I think it means I live in a milieu of white where I have internalized the basic rules of living in it.
Where can I go being white?
The rules are simple and there are not too many of them. I can go anywhere, be anywhere, and do most anything without anyone having any reason to block or stop me. In my mind the only limitations I have are those I put on myself. That’s what it means to me being white. I wonder if these are the rules a man of color would list?
Being white means I can go out to dinner and a movie, and always expect good service. If I don’t get it, I have a right to complain and expect the problem to be fixed. I wonder if a person of color gets the same level of service as I do? What happens when he complains?
Being white means I can be in an unfamiliar place, stop to ask for directions, and I can expect to be received without suspicion, without being feared, and without being afraid. As a person of color travels throughout America, I wonder what is on his mind when he stops to ask for directions?
What can I expect being white?
Being white means I can look for a place to live in any city, in any part of the city, and I will be shown the best places. I don’t give a thought I might be shown less desirable areas or properties. Does this happen for the black man? And then at my home, being white means when someone shows up for a service call, no one ever mistakes me for the maid or other help.
Being white means I can expect to be greeted in stores with a smile, and with courtesy at the check out counters. I can walk throughout a store freely, picking up and setting down merchandise as I browse, and no one thinks I am going to steal anything. What happens when the person of color behaves this way?
Being white means I can open an account at any bank and I know they want me and my money there. I can also cash checks, write checks, and deposit and withdraw money without any more hassle than the length of time I stand in line. I’m also greeted and thanked by name. Does a man of color experience this same ease?
Being white means I know police are my friends. I was taught that in elementary school. If I ever get lost or am in trouble, I was told, look for a man in blue. I was told I will be safe. Being white means I’m not afraid of being hurt during a traffic stop. What are children of color taught to do when around police, or teenagers of color taught to do when being pulled over?
What do I fear being white?
Being white for me means I walk with a certain caution around people of color who I don’t know, especially black men. I don’t know why I feel that inside my body. I’ve never been hurt of threatened by a black man, yet it can be there none-the-less. I don’t feel it with black men at my work place or with black colleagues in my profession.
The feeling shows up if I am walking in a lower economic neighborhood, maybe shopping in an unfamiliar city mall, maybe just getting gas at night in a large metropolitan area. This feeling happens when I am in places I believe I don’t have much control of my “white rules” environment around me. I’m not proud of this, but it is in me and I have work to do. I wonder what the man of color feels in environments where I believe my “white rules” are working?
What does my world look like being white?
Being white means I’ve experienced 99% of my life in places where the simple rules of my white milieu are in place. I thought about how much of my time, of my life, has been in direct contact with people of color, and I have to admit it isn’t more than 1% of my 19,710 days on the planet. In fact 1% translates into 4, 730 hours. Even that seems too high.
Considering the number of hours I have been actively engaged with people of color, I think it looks more like 1% of that. Maybe 473 hours…less than 500 hours in my 54 years on this planet. When I say engaged I mean in an exchange of some kind, a conversation in a class, hanging out with a group of friends, a quick chat at the teller window, where ever the exchange of communication could happen. This is part of what it means for me to be white. I haven’t done it on purpose, it has just been my experience in life.
I heard a black man say that every single day he has to deal with the white world. Ideas and norms of living from only a white perspective. My truth is that I do not go out of my way to avoid or remove myself from people of color. I would judge myself as prejudiced if I did. However, I wonder if my personal statistics reflect more widely how white life in the US is organized and structured? I wonder if this happened in ways I wasn’t even aware?
Growing up white.
I went to a great high school. It had all kinds of college prep classes taught by teachers who inspired me to learn. It was also true that in my high school I could count the number of black kids on one hand, and none were in my advanced prep classes. There were plenty of black kids in my town, but they almost all were in the other high school. Why is that?
Which public school you attend is determined by where your house is located. How come there were virtually no black kids living in homes that would put them in my school district? There were black men and women who had jobs that would have enabled them to afford homes in my school district. Why were they not there?
I suspect it is because of the housing and loan policies in place over many, many years that prevented blacks from living in neighborhoods I lived in. I wonder what the classes offered were like at the other high school?
Schools are funded by property taxes of homes in that district. The homes in the district of this other high school were considerably less in value than in my district. There was not as much money available for that high school. I wonder if there was enough money to offer advanced prep classes?
I got a great college education. This is also what it means to be white. Almost every one of my peers in my high school class continued onto college. Going to college was drilled into me by my family, and also my teachers. I wonder how many black kids in the other high school were encouraged and prepped to go to college? When I showed up at college, I’m guessing a 10:1 student ratio of white to persons of color were on campus.
In my various careers, I have held jobs that all required advanced education and degrees. Among my peers and colleagues the ratio of white to persons of color seems to again be 10:1. Most people where I have worked, and especially in similar job positions, looked like me. This is my norm and what it means to be white.
I wasn’t conscious everyone looked like me. The only time I became conscious of it was when I would meet a person of color holding a like-position as me. Then, there was a break in my transparency of white. Color was suddenly present in my otherwise white spectrum. I wonder what the people of color I worked with noticed and how long it took them to do so?
Being white means I can live color blind. In fact I have tried to live color blind most of my life, because I have always thought that was “a good thing”. Being white means I can blindly assume every person of color has the same experience as me. After all, I’m not going to stop a person of color from doing and enjoying what I can do. I’m not a racist.
And herein lies the problem of what it means to be white; having the privilege of being blind to color which includes being blind to a system that disadvantages color. The experiences people of color are having are not the same as the ones I am having.
Side by side experiences of growing up, going to school, getting to college, securing a well-paying job, buying a home in a “good” neighborhood, and raising kids safely are different. If I am a white person walking through life color blind, it means I am also blind to things that are structurally, or systemically, racist in our system.
Because structural racism was created and maintained throughout most of our history in the US, people of color have not had the generational history of educational advantages, career opportunities, housing prospects, and wealth transfer that I have. In the world of the persons of color, what happened back “then” is affecting what is happening right “now”, and not in a good way. Being white means this is not my experience. This is an important point.
Many white people will say, “Every person of color has equal opportunity now. It doesn’t matter what happened 50 years, 100 years, or 200 years or more ago”. In the transparency of our white privilege we fail to recognize what persons of color have to work with “now”, especially compared to white America. And what they have to work with now is a direct result of what they were not allowed to have “then”.
What is happening “now” to me as a white man has been aided and advanced by what my parents and grandparents were able to do, become, and acquire that the black man, and other people of color, were denied during that same time.This is what it means to be white today.
What does it mean to be white? What does it mean to be African-American, or Asian, or Hispanic, or Native American? Is it the same or is it different?
I believe before you or I can say, with any credibility, we do not have white privilege, each of us has a responsibility to find out if in fact there are differences. As I study U.S. history, listen to the experiences of people of color, and read and watch current events, I believe the white experience in America is very different from the person of color’s experience.
It is like traveling cross-country in a car. Whites have a car with a reserve gas tank, equipped with GPS, and four-wheel drive. It is followed by a support truck to help with any mechanical breakdowns, quickly and efficiently, that may happen while driving.
People of color have a car too, but its gas tank is much smaller with no reserve. It comes with a paper map that sometimes leaves off the interstate routes. It has only rear wheel drive, and has no support truck following it.
Then in the severe weather of January, we leave Los Angeles and say, “See you in New York”. We can’t understand why the person of color has so much trouble traveling that distance and “making it”.
The stories I hear from people of color about what it means to be African-American, or Hispanic, or Asian, or Native American are not like my story. There are significant differences. Two things needed to happen for me to hear and see these differences.
First, I had to be conscious of what it means to be white in this country. I had to understand how, and in the manner which, I am able to do all the things available to me. This becomes my story of what it means to be white.
Second, I had to believe the story of what it means to be a person of color when it is shared by him or her. Just as my experience is true for me, so is a person of color’s story true for him or her. It’s not my place to make judgments about someone else’s experience. If I don’t listen I can’t hear.
When I do these two things I have an opportunity to hear the differences that exist…today. And it is in those differences where I can recognize structural and systemic racism. When I can see and recognize systemic racism, then I can understand how I am part of white privilege.
Not having to worry about my place, my opportunities, or my story…I am and it is. My white privilege.
Now I’m asking you, what does it mean to be white?
Todd is a Men’s Life Coach, an entrepreneur, a licensed healthcare professional, a husband, a father, and a world traveler. His mission is to co-create a strong and compassionate world by facilitating transformation through understanding, trust, and empowerment.He received his education from Newfield, a certified coach training school, and is a member of the International Coach Federation. Learn more at Empowered Men Coaching