“The colored people of this country know and understand the white people better than the white people will ever know and understand themselves.”
–James Weldon Johnson, poet and anthologist (1912)
The one African American on my all-white team in China had this little book in her apartment called Stuff White People Like. Flipping through, it was hard to disagree with some of the stereotypes. Amazon describes it like this:
“They love nothing better than sipping free-trade gourmet coffee … Apple products, indie music, food co-ops, and vintage T-shirts make them weak in the knees.
They believe they’re unique, yet somehow they’re all exactly the same … They’re also down with diversity and up on all the best microbrews, breakfast spots, foreign cinema, and authentic sushi. They’re organic, ironic, and do not own TVs.
You know who they are: They’re white people. And they’re here, and you’re gonna have to deal. Fortunately, here’s a book that investigates, explains, and offers advice for finding social success with the Caucasian persuasion. So kick back on your IKEA couch and lose yourself in the ultimate guide to the unbearable whiteness of being.”
White people don’t usually think about the culture of whiteness. We think the way we operate is the way everyone operates–or at least the way everyone should operate.
But can “whiteness” really be defined?
Our families are our first introduction to culture, yet it only takes one sleepover or meal at another person’s house to discover our differences—the way we fold laundry, put the dishes in the dishwasher, take shoes off at the door (or not), have the T.V. front and center in the living room or not visible at all, toys scattered around the house or relegated to the toy room in the basement. “Whiteness” is not the same across the board.
College may be our next crash-course in understanding our personal white culture. I traveled from Florida to attend college in the Midwest and my roommates laughed at my strange way of talking (mainly thanks to my mother from Georgia). I quickly changed “neck-ed” to “NAKE-ed” and altered the way I said “ruin” and “poem” as I realized I was at high risk of mockery. I can’t tell you how many dorm room conversations we had that went something like this:
“How do you say that [pointing at the bottle on the desk]?”
“Pop. What do YOU say?”
“I say soda. YOU?”
“That’s a Coke—but even if it were a Dr. Pepper, I’d still call it a ‘Coke.’”
The nuances of the English language provided hours of hilarity.
Marriage is also an on-going experiment in realizing how different we are from another human being. I was appalled to discover my husband hung his clothes in the closet facing right, while I have always hung mine the “right” way—facing left.
I squeeze every ounce out of the toothpaste tube, while he wastes at least a week’s worth of toothpaste in favor of a fresh tube. He likes to arrive to parties fifteen minutes early, I like to arrive five minutes late. (“People hate it when you get there early!” I always tell him.) I’m fine going to bed with a sink full of dirty dishes, while he would rather stay up late to fall in bed knowing a clean kitchen awaits him in the morning. The backdrop of life with another person highlights the myriad ways we are different.
White in Chicago differed from white in Georgia, Florida, New Jersey or Washington State (all places my relatives lived). Now that we live in Colorado, whiteness looks like moms in wild leggings, crowded hiking trails, craft beer and bicycles with trailers to haul babies around. But liberal Boulder is drastically different from the ranching cities dotting the plains on the east end of the state.
My sleepy Colorado city—the last stoplight before ascending the canyon to Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park– looks like drive-through liquor stores, shops called “One Love” and “Hazy Hippo” selling pot paraphernalia and loud pickup trucks. And yet, as a hub for over 200 artists, it is also characterized by hundreds of sculptures scattered throughout the city. “Whiteness” cannot be so easily defined.
Until you become a minority.
Then you discover a few things about what it means to be “white” …
Over the next couple days, I’ll reflect on some lessons I learned about whiteness through the times I have been a minority, so be sure you come back tomorrow!
What does “whiteness” look like where you live?
New to the Series? Start HERE (though you can jump in at any point!).
During the month of March, 2017, I will be sharing a series called 31 Days of #Woke. I’ll be doing some personal excavating of views of race I’ve developed through being in schools that were under court order to be integrated, teaching in an all black school as well as in diverse classrooms in Chicago and my experiences of whiteness living in Uganda and China. I’ll also have some people of color share their views and experiences of race in the United States (I still have some open spots, so contact me if you are a person of color who wants to share). So check back and join in the conversation. You are welcome in this space.