[Op-Ed] Does Thinking About Whiteness Lead to Understanding White Privilege?

The first rule of white club is don't talk about white club.

When you hear the word whiteness, what do you think? The word itself is loaded for many. For people of color, it’s a trigger word often synonymous with oppression, racism and privilege. For white people, whiteness is not something often thought about or discussed, because discussing a social construct created by white people to aid in their ability to get ahead in life isn’t comfortable for them.

As a Black person in America, there was never a time when I was not aware of my Blackness. From the time my father explained to me that I might feel isolated as the only Black girl in my class, to the eruptive anger I felt watching headlines about the killings of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, my Blackness has been an omnipresent force that I’ve never needed to be reminded of. As Black people, we have seen the color of our skin be used as a tool of physical oppression and systemic racism. Our Blackness has been viewed as a weapon or a token depending on the needs of white people. Many of us have had to learn to love the skin we were born with as opposed to many white Americans who have always been told with overt and covert cues that their skin is the standard. Many white people so rarely think of their whiteness that they often forget it exists and, in turn, forget about the privilege that comes with it.

When we ask each other about our identity as Black people, we are encouraged to speak about it with pride, because so many messages tell us there is nothing to be proud of and that we don’t matter or cannot participate in certain spaces because we are Black. Asking a white person about their whiteness is viewed as taboo because the assumption is no white person wants to speak positively of their whiteness. Being proud of white heritage seems eerily close to the “white power” message of white supremacists. But the act of identifying whiteness is the first step in identifying white privilege. And white people need to start talking about and understanding their white privilege more if we want equality.

When we ask “How do you feel about your white identity?,” what we really want to know is how it feels to be crushing it in the rigged game that whites created. When phrased that way, the discomfort that many white people feel in speaking of their whiteness is obvious. To silence that guilt, it seems many white people steer clear of questions about whiteness and thus white privilege goes both unasked and unanswered.

When white people are not challenged to examine their whiteness, the idea of white privilege is left off the menu. Out of sight, out of mind, right? Well, many of us understand that whiteness and privilege are a two-for-one special — you cannot have one without the other. We live in a world where the term whiteness is viewed as obsolete, because white culture and appropriation are the standards on which our society is founded. However, Filmmaker Whitney Dow, who created The Whiteness Project, hopes that in asking young people to grapple with and discuss their whiteness, others will be given the opportunity to reflect and deepen the conversation about race and equality in America.

The multimedia documentary project is being released in several installations. The first installment, Inside the White/Caucasian Box was released in October of 2014 and the latest installment, titled The Intersection of I, which interviews white millennials, is currently running as an immersive video project as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. I visited the project along with two participants: Tribeca Film Fellows alum Jasmine Velez and Tribeca Teaches® participant Noor Ismail. During the project, I was able to listen to the participants’ interpretations of the series and speak with the director about his intentions for The Intersection of I. 

When Noor and Jasmine entered the installation, their forearms were photographed and their complexion was projected on a giant color wheel that questioned, “What is white?” On the same projection, comments and interactions from visitors of the live site were seen. The site for The Whiteness Project’s The Intersection of I went live today and included the interviews of several Texas millenials who, in some way or another, identify as white.

The subjects of the piece each had radically different concepts of race. From seemingly empathetic participants such as Wade, 22, who was able to articulate that the reason many white people feel victimized today is because “everybody is getting put on more equal footing, and they’re not used to it,” to the more problematic, like Bryan, 21, who openly admitted that he believes “it doesn’t seem that there are as many whites out doing crimes and murdering and causing trouble.”

The insights ranged from what it means to be white in athletics to how whiteness contributes to a certain sense of guilt, which left me wondering if engaging white people in talking about their whiteness can result in them understanding their privilege.

In speaking with Dow, he shared that, through a series of “racial epiphanies,” he realized later in life that he had never fully been asked to examine his white identity. The fact that he was able to go through much of his life without questioning his whiteness goes to demonstrate the privilege that he experienced as a white male. After realizing this, he was inspired to create a project that gave white people an opportunity to examine how their own whiteness impacts their life and the world around them.

Dow believes that “once you start thinking about race, you suddenly see how it impacts every interaction that you have.” Many Black people don’t see this as a novel idea and recognize most white people aren’t thinking about their identity or privilege when they think about race. Dow feels that for many white people, race is not something they think about until they interact with people of color.

This idea struck me because several of the participants interviewed believe that they don’t see color when they look at someone or that the best way to end racism is to stop talking about it. Yet, in almost the same breath, they were able to discuss that they feel they don’t truly understand the oppression and social injustice that people of color speak of. 

For Jasmine, a Puerto Rican New Yorker who identifies as an activist for Black Lives Matter, the project at first seemed shocking. She wondered how speaking to white people about whiteness does anything to help current racial tension. However, in listening to the different points of view in the film, she said she “found the different perspectives of what white means to them interesting.” Whereas Noor, a young woman of Middle Eastern descent, found that she related to many of the mixed race subjects’ pressure to identify as a majority race. When I questioned her on how speaking about whiteness made her feel, she seemed just as physically uncomfortable and unsure as many of the white subjects.

The different takeaways from the project are undoubtedly interesting, but that does not answer the question: How does talking about whiteness with people who identify as white act to end racial inequality in America?

Dow believes that in order for there to be a constructive conversation about race in America, whiteness, in whichever way people experience it, needs to be put on the table by white people. The millennials featured in the project demonstrate the schism that many white people experience when they are forced to process their ideas of whiteness and confront their privilege. But do the internal tensions they face when confronting their identity truly help facilitate equality?

Some critics of the project believe that this does nothing to aid racial equality and this will do nothing but further the stereotypes of minorities as perceived by white people, whereas others seem to believe whiteness and white privilege cannot be viewed in a broad way. Dow’s project succeeds in helping others to see that whiteness, much like many identifiers, is perceived through a lens specific to the individual. But does the project help white people see white privilege?

Dow explains that the subjects are not speaking “about structural racism. They are talking as if those things don’t exist, as if they are outside of the framework of white supremacy.” As I listened to Dow and reflected on the comments made by members of his community, I began to understand more that, while it might not be the conversation they want to have, conversations about whiteness as it relates to the rest of the world is still a tepid step in the right direction.

Black people in America are not afforded the luxury of speaking on Blackness in terms of bubbles to fill on a census. The benign execution of The Whiteness Project is in its own way a privilege that shows just how difficult it is for white people to cop to the imbalance of opportunities they’ve been afforded. It’s easier to talk about white identity using the word whiteness rather than white privilege.

Just as Carson, one of the participants in the film, admits, it’s hard for him to know that he will be given more as white person; it’s crucial for white people to admit that there are structural inequalities in this country; and it lies on the participation and honesty of people of all races to be a part of the solution.

I hope the next installment of the project challenges it’s subjects to deeply examine the advantages that they have been given due to their whiteness, and like Dow, hopefully they’ll experience a “racial epiphany” and be able to participate more actively in and appreciate the conversations about white privilege and equality that Blacks have been having for years.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

(Photo: Whiteness Project via Twitter)

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