It started with an argument about our DVD drawer. Being accused by my son of watching the same two movies over and over again, my daughter shot back that his stupid movies don’t have enough girls in them.
This is a particular pet peeve of mine, which is why I jumped into the DVD drawer (and the conversation) and started tossing out examples.
Star Wars. Harry Potter. Just do a count, okay? Princess Bride…? I know, she’s got great dresses, but the whole joke of the movie is that she is entirely ineffectual, across the board, while her male counterpart can take castles without standing up. Lame. The Incredibles….okay, is actually pretty awesome for the white women. But the only black woman in the movie is an off screen verbal abuse victim – the butt of a huge laugh line – with no superpowers! What is that all about?
Somewhere in here my seven-year-old son started to cry.
I had the mommy guilt immediately. Like woah. I started to apologize. But at that exact same moment, with the other part of my brain, I saw an old, familiar pattern. There is an unfairness. People who are negatively impacted by that unfairness begin to talk about it. And there is an outburst of emotion from the person who isn’t facing that particular unfairness, who is experiencing people just talking about it as an act of emotional violence towards them.
It made me think of how white people don’t like to be told that we’re white.
That claim is actually quite hard to prove, now that I’ve just said it. The scariest thing about an unspoken agreement is that it does not reveal itself. But I have had people bring my whiteness to my attention, in the context of an unfairness. And I have done the same to others. It is usually, or at least often, experienced as an emotional backhand.
Just that. Just naming it. That’s all it takes.
Implicit in the identity of “whiteness” is complicity to racial injustice. If I am no race, then it is plausible that I move in a colorless, post-racial world. But at the moment that I become white, I stand accused. I respond with (what is from my perspective) an equal portion of emotional violence, either in the form of anger or tears.
This is why I teach my kids that they are white.
I want them to have the skills to negotiate their own racial identity, without using people of color as proxy. I want them to understand the strange paradox that race is real and not real. I want them to be able to be told they are white without feeling the urge to hit back.
Part of the game here is that we can’t talk about whiteness without centering whiteness. We have almost no language for this: whiteness as limitation, which is not the same as an excuse; whiteness, not as we have previously used it, as a code for “standard human” from which all variations are accepted as deviations, but as a particular variation on a genuinely universal standard; whiteness as one piece of the pie, instead of the whole darn thing.
The color itself is a mind game. White. Our skin isn’t really white, of course. It’s pink. Maybe peach. (Can you imagine a system of peach supremacy?) In the wintertime my legs do approach a true white. But that’s a joke. White is the color of the background, behind this text. My skin is not this color, nor will it ever be.
Yet we of my origin/heritage/culture/skin color call ourselves white. White, which is really not a color so much as a not-color. White, which is associated with these characteristics: colorless, transparent, pure, unmarked, original.
Whiteness: the color of not colored. White: the race of no race.
This is why I teach my kids that they are not, really, white. There is no such thing as the white race. There is no such thing as the colorless, transparent, pure, unmarked, original sector of humanity. This is a fiction, a terribly poisonous fiction, and more alive than common social myth would like to allow.
I am quoting the Anabaptist writer and theologian Drew Hart when I describe race as both a lived reality and a social fiction. It is both at once, real and not real. I have seen how people of color – both writers that I read and individuals who share their experiences with me – have negotiated this paradox daily through their lives.
Whether we admit it or no, my son and I, too, have racial identity. We, too, are split across the paradox of color-blind discourse and unequal application of social controls. The shards of our long history of racial violence shape our white lives. We are limited, but we are not powerless. We are not universal or supreme, but we are fully human. This is good news.