White and Working On It

Jenny Ruth

I was twenty-eight the first time anyone asked me to identify my race.

It was a grad class, Multicultural Education, a course I was excited to take because my career in college admissions made me care about diversity. Which is to say I passionately participated in conversations about how my white college could make itself “welcoming” to students and employees who did not look like most of us.

We went around the room, each person declaring what race they identified as. Plenty of forms had required me to check the Caucasian box, but the stakes were so low. I never thought the answer mattered. Now I panicked, rehearsing ways to finish, “I’m white, but …”

I’m white, but culturally Pennsylvania Deutsch.

I’m white, but it’s not like I live in Connecticut and wear penny loafers to my yacht club.

I’m white, but can trace my ancestry and know my relatives never owned slaves.

I’m white, but my mother raised me not to be racist.

I’m white, but my father often didn’t have a job when I was growing up so we struggled.

I don’t remember which I picked, but I do remember several classmates, the ones who answered, “I’m white, I guess,” shook their heads in understanding. My brown and black classmates did not, and I really wanted them to.

For our first assignment — to explore our discovery of race and social class in an autobiographical essay — I wrote about my first black friend. It was 6th grade. We were two smart, well-behaved, middle-income honor students who sat together at lunch. There were a handful of other black kids in our grade of over 600, but they were from poor families, tracked in the lower classes, and often got in trouble at their rowdy lunch table teachers hovered near. In June, my friend told our lunch group she wasn’t coming back the next year; she’d be enrolling in a private Catholic school just across the state line in Maryland, the one her older brother already attended. She said her parents wanted her in an environment with other black kids who were like her.

The next few paragraphs of my essay explored what this taught me about the experience of black Americans. My professor crossed out all of it. In the margins, she asked, “What did this teach you about being white?”

I didn’t know. I had never thought about being white.

It doesn’t work like that for us white people. Our race is the baseline against which all others are judged. We don’t see ourselves as white; we see ourselves as normal.

I do a lot of really white things, but the whitest thing I’ve ever done was not develop a racial identity.

During the fall when I took that grad class I tried something decidedly not white. I started speaking about our race to my white friends and colleagues.

“You probably wouldn’t enjoy Bill O’Reilly if you weren’t white.”

“Is our commitment to diversity about providing opportunity for people of color, or just asking them to come here and be white with us so we look better in college rankings?”

“Sure, I’ve never had a problem interacting with cops, but I have blue eyes, blond hair, and huge tits.”

I made people uncomfortable. I often silenced them, and that wasn’t what I wanted.

Then Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, and protests in the streets. Then twenty-four-hour newsmedia coverage. “Institutional racism” and “white privilege" entered our national dialogue and white people were beside themselves. The conversation I wanted to bring was brought.

The responsibility of explaining racial injustice to white Americans is often borne by black Americans. We demand answers during awkwardly polite office arguments and classroom rants. We watch pundits scream about it for us on cable news as the cringe-worthy gore smatters across our screens like some sort of challenge-based reality show: American Ninja Social Justice Warrior. So many white Americans don’t know how to responsibly participate in conversations about race because we are not aware we have one

Our unawareness produces remarks like, “I don’t have white privilege because I grew up poor,” or, “It’s heritage, not hate,” and even, “Irish immigrants were basically slaves here too and you don’t see me complaining about it.” They’re often said with the righteousness of practiced indignation, and I do the awkward work of refusing to be an agreeable ear.

I know I am not alone.

My fellow white Americans, we need to get it together. We must stop lecturing our brown and black compatriots about their own communities. We must stop preaching the racist gospel of meritocracy and blaming Affirmative Action every time we aren’t admitted to the college of our choice or hired for the job we really want.

When we see a video clip of a black body pinned to the ground and executed by an agent of the State, we have to stop looking away, stop doubling down on the distance between Us and Them, stop digging deep to justify the violence being done for us. Because this is about us. We make everything about us when we refuse to deal with who we are.

I grew up hunting in rural Pennsylvania. Come deer season, my dad would assign my siblings and I each to a tree stand and hope we harvested enough meat to eat that winter. I usually sat in a stand on the edge of some woods overlooking a cornfield. If I didn’t get a deer, I’d stay out until the sun sank behind the mountain and the last rays barely lit anything they touched. By then it was pitch black in the woods, and I always had to walk through the dark to our truck, my heart racing, praying I’d stay on the path and not get lost or attacked by whatever unknown danger my mind conjured in the night. I’d slip the rifle from my shoulder and hold it in front of me, patrol style. Then one evening I realized how ridiculous I was. I’d sat in those woods for hours, my scent stinking up the place, keeping everything at bay but the damn squirrels. I had no reason or right to be a nervous wreck stomping around blind with a loaded gun, twitching every time my hair brushed a branch. The only threat in that forest was me.

White Americans want to be tough on crime and wage a war on drugs and reform welfare and ship the homeless off to someplace else not because these things make sense but because we’re scared. We grocery shop at Target with an AR-15 on our back, decorate with tacky tin signs that say, “This house protected by the 2nd Amendment,” lobby hard to keep the death penalty, demand hungry families turn bureaucratic tricks to prove they’re worthy of food, and yet still insist that all lives matter. Our myopia creates a darkness in which we get confused, stumble, and lose our way. We have a responsibility to see better and police our own imaginations. Our fear is the biggest threat to everyone’s safety.

So here’s a way to create some light.

Accept that there are people in this country who have fundamentally different experiences than you do.

Understand the legacy of slavery and oppression isn’t something we fix with tolerance or colorblindness or the election of Barack Obama.

Admit it wasn’t your hard work alone that earned you the success you have today.

The world isn’t fair, but you can make it fairer. Find that little corner of the world where you may make an impact.

It’s okay to be white. You didn't choose what race you were born into. You are still beautiful. You are still worthy. You are still smart. You are still a person who works hard.

A man walks to the river every day and sees a stranger, a woman, caught in the speeding current, soaked and screaming for help. He pulls her out before she can drown. Mercy. This happens every day for a week. Every day a new stranger. Every day he shows mercy. Then one day he travels up river, finds the person throwing others in the water, and puts a stop to it. Justice.

If your whiteness has never occurred to you, never stuck out as something that marks you as different, go someplace where you are not in the majority. Segregation may no longer be policy but it is practice. Drive through that part of town. Talk with one of those people. Eat at one of their restaurants. Embrace your discomfort. Feel vulnerable and open yourself to the grace of those around you. People are people. Ask about the weather or kids or grandkids or the local team or a favorite dish on the menu. Pay attention. Believe what they say.

At first the discomfort will only grow. You must sit with it. This work has to happen in your head. No one else can do this for you. You have to accept the legacy of what brought you here and wrestle with how to live with it. You must look for ways to create justice.

Celebrate success, mourn loss, and forgive yourself, because it’s not about guilt, and it’s certainly not about pride; it’s about responsbility. Commit to doing more and doing better the next time. Commit to being white and working on it.


about the author