I was nerdily excited last week to discover that NPR’s Code Switch debuted a podcast. Nerdily excited enough to think, “I should blog about this every week!” And I listened to the first episode and failed to write about it for a week and now the second episode has come out. ANYWAY. I am still inspired.
Code Switch already existed on NPR and covered race and identity (and hosts fascinating conversations on Twitter too), and the first episode of the podcast focuses on whiteness – how do we define whiteness? And why is it so hard to talk about? Being white, I am particularly well-suited to blog about this one (ha). To borrow a phrase from the episode, your perspective might depend on where you are “on your respective trajectory toward wokeness.” As a transracial adoptive parent who considers it my job to immerse myself in “race stuff” nowadays, I’m on a trajectory that my prior small-town-practically-all-white-high-school self barely knew existed. And though I’m woke enough to know what woke is, let’s be real, I’m probably not all that woke yet. It’s a trajectory, okay?
So my prior small-town-practically-all-white-high-school self would have defined whiteness as “default.” And I suspect that’s a definition a lot of white people would adopt. It’s a hard mentality to shake myself free of even now. In the spirit of honesty, I’m one of those people who, reading Hunger Games, completely forgot that Rue was black as soon as I finished reading about how she was black. I mentally replaced her with a twin of Prim and would never have realized I’d even done that if people (white people, duh) hadn’t raised a ruckus about her casting in the movie. (I was certainly not one of the people who objected to the casting, I hasten to add.) Another example: for one of our adoption education classes before Miss E arrived, our homework was to bring in something that represented a tradition from our culture and present it to the class. I struggled. I thought, “I don’t have a culture, I’m just white.” (I am also mostly German so being a good (former) Lutheran, I ended up bringing my Luther’s catechism.)
Code Switch next had a great discussion of white privilege and how two college professors teach that concept to (mostly white) classes, but that’s more than I can tackle in one blog post, so I’ll move on to the second question – why is it so hard to talk about whiteness, especially for white people?
Near the end of the episode, they summarized:
“I think we learned that it’s very hard to talk about whiteness. And, obviously, it’s hard when you have the tools in your toolbox. But it’s doubly difficult if you’re trying to strike up a conversation with other people who don’t have those tools. And you may have them, as a white person, to talk about whiteness. … It’s something that [two white males interviewed in the episode] both mentioned, which was when you’re talking to a bunch of white people and you have done the research and you’ve done the reading and they haven’t, it’s almost impossible to have that conversation in a way that works.”
That is an experience that I find myself having more and more often. I used to not talk about race either but now that I do (and have some tools to do so), I feel like temperament and vocabulary get in the way. A white person has to reach a sort of base level of openness or motivation to even learn, I guess, the basics about talking about race. It’s hard to gently prod a white person to an understanding that they’re experiencing white fragility when they’ve never heard of white fragility and are seething that you’re calling them racist and undeserving of their lot in life. Which, by the way, you were not calling them when you pointed out something that should have been benign and uncontroversial about white supremacy. (See, even that term, white supremacy means something other than hooded racists, but a white person who hasn’t yet spent much time reading about race isn’t going to just know that. I didn’t just know that until I spent the last two or three years quietly observing Black Twitter.)
Complicating matters, these sorts of white person-to-white person conversations about race are usually happening on Facebook where every one of your cousin’s bro friends (hypothetically speaking, cough cough) is jumping in to call you and Obama the real racists for bringing up race. Not the most productive forum. I hide a lot of people.
So… how do you define whiteness? And is it hard to talk about? (And did you assume that I assumed you were white when I asked those questions? Because previously I would have assumed that, absent evidence to the contrary. I don’t anymore.)