What it means to be white…and English


Got a reading assignment recently, from a loving man and friend who brings me fruit from his garden. Note the word ‘assignment’. You might glean that I was feeling resistant, a bit prickly about what happens next. The book in question is Robin DiAngelo’s What Does It Mean To Be White, a semi-academic, somewhat incendiary text whose subtitle, Developing White Racial Literacy, previews the author’s attitude. My friend had asked me to read this book leading up to and in the wake of Donald Trump’s election, believing a crisis was afoot, and that white people, in particular, need to change the way they think and talk, about race.

I pronounced myself interested, if not zealous like him. In truth, I am cautious about being recruited to something, though I am drawn by the premise. Indeed, some topics need to be addressed, and after 169 entries to date, I figured it was time I addressed this one*. Anyway, I’ve finished my reading so I’m ready for a good chat. I’ll likely start by acknowledging certain points. That our “dominant” culture views racism as a binary—you are or you are not ‘a racist’—thus blocking a meaningful discussion because this bias elicits defense, seems correct. I also agree that our collective privileging of philosophies like individualism, meritocracy, and universalism (platitudes like, “under the skin we’re all the same”) similarly deflect from realistic discussion. On the negative side, I don’t care for the application of terms like ‘literacy’ (implying the corollary, illiteracy) to preemptively derrogate dissenters. It seems not only pedantic, but superior in tone, fanatical. A turn off. Lesser offensive is the book’s ignoring of nationality as an aspect of diversity; further, the notion that racism is a white problem because that term indicates a pervasive, institutionalized phenomenon, while terms like prejudice or stereotype are more appropriately applied to individual situations, seems correct on the one hand. At this point in the text, DiAngelo had already outlined the economic, legal, and social disadvantages largely experienced by people of color. However, if one is subject to an individual act of prejudice, be it dangerous or otherwise harmful, it will seem merely academic what term is applied, which lends an element of so what to this portion of her book.

With that preface, I will next ask my friend if we might sideline the intellectual part to focus on the personal. This is what I thought might be explored at length in What Does It Mean To White, and what I hope to make room for.

When I was a kid (age 0-10), there were few peers or adults of color in my community. I lived in semi-rural areas of Britain, within outskirts (British term for suburb) of UK second cities, Manchester and Birmingham. I recall small populations of Indians, people from the Middle East, but no one of what we now call Asian heritage, and hardly anyone Black or of Hispanic heritage. To me, Black meant someone of African background, and some lived in the inner cities, I somehow learned. I discerned much from TV. I will have learned about slavery from Roots, the celebrated Alex Haley book that became a miniseries, and something of a media sensation. Slavery was horrible, I observed, and was told. It doesn’t exist anymore, adults added.

I learned what ‘Americans’ were from cop shows. Americans, to my 7-10 year-old self were white, spoke in canned voices and said words or terms like ‘wow!’ or ‘holy cow!’ a lot. The ‘other’ Indians, or Native Americans, were…well, I didn’t know where they came from, and I won’t have thought about it. Those cop and/or action shows delineated the stereotypes and hierarchies: white guys were in charge—were the heroes, but also, mostly, the villains. Black guys were bad, as in thugs, generally, but also, sometimes, the hip, as in more knowing partners of the white guys in charge. Asian people were clearly subordinate, the people in charge of the computers and other machines, whether fixing them or else declaring their failures in critical moments. An exception, it seemed, was Star Trek, with its weird Scotsman whining, “Cap’n, I canna git ni pewer!”.

Emigration to the US didn’t change much. There were more Latinos (as in Latin America versus Spain, I inferred), more people of mixed race. Still not many Black people, as I still lived a middle-class life, now in suburbs, not ‘outskirts’, and the socioeconomic segregations seemed largely similar to what they were in the UK. I experienced largely benign, if irritating prejudice in middle school and (somewhat) into H.S. Peers teased my accent, stock British phrases which I didn’t use but had crossed the ocean via media (I blame PBS, Jane Austen, Benny Hill, The Royal Family, The Beatles. Thank God I got through school before Harry Potter!). I was unhatefully called a ‘limey’ sometimes—a reference, apparently, to Elizabethan era English sailors who, lacking vitamins when crossing oceans to conquer foreign lands, contracted scurvy and thus needed fruits like limes as a remedy.

“Okay,” I would say without interest when this was explained.

A genuinely upsetting experience happened in 9th grade, when I frequented a friend’s home that also attracted his sister’s friends, one of whom was a friendly, same-aged Black girl who went to a local school, not mine. She was pretty—had a lovely smile and her hair was curly, with Shirley Temple ringlets down about the base of her neck. Mostly she was charming, and as she hung around me and my friend a bit more than his sister, we bantered easily. I was careless, I think. Awkward as a teen for reasons that are beyond the scope of this entry, I’d say the wrong thing at times. I don’t believe that what I said to her was prejudiced, or racist. On the surface, at least, race didn’t seem relevant to the offense. Anyway, I’d said something, and thus on the third, or maybe fourth—and sadly, last—occasion this girl was in our company, she was morose and distant. I asked my friend what was up with her. According to him, she’d said one or two things to me that he deemed flirtatious, and I’d brushed her off.

I didn’t know what to do—what I wanted to do. Dealing with the feelings of girls, women was…hmm? Long story short: never saw her again. I’d like to share this memory with my friend, tell him that I’ve been thinking of this story as I read the DiAngelo book. It was and is relevant to our important subject, because among other things, what was somewhere in my mind the time that girl was in my company were the following assumptions: you (I) don’t have relationships with Black people. They live elsewhere, have different lives. They don’t like you, wouldn’t like you, much less want to be close to you. Was any of this conscious to my teenage mind? No. Robin DiAngelo, paraphrasing psychoanalysis, would likely argue that this doesn’t matter in so far as we have a responsibility to search our minds and upon that endeavor, to be honest. Fair enough.

By the way, I have a teasing question for my friend when we get together, about that fruit he’d given me the last time we saw each other: why was he giving me limes?

  • Actually, the entry “Don’t look at me” (August 2014) is centrally about race


Graeme Daniels, MFT


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