Waking Up White: Chapter 9

The Reading: White Superiority

“If the idea of race was human-made, it begged the questions, What person made it up? When? And Why?”

I never really wondered this. I also never wondered why people thought up and created different breeds of dogs.  A dog is a dog. A person is a person. The description-words were a jumble. The ones that made sense were about places. Chinese people came from China. Japanese people came from Japan. Koreans came from Korea, and there was a difference between North Koreans and South Koreans. Texans came from Texas – but were also Americans. Indians (Dads, anyway) were from Oklahoma,  even though their great-grand-parents had been from North Carolina. Dad’s great-something-granddad had been from Ireland. And the guy wearing the funny dress keeps calling himself African but you know full well he’s from Rialto. The only “African” person we knew was Lorraine, the white lady from South Africa who told us to call her Larry.

“Race” words were secondary in their “power to describe.”  They would be used if the “real” description wasn’t helping.  If you said “The Gambian lady” and someone didn’t know who you meant, then you might say “you know – the black lady who always wears the purple poncho.” They carried no more meaning than saying “red-headed,” and were almost always used with some other description, the same as we would with the “real” description (e.g. “the Thai guy who works with the Machinist’s Mates”)

“Real” descriptions meant something. Bruce Lee was Chinese because he came from Hong Kong, not because of his features. In those days “negro” was a polite way of describing someone with dark skin – and it made sense, in that the word meant “black>” When people started saying “African-American” it made very little sense to me, because Africa wasn’t a place (not that it didn’t exist – just that it was a continent, not a country, and people were from countries). Other than country words, most of the descriptions didn’t seem to mean anything.

And then, one day, I learned how Native Americans came to be called “Indians,” and suddenly it all made sense.

“See,” (my elementary-school-self would calmly explain) “Columbus called them Indians because he was too dumb to know he was all the way on the other side of Earth from India, and too stubborn to admit he messed it up. And since he had the guns, the Indians couldn’t make him stop.”

So, any time a non-country name that made no sense was used to describe a person – it was obviously just like Columbus – a stupid thing made up by someone too dumb to know better, too stubborn to admit they didn’t know stuff, and too powerful to make them shut up their stupid stuff.

That made it easy to ignore the words and just call people whatever I was instructed to call them.

So I guess, in a sense, I started out ahead of the curve: I knew it was all made up.  But it wasn’t until very recently that I learned it was made up on purpose. In the past half-decade, I have worked for an organization focused on anti-racism, and a phenomenal two-day seminar with Crossroads zoomed out “American History” to display it, not as a separate and standalone thing, but as a smaller part of “White European Colonialism” and show the thoughtful, intentional constructs that were created to promote and condone racism as an Imperialist tactic, under the auspices of the Christian church – an authority that allowed it to span multiple imperial nations.

“More Like Me”

“I found myself passing harsh judgment on those who’d begun the cycle of whites revering whites. And then, with no small amount of horror and shame, I realized I’d been doing the same thing. I’d long “othered” people of color, wanting to help and fix them. My thinking definitely fell along the lines of If only they could be more like me. Wasn’t I sorting people into different groups according to race? And didn’t wanting to help and fix imply my way was better?  Just how far from the ‘taming of the heathens’ mindset was I really?  When I got honest with  myself, I had to own up to the fact that I’d bought into the myth of white superiority…”

This statement was a Big Learning for me.It makes perfect sense when I see it laid out this way – but so much of my life has been on the other side of this equation, my view of it was totally different.

I’m one of those folks who needed lots of “fixing” to fit in.  When I managed to work up to better-paying jobs I ended up in environments I totally didn’t understand – and often still don’t, today. I’ve been immensely lucky to find an amazing mentor who is willing to help me look at my words and actions and thought processes and learn how to be less “out of place” among the “leadership” in our organization.  (Irony: Once I had already managed to fake my way into the Big Room, I finally found someone willing to help “fix” me, teach me how to kinda look like I sort of belong in the room with all the high-rent white people. He’s an immigrant. He’s black. He’s about a thousand times more “socially aware” than I am – perhaps he has needed to be, to thrive in the U.S., but I am inclined to believe he’s that good with people from anywhere. While I still pretty much suck at “looking like I belong here,” I’m easily ten times better at it than I was before I connected with him).

Learning to be More Like You

In an earlier post, I wrote about the attitude Dad inherited from his dad.  Grandpa Fate got out of the Indian Territories because he didn’t see any future there. Dad taught me that you needed to figure out who was on the winning side, recognize it was their way or no way, and go learn how to play by their rules.  From Debby Irving’s side, she was trying to “fix” people; I was trying to figure out how to get into the room with people like her.

Whiteness was an advantage – if I could afford reasonably-decent-looking clothes I was unlikely to get thrown right out.  And as long as I didn’t open my mouth, it would take them a while to figure out that I was wearing the wrong clothes and didn’t know which fork and wasn’t sure how to address the Grand Poobah and didn’t know the secret handshake. When they figured that out, it seemed like they’d get even madder because I had “fooled” them into thinking I had a right to be there. And, not knowing the right, passive-aggressive way to fight back in a “sophisticated” fashion, what can you do but slink back to your corner.

Timing finally worked in my favor.  The computer age was beginning, and technicians didn’t have a college degree path yet – it was still “trade” work, like being a mechanic in the 60s. If you could learn it, somebody would let you do it.  As long as I was willing to be treated like dirt by a bunch of guys all day (and the Army had already taught me that skill), I could get a foot on the ladder, in a way that wouldn’t make too many people mad that I had managed it.

But ultimately, I was still walking into a room where people spoke a foreign language, and trying to figure out how to pass for a local. I would have given so much for someone willing and able to help me figure out how to be more like them… And if I saw someone trying to give those things to one of the people I grew up with, I wouldn’t have seen it as trying to ‘fix’ them – I’d have seen it as an acting lesson.  Not “how to change yourself” but “how to code-switch between reality and whatever-it-is that the people with the stuff can understand.” At best, I saw it as similar to learning a new language – how to communicate with someone who is a peer, but can’t understand you. At worst, I saw it as figuring out how to talk to the people who live so far from reality, they can’t understand normal people.

Fairy Godmother knew Cinderella was as good as any snotty Princess. But she needed someone to fit her out like a Princess so she could get into the ball to show them. Was I being realistic? Or just conditioned to see the generosity of the rich folks in deigning to notice one of us peons as an magnanimous act?  if it’s what gets one of us into the ballroom, does the difference matter?

Interestingly, I made distinctions about that. Someone who was willing to teach me how to be was “helpful” (and, to be honest, still is. I still mentally gasp like a fish on a riverbank in those rooms and every thing I can learn to breathe a bit more normally is a treasure). But the folks who did “Charity” (with a capital C) were as fake as fake could be and that I recognized as a bunch of self-important twaddle designed to help nobody but themselves. You could clearly see when the rich women were Doing Charity so they could display it like the ribbons their blow-dried dog won at the dog show.

“If sorting out racial categories has proven so elusive, perhaps sorting was never a smart idea.”

Gee. Y’think?

Human Nature

“I wonder if some day humanity will look back on people’s belief in racial categories in the same way that I shake my head at the…days when people thought the world was flat.”

Of course. But humans have always sorted and categorized themselves and each other. We’ll move past race and think up something else to use as a dividing line between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” As genetic science advances, it’s only a matter of time til we start changing and manipulating people.  Maybe we’ll eliminate race as an issue by manipulating chromosomes until we’re all the same “acceptable” color.  And if we do – we’ll start categorizing people by some other feature or characteristic – intelligence, mathematical ability, family relationships – maybe even hair color.

The Study Question

Prior to reading this chapter, what did you know about the history of naming the races?  How do you feel now about the term “Caucasian”?

By the time I first heard this word, I had already studied geography.  I knew that the Caucasus was a mountain range in the Soviet Union. But I also knew about Columbus. “Caucasian” was just another “stupid, stubborn, powerful” term. Study it for a vocabulary test, learn to use it correctly, and let it mean whatever the people in power tell you it means. Try not to laugh and tell them how stupid it is – that never ends well for you.

The Blog Challenge: Waking Up White

Stephen’s Chapter 9 post

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6 thoughts on “Waking Up White: Chapter 9

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  1. “You could clearly see when the rich women were Doing Charity so they could display it like the ribbons their blow-dried dog won at the dog show.”

    Wow — that’s the key here for some people.

    One of my friends says “Sure, ‘race’ is a social construct and in the real reality it is imaginary. But ‘money’ is a social construct, too, and it drives all of society.” Of course, he said it in much more colorful ways, and speaking as a person of color, the bitterness was inescapable and real whereas I just find it clever. I’m not hurt by that discovery.

    James Whitfield said something this week that clicked. Yes, I’ve always known about Columbus “discovering” America, and I’ve long thought that it was silly because the people who lived here certainly knew that this land existed. And I’ve long accepted the excuse that “what he meant was that white Europeans discovered it, so of course we understand the white-centering here.” Yes, that makes sense. A white-centered society would think they’re “discovering” something when it’s just that *they* are ignorant. Those foolish white guys!

    But then he mentioned the Doctrine of Discovery, which of course I am still learning about, and he mentioned one of the clauses from Pope Nicholas V was that a white European could conquer a land (make it their own property) even if there were inhabitants as long as the inhabitants were not Christians. And then Mr. Whitfield said “The pope was saying ‘if you find a land w/o Christian brothers and sisters, then it’s yours as a Discovery.”

    Bingo. It snapped into place.

    Columbus didn’t “discover” America as an ignorant man who had no idea there were people there. I mean, right in the stories he finds that there are people. He “discovered” America because there were no *Christians* there. The presence or absence of a religious faith was key, not removing ignorance. White Europeans might not have known all the details about a distant land, but if it was empty of Christians, then finding it meant is was theirs. Columbus “discovering” America for Spain was saying that Spain could own America because the indigenous weren’t Christian.

    That was a great moment, and it adds even more power to the term “columbusing” when white people today appropriate cultural and social expressions that are not indigenous to *us* as white people. We can wear corn rolls and dashikis because we “discovered” them, and the discovery is that “this isn’t a white thing, so we can take it.”

    One takeaway I’m getting from these discoveries (no pun intended!) as I work through this book is how so much of what I see as my safe, normal, entirely neutral identity is really based upon the idea that I get to choose who I am, rather than have someone else impose that identity upon me. It makes me wonder how much of who I am is really me, and how much is there because without my comprehension my whiteness has been preselected as my only option. I mean, it’s weird to think “How much of ‘me’ really exists, and how much of ‘me’ is simply accommodating myself to my environment?”

  2. Yeah, you knew there was more – but that statement just wanted to stand on its own.

    I’ve given my thoughts on Columbus – but can’t resist a nod to Flip Wilson’s “Christopher Columbus” routine, in which he describes Columbus arriving here on a big holiday, called “Not having been discovered yet Day.” The natives he encounters explain to him that they don’t want to be discovered, and advised him to “Discover yo’ ass away from here!.”

    Y’know, pretty sure Flip wasn’t just makin’ a joke… You can hear a tribute version of that routine here;
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_n2ey402bX4

    Part of the lesson is, indeed, that you get to take whatever things appeal to you. But at a deeper level, that’s “if they aren’t like you, they aren’t really people, and therefore taking from them isn’t theft, any more than taking an apple from a tree.”

  3. Di, thanks for sharing so much of your personal story here. I love seeing you become more and more 3 dimensional, and I appreciate your wisdom and experience.

    1. lol don’t know how wise I am, but I appreciate the opportunity to explore all of this with the two of you! In the end, we’ll surely know ourselves and one another better – and we might just learn some things along the way….

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