When Am I White? The Concept of Privilege
For me, as a woman of colour the obvious answer is "I'm not white", and yet as I reflect more on this question, there are many times when I emulate 'white values and white culture'. There are many times when I can 'pass' or be a 'token' white and that's when I can say 'I was White'.
What do I mean by that? What is passing and what are White values and culture?
Well what I mean is the subtle, often unconscious and yet ever present dominant culture that espouses certain ways of being, and what we should strive for. In my context, this dominant culture is about being white, male, Christian, English-speaking, middle-class, straight and able-bodied in particular. Heck the concept of 'Whiteness' is so recognised that someone even started a blog that was intended to 'poke fun' at white stereo types stuffwhitepeoplelike.com and being part of that dominant culture landed a book deal and a lot of money!
"Whiteness" in part is about privilege.
I am a person of colour; and yet there are many areas of my life where I am part of the dominant culture and experience privilege. As a straight, able-bodied, educated, English-speaking, middle-class, professional person I ooze privilege.
For example, growing up in England, having a British education and speaking with a British accent helps me pass. I may look one thing, but when I open my mouth and speak, doors that otherwise would have been closed to me - open. It's the privilege that is bestowed on the educated, professional and middle-class. We know it exists - if not why would we label people as 'White trash' or 'trailer park'? These are derogatory terms for the working class and those less educated, and somehow it is okay to say them, funny even.
So I am white when I am privileged for other aspects of my identity that are dominant and valued, such as being educated, middle-class and speaking with a British Accent.
While being privileged might sit a little more easily in our minds, "whiteness" often doesn't.
I remember once being at a professional conference and having a discussion about the needs of the racialised professionals in the membership - we wanted to start a caucus for professionals of colour. One white female colleague took offense and asked why we needed to form a separate group which might feel exclusive and discriminatory to white members of the organisation. What struck me as odd was that the organisation already had a women's caucus and no-one challenged the need for it. So why do we struggle so much with this concept of whiteness, when we readily accept the concept of maleness?
Why do dominant groups rarely recognise their racial identity?
After all we know racism exists and incidents such as racial profiling, 'driving while black' and 'flying while Muslim' are realities still today, which means that being White also has realities, that of "unearned privilege" as Peggy MacIntosh would say. McIntosh is most famous for authoring the 1988 essay "White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences through Work in Women's Studies." This analysis and its shorter form, "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack," "have been instrumental in putting the dimension of privilege into discussions of gender, race and sexuality".
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Next Article: "I’m not White. I'm Irish" the difference between racialised and ethno-cultural identities.