Why I Check the Box Marked “White”: Owning My White Privilege

Guest post by James Taylor

One of my passions is genealogy, researching family history, and what got me started on this were tales from my father. You see, my father told me once when I was quite young that his grandmother was a Cherokee woman. This of course meant that we were descendants of the Cherokee people, and that in turn meant that I was part Cherokee. I can remember the simple childhood joys of thinking that I was someone special with more to me than met the eye. I remember trying to calculate the exact fraction of Cherokee blood I had in me, based on about how much I thought my father had. I occasionally told other children that I was 1/8 Cherokee, or 1/16, or 5/16 or however much I thought I needed to really be an Indian.

But then I inevitably ran into other kids who knew something I did not. “You’re not a Native American, you’re just a white kid.” Or “Yeah, everybody says that they have Cherokee blood, it would be cool if you had real Indian blood, like Choctaw.” Or “Indians murdered the pioneers and killed their babies! Why would you want to be one of them?” Why indeed?

Of course they were right, or else completely wrong and just racist, but they did get me thinking. I didn’t look like an Indian, I had fair skin and brown hair and brown eyes. I then decided to be rational and accept that even though I was a little bit Indian, I was really more of a European. This decision was my salvation, since now I got to say “I’m not white, I’m…”, but of course I had to figure out what else I was.

I could have just said that I was white, but the problem with being white was that, at the time, I thought that being white meant being nothing. It meant having no identity, no interesting stories, and no colorful heritage. It meant that you were a normal person like everyone else, and so you were nothing special. But I knew I was special, so I had to figure out what I really was.

 

I found out that some of my ancestors were French, but I didn’t want to be French. Then I found out that some of them were Norwegian, but I didn’t want to be Norwegian. Then I found out that some of them were German, and I really did not want to be German, since they were always the bad guys in the films of my youth (late 80’s early 90’s). I then found out that I had some English, and I was ok with this. After all Robin Hood was English, but America did fight the English in our glorious revolutionary war, and I was no redcoat. Finally I heard that I was Irish, and that seemed to be the best thing to be. I liked Celtic music, and the Irish also fought the English so that was a plus. So I decided that most of all, I was Irish, and that sat very well with me.

Eventually I grew up, did some actual genealogical research on my family and discovered that the tales of my youth were not all entirely accurate. Just for the record, I have not yet found any trace of Irish ancestry. But the thing that stuck with me about the experience was that glorious feeling of getting to choose my ethnic and racial identity. As a child, I had a vast array of ancestors from different lands upon whom I could rely to create my identity. I was free to like or dislike any of them, since at most I was only a little bit of whatever it was that I didn’t like. My experience of my race was the experience of a buffet of identities, all of which remained available for my appropriation and use.

Of course if you had told me then that what I was doing was only possible, because what I really was, was white, I would have angrily replied, “I’m not white, I’m Irish, or else I’m simply American.” No hyphens for me, I was Irish, and I had become American. In becoming American, I had succeeded in being one of the great people who made my nation what it was. I could be confident that my heritage and my nationality blended together and that I had successfully transitioned over into becoming a proud member of the USA. I didn’t need to add a hyphen between my ethnicity and my nationality. I was just American, unlike those Asian-Americans, African-Americans, Native-Americans, Jewish-Americans and all the other hyphenated peoples with which I did not identify.

You see, I wasn’t ready, when I was that young, to learn that my ability to choose my ethnicity, and my ability to therefore choose my identity, was a gift from my pale white skin. The fact was that my American society had been built for pale-skinned people like me who wanted to choose the best identity and discard the rest. Being Irish, French, English, Norwegian or anything else could be reduced to having an interesting story to tell about your ancestors. Or it could be blown up into being a member of the local chapter of the Irish-American Heritage Center. Of course if that got to be too much, or you just felt like enjoying the fourth of July, then you could always go be American. You got to keep and use the parts of that identity that were beneficial, and you got to forget about the rest.

The term white privilege always conjures up at least a few controversies, but as a young pale-skinned child, I had the privilege of not being any of the things my ancestors had been unable to avoid being. I had the option to choose my favorite identity as the mood took me. In choosing that identity, I was always free to declare that I wasn’t white, even though it was my very whiteness which so empowered me.

I knew very little of the struggles that accompanied those children whose identities were monochromatic. Those other children had colored skin and my skin had no color, it was simply normal. Those other children were always whatever they looked like, no matter what they or anyone else said.

Now that I am older, I try to be aware of my own whiteness and the ways in which I pass through a world that have been built up for people who look like me. I now check the box marked “White” on my job applications. I no longer cleverly check the box marked “Other.” I no longer want to hide behind my own skin. As a child, I thought that race was something you could just pick up or put down, as the mood suited you. If you didn’t like the other kids calling you an Indian, you could always go be Irish.

Why does all this matter? Why does consciously owning my whiteness matter?. Let me close with a quote from Tim Wise:

“There is a lesson here for us, for we who are white and care deeply about racial equity, justice and liberation, and the lesson is this: authentic antiracist white identity is what we must cultivate. We cannot shed our skin, nor our privileges like an outdated overcoat. They are not accessories to be donned or not as one pleases, but rather, persistent reminders of the society that is not yet real, which is why we must work with people of color to overturn the system that bestows those privileges. But the key word here is with people of color, not as them. We must be willing to do the difficult work of finding a different way to live in this skin.”

 

 

JamesJames Taylor earned a Master’s Degree in Philosophy from Texas A&M University, and is currently finishing his doctoral dissertation on the link between race and technology. He currently teaches philosophy and specializes in critical philosophy of race, technology, and religion. In his free time he enjoys researching family genealogies and going graving, the hobby of documenting cemeteries.

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