Introduction to What Does It Mean to Be White In America?

In 2009, when I began telling white friends, family, and perfect strangers that I planned to deepen my understanding of racism, and shared with them the questions that filled my mind, something remarkable happened. Far from the silence and shunning I anticipated, most leaned closer, lowered their voices, and said something like, “Me too. I’ve wondered that too.” Often the comment would be followed by a story of an unresolved upset or confusion. Everyone, it seemed, had a story. Most also had questions.


I am especially grateful for the way this collection reveals a range of white experiences and cultural differences; each essay adding nuance to what it means to be white in the United States of America. While the use of the n-word is commonplace in some white worlds, many others teach racism less directly by speaking in code about the “inner city,” automatically locking car doors in “those” neighborhoods, and being taught to “stick to your own kind.” I learned that the Connecticut town my own husband grew up in let stand the removal of the letter “D” from its “Welcome to Darien” sign. When I read this, I remembered with a thud in my gut that I had heard about this sign as a teenager, and that I had laughed at the cleverness of the person who removed the “D.” It sickens me to realize how easy it can be as a white child to accept as normal, or even humorous, what we can later see as unforgivable.


For me, the most poignant stories in this anthology are the one’s in which we witness the unwitting complicity of children and young people in buying into and perpetrating racial oppression. Be it laughing at a public sign about white supremacy, donning blackface and KKK costumes, rejecting a young suitor because of his color, passing along a racial myth to a brother, or calling a housekeeper the n-word, young white people are alarmingly able to be both ignorant of their own racial history and reproduce it as if following a blueprint. Roger Barbee’s essay Useless epitomizes the way a mean-spirited act of racism can be normalized in white boyhood circles, setting into motion a lifetime of anguish for both bully and target. In Beth Lyon Barnett’s essay, Liza Pearl, my heart ached at a cross-racial childhood connection destroyed in a single moment, and still very much alive and festering in Beth’s eighty-something year-old soul. It seems there is no shortage of white childhood regrets reverberating, unresolved and unhealed, perpetuating shame and an unfulfilled yearning for repair.


It’s no wonder that lifetimes of racially charged moments remain alive in white America’s collective hearts and minds. Unspoken shame and injury combined with unprocessed memories and confusions create a toxic mix of anxiety and discord. Speaking and processing all of that seems to me the obvious antidote, and yet how do we move forward in a culture in which talking about racism is considered taboo? Where white silence is an entrenched cultural norm and merely saying the word “racism” can get you called a racist.


Members of America’s dominant white culture, caught in a vicious cycle of racial oppression maintained by silence and compliance, have a fundamental choice to make: uphold or break the code of white silence. Breaking the silence not only means disrupting a social norm, it means dredging up painful memories, encountering shocking new truths, acknowledging ignorance, and tolerating the stomach-clenching fear of saying (or writing) something problematic. Amidst the silence, white people remain trapped in ignorance, paralyzed by underdeveloped emotional stamina and conversational skill, while black and brown Americans bear the burden of that incompetence.


The collection offers readers a chance to explore how white silence -- and attempts to break it -- show up across ethnic, religious, geographic, era, and class lines. We see racial dynamics in the workplace, in the classroom, at the kitchen table, and on the ball field. We see white people using their words, their actions, and their art to shake awake white family, friends, and audiences. Better understanding how whiteness, complicity, and efforts to expose it manifest in a range of contexts offers us all an opportunity to raise awareness. By all I mean the wide range of white Americans and the wide range of Americans of color who navigate whiteness everyday.


Stories of identity contortion reveal the cost/benefit calculations of whiteness. In Perry Brass’s essay, Whiteness is Only Sin Deep, the costs of navigating a Jewish identity that’s white but not really white; where being Jewish is acceptable only behind closed doors is palpable. Stories about whitening an “ethnic” name are counter-balanced by stories of distancing oneself from whiteness by trying to appear more Hispanic, more middle-eastern, more anything but white. Efforts to distance oneself from whiteness, interestingly, are limited to a desire for social acceptance. In contrast, Benjamin Marshall’s essay, How I Became White, reminds us that when it comes to accessing life-sustaining resources such as financial loans, the material benefits of whiteness are irrefutable.


The essays contained in this anthology span not only a range of identities and contexts, they span a continuum of understanding. Some contributors have studied and deeply understand white supremacy, and their role in it, as historical and systemic. Other contributors, likely more representative of the average white person, understand racism only at the interpersonal level. Of all the differences that can divide us, this “gets it”/doesn’t “get it” divide is the one that I witness white people struggle with the most. Let us use this difference, as we can with all difference, to increase our curiosity and understanding in order to decrease judgment and misunderstanding. Samuel Jaye Tanner’s essay White People are Crazy, offers words apt on this point: “We have the luxury of this time together, [the] only rule is that we cannot knock down each other’s card houses. It is in our shared interest to learn to build together.”


I am still learning that just when I think I “get it,” I am about to learn the limitations of my understanding. This weight of an inherited history and identity I didn’t ask for, yet is effortless to reproduce, can drain me at times. It is a weight that need not be borne alone. Though all of these essays made me feel less alone in my ongoing journey to wake up to my whiteness, Wendy Zagray Warren’s essay, Choosing to See, had particular impact on me. The vulnerability in her story of showing up as a Montana Writing Project Summer Institute co-director, located on the Blackfeet Nation, with her “carefully worked up” agenda in hand, reminded me of my own misplaced good intentions. A willingness to share the implications of unexamined white ways and blindspots allows all of us to examine them together as we each search for our own. May every reader find multiple stories in this collection that carry particular resonance.


What Gabrielle and Sean’s anthology offers white Americans is an opportunity to break the code of silence, to begin to process long held thoughts, emotions, stories, confusion, shame, and tension. Despite being socialized to fear the perceived racial other, this collection reveals the kind of longing that fuels connection and inspires hope. I hear in these stories a desire to understand, to be seen and heard, to see and hear, to connect, to learn, to be brave, to own up to ancestral investments in whiteness as well as to everyday collusion. In Carole Garrison’s essay, The Kindness of Strangers, I glimpse a vision of what could be, a day when we biases are managed quietly and maturely in our minds so that we can get to the business of trusting one another enough to build something new, together.


Thank you to Gabrielle, Sean, and all who contributed to this project. May the risk you all have taken be rewarded with a breaking down of the real and imagined barriers that keep us from one another.