October 9, 2012
by Mia McKenzie
Lately, the question of who is white and who isn’t keeps coming up in my life. I have had many talks with friends in recent months about what it means to be POC, and about who is claiming that identity and why. At a recent reading I did at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, someone asked me if I thought race was defined by skin color. Today someone pulled the “I’m white but I’m Armenian, so, historically…” and I felt compelled to take a deep breath and sort out some of my thoughts around the term “white”.
When I talk about “white people” I am talking about people who exist in bodies that give them access to white privilege. Some people exist in these bodies and get these privileges but don’t ID as white. The thing about whiteness, though, is that you don’t have to claim it to have it. You may not want to be white, for whatever reasons, but you don’t choose whiteness. Whiteness chooses you. And when it does, it gives you—whether you want or acknowledge them or not—a whole slew of privileges that non-white folks don’t get. Even if you are poor. Even if you are a woman. Even if you are queer and/or trans. Even if you are elderly. Even if you are a person with a disability. All of these things will, of course, affect your life in enormous ways and affect your access to any number of things. But they don’t erase whiteness.
So, if you’re confused about whether or not whiteness has chosen you, here’s a few questions to help you sort it out.
How to Know If You Are White:
1. Do you look white? If this seems in any way like a complicated question, it can be easily discerned by walking into a fancy store (in clean, neat clothing) and seeing how the people who work there treat you. Do you get dirty looks upon entering? Do the shopkeepers glance at each other with worry? Do you notice people following you around to make sure you’re not stealing anything? If not, you may be white.
2. Have you ever been pulled over by a cop? If so, were you extracted from your vehicle and made to lie on the ground? Were you degraded in any way? Were you beaten? Were guns pointed at you? Did you feel in fear for your life? If not, you may be white.
3. When you are walking down the street and a cop car rolls by, do you feel safer because the police are around? Because they are there to protect you should something go wrong? If so, you may be white.
4. Do people ask you where you’re from, and when you answer, “I’m from here,” do they ask, “No, like, where are you from from?” If not, you may be white.
5. Are people visibly surprised when you are smart and articulate? If not, you may be white.
6. Have you ever been mistaken for a valet while wearing a suit? If not, you may be white.
7. Does the idea of driving through Mississippi fill you with apprehension? If not, you may be white.
8. Do people reach out and touch your hair/body without your permission and then accuse you of being too sensitive or of overreacting when you don’t like it? If not, you may be white.
9. Do you regularly experience racism (note: racism is a system in which people are given less access to employment, education, safe and adequate housing, legal representation, etc. based on their race; racism is not people “not liking you” because of your race). If not, you may be white.
10. Do you see a lot of people who are the same color as you in movies, on TV, in magazines, etc. who are not portraying stereotypes or caricatures? If so, you may be white.
11. When you stand up for yourself, do people accuse you of being too angry? If not, you may be white.
12. Do people assume, without knowing you or ever speaking to you, that you are unintelligent, a criminal, good with computers, a terrorist, lazy, that you don’t speak English, or that you are poor? If not, you may be white.
Hope this helps!