Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Writing Whiteness

Get a pen and paper. Sit down in a comfortable place and get quiet.

Imagine yourself as a child.

Remembering your young life, ask: What is my earliest memory of noticing that my skin was a different color from someone else's, or that theirs was a different color from mine?

In other words, if you're white, in what circumstances did you first notice that you were "white?" (This is an enlightening exercise for anyone of any race, but particularly so for white people because so often the subject of race simply isn't raised in the white community.)

Other racial differences - hair, shape of eyes, etc. - may be more relevant than skin color, depending on the memory.

Doing this exercise the first time, some people find a memory from when they were six or seven. Others can't remember any awareness of race until they went away to college. Your story can be from when you were three or when you were nineteen; any memory will do to start.

Let the details come. Picture yourself at that age. Where were you? What were you doing? Who were you with? What happened? How did the awareness come? What did others say or do? What did you feel?

Begin to write. Get down the vivid details, as if you were writing a scene in a novel. Rather than carefully composing, try free writing, throwing the story down onto the page without stopping to think.

When you've finished capturing the scene, read back over what you've written. Reflect on the experience and what it meant for the child/young adult that you were. Ask yourself some questions, such as:
- What did I pick up, perhaps unconsciously, from this experience?
- If adults were present, what did their behavior tell me - what they said or did not say, did or did not do, with all the nuances of gesture, body language and tone of voice?
- What did I internalize about race, about myself, about people like me, about people different from me?

Some answers might be:
- Race is a taboo subject and it's not polite to notice it.
- I love and am loved by this person whose race is different from mine.
- Those people are ___________ (scary? exciting? needy? forbidden?).
- I'm better than/less than others in these ways: _______________.


This process, repeated over and over, with the same memory and many others, can give us back ourselves. There's a way that recalling our young selves reminds us of our innocence. It makes it possible to see the patterns we began to internalize when we were young, without blaming ourselves for them.

"Awareness requires a rupture with the world we take for granted; then old categories of experience are called into question and revised."
Shoshana Zuboff

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