Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Center of the Universe

Growing up in 1960s South Korea, I was a spectacle. Tall for a white American, I was a giant compared to the average Korean child, whose nutritional intake might still have been limited by post-war hardships. My round eyes, high-bridged nose, honey-colored hair, and pale skin were all amazingly exotic to the children - and adults - who often exclaimed over me in the market. Every day of my young life, I felt the spotlight on me, just because of how I looked.

In addition, Korea's ancient tradition of gracious hospitality to the guest, combined with the South's gratitude for the U.S. role in the Korean War, meant that Americans were welcomed nearly universally as VIPs. Everywhere we went, we received special attention and special service, intensified when we spoke Korean and expressed appreciation for Korean life and culture.

As I often tell students during my school visits, it was a lot like being a princess. One of the results of this conditioning was that I developed an exaggerated sense of my own visibility and significance. Returning to the States on furloughs, I felt the strangeness of walking through airports and attracting no attention at all.
This early experience of being on a pedestal, so accentuated that I couldn't help becoming conscious of it, has helped me notice some ways in which I am accorded status as a white person in the U.S. The constant affirmation white Americans receive is neither as overt nor as exuberant as what I experienced in Korea, but it is pervasive. What the two experiences have in common is the assumption of being the center.

Absorbing a sense of centrality is a subtle process because it's usually unspoken and unconscious. It's a combination of being the norm - the reference point from which all other racial groups are viewed - and of constant validation through the prevalence of images of whiteness. But because those images don't provoke the thought "white people," but simply "people," we often don't notice them. (One example: from news articles to novels, people are usually identified by race only if they're not white.)

When there is constant reinforcement of the idea that one is the center of the universe, it develops into entitlement and expectation. It feels familiar and natural, so much so that the withdrawal of it causes anxiety. When Welcoming Babies came out, one of author Margy Burns Knight's relatives looked at the dozen babies pictured on the endpapers, five of whom are white, and asked, "Aren't there going to be any white people in this book?"

I've heard repeatedly from people of color that often the most difficult people in anti-racism work are liberal whites who proclaim their commitment to the cause, but want the process to be on their own terms, in ways that keep them comfortable.

As I work on releasing myself from the biases I've internalized, I've found the assumption of centrality to be one of the trickiest things to see and to reframe. I may be working on it for the rest of my life. Catching myself again and again expecting it to be all about me is disheartening. But I can take heart from the knowledge that if I'm seeing it more, it must mean my awareness is growing.


Mama C said...

"Found the assumption of centrality..." OK so I read that sentence over and over again with deep recognition. Damn. And I never had an inflated or even deflated princess experience--but it doesn't matter doe sit? Another very practical and helpful piece for the toolbox of unpacking white priv. I appreciate you saying you might never fully get over this one... It is the awareness and the effort that we can hope for on some days.

Anne Sibley O'Brien said...

Yes, the awareness and effort, with the hope that I get conscious enough that I can catch myself before acting on it, or failing that, in time to clean up the mess I've made and - maybe?- get to do it differently the next time. Ah, well, here is where I am.