Thursday, March 18, 2010

White Patterns

Most white Americans rarely think about race, and less still about being white.

There's a good reason for this. Because white people have been both the majority and the dominant group in the U.S. for the last several hundred years, being white has been the norm. When you're the norm, you hardly notice. One of the defining characteristics of a majority identity is its invisibility to those who belong to the group. In the case of race in America, white is the default, the presumed, the given.

Therefore, the experience of being socialized as a white person is largely INVISIBLE to people who are white. Even trying to write about it is tricky; I keep revising this post just to try to get my thoughts clear. Unlike many people of color, most white people don't talk regularly about race, their own or other people's. Other people don't usually remark on or draw attention to the fact that someone is white. Whiteness itself is the reference point; other races are defined by their difference from whiteness.

As a result, many white people have very little experience in thinking about, discussing and navigating issues of race. Naturally, when the topic of race is raised, particularly in a charged way, many white people feel uncomfortable. They don't have much practice in or resource for responding authentically, flexibly, creatively, and effectively.

These are some of the (mostly unconscious) behaviors and attitudes that can result:
- Silence.
- Carefulness.
- Self-consciousness.
- Nervousness.
- Avoidance.
- Denial.
- Pretense.
- Numbness.
- Going "stupid."
- Freezing.
- Sense of entitlement.
- Defensiveness.
- Resistance.
- Ignorance.
- Making assumptions.
- Overcompensation.
- Trying too hard.
- Guilt.
- Shame.

Recognize any of these? Got any others to add?
(If you want to learn a lot about how white people behave, just ask a friend of color. One of the defining characteristics of a minority identity is its visibility. As a result, most people of color have been thinking and talking about race their whole lives. Non-dominant group members also need to observe and become experts about the dominant group, for their survival. People of color can often see clearly the patterns that are invisible to white people.)

Now, imagine what happens when a whole lot of people are walking around behaving in all those funny ways in relation to race, often with no awareness of what they're doing. Is it any wonder that reality - say, the representation of race in children's books - doesn't match our vision?!?

The most effective way I know to change unexamined behaviors and attitudes is to first notice they're there, then examine them. In the next several posts, I'll explore these patterns in some detail, with examples of how I've seen them in myself and other white people.


Mama C said...

What a thoughtful opening to this next series of discussions. I am so charged up, and ready to join in. Thank you for hosting this conversation.

Anne Sibley O'Brien said...

And thanks for weighing in, Mama C. I look forward to your observations.

I know it's an unusual response, but this is one of my favorite topics in the world.

The invisible stuff can be so tricky to catch, particularly because we're so conditioned not to see it. Examining it is like detective work, searching for the clues it leaves behind and reconstructing its movements based on those traces. I find this fascinating.