What is Whiteness?*

detail from “Masks Confronting Death,” James Ensor (Belgian, 1860-1949)
Photo: K Bryant Shipp

This week I joined a group of white folks exploring what whiteness is.  One of our first assignments was to write a “racial autobiography.”  To begin, we were asked, “When did you first realize that you were white?”

Imagine my astonishment, as I eagerly seized my pen and hovered with expectation over the blank page, and—nothing.  Nothing.  I was unable even to begin.  Here I am, about to celebrate 69 years on this earth, coming out of a family history that includes work for racial equity.  And—nothing.  

Effectively, I have no memory–none at all–of when or how I came to know that I was white.

How strange is that.  —Except that, apparently, it isn’t so very strange after all.  As it turns out, I am not the only one in the group who has no clear-cut memory of that moment.  

Actually, now that I think about it, it makes sense: as my elders used to say, you “don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.” The category of whiteness to which I was assigned from the moment I drew my first breath came fully furnished with assumptions and expectations that worked in my favor.  (Along with one or two Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free cards.)  And although, in certain circumstances in the past, I have suspected that I was being excluded based on my economic status or class, I have never had to question whether or not the color of my skin would work for or against me.  

Another thing I see, as I begin this exploration, is that I never thought about my white experience as racialized experience.  When white people talked about “the race issue,” our general understanding was that we were talking about Black and Brown peoples, Indigenous peoples, peoples of color.  In a way, white stood outside of the category of race; it was an absence of something rather than the presence of a positive identity.  Being white meant that I was not Black.  

Like voices crying in the wilderness, James Baldwin and other prophetic writers like him have said that racism is a white problem, not a Black problem; that white people created racism, and that we need to look closely at our whiteness and the way it has disfigured the world.  And yet, until now, I never felt compelled to interrogate my own whiteness.  Talk about privilege: the privilege not to look at myself with a critical eye.

White people in this country…have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other…. 

James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

What astonishes me now is that something so centrally important to my identity in the world could have gone so long without examination.  I grew up a Southern white girl, in segregated neighborhoods in the 50s and 60s.  When you consider how zealously white supremacy has guarded the innocence and “purity” of white women, it is startling that I could have remained so happily ignorant of something so central to who I am.

And another thing (—please bear with me as these thoughts come spilling over each other—):  My focus has usually been out there, on the racism I saw outside myselfI fixed my sights on the racist acts of other people.  A mass of assumptions clustered beneath that point-of-view:  That to hold racist ideas was to be a morally bad person. That racism was an individual choice. That it was possible to be non-racist, and that I must make sure I was on the right side of that line between good/bad, non-racist/racist.

Somehow it did not occur to me that I might not have that choice. The choice had already been made for me from the moment I was born into this “white” skin. 

Furthermore, my focus on everyone else’s racism blinded me to my own narrow, prejudiced views. Sound familiar?  Is anyone else reminded of that passage where Jesus warns against focusing on the speck in your neighbor’s eye, and ignoring the plank in your own?

Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.

Matthew 7:3-5

I could remain comfortably unaware of my own assumptions and actions (though not so comfortably as it turns out), by putting all my attention on the racism of other white people.  People like those who shot through our home in North Carolina in 1969— 

Or like those who called my mother on the phone every day in the 6 months after the shooting.  They called during the day when she was home alone, while the rest of us were at school and work.  Remember, there was no voicemail in 1970, no caller ID, not even an answering machine.  My mother had to pick up the phone every time it rang, because it might be her husband, or one of her children, the youngest of whom was 9.  Invariably, though, the voice on the other end was the voice of a hostile stranger, letting fly with racial epithets, threatening that she would never see her husband or her children alive again.   I can see her there by the phone:  my quiet little 5-foot-tall mother, introverted, a bit shy, who, unlike my father, was never a crusader or public speaker.  However, “just like a tree that’s planted by the water,” as the spiritual goes, when it came to a stand on principle, she would not be moved.  I am older now than she was at the time, and my heart breaks in waves of love and gratitude for what she silently suffered for the stand our family took.

Which brings to me to another part of what it means to be white: As a white person, I can count on being under the protection of my white community—as long as I don’t break with white solidarity.  When my family invited Black teenagers into our North Carolina home in 1969, we committed our first violation of white solidarity.  The second violation was when my father refused to cancel the party under pressure from the deacons of Ridgecrest Baptist Church, the church he then pastored. 

People who lived near the church had come to the deacons and complained that, if they allowed the integrated party to go on as planned, the church would no longer be respected in that close-knit white community. Violence must also have been threatened, because the deacons were more than a little anxious about potential damage to the parsonage. They chose to side with the white community. I have no doubt that, along with their racism, there was a heavy dose of fear about what might happen to them if they did not. (One man later asked a reporter not to use his name. “It could be my house tonight,” he said.)

Because my family had broken the unwritten contract with white solidarity, we would no longer be assured of protection.  We were told as much by the white man who came to our door one night to warn us—or threaten us, it wasn’t clear which—that our photos were hanging on the walls of every KKK meeting place in the state, and that we were on the Klan’s “hit list” (his words).  (In the late 60s and early 70s the Klan was at the height of its membership in NC, so that was really saying something.) 

Nor could we count on simple friendship.  People we had known for several years, who had been our close friends, either turned away from us or simply avoided us.  

For my part, I was stunned into silence.  As Editor-in-Chief of the Wake Forest High School newspaper, I had a ready-made platform.  And yet, the only thing I could manage to write was a watered-down editorial, an embarrassing attempt at preemptive forgiveness.  I am exasperated to read what I wrote then, so clearly the effort of a young Southern white girl to be “Christian” in my response.  

I know now that the tools I had been given for life were all about being a good little Southern Baptist white girl.  I had been taught that the most important qualities were good manners and good behavior, always being polite and pleasing; never upsetting or inconveniencing anyone; always respecting and obeying authority; never allowing myself to be angry, let alone express anger. 

They were tools whose primary purpose was to guarantee that I would never question white supremacy, never challenge racism–in fact, maybe never even notice the central part whiteness played in my life!

Sixty years ago, James Baldwin wrote in The Fire Next Time, “White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other….” He continued, “…and when they have achieved this—which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never—the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.”

Uncertain hope. Sounds like where I need to begin.


*Over the next months, my posts will examine the holy discomfort I am inviting into my life as I seek to become anti-racist. Bits and pieces from a book that I am currently writing–about events in the late 1960s that separated me from both my white innocence and the church I grew up in–will pop up here and there. As I go more deeply into that story and my own learning, in these blog posts I will write about the challenges I encounter along the way. I hope these thoughts will be of help to other white folks traveling uncomfortably alongside me.

Published by kbryantlucas

Preacher woman, musician, lover of justice

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