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“before we both admit we never care unless we’re close to”

December 1, 2009

I like identity labels – and i know that can be controversial and an interesting subject in itself, but that is not today’s topic. I like labels, and i claim a number of them. Off the top of my head: southern, queer, femme, nerd, kinky (though i don’t always claim that in public), handyman, housewife(wannabe), conservative, progressive. Whatever. I could keep going, or cut it short, as i do on the rare occasions it actually comes up. Because even as someone who feels strongly about her labels, i don’t tend to take them overly seriously either.

But i have been thinking seriously about claiming whiteness as an identity. Perhaps i didn’t include that in my list because it never ocurred to me to do so, but i think, more accurately, i rejected it so quickly that i didn’t realize i had even thought about it.

On stopping to think about it recently, all of those automatic, subconscious negatives were the first to come to mind. Claiming an identity is a matter of pride, and in my world “white pride” puts a very ugly taste in my mouth. If that isn’t clear, take a look at the Southern Poverty Law Center’s list of “active hate groups” in the US (in fact, take a look at it no matter what). Not all, but vast majority race-related. In the two states i call home they tally around 90. And then there is the matter of the less sickening, more pervasive white-middle-class racism – the “they” comments and “i’m not racist, but…” There is a lot of pervasive in-between here, too; people whose racism is strictly verbal, but who make none of the above efforts to cover for it.

Knowledge of these things is so fully ingrained in me that i didn’t need to spell them out to know that i want to do pretty much anything i can to distance myself from all that. I already am southern and white, which puts me in kind of a defensive position without pushing the matter by claiming these things. (I went through similar thought processes, mostly subconsciously, on claiming southern, but it was easier to find counters in positive things about the south, experiences living elsewhere, and the simple fact that southern, while closely related to race issues, is not a race, or tied to any race.) Okay, the white guilt was the easy part. Moving on.

On the other hand, it is extremely privileged to not consider race when thinking about myself. The very fact of being white and not including that fact when i identify myself propagates the idea that white is the default or the norm; it is inherently othering of non-white.

Consider, also, that most of the people of color i know do identify themselves by race, ethnicity or culture. There is a significant difference between that and my identifying as white, though. One of the major purposes, or at least effects, of purposefully identifying as a POC is to force a place in white (by default) spaces. I don’t have to do that, because my whiteness has a space made for it (all the space not specifically claimed otherwise). But i should have to do that. If i identify myself and my space at the table as white the end result, broadly, is minimal – i can’t change the amout of space being taken up by whiteness. But i can change the amount of space being taken up by space that is white by default. And there is a small – but very important – difference.

That, i think, is my main impetus for claiming white as a part of my identity. I can also hope that it serves to take a little bit of whiteness back from all the ugly stereotypes that made me nervous about it in the first palce. I also think that giving up to all of the negatives i first mentioned is, again, giving in to privilege by avoiding situations or perceptions that make me uncomfortable.

Not that i’m quite there yet; avoidance is an expertise of mine, and i am rather afraid of being misconstrued.

This also brings up the question of claiming other privileged identities. Another time.

Lady Brett

"Black Superman" - Jude
6 Comments leave one →
  1. December 2, 2009 11:33 am

    I love this post. It’s something I think about a lot, and have started doing, to some very quizzical looks! Especially that last point–if I claim whiteness, shouldn’t I also claim physical ability? Secular Christianity? Economic privilege? Cisgender identity? Etc…? It becomes a true exercise in thinking of all the ways I HAVE privilege. In a way, that’s more constructive than thinking of all the ways I DON’T have privilege, but it’s also true that to the average person I introduce myself to, all of those things won’t necessarily have much meaning. I think the “default” identities are the ones that are assumed, so people think they’re redundant if you state them. It’s the “deviant” identities that distinguish you. But of course, that’s exactly what you’re saying… that if you start to claim a “default” identity when you label yourself, you’ll start to subvert the very nature of its being default.

    No idea if anything I said was at all coherent. Haha. But good post! The SPLC’s statistics on hate groups are frightening.

  2. December 3, 2009 3:15 pm

    Your brain rocks me. (And Violet’s, I might add, who, the other morning woke me up by starting a sentence with, “Well, on lady brett’s blog…” And I thought, “WHA?!?” She almost never reads these blogs, is not her thing, but you are just that fabulous… I told her this of course, long ago, but she is figuring it out for herself. I am really excited for her to read this one.

    This is a fabulous post, fabulous conversation. And you are one of the very few who doesn’t scare me all to hell in attempting to host it.

    Your brain= awesomeness

  3. Shereen permalink
    December 3, 2009 4:00 pm

    Delurking to say – brave, brave conversation.

    One of the things that I like to bring up about ‘whiteness’ when discussing it, is that it’s a concept that morphs with time and shifts in power. Used to be that being Irish, Italian, Polish (really, Slavic of any description) – none of those ethnicities would be considered white 50 or 100 years ago. So that’s one of the conflicting issues in claiming whiteness, too. What does it actually mean? What are its boundaries? Historically, a drop of ‘black blood’ made you black in countries like the US and South Africa. How does that impact what whiteness actually is? Does the very notion of whiteness need challenging at its base, just like the very notion of race does? It’s funny to parse the etymology of the word ‘caucasian’, too, but that word always seems less fraught with ‘white power’ echoes, somehow.

    On the other hand, I so hear you about the delineating of ‘default’ space. If we can start being explicit about how we take up space, it becomes progressively easier to have the discussion about the implications of the amount of space we’re taking up, or not. I mean, I don’t agree with the concept of race as it exists in general, but there’s no arguing that racism exists, so while we may disagree with the assumptions behind the concepts, there is still strategic power in the claiming and analysing of the space.

    I love it when I stumble on thoughts like this on the net. Thank you.

  4. December 3, 2009 5:17 pm

    shereen – excellent points. i am inclined to agree with you about needing to challenge the whole concept of whiteness and race, but that discussion has always seemed so above my head, and i simply don’t know enough about it to have a solid opinion.

    as for the differences between race and ancestry, i feel that race is so much more culturally relevant. this is a discussion we used to have quite a bit in high school (in fact, the only image that the word “caucasian” conjures up to me is one of a test bubble…which is related to its being both less fraught and less relevant, i think).

    my friend apollo used to complain of being officially “african-american,” when his ancestry can’t even be traced out of the u.s., and in many cases goes back much farther in america than many white americans’ (as compared to his girlfriend at the time, whose family moved from africa to america when she was a tiny child). in the same vein, it seems strange to me, personally, to be referred to as caucasian, when my ancestry is almost as singularly american. (and then, of course, what of my college roommate, whose family moved from africa to america when she was a tiny child. only, in the context of this confusion of defining race, it is relevant that apollo’s gf was black and my roommate white.)

  5. December 8, 2009 10:09 am

    I’d like to echo what jessejames has said: your brain rocks! Like Violet, I found myself thinking about this post the next day and wondering if/how straight people should be doing the same anti-default thing by outing themselves as het? And that “anti-defaulting” is the point of CIS (as differentiated from trans), right? This is a VERY interesting concept!

    Also, I like LBA’s idea that RACE is culturally relevant and/or contextually distinctive. “Whiteness” and “blackness” are both seeped in historical meaning and, hence, subjectivity.

  6. December 8, 2009 10:54 am

    also, thanks all y’all for your nice comments. jesse, you flatter me (and i’m glad i don’t scare you – it is a goal of mine)! that story amuses me, also =)

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