When I Learned I Was White

Fellow White folks, I have a question for you. But before I get to it, allow me to explain something that’s been shuffling around my brain. 

When I was in 5th grade, I read John Grisham’s A Time To Kill and it is still, to this day, one of the most formative books of my life. For anyone who isn’t familiar, it tells the story of Carl Lee Hailey, who is on trial for murdering the two white men who raped his elementary aged daughter after it was clear they’d be acquitted by an all-white jury in Clanton, Mississippi in the 1980s. Carl Lee is Black, but he hires a White defense attorney – Jake Brigance – because he’ll know ‘how to speak’ to the jury. There’s a movie which stars Samuel L. Jackson as Carl Lee and Matthew McConughey as Jake (along with a truly stellar rest of the cast) and the scenes from it are burned into my memory. 

It’s also the book that taught me I was White. 

I’ve watched so many White friends and colleagues on my social media feeds over the past week (and when Breonna Taylor was killed, and when Trayvon Martin was killed, and when Michael Brown was killed, and, and, and) wonder what they can do. Resources are offered, and then the conversation dies down when the national conversation moves on to one of our other Great American Sins – like that we allow White boys to get hamburgers after they open fire in a church, or that we allow citizens to have assault weapons at all, or that these protestors could face more jail time than a young White man convicted of raping an unconscious woman. 

I’ve also been listening for years to Black people and other People of Color talk about having to give “The Talk” to their children – explaining to them what their race meant in this country, how they’d have to behave with authorities because their melanin level made them a default suspect and I’ve realized over and over and over again that White folk are usually never taught that they’re White. 

Because we don’t have to be. 

Because we’re the default. 

Because we’re the ones who built the system and perpetuate the system and whom the system primarily benefits. 

So why do we have to learn something that’s assumed? 

Because until we learn it, we can’t dismantle it. 

Well, fellow White folks, we gotta dismantle it, so we better learn it, so when did you learn you were White? 

I learned when I read A Time to Kill that the cops weren’t on the side of justice by default of their position, and that the law was rigged to reflect the prejudices of the majority. I learned that my Whiteness could be leveraged for power to help others and it better be. 

But, y’all, that was not my only lesson. Since I’m part of the system, I can easily forget my Whiteness and my privilege. I can be lulled into a false sense of ‘this is what I’m owed’ and I have been so many times. So I gotta keep relearning. 

I learned I was White again when my social work professor asked why Band-Aids were called ‘flesh colored’ when they really meant White flesh. 

I forgot again when I didn’t question Crash winning Best Picture. 

I learned again when I realized my White friends were getting talked to about pot, but Black kids were getting put in jail. 

I forgot again when I thought Affirmative Action was unnecessary. 

I learned again when I stood in the genocide museum in Rwanda and wondered if the only reason that level of mass violence didn’t happen in Northern Ireland was because The Troubles had White people. 

I forgot again every time I thought Black people were dragged from their cars because they weren’t polite. 

I learned again when my White friends were singing Tupac at the top of their lungs – all the lyrics – and being called a prude for not wanting to use the ‘n’ word. “It’s just a word, Kristen.” I noted my Black friends did not join in. 

I forgot again when I was in Peter Pan in 7th grade and didn’t see anything wrong with an entirely White and Latinx cast playing Indians and singing “I’m an Indian, Too.” The thing is, though, White Supremacy isn’t just about Black oppression, it’s about oppression of all things that aren’t White and male-centric and Protestant and European from a handful of “the right countries”. So by being in the musical and singing the song, I was contributing to the White Supremacist narrative and it doesn’t matter if I didn’t do it consciously… I did it. 

I learned again when the War on Drugs was something that only happened in the inner cities, but White kids were trading opiates in the bathrooms of my high school. 

I forgot again countless times when I was afraid to speak out because I might lose a friend.

I learned again when we’d hold “Unity for Christ” rallies and refer to “worship music” and “Black worship music.”

I think I’ve gotten to the point where I’m past re-learning and into reminding, but probably not. I know that what is seen cannot be unseen, and now that I know Ron Perlmutter – the head of Marvel Studios – wanted a White man to direct Black Panther, I’m also not surprised he supports the President. I’m not surprised anymore when we have to use the word “unarmed” to describe a Black man when they get shot, but never seem to have to for other men. I’m not surprised anymore when everytime we talk about the 19th Amendment, I have to remind people that Black Women were not granted suffrage until much later because we’re not taught that history in schools. 

The systems that teach us how to adult, how to function in society, how to participate in the world as a “proper citizen” – they’re all designed to favor Whiteness and Maleness over anything else. I have a litany of names in my head when I think about White Male Privilege – Brock Turner, Brent Kavanaugh, Donald Trump, Mark Zuckerberg, Ben Rothlisburger, et al, and some more private to me: Jon, Eric, Jonathan, Ryan. And we need to talk about the intersection of toxic masculinity and policing because that’s something else we have to learn and relearn in order to dismantle, but for today, I’ll leave you with this. 

When did you learn you were White and what that meant? Follow up: what are you doing about it?

Looking for more ways to learn about Whiteness? Here’s a few things that continue to help me: 

First of all, do whatever you can to support Black owned bookstores with your book purchases. Here’s a great list to work from

Speaking of lists, here’s a great one made by two fellow White ladies that I’ve seen a whole load of Black activists promoting. Check it out here

As for books, this list is comprehensive and broken down by categories

Looking to get your hands dirty? There’s loads of marches all over the place and they’d love your body participating. Can’t do that? I get it, marching can also be a privilege of able-ness or economy, but let’s say an average march is 5 hours. Spend 5 hours educating yourself, calling Senators, talking to neighbors, what have you. Deliver food or water to the protestors. Sew masks because we gotta still be Covid Careful as we agitate. Not sure where to start with action right now? Head here. 

Also, you got some spare cash? There’s a lot of great organizations working to address every area of oppression. You worried about educational inequality? Can I point you to UrbanPromise? Worried about prison reform? I like the Innocence Project a whole lot, but there are others. Got some specific thoughts on police brutality? The NAACP Legal Defense Fund can always use cash.

Two final thoughts: you’re going to feel guilty and ashamed. It’s going to happen. Embrace it and don’t let it paralyze you. You gotta work through that. Second, Black lives matter because they are in danger, and so are Native lives, and Latinx lives, and women’s lives, and refugee lives… The work is long, y’all, and we got a lot of it ahead of it. Strap in, pick up a book, open your ears and hearts, and let’s get going.