What it Means to be White – Part I of II

Or at Least What it Should Mean

By Adam Collins 2019

Think of the quintessential all-American individual. Are they white? Are they male? Are they wearing plain colored clothing, maybe with a collar, jeans, and a pair of crisp white shoes? Think along the lines of Leave it to Beaver or the classic Archie comics.

Think of the epitome of an American neighborhood. Do you see white picket fences? Tall oak and maple trees providing canopies to a shady street, lined with sedans, SUVs and minivans? Probably a town called Jamestown, Springfield, Jonesville, or Fairview, right?

Why is whiteness the default? What would happen to our perspective if white was no longer the “default”? That man – that women who helped me at the grocery store (meaning that white man – woman) vs. that black man that black woman who helped me at the grocery store.

Are whites the ones who don’t need the color description? Ergo, does Whiteness gain social currency and capital by going unnoticed – normalized as the social default – with everyone else being branded – “pigmentized?”

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In his article, “Why is White the Default?” Josh Nguyen posits that by around the mid-century (2050s) the population of all the other ethnicities, or “minorities”, will overcome the population of white-Americans, essentially making America a majority-minority nation. At this point, it will become more transparent to many that defining all non-white ethnicities as “minorities” is a severely flawed definition. This is also symbolic of how America is racially categorized as “whites” versus everyone else. People often do not notice this phenomenon, but it is a prime example of white being the default in America.

And when we think about helping others, why do we spend time trying to fit them into this mold? When we go into urban neighborhoods, and we tell them how they’re supposed to be renovated, we’re imposing our own ideals of the American neighborhood on others.

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I’m not going to lie, I love the idea of those kinds of neighborhoods and cities. I love the neo-Bohemian/quasi-industrial mix of fabrics, structures and buildings that create the modern hipster neighborhoods. As I write this, I find myself sitting at Literati Coffee – a shop on the second level of the hipster’s paradise embodied in a local bookstore. Exposed brick lines one wall, strings of painted light bulbs hanging from the ceiling above the shop’s children’s section of books, and creaky hardwood floors. Opposing the brick, the wall with windows has dozens of handwritten messages from the store’s numerous guest authors that have shared their ideas and knowledge with the patrons, hungry for the chai tea lattes, vegan peanut butter cookies, and the wisdom soon to be dispersed throughout the room.

I absolutely love it here. Every book feels like it has been hand picked to be in that exact location at that exact moment. Spread throughout the shelves of books are laminated sheets of paper – handwritten reviews and recommendations from the employees of the shop. Everything has a personal touch to it, and you feel welcomed, invited, wanted. If you’re feeling particularly inspired, you can walk down the staircase to the basement, sit at the antique typewriter and leave a thought or two on the machine that doesn’t have a backspace, and won’t let you erase your mistakes. Many of these thoughts are posted on the wall above the typewriter, and the ones that are even more enlightening have been hand-painted on the brick facade of the building. If I could live in this store, I would. The store’s success is a testament to the many others who share a similar interest and desire for a place like this. 

Contrarily, there are many more others that don’t. Their dreams are different, their desires are different, their quintessence is different. Not necessarily worse or better. Just different.

And yet, I am describing a very narrow view of what I believe is the perfect setting for an afternoon of leisure and learning – one that is solely my own. And I have an extremely limited perspective, magnified by my privileged upbringing and having, only on extremely rare occasions, been forced to step outside of my unearned comfort zone. 

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I’ve been reading a provocative book by Ibram X. Kendi, titled How to be an Antiracist. In it, Kendi speaks to three approaches to identifying race: Segregation, Assimilation, and Antiracism. We can all – at least most of us (there are still evil people out there) agree that Segregation is bad. But it wasn’t until this book that I fully realized that Assimilation can be equally harmful. 

I learned a few years ago, when I first started teaching at Ypsilanti, MI Community High School – a school with a 54% white and 32% black population – that many of the non-standard names that Minorities give their children stem from the understanding that their last names are not from their own heritage. Their last names are given to many of them by the slave owners that owned their ancestors. Because of this, they take ownership of giving their children first names that uniquely resonate with their own heritage, and not the slave owners of just a few generations ago.

When I first started my teaching career, I would find myself correcting my students’ grammar on a regular basis. I had decided that words like “finna” instead of “gonna” were incorrect, extending words was incorrect, and many other examples of culturally appropriated language were things that I felt needed adjustments. I learned later, long after these moments had passed, that I was imposing my culture on others, convinced that my understanding of language was above others’. Language is fluid, though. Even dictionary definitions are manipulated by the understanding of the masses. Words change, dialects change, meanings change, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I was a modern grammar Nazi, stripping value from the daily utterances of my students, and deeming it unworthy of validation.

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When we go into these urban neighborhoods – even before the gentrification process is complete – when we take ownership of it, we are taking away their culture. We are unilaterally deciding that the choices and decisions that they have made for their own communities is of a lesser quality than what we can bring in for them. I believe that this is often as bad as taking away an individual’s last name.

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One of my good friends and colleagues, Kaitlin Bove, sent me a provacative article titled Whites Only: SURJ And The Caucasian Invasion Of Racial Justice SpacesAnti-racism work with a white lens is inherently flawed by DiDi Delgado * (Poet, Activist, Womyn in search of her own truths).

Within three paragraphs, I felt uncomfortable, because it was calling me out for so many of the things that I have done and taken for granted in my own desires to do my part to fight racism and sexism. My initial reaction was that this was too strongly opinionated of an article, that it used verbiage too pointed, and would turn off other white people that needed to hear it.

I kept reading it, and later on, it called me out on my own discomfort. And one quote in particular resonated with me, as it was a perfect summation of one of my biggest inner-battles with my role in all of the social justice and equality discussions that I’ve been engaging in recently:

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“An ally should be personally gaining NOTHING through their activism. In fact, if you are an ally, you should be losing things through your activism:  space, voice, recognition, validation, identity, and ego.”

End of Part I – Go to Part II


*DiDi Delgado is a queer Black womyn, writer, activist, organizer, freelance journalist, and poet. She is currently Head of Operations at S.O.U.P (The Society Of Urban Poetry), facilitating writing workshops aimed at bridging the gaps between intersections of race, class, gender, sexual identity, and orientation. DiDi is also an organizer with Black Lives Matter Cambridge, and has served on the leadership team for the ACLU’s BCPA Committee, and the Boston Branch of the NAACP’s Young Adult Committee. She is consistently on the front lines blazing pathways, creating channels, and fostering connections in support of the most marginalized. DiDi is the recipient of the 2015 Jack Powers Stone Soup Savor award, awarded annually to one poet serving the Boston and Cambridge communities as a mentor, while consistently providing distinguished contributions to the art of poetry. Deeply passionate about both her local and global community; DiDi believes that poetry and activism go hand in hand.