White Guilt and Why White People May Never Understand Race in America
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Dear white people,
You may never truly understand race in America. You will read about it, you will get your PhD’s and write long dissertations on discrimination and the inequities our government has perpetrated on blacks, Native Americans, Japanese and the rest. You will lecture in front of your American Studies classrooms, but you will always only be aping something you will never truly understand.
Sure we’ve all experienced some form of discrimination either by being a woman, a queer, some kind of an outsider in one form or another, but racial discrimination is an altogether different beast. It takes on monstrous overt forms and quiet insidious ones. And as a white person you will never know the multifaceted ways in which it appears, you will rely on people of color to clue you in. Because, you see, “color blindness” is just another form of racism.
Unless you’ve been the one white person in a room full of people of color, you will never understand race is being discussed behind your back all the time. If you’ve never had a frank discussion with a person of color about race, it’s probably because they figured you aren’t going to “get it,” and chose not to talk to you about it.
I’m half Asian and I grew up in Honolulu in a multi-racial family; Chinese, Korean, Irish, Japanese, Jewish, Italian and Hawaiian. Having lived on the mainland for the last 22 years, I feel absolutely confidant in saying that there is no other state in our great Union where white people don’t dictate how race is discussed, which means race is discussed openly and frankly.
Hawaii is a place where identifying yourself and others by the way we look; black, Chinese, Japanese, Hapa (mixed race, originally the Hawaiian word for half), Haloe (white, originally the Hawaiian word for white ghost), Samoan, Tongan, etc is common place if not expected. Its an important identifier in a country of immigrants.
This phenomenon has spilled over into what is now Hapa culture on the mainland and abroad, where Asian mixed race folks proudly introduce themselves, not by what they do, or even by their name but by their ethnic make up. Read this fb page, it will give you an idea of what I’m talking about.
I describe this only to let you know where I’m coming from. I am not a “dark” brown person, I look “vaguely Asian” or maybe Hispanic. I more or less pass as white-ish or white-enough. Yet, I have been called racial slurs on the street, have been mistaken for “Chinese delivery”, and stopped at airport security for my suspicious ambiguous (gender and/or racial) appearance, all minor incidents as these things go.
However, something happened to my mother recently. My mother who is into her 70’s, is a small gray haired Asian woman who lives in upstate New York. This past winter she was out on a walk in her neighborhood, it was a 10-degree-below wind-chill day and she was starting to feel some vertigo and what she thought was hypothermia. Too far to make it home on foot she knocked on the door of a neighbor to ask for a ride. A white guy answered the door, unfriendly and brusk, he told her to wait outside and closed his door. He never came back to invite her in or give her that ride, he left her standing there. Fortunately a woman drove by 15 mins later and my mother flagged her down and made it home. Would he have left an old white woman standing in the cold asking for a ride? Maybe he mistook her for “Chinese delivery”?
This is how racism appears in America. There is room for speculation with any “incident” if you are white, but not if you are a person of color. It is very clear.