White Guilt and Why White People May Never Understand Race in America

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White Guilt and Why White People May Never Understand Race in America

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.

Comments [1]

Not2Taem's picture

Some very good points


I totally agree that we are largely afraid to take on the topic of race and have the tough discussions that we need to, and I'm glad to see that coming up in a venue like this. I acknowledge that my race gives me certain privileges, some of which I will undoubtably never fully comprehend. But here is the other side of it.

The majority of the time, when I have tried to have those  conversations with people of color, tried to understand more fully, I have been shut down hard. I have been called condescending, elitist, and "PC on the surface". When I was young, my dad spent a whole summer deliberately changing my speech patterns so no one would ever confuse me for "dumb Irish", the result often coming off as preppie with little revelation of my actual experiences. 

Yes, white shame is alive and well and living in a country that is rapidly reverting to the social structures of the 1960's. Not that we ever got all that far away from them. I know this first hand, having deleted a whole section here on my own early naive experiences with race because I still have a lot of feeling about those times, and I'm fairly sure of how they would be read.

Maybe someday we can all be plain speaking and brave when it comes to the important things. Meanwhile, I find hope in the fact that it is happening somewhere. I know, I'm still that naive white girl.