#IfIWasWhite: Things I learned

The area that my masters in sociology falls under is “whiteness studies”. Basically, it means studying white people, and the construct of whiteness, and understanding white privilege, and looking at ways to “de-center” the story of whiteness. In most places, “white” is the norm by which everything else is measured (which I kind of understand in America, since white people are still the majority, but why that would be the case in places like Africa or Asia makes no sense except because of the history of colonization and globalization and Western media and all that stuff).

Anyway, one of the things that some whiteness scholars try to do is make whiteness “visible” to people to whom it’s invisible. If you ask white people to tell you about themselves, not very many of them mention their race as part of their identity, because it’s just the “norm”. Race is something other people have. And “white culture”? What’s that??! Some white Americans have a vauge sense that their ancestors were Irish or something, but really, they just see themselves as “normal Americans.” When you’re the majority, you set the norms, and you can’t see how you fit into these larger cultural norms you’ve created. (Okay, caveat– I know that everyone in the whole world is an individual, and people don’t actually fall into neat stereotypical cultural categories, and we cannot let our assumptions about people’s culture define how we interact with them. But on the other hand– sociologists study people in groups, and groups do have certain traits. Not everyone in the group fits every trait, but I think it’s okay to make generalizations as long as you realize that they are generalizations).

The problem, I think, has more to do with the fact that white people can make generalizations about other cultures, but can’t see that generalizations could be applied to their culture as well. Which is why, when I was on Twitter the other night, I freaked out because the number one trend was #IfIWasWhite. ( I tried to wake my husband up and be like– look at this amazing research opportunity unfolding before our very eyes!! But he was sleeping). It started as a hashtag about the Olympic guy Shaun White, but people saw the hashtag and immediately started posting things like this:

“#IfIWasWhite I’d yell at my mom and slam the door and nothing would happen bc she’d say I was going thru a phase.”

“#IfIWasWhite I’d drink $10 Starbucks drinks.”

Or some interesting ones about education:

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(guilty of the former, I must be white :D) 

Some of these were really funny and clever. (Go here to read some). But also… these tweets reveal something to us white folks who don’t know what our “culture” is– here’s how other races and cultures see us. We make stereotypes about other races “All Black people are so loud” — why not sit back, shut up, and see what other groups say about our group? Maybe it will actually reveal to us what things are “unique” about our group–what things we all do and think are normal that actually aren’t that normal?

There were also some really heartbreaking ones that revealed how a white-dominated system side-lines other races. Many systems in America (and South Africa) are  biased against other races (especially black people). There were lots of references to the unfair treatment that black people experience at the hands of the police.

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There were maybe 10 tweets similar to:

#IfIWasWhite, I wouldn’t have store clerks follow me around every time I went shopping, assuming I was going to steal something. 

Okay white people, ouch. Maybe you don’t think this applies to you, since you’re not a store-owner or a policeman, but what about this one:

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How many times have you told a “kind of racist” joke and said, “But my black friends know I’m just joking, they laugh and think it’s funny, too.” Um. No.

And then of course, some white people got on the bandwagon, and felt they needed to defend themselves, so took some shots back:

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Which made me SUPER irritated. I think the people who made the two comments above missed out on a chance to listen and learn. They resented that the other group was making stereotyped comments about them but assumed they knew the other group well enough to make comments back. Despite all the tweets that gave glimpses to the real hurt that other races experience because of systemic injustice, these white tweeters just assumed everyone was whining, that everything in the world is fair, that white people got to where they are today solely by their own hard work–and the list goes on.

The sociologist part of me wanted to do a content analysis of all these tweets, and figure out which ones fall into the “funny cultural stereotypes about whites” category (and then see what the different cultural traits are), how many fall into the “revealing prejudice in the system” category, how many fall into the “rankled white people retaliating” category, and how many fall into the “why is this a trend on twitter now??!” category. But. I didn’t. I wrote a blog post because I’m lazy and this is easier. But maybe someone else out there will do it.

But I hope at the very least, this twitter trend can help us white people think a little bit more  about what we define as normal, about how we stereotype others, and about how desperately we need to shut up and listen to people who are not white, and value their experiences and insights into the injustice around us, rather than getting defensive and shutting them out.

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