Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Being White in an Age of Color

Can white people begin to understand their own whiteness?

 Public Domain
Source: Public Domain

We need to find a way to talk about what feels impossible to talk about: there is so much self-questioning and defensiveness among white people as we try to make sense of the world we have somehow landed in.

We are privileged, yet we don’t feel it. We are told we are responsible for colonialism and oppression—among other evils—yet we also know that there is much to admire and be proud of in the history of white people. How do we find a center for ourselves?

Part of the answer, I believe, lies in coming to recognize and own our whiteness and its meaning for each of us. We aren’t used to feeling what it’s like to be white, and what is it like to be racialized—to be seen in terms of your skin color. For many of us whiteness “just is”—it’s the norm we have grown up with. It’s a bit like asking the proverbial fish what the water is like.

We may not at first identify with “being white.” Instead, we may identify with the place our family emigrated from, or with our religion or even with a geographic region. We may say, “I’m Scottish,” or “I’m Catholic,” or “my family is from France” or “I’m a proud Southerner.”

In my case, for a long time I didn’t think of myself as white, I thought of myself as Jewish.

Finding my way into whiteness

As a Jew, I figured I got a pass on “the race issue.” Jews and blacks, after all, have a significant shared oppression in their histories, including painful memories of our ancestors’ struggle with slavery and persecution.

There is, too, a very personal element to my sense of a black-Jewish connection and my identification with a marginalized minority.

I grew up in a leafy suburban town outside New York City that discriminated against Jews as well as blacks. In the early 1950s, when I was 7, my parents bought a house within the town limits, but the school district itself was redlined—years later, an investigation by Congress revealed that Jews and blacks were steered away from those properties within the local school district.

Instead of the local ivy-covered school in the center of the quiet village, I went to a polyglot public school of blacks, Jews, and Italians miles from town. For me, the “white kids” were the blond-haired, blue-eyed boys and girls who gathered in the soda fountain in town after school, a short walk for them. They were the privileged whites, I was the marginalized Jew—and I was fine with that. I liked my diverse high school and what I learned there has served me well over the years.

Jews and Blacks

 Public Domain
Source: Public Domain

By the time I graduated high school in the 1960s, the civil rights movement was heating up and Jews were very prominent in that struggle. Stanley Levinson was a close friend and advisor to Martin Luther King, raising money for the movement and helping draft articles and speeches. In 1965 at Selma, as MLK set off on that fateful march across the Pettis bridge, there was a bearded Rabbi standing next to Ralph Bunche and MLK: Abraham Joshua Heschel, another close friend, and advisor, who is said to have remarked to King as they set off, “Martin, here’s my Judaism,” pointing at his feet. Jews and blacks walking the talk together.

That alliance has frayed in recent years. The movie Selma removed Rabbi Heschel from the Pettis bridge—in the film, there are only black marchers with King. The decision is an understandable artistic one—we have had enough films about black heroism with white characters in the forefront. Yet we can acknowledge the director’s artistic decision while mourning the loss of this example of black/Jewish unity.

Hopefully, the alliance will become resurrected as we all wake up to the racial realities of our culture.

Is this getting woke?

So, there I was happy in my smug bubble, making a false equivalence between black experience and my own, thinking “I’ve got this.”

Then came Ferguson, when a black teenager was shot by the police and his body allowed to lie in the street for hours. That event connected in a straight line with the Trayvon Martin verdict in Florida, when a white defendant was acquitted after having stalked and killed a black teenager. Something was amiss here.

Then after the Dallas sniper shootings of several policemen in 2016, the black emergency room surgeon who worked feverishly to save the lives of wounded cops spoke afterward about being frightened of the very men he was operating on because of the history of how he had been treated by police.

Then Senator Tim Scott, a Republican from South Carolina, went public about being stopped “numerous times” when entering the Senate office building despite wearing an official Senate badge. Here was another straight line, this time to Prof. Henry Louis Gates being arrested in 2010 as a burglary suspect on the front porch of his home in the very community where I live.

I realized that while I had some natural Jewish anxiety around the police (likely encoded in my DNA through the generations), deep down I didn’t share the ER surgeon’s fear or Senator Scott or Professor Gates’ experience. As a white person, I know that, if push came to shove, I could go into the chief of police’s office where I live and have “a talk” with him.

Speaking of “the talk”—consider how different it is for white people and black people.

“An element of racism I didn’t even realize”

Last year a racist slur was spray-painted on the front door of LeBron James' home in Los Angeles. James reported that he tried to make this a “teachable moment” for his young children:

"I let them know this is what it is, this is how it's going to be. When it's time for y'all to fly, you'll have to understand that."

"When y'all go out in public and y'all start driving or y'all start moving around, be respectful to cops, as much as you can. When you get pulled over, call your mom or dad, put it on speakerphone, and put your phone underneath the seat. But be respectful the whole time."

The white owner of the Cleveland Cavs (James’ team) then tweeted that he, too, had been the recipient of “vile, disgusting” racist messages at the same time. "There's an element of racism that I didn't even realize existed in this country this much," he concluded.

LeBron James was outraged but not surprised; Dan Gilbert was shocked, seeing something he had been blind to till then. This contrast left me thinking about the privilege of safety that I live in and have taken for granted. What is it like not to have what I take for granted, so that no matter how powerful or successful you are, you are always in danger of being racialized and losing whatever sense of self and safety—up to and including losing your life—in an instant?

I think it’s important to interrogate ourselves and to ask, how did white people come to be the way we are? How have we come to know the world?

Whiteness as The Other

White people are used to seeing people of color as The Other—perhaps our own whiteness is an Other worthy of our curiosity and interest. In that light, here are some thoughts that I have found helpful:

Beware of false equivalences. This is a powerful rhetorical and cognitive tool used to justify the status quo and cloud clear thinking. “Oh, yeah—well how about….?” As white people, our pain is not the same as a black person’s. We can’t apply our own criteria of suffering to the account we are hearing.

Listen! I am not suggesting whose suffering and pain is necessarily greater or lesser or whose bears listening to. However, as white people, we need to listen more carefully and not assume that we know or understand when confronted with the pain of slavery and ongoing oppression in this country. When someone tells you their pain, can you repeat back to them what you have heard in a way that is accurate to them?

Reread American History. I was a history nerd in high school, and still am. So, it’s deeply shocking—and enlightening— to learn how embedded racism is in this country’s history and present. Two excellent starting points for reading are here and here.

Embrace your not-knowing. If you are open to it, we all have our Dan Gilbert moments when our not-knowing becomes apparent in unexpected ways. I have a black colleague and friend from the South who is often quite dour and prickly; in mostly white meetings, he often sits silently with a rather smoldering, seen-it-all demeanor. On one occasion, we flew to a meeting together. At the TSA, my friend was the picture of jolliness and amiability with the inspectors. When we left security, I jokingly commented to my friend that he seemed unusually friendly and jocular. He looked me right in the eye and said, “Sam, that’s how a black person goes through security.”

Oh. What was security for me was not security for him. In my bubble of whiteness, the TSA was an irritation, something to get through on my way to the gate, as well as a source of some protection; for my friend, the TSA was the authorities, where lurked myriad scary possibilities, real and imagined.

Be careful! Or be open? As the recent SNL skit suggests, we live in a suspicious time, quick to judgment and blame. How are we to talk about inherent bias and unconscious stereotypes if people are afraid to talk openly with each other? These are difficult conversations and they need to be grounded in a willingness to listen, rather than jump to judgment. One approach is for each person simply to really listen—repeating back in their own words what the other has said, rather than half-listening, getting triggered, and rushing to respond. Sometimes the most powerful dialogue is when both parties feel heard, without having to come to any conclusions beyond the hard work of really listening to each other.

Don’t feel guilty: it’s not your fault. Talk about oppression and inequity often invokes considerable guilt among white people, particularly when we examine the painful history of exploitation on which our country is founded and still functions. I try to remember what a rabbi said to me once when I made a nasty comment about contemporary Germans. “We are not responsible for the sins of our fathers—nor are the Germans.”

What he meant was that every generation is free to make its own moral choices and the task of us all is to focus on Tikkun Olam—healing the world, repairing what is broken, rather than avoiding looking at the damage out of a feeling of guilt too deep to bear. We are all free now to work for social justice, no matter your skin color.

Accept the loss: George Washington wanted to exterminate Native Americans who occupied land he wanted for American expansion? Amherst, Massachusetts is named after Lord Jeffrey Amherst, who distributed smallpox-infested blankets that contributed to a holocaust among the Native Americans who once lived where the hippy college town of Amherst now exists? Thomas Jefferson kept slaves, and in brutal living conditions? Reconstruction came to end because of a Northern deal with Southern racists, undermining the good government that southern blacks had created after the Civil War? The residential segregation that continues to haunt American cities was the result of “racially explicit policies of federal, state, and local government (that) segregated every metropolitan area in the United States”?

As Mathew Rozca recently noted, “As musicals like Hamilton sweep the nation, it is easy to allow a romantic version of American history to overshadow some ugly truths. The story of America's development is inextricably linked with our founding fathers' imperialist designs against Native American nations. It is also inextricably linked with the racist assumptions that they used to justify dehumanizing and displacing thousands, and ultimately millions, of innocent people.”

After shock and denial, grief and mourning are natural reactions to the loss of trustworthy assumptions and a familiar sense of understanding the world, part of the “romance” we all seek. The truth is that we live within a tragic history and there is much room for shared sorrow.

Groups are often helpful avenues to shared mourning. White affinity groups—where white people get together to talk about their history and experience—can be a powerful way to explore what it means to try and “get woke.”

"Here’s My Judaism."

 Public Domain
Source: Public Domain

When Rabbi Heschel spoke those words when beginning to march in Selma, he was telling Dr. King that his spirituality was expressed through his actions. Contemplation and reflection will only get us so far. At some point, we need to take action to heal the world.

This does not mean, though, that you have to become a civil rights attorney or march headlong into police batons.

Small Steps Can Become Big Steps. Once we understand the history and the ongoing problem, we have an obligation to be vigilant about recognizing inequality and oppression, to speak out against racism, to stand up for people when they’re targeted. I’ve been asking friends of mine what they do in their everyday lives to respond to the racism around them. Here’s what I have heard:

  • “I make a conscious effort to meet people outside my circle of friends.“
  • “Go to a discount chain in your local mall ... so many different cultures work there. I love saying hello in many languages and getting happy smiles in return. It's a start ... I watch the reactions of some of the other white, Anglo-Saxon shoppers. It's often heartwarming.”
  • “I’m part of a racial justice working group in my town.”
  • “Recently, racist graffiti was spray-painted on the outside of an African refugee’s home in the city where I live. Right after it happened, someone printed and distributed 'love your neighbor' posters for people to put in their windows. People wrote letters to the editor saying, ‘this is not who we are; everyone is welcome here.’ Then a group of us organized diversity celebrations on the State House lawn. It was a lesson to me about speaking out, sometimes individually and sometimes as a larger community.”
  • “Here are my suggestions: Go to a school with a diverse student population and volunteer to tutor. Donate to the United Negro College Fund. Research black colleges and donate regularly to the scholarship fund for a school of your choice. “
  • “Always be sure you are voting for someone who knows what diversity means and supports this in his/her speeches and voting record!”
  • “Join the NAACP. I did, and I am so happy I did. I have gotten a huge education, met a lot of great people, and have made some dear friends.”
  • “I attend to my personal conduct in relation to people of color as open, warm, and exhibiting signs of being a safe person. I put myself into situations where I’m the minority as another way to continue my growth and awareness.”
  • “I apportion a percentage of my donations specifically to resources addressing the needs of the black community. Here’s where you can open an account and support the largest black-owned bank in the country.”

A therapist colleague writes, “our responsibility as white therapists working with African American clients is to be 'culturally competent' in our knowledge of history, important people, and cultural rituals. We need to be informed and not expect them to educate us. Consider as examples: Watch Night or Juneteenth, the use of all three names: "Henry Louis Gates"

Embrace the opportunities. Tikkun Olam–efforts to heal the broken world—is also self-care. There is ample evidence that living in a society of profound injustice is sickening to the soul of even the privileged. The work of denial, repression, and self-justification is just too demanding. There is a great opportunity for us all in confronting and owning and working to remedy the tragedy of America’s racial history. . . and present.