How We Talk (or Don’t) About Being White
By Jennifer Petersen
We have all, by now, been inundated with the news of Rachel Dolezal—a white woman who, for years, chose to live as black while pursuing a career in racial justice work. Undoubtedly, this story has undermined important real-time racial justice movements; but every story has its place and this one is no exception. I offer that social workers (and anyone who identifies as a white anti-racist) pull Dolezal from her undeserved media spotlight and into our public and private conversations about whiteness and how we carry that identity as social justice professionals.
I recently applied for a full-time position with a racial justice organization for which I ultimately was not hired. Feeling frustrated and defeated by this news, I wondered whether I would have had a better chance at getting the job (and others to which I’ve applied) if I were not white. Days later, a story surfaced about a white woman (Dolezal) who had transformed herself into an African-American, one of her motives being to reflect the profile of the people with whom she sought to work, advocate, socialize and parent. I felt an uncomfortable twinge of connectedness with her story and wondered if Dolezal’s dramatic transformation was somehow related to my own feelings as a white woman seeking and doing work in primarily non-white spaces.
White social workers often find themselves in professional settings where whiteness does not wield its usual privileges—applying for positions that would be best filled by a person of color, working in settings where white skin creates barriers and breeds mistrust from clients and co-workers, or frequenting neighborhoods where one’s skin color elicits uncomfortable stares, comments and presumptions that you are lost. These feelings are real and complex and isolating. On some level, I can understand why Dolezal wanted to be black (actually going through with it is another story). For years, I wanted to hide, to blend in, to somehow look and feel less…white. I wondered if I should even be doing this work, if my presence was causing more harm than good. And, if I’m really honest, I felt victimized and undeserving of such treatment. I am a social worker, after all. Isn’t it clear that I am here to help and be an ally? Isn’t that enough?
I gleaned two important lessons from (reluctantly) connecting Rachel Dolezal’s very public denial of her racial identity with my own inner struggle around white privilege. Firstly, as white social workers (and white people, for that matter) we must be brutally honest about the feelings that come up for us around race and recognize them as crucial to our own identity development. Let’s laugh at and speak to the ways we have tried to deny our whiteness. How we have postured to distance ourselves from the “embarrassing” kind of white that shows up in our family members or suburban neighborhoods or those conservative pundits on TV. How we have adopted hoop earrings and slang words and dance moves to prove that we are “down.” Let’s confess to those feelings of victimhood that arise when our intentions are questioned or we are denied our usual access to places and people.
Secondly, we must lean in and figure out how to be a different kind of white—the work Tim Wise describes as “messy as hell, and filled with wrong turns and mistakes and betrayals and apologies and a healthy dose of pain.” I don’t know the race of the person hired for the job I was denied but I’m certain that he or she has done more of this work than I. The reality was that I didn’t have the academic background in race theory or ethnic studies or the specific organizing experience required for the job. My feeling slighted came from a privilege-based assumption that simply desiring to do racial justice work (or having a social work degree) should warrant a white person the opportunity to do so. Leaning in to our whiteness requires we endure hurt feelings as we realize how many “normal” parts of our existence are in fact privileges based on race. It requires we put in effort—more than feels adequate–to earn the trust of people of color. It requires we educate ourselves on race and power through history books and academic articles and trainings and conversations.
As ironic as it sounds, by becoming black, Dolezal took the easy way out. She got to bypass living with the discomfort of being a member of the oppressor group in a system she wished to dismantle. But that is what white folks have to do—be completely who we are in a completely different way than we are used to. I say that with full awareness of the lack of resources for doing so and my hope is that this will shift as more white people engage in “the difficult work of finding a different way to live in this skin” (Tim Wise). And who better to spearhead this movement than those who are specialists in group work and community intervention and movement building all within the context of power, privilege and oppression? (I’m talking to you, social workers 🙂
References & Resources:
Photo Credit: By John Vachon for U.S. Farm Security Administration (Library of Congress) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons