Thursday, August 7, 2008

On Not Trusting White People

So, we’ve been over the fact that I definitely do not consider myself white.* So, that said, I would like to touch on my particular issue that I have had with white folks, in general – trust.

Now I know there are people out there that will instantly cry “racist” and suggest that I hate white people by making a blanket statement like this.** That is not the case, and I hope to make that clear through this post (and from what I’ve already written in this blog).

I should say that I have walked through and lived in a mostly white world. My schools growing up were predominantly white (although my social circle wasn’t). Most of the people I ended up being around in college were white (with some notable exceptions). As a youth worker, I end up having mostly white co-workers. And I have plenty of close white friends, so this isn’t an intolerant hate thing. It’s an experiential thing.

Again, we return to EXPERIENCES and how they shape us. From my experiences with white people – some of whom I considered friends – I have learned to be wary of surface-level acceptance from white folks as a person of color. Some examples:

- I mentioned before ("On Not Being White") how my white friend’s parent bought into my made-up “Chinese.” An adult being so ignorant of the world around her that my made up sounds were legitimately “Chinese” to her.

- In middle school, there was a kid I knew (we got along relatively well, I thought) who was getting teased and picked on by a bunch of kids. I wasn’t part of it, but I was standing and watching, feeling bad for him and trying to decide what to do (yeah – of course I should have stood up for him, but it was middle school). Suddenly, he turns to me and yells (through his tears) “why don’t you just go back to where you came from!?” I was shocked, at first – where the Hell had THAT come from? But then I snapped out of it, and I had my first fight based on race. But I still carry that feeling of shocked betrayal – to save himself, he found a racist hate within him to fling my way, even though I wasn’t one of the people hurting him. That was probably one of the most important lessons I’ve ever learned about racism – hurt people hurt people.

- The summer after my first year of college, I was back in my home town at a party hosted by one of my old high school friends. Another white friend (we’ll call him “J”) brought some of his college buddies by. Well, let’s just say the college buddies were assholes, and it led to a fight. I got in there and broke it up, and my friends and I basically had J’s college buddies take their friend and leave. As that happened, the kid who had been in the fight made a comment about “that Buddha-looking motherf***er” (me), and I watched as J laughed in response. I wanted to kill him. And, again, submerged racism reared its ugly head when I wasn’t expecting it.

- In college, I was at a party with some friends, sitting on the front porch. A white kid comes in (a friend of some of my friends), talking about a fight he just almost got into. He told everyone how he had seen a bunch of Asian kids hanging out on their porch and when they wouldn’t bum him a smoke he yelled, “F***ing chinks!” The people on the porch with me laughed at his story – including some of my “friends” (those that didn’t, of course, said nothing).

- I had a white ex-girlfriend who was dating another bi-racial (white/Asian) guy. When I asked her what his specific background was (Chinese, Japanese, etc.), she said she didn’t know and was shocked when I told her that that was something she should ask. When I told her that likely really mattered to him, she argued with me and asked, “How would you know?” She later said she was surprised that I hadn’t “dealt with” the fact that I never saw people that looked like me around since I should "be used to it by now."

- Here, in Portland, I have had numerous white “liberal” males talk to me about how much they are into Asian or “exotic” women. White liberal females talking about race in a group of white people (and me) and how they “know how it feels” because one time they were the only brown-eyed person amongst a group of blue-eyed folks. Then arguing with me when I tell them they don’t know what they’re talking about.

- I have worked with white youth workers serving kids of color – who clearly target black and Latino youth in ways that defy understanding. Then, when I brought it up with my superiors, they told me my “expectations were too high” of my co-workers and nothing was done. Later, when I asked for a diversity training because I was so worried about the racial dynamics I saw at our school (and wanted a safe place to talk about it), I was told they would make it a priority – only to see it never happen (over six months of school after my request). And this is a boss that I respect and admire in so many ways – probably the best boss I’ve ever had, on a general level.

There’s more, of course. There’s always more. But I think these stand-out examples cover the themes I think need to be covered to explain why I don’t trust white people. Because - I remind you - these were friends or people that were in a position of (potential) trust. These weren't the overt racists (mostly) or bigots that I avoid. These were the white folks willing to be friends with me. People in positions where they (generally) had good intentions about race. It is the fact that these things still happened in spite of all that that made them so damaging. And so, with white people now:

I don’t trust that they don’t have some ingrained racist notions that they hold back because they know it’s not appropriate – only to have it come out when under duress, or when they need a scapegoat.

I don’t trust that they are truly my allies – that they will do more than just talk, actually standing up for me and my own when it really matters (whether or not we're around).

I don’t trust that they don’t make racist jokes or comments when I’m not around (or they think other people of color are not around).

I don’t trust that they see women of color as more than objects – that they actually care about the ethnicity and culture and experiences behind them.

I don’t trust that they are really listening or actually want to understand race and privilege on anything but their own terms.

And I don’t trust that those that work with kids of color actually do it out of respect, as opposed to white supremacist notions that “backward” cultures of color need a white savior in order to become civilized.

I don’t trust white people. And I have plenty of reason not to.

But there are exceptions, to be sure. I have two white friends here in Portland, “F” and “A” (incidentally, both with Jewish blood), who have never let me down in this regard. Who I know are not afraid of race and are willing to really check themselves in regards to it. Who do not deny their natural prejudices, and thus are able to confront and move past them.

But, unfortunately, I have found them to be the exception, thus far. And so I continue to distrust white people, even after I have befriended them to some degree. Because I never know when they might just side-swipe me with ignorance or (worse) outright racist notions.

So, to any white readers – please think on this, and see if privilege has caused you to make this impression on others. Are you to be fully trusted as an anti-racist ally? And to my readers of color – any stories of hope to combat these negative experiences?

I hope there are.

* If you haven’t read it yet, read “On Not Being White.”

** Other people have said it better than I can, but “racism” implies power and privilege, so it gets old when white people accuse people of color of “racism.” I can definitely be prejudiced, but let’s call if what it is, okay?


Ms. Sis said...

I wish that I could give you tons of exceptions and make it seem that racism is something that only rarely peeps up its surly head, and is mostly non-existent... but I can't. But I agree that there are very few white people that are really actively challenging, questioning and fighting against institutionalized and individual racism and the disastrous affects of white privilege.
I can think of a good friend "P", a couple of students, "L" and "T", and my mother and perhaps a couple of others who could not only keep up with the conversations and the issues, but also really show an insight that proved they were aware whiteness and their part in either combatting it, or falling into the ease of it.

So, yes I have a lot of close white friends and family- but there are conversations that we may never have, or if we go deep enough there will be some point of divergence where it might get uncomfortable- cause at the end of the day they want to feel that they are "OK" and "Not like other white people" or "not racist" - they want to vote for Obama, and tell stories of their friends of color, or ask us questions to gauge the pulse of whatever "identity" we represent.

I think those who are most honest and most able to really enact change, acknowledge that the have a problem. The whole world is infected by the diseases of racism and other isms, and people can't get cured if they don't acknowledge they have a problem or don't bother to keep up with a life-long regimen of truth serum. Cause no matter how we identify, we can always be more understanding, more aware, more informed, more caring and more loving and better allies to our fellow inhabitants of the planet.

Estheroette said...

Hello CVT

I know I am posting on an old entry but I wanted to write on how much I agree with you.

I cannot write a list of all the slip-ups I have had from white people over time but I can think of a few that stand out.

One, from someone I would have considered my closest friend from high school never failed to ask when I had hip hop or rap playing in my car or on my computer "Why are you listening to *that* music?"

Two, a teacher in high school who pegged me for a failure before the algebra class even started. Yes, I do suck at math, always have, but it was not just because I am black. When I studied my butt off for a test and made a high b she practically asked if I had cheated.

Along with many more encounters like that in college I have found that it is hard for me to look at each white person individually. I find that I am constantly looking for the blade to drop.

At the same time, I know to rely on the excuse that my experiences have taught me to treat all white people that way is wrong. Especially since pseudo KKK members can use the same argument against other minorities.

Thank you for the post!

CVT said...

Estheroette -
Thanks for posting. And there's no problem with you posting on an "old" post - if it moves you to write, that's great.

Yeah - I often get pegged (by some white friends) as "hating white people" because of these kinds of frustrations - and I do have a hard time trusting. But, in the end, I can get along fine with white folks - and even like them - I just have that thought in the back of my mind about being careful in my expectations.

On the flip of your high school algebra experience - I'm a middle school math teacher, and in the last couple years, my African-American kids have been my best math students. So much so that I've been tempted to start spreading the stereotype "all black kids are good at math" just to see the reaction amongst the students (and see how that pulls UP my other black students). Of course, that would be irresponsible in other ways, so I won't do it, but I always wonder . . .