sketches of whiteness overseas

March 29, 2009 § 6 Comments

1. went out last night.  met new people.  had a great time.  woke up this morning with a realization.  in white culture it is okay to talk about race, ie arab culture, sudanese culture, african culture, etc.  but if you talk about white culture or racism (which is the definition of white culture) then your intent is obviously to make white folks feel uncomfortable.  you could not just be some one interested in culture.  especially in white culture which is fascinating in the fact that white culture’s existance is about domination.  just on a theoretical level.

2. like if i ask: how did you overcome your racism…to a white person….they think i am serious.  they dont know i am joking.  i dont expect them to have.  and still be white.  white folks are so weird.

3. like i get in the elevator to go home.  and there is this white guy there who has been sitting with us for a couple of hours.  and seriously i thought he was cool.  but he’s not.  he is aryan nation boy #2.  (aryan nation boy #1 is the kid who looked like i had attacked him because he had a degree in war studies and i was like: what kind of war did you study?  then i asked him a bunch of other questions. including: how did you overcome your racism.  considering that most wars happen in brown and black people parts of the world.  and basically discovered that the kid was all theory no practice and not very interesting to boot) anyways aryan nation boy #2 is in the elevator with habibi and i and says: you bring up race in inappropriate moments.

wtf?

a. there is no such thing as an innappropriate moment to bring up race.

b. in the conversation he was talking about i hadnt been the one to bring it up. a white chick did.  but of course he decided i did since i was the black chick

c. he brought it up in the elevator because he wouldnt have dared say that with a group of people at the table.  coward.

d. we were talking about aryan nation boy #1.  who wasnt even there.  it was just a funny story.

what i say is: oh really?

and he starts talking about how accused him of being racist when he talked about his imaginary wife and kids.  and i never did anything of the sort.

so great.  he’s paranoid aryan nation boy.  charming.

4. so i have decided im not talking about race with white folks.  im not even going to joke about it.  im going to do what the other people of color did at the table.  at first when the poc were in the majority everyone was talking about being ethnic and sharing stories and yeah race and jobs and traveling and life.  and then the table became majority white.  and i continue to be myself.  but the rest of the poc slowly but surely – their body language – get uncomfortable with the same type of conversation now that we are minorities again.

i know that automatic act of quieting down.  its a survival skill of poc around whiteness.  because you can say something funny or innocuous, witty or serious.  but white folks because they feel ‘racialized’ (ie victimized) by your acknowledgement of their whiteness.  act out of their ‘victimhood’ by claiming that you attacked them.

which is funny because white folks dont have a problem talking about other cultures and ethnicities.  they do it all the time.  but if a poc racializing a white person is seen as an ‘attack’ then what does that say about what white folks are doing to poc when white folks talk about race or culture?

and that lack of reciprocity in the relationship between whites and poc is the very definition of racism.

its all so weird.

5. so it gets weirder when you are sitting in a country full of brown people.  and white folks still think it is an attack to talk about whiteness but they are talking about egyptians as a category of people. and arabs.  and africa.

its like the height of ex-pat hubris.

in which white folks get to define what is and what is not appropriate conversation when it comes to race.  and that very act of definition, the veto power that white boys assume they have because they should not feel uncomfortable is incredible.

6. because listening to a bunch of white folks talk about brown and black people (and all the euphemisms used to do so) is uncombfortable for me.  but obviously they dont mean it to be.

and intent matters right?  wrong.  it dont matter that much.

7. and so i think about this with my daughter.  who is the embodiment of beauty and joy and laughter.  and angst and demands and defiance.  and how i have to teach her how to listen and how to speak.  how to walk into a room full of confidence not dominance.  how to define her boundaries and her reach. and that no one and i mean no one has the right to define her expressing her vision of the world as inappropriate.

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§ 6 Responses to sketches of whiteness overseas

  • Amy K. says:

    Thanks Maia, very thought-provoking.

  • Amapola says:

    and that lack of reciprocity in the relationship between whites and poc is the very definition of racism.

    this is so true. and

    its like the height of ex-pat hubris.

    in which white folks get to define what is and what is not appropriate conversation when it comes to race. and that very act of definition, the veto power that white boys assume they have because they should not feel uncomfortable is incredible.

    is making me think so much about my family & my dad’s work & our time overseas. i was so young that i don’t remember much about conversations, how my parents and their friends talked– but all of their friends were other ex-pats and folks who worked with NGOs; all of my close friends were mixed ex-pat kids, even though i went to a local school instead of an international one, we just gravitated toward each other.

    and it’s interesting. because even though we were too young to have any kind of sophisticated analysis of race & privilege, i think that’s part of why we found each other. we were familiar to each other. i remember being confused by poverty, that really nice people could be so poor– it was something i’d never encountered in the states, and my seven year old brain very much thought bad things should only happen to bad people.

    it also makes me think about my parents (mostly unspoken) insistence that we were all white, not just my dad, that all of our family friends were white, even though most of them were not. and how this dictated the rules of behavior, what kind of conversations they did and did not have about race (the ones i remember as i got older)– it was always about the other, even when it was brown folks talking about brown folks, because most of the brown folks were encompassed by whiteness, at least in those settings.

    i’m rambling, & this is getting super long, but. it’s stuff i’ve been unpacking for a while, and reading your writing is helpful, hits close to home.

  • mama says:

    @amy — thanks
    @ amapola
    —and how this dictated the rules of behavior, what kind of conversations they did and did not have about race (the ones i remember as i got older)– it was always about the other, even when it was brown folks talking about brown folks, because most of the brown folks were encompassed by whiteness, at least in those settings.—

    wow. that makes me think of sitting at this table. and how it felt like the other couple of us-national poc there started talking as if they were white. its hard to explain but that is what went through my head. and i felt like there was a moment (unspoken) when they looked at me like why wasnt i talking from this position of being white. i dont know. i dont have the right language for it. like–why was i still identifying myself as racialized?
    why didnt i talk as if we were all colorblind? why didnt i talk as if race didnt matter?
    why didnt merge more into what had become the dominant culture at the table?
    like i am trying on rebecca walker’s post-identity coat on for size. how do we deal with issues of power, because that is what identity is really naming. power. anyways. lets keep thinking.

  • Amapola says:

    not sure how this connects, but as i am trying to puzzle out how so many poc in my childhood seemed to ID as white– or ID primarily with white culture–

    i think there was some kind of line drawn between “ethnic heritage” and “race.” like, if it came up, it was okay to acknowledge that my mom’s parents immigrated to the US from iran, that the one friend’s parents immigrated from japan, and that her husband was (white) french, that the other couple was from mauritius originally. but it was always framed in terms of heritage, not race. like, it’s part of your family history, but not something that affects your day to day life. like, we were all part of these international networks, but you wouldn’t hear anyone say things like iranian-american or japanese-american.

    some of it was education & class privilege, of course. they had mostly all met at harvard, save for some of the spouses, and worked for world bank or NGOs that focused on international development. places where there was no emphasis on solidarity. places where a clear divide is made being the ‘us’ doing the work and ‘them’ who need help. which has got everything to do with power.

  • nosnowhere says:

    @amapola i’ve been thinking about this similiar thing because i describe the place i grew up as an all-white town, but actually i had several friends who were like me, half-white half something else (most of us had single moms whether the deadbeat dad was of color or white). but we were all rly engulfed in whiteness and white culture, we didn’t have language or spaces to relate to each other like that.

    “but it was always framed in terms of heritage, not race. like, it’s part of your family history, but not something that affects your day to day life.”

    this paragraph is so true to my experience too. after i left my hometown and began to live in a 99% poc city (yay!) and started talk about how it did affect my day to day, my white friends (who had been there for me when ppl said hateful things to me, called ppl out for mispronouncing my name) got uncomfortable with all this emphasis on race and me suddenly identifying as arab and not white, they don’t talk to me anymore.

  • Derek says:

    I think whites need to get over their discomfort, and start listening to and learning from POC.

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