White people enjoy a deeply internalized, largely unconscious sense of racial belonging in U.S. society. This racial belonging is instilled via the whiteness embedded in the culture at large. Everywhere we look, we see our own racial image reflected back to us – in our heroes & heroines, in standards of beauty, in our role-models & teachers, in our textbooks &historical memory, in the media, in religious iconography including the image of God himself, etc. In virtually any situation or image deemed valuable in dominant society, whites belong. Indeed, it is rare for most whites to experience a sense of not belonging & such experiences are usually very temporary, easily avoidable situations. Racial belonging becomes deeply internalized & taken for granted.
In dominant society, interruption of racial belonging is rare & thus destabilizing & frightening to whites. Whites consistently choose & enjoy racial segregation. Living, working & playing in racial segregation is unremarkable as long as it is not named or made explicitly intentional. For example, in many anti-racist endeavors, a common exercise is to separate into caucus groups by race in order to discuss issues specific to your racial group & without the pressure or stress of other groups’ presence. Generally, PoC appreciate this opportunity for racial fellowship, but white people typically become very uncomfortable, agitated & upset – even though this temporary separation is in the service of addressing racism.
Responses include a disorienting sense of themselves as not just people, but most particularly white people; a curious sense of loss about this contrived & temporary separation which they don’t feel about the real & on-going segregation in their daily lives & anxiety about not knowing what is going on in the groups of color. The irony, again, is that most whites live in racial segregation every day & in fact, are the group most likely to intentionally choose that segregation (albeit obscured in racially coded language such as seeking “good schools” & “good neighborhoods”). This segregation is unremarkable until it is named as deliberate – i.e. “We are now going to separate by race for a short exercise.”I posit that it is the intentionality that is so disquieting – as long as we don’t mean to separate, as long as it “just happens” that we live segregated lives, we can maintain a (fragile) identity of racial innocence.
Because race is constructed as residing in PoC, whites don’t bear the social burden of race. We move easily through our society without a sense of ourselves as racialized subjects. We see race as operating when PoC are present, but all-white spaces as “pure” spaces – untainted by race vis á vis the absence of the carriers of race (& thereby the racial polluters) – PoC. This perspective is perfectly captured in a familiar white statement, “I was lucky. I grew up in an all-white neighborhood so I didn’t learn anything about racism.” In this discursive move, whiteness gains its meaning through its purported lack of encounter with non-whiteness.
Because racial segregation is deemed socially valuable while simultaneously unracial & unremarkable, we rarely, if ever, have to think about race & racism & receive no penalty for not thinking about it. In fact, whites are more likely to be penalized (primarily by other whites) for bringing race up in a social justice context than for ignoring it (however, it is acceptable to bring race up indirectly & in ways that reinforce racist attitudes, i.e. warning other whites to stay away from certain neighborhoods, etc.). This frees whites from carrying the psychic burden of race.
Race is for PoC to think about – it is what happens to “them” – they can bring it up if it is an issue for them (although if they do, we can dismiss it as a personal problem, the “race card”, or the reason for their problems). This allows whites to devote much more psychological energy to other issues & prevents us from developing the stamina to sustain attention on an issue as charged & uncomfortable as race.
Constant messages that we are more valuable – through representation in everything
Living in a white dominant context, we receive constant messages that we are better & more important than PoC. These messages operate on multiple levels & are conveyed in a range of ways. For example: our centrality in history textbooks, historical representations & perspectives; our centrality in media & advertising (i.e., a recent Vogue magazine cover boldly stated, “The World’s Next Top Models” – every woman on the front cover was white); our teachers, role-models, heroes & heroines; everyday discourse on “good” neighborhoods & schools & who is in them; popular TV shows centered around friendship circles that are all white (i.e. Friends, Seinfeld); religious iconography that depicts God, Adam & Eve & other key figures as white, commentary on new stories about how shocking any crime is that occurs in white suburbs & the lack of a sense of loss about the absence of PoC in most white people’s lives. While one may explicitly reject the notion that one is inherently better than another, one cannot avoid internalizing the message of white superiority, as it is ubiquitous in mainstream culture.