From the Classroom: A Letter to Whiteness

Letter to Whiteness

USF Course: Whiteness, Power, & Privilege
Assignment: Students will craft a letter to whiteness or some derivation of whiteness (e.g. white feminism, white privilege, white supremacy) using some literature from the course (or other sources) through which they can anchor their sentiments. This is another opportunity for you to reflect on how whiteness, power and privilege show up in your life and/or your community.


Whiteness

You swear you don’t exist.

Even as I look you directly in the eye,
you deny your own existence.

You deny loudly, aggressively,
–just loud enough to convince anyone listening.

Then,
as soon as their scrutiny is released,
you re-emerge in all your glory.

Oh, you’re visible alright.

But only to those of us who’ve been trained to see you.

Whose circumstances
–no, safety
requires that we sense you from a distance.

You are quite the traveler, whiteness.

Even before you reach my city,
I can tell when you’ve marked it
as a destination or a home.

I sense you on once-deserted corners,
now housing a Starbucks or Whole Foods.

Food deserts turn food heavens for you,
but you only.

I sense you in the sudden influx of “rules”
being enforced by the law
and not the community.

Where was the law before, I ask?
It doesn’t matter now.

I sense your coming arrival in the new infrastructure:
vacant lots and destitute buildings
on long-forgotten streets,
suddenly worthy of a facelift.

Whiteness
is care and attention
suddenly provided with urgency
for the same potholes in the road
that mark my mindmap of this city.

Turn right, stop at the light, avoid the crater in the ground, turn left. 

Your faces trickle in,
and like magic,
the roads are repaved.

Why now? I ask,
heart knowing the answer.

Soon someone will live here
whose safety is worth protecting.

These hazards in the road
might harm someone who matters…


Whiteness

You swear you don’t exist.

and yet, if I am not you,
I will live my life wishing on some level to be.

This is just the blueprint of life when you call your home America.

Wishing to be safe — like whiteness.
To be valued — like whiteness.
To be universally revered and named worthy
like whiteness, and whiteness alone.

The best part
is not even envying anything about whiteness
on an honest, observational level.

Yet still wishing to reap the benefits of it
because, well, you aren’t blind.

Whiteness is the ultimate currency.

If Whiteness doesn’t exist,
who exactly are we all compared to?

When “neutral” and “nude” are white.
When “American” (without a signifier) is white.
When the “average American” means white.
When the very constitution of this nation
has had to add special clauses to protect you
–unless you are white.

But whiteness doesn’t exist.

Well alright then.


I chose to write a letter/poem to whiteness based on inspiration from my experiences growing up in Oakland, CA. My letter touches on themes of gentrification, white privilege, white fragility, and the feeling of being “otherized,” along with the tangible differences in safety that brings.

Whiteness spends most of its time going unexamined; if not for the opposing cries of people of color, I doubt it would ever be questioned or unpacked. It is simply deemed “the norm.”

Robin DiAngelo discusses this in her article “White Fragility” (2011), saying:

“Whiteness is not recognized or named by white people, and a universal reference point is assumed. White people are just people.”

She goes on to discuss how this framing ultimately allows white people to mold the narrative deemed as representative of humanity, while people of color are limited as representative of only their own racialized experiences.

People of color often watch helplessly as whiteness, though unnamed, enters their communities and washes over the culture that has been built. The danger lies in the fact that when whiteness is touted as “universal,” these attacks on communities and cultures that existed previously are seen simply as “neighborhood revitalization.”

Gentrification is treated not as modern colonialism, but as an effort to bring an “othered” community into the “norm.” Framed this way, it often goes unquestioned despite being problematic.

I was struck, though, by John Powell’s writings on challenging whiteness, in Chapter Four of his book Racing to Justice (2015). He asserts that, while it is important to interrogate privilege and its workings, it is still questionable as to whether or not whiteness can actually be given up.

Taking his analysis of whiteness further, Powell troubles the commonly held solution of addressing the problem by redistributing white privilege to other racial groups. This, he argues, simply recreates the same problem in new form.

He and I agree that we must “name, engage, and challenge” whiteness and the privileges that come with it. The solution does not lie necessarily in redistributing privilege, but in constantly deconstructing it until there exists “a new meaning and space for whiteness that is not based on exclusion, internal and external separation, and disaffiliation or power over others.”

 

 

References

DiAngelo, R. (2011). White Fragility. International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, 3(3), 54-70.

Powell, J. A. (2015). Racing to justice: Transforming our conceptions of self and other to build an inclusive society. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

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