The Meandering Social Worker

wandering : wondering : learning

What do white people think of …. being white?

I was reminded of this question recently while reading The Emperor of Ocean Park by black author Stephen L Carter.

Carter’s main character, Tal, continuously uses the terms ‘the darker nation’ and ‘the paler nation’.  As a law professor Tal is a member of the black middle class, his recently deceased father a prominent and respected judge.  His upbringing was black middle class.  His wife is a prominent lawyer being considered for a judgeship.  The book suggests that although the university where Tal teaches is multi-cultural, black professors and black students are definitely in the minority.  At various times, particularly when faced with the arrogance of members of ‘the paler nation’, Tal experiences a ‘red mist’ of anger come over him.  As the reader of the story I perceived that the arrogance of ‘the paler nation’ is rarely overt prejudice, but rather something inbuilt, inbred and an unconscious feature of the characters of ‘the paler nation’.

Which is what brought me to the question: What do white people think of being white?  It’s one of the questions I sometimes use when undertaking Form F assessments with applicant foster carers.

There is a counterpart question:  What do black people think of being black?

I’m torn in what phraseology to use.  I like Carter’s terms darker and paler nations as they seem to better reflect the different nationalities and cultures of the world than the words ‘black’ and ‘white’.  I could as easily refer to ‘dominant cultures’ and ‘non-dominant cultures’.  In fact, the questions can be adapted to any particular culture, social class or disability.  So, if you will forgive me, I’m going to stick to just the terms, ‘black’ and ‘white’ for convenience.

But, before you read any further, ask yourself both these questions:  What do black people think of being black? And: What do white people think of being white?  It’s important, even for just a minute or two, and make a note of your answers to compare and follow up.

OK, I’m taking a chance on your answers here because now, for the purpose of illustration, I’m going to be making some generalisations.

Ask any black person the question, “What do black people think of being black?” and the chances are you will get a detailed response.  It may include issues relating to cultural heritage as well as knowledge or experience of racism, present and historical.  Answers will vary according to experiences of growing up, the cultural diversity of the societies they have lived in, experiences of prejudice, the experiences of family and friends, education and work among other things.  But the main thing is – there will be awareness.  Awareness of being black or mixed heritage.  Awareness of the issues facing, to use Carter’s term, ‘the darker nations’.

Ask any black person the question, “What do white people think of being white?” and the chances are you will get a similar response.  The issues may be different but there will be an assumption of awareness, an assumption that the white person knows they are white and possibly considers they are superior.

The response to asking a white person the question, “What does a black person think of being black?” is likely to be less consistent, mainly falling in one of three categories.  A few (hopefully a minority) will display outright prejudice, perhaps not even able to consider that a black person might be able to think let alone think about being black. Some may show an awareness of the difference in experience and opportunities, having a largely academic external understanding of the issues of prejudice and discrimination.  Others (I suspect a rather large proportion) will struggle with the question, unable to ‘put themselves in the others’ shoes’.

Asking a white person the question: “What does a white person think of being white?” will probably get a response that falls into one of two categories.  A few ‘white supremacists’ may well display an opinion of superiority.  These people exists, their views can be heard in the media from time to time.  But the majority of those asked are likely to be confused by the question.  The true answer is, “the majority of white people don’t ever think about what it means to be white, it never ever occurs to them.”  Of course there are exceptions, but I’m talking generalisations here.

I’ve thought about the question and I know the answer: Of course there are times when I think about it what it means to be white, writing this blog for example, in work and training situations, but generally, the unfortunate truth is, I don’t think about it; like most everyone else, it doesn’t occur to me to think about it.  Even as white social workers go, my multi-cultural work experience is probably average to good. I’ve worked extensively with foster carers from the Caribbean and African nations.  I’ve worked with asylum seekers from various different cultures.  I’ve worked with colleagues from different continents.  In a multi-cultural society my general awareness is reasonably good.  But as a white person I still have to admit that I find it difficult to think about what it means to be white.  It simply isn’t there.  It’s not something I grew up with.  That kind of thinking was never part of my education and culture (actually an assumed white supremacy in the form of British colonial history more a part of my childhood education).

Sometimes prejudice is very real, but even when it isn’t this thoughtlessness, ignorance and lack of awareness comes across as arrogance, elitism and supremacy.  It is the root of institutionalised racism such as rocked the British police in the late 20th Century, but which is still alive everywhere today.  It’s usually not intended to be malicious.  It’s lack of awareness.  But too often in our training and our discussions about anti-discriminatory and anti-oppressive practice we focus on how to learn about the ‘other side’, to understand and respect different cultures, to behave differently, to promote overcoming oppression.  But how often do we look at ourselves and be honest about what we think and feel, or don’t think or feel, and why?

How do your answers compare to the generalisations made here?  Do you agree or do you think it’s way off the mark?  Comments welcome (although due to limited internet access any responses may take a little while).

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11 thoughts on “What do white people think of …. being white?

  1. Hi, I live in Australia, where the black vs white issues are not the same as in the US. (Probably the white relationship with our indigenous people is more like yours with your indigenous people rather than with your African-Anericans.)

    But my reaction was similar to what you suggested. I didn’t really know how it feels to be white because I don’t really think in those terms. Obviously I know that we have many different ethnic backgrounds here in Australia, and in most cases I appreciate them all, but I’ve never really thought about what it means to be white – except I guess when I feel shame for our treatment of the first Australians, which has been very unjust overall and on occasions.

    I didn’t really have much I thought On what it means to be black, though I’m sure if I was an indigenous (black) Australian I would feel the injustice in a different way (more angry rather than shameful).

    Interesting questions …..

    • Thank you for your comment. I’m from the UK, where I think we feel we’re taking multi-ethnicity to a fine art (although the truth is our non-white population is still smaller than most ‘white’ people think it is). It’s been interesting watching the results of the recent Zimmerman case in the US in the light of these questions!

      • Sorry, I think I assumed you were writing from the US. It doesn’t change my comment, but it does make me think differently about yours.

  2. you have piqued my curiosity unkleE – how have your thoughts on my comments changed

  3. Well, I should have known you were from the UK. There were a couple of references to Britain and British in your post, but I still didn’t pick it up. So, because I think of black vs white racial tensions being most prevalent in the US, I just assumed …..

    I have spent only a few weeks in each country in the past decade, so my personal knowledge is very small, but I did live for a week in Hackney, which is very multicultural, and seemed not to have much racial tensions. So I thought the main tensions in the UK were either Muslims vs non-Muslims or poor vs middle class – especially in the large midland and northern cities.

    So to hear you talk about colour differences in the UK was a bit of a surprise.

    • Thank you. It’s good to hear what others think.

      Having spent 6 months in the US and from watching the news, I think the racial tensions in the US are far more overt. In the UK our social work practice is very strong on anti-discrimination / anti-oppressive practice. We are pretty good at analysing the subject to the nth degree. But social work is not public opinion.

      Generally, the tensions are still there and it flares up in the press from time to time – mostly against asylum seekers these days (many of whom are actually ‘white’ – Polish, Russian and other Eastern European), which has led to an upsurge in popularity of the BNP (British Nationalist Party) which are very racist and gaining some strengths in the political arena, particularly in districts where the asylum seeker population is most noticeable.

      And as you say, the tensions are strong around Muslim groups in the midlands and north of England – linked to fears of terrorism both in the UK and the US. Tensions from ‘black’ groups tends to come from real or perceived discrimination in the workplace (lack of proportional representation in work or well paid jobs), education (lower achievements), prison (disproportionately higher in number), more likely to be stopped and searched by the police, etc, etc, etc.

      Very occasionally there might be riots or obvious tensions but mostly it seems to be an ‘undercurrent’ of tension, largely I believe, because of the questions and generalisations I wrote in the blog.

  4. That’s very interesting. We have asylum seeker issues in Australia too – mostly from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Iraq and Vietnam – but I think the numbers are not high by world standards – though with the Australian population at 22 million, we probably can’t easily assimilate as many as some countries. But we could surely assimilate many more if people weren’t inflamed by Murdoch media and radio “shock jocks”.

    I find it interesting, and sad, that Great Britain was the most powerful country in the world two centuries ago, and had an empire on which the sun never set. But that led to large scale immigration from British colonies, especially in West Indies, Pakistan and India, and it is often those communities that are economically depressed today and causing social problems in return. It might have been better not to have been so colonial.

    How do you see that?

    • Ancient British history of course is one of being invaded, conquered and adaptating. Perhaps that was the root of our desire to invade and conquer, when back in the 17th – 19th Centuries we grew and were proud of our ‘sun never sets’ status.

      I’m not sure that in modern Britain many people even think about that much. The trouble is, it’s who we are now, and it’s hard to imagine how Britain would be if that part of our history was to be wiped out. Would English still be language that most of the world speaks at least to some extent? What effect would have been had on the US today if the English / British had not made up a considerable proportion of the pioneers who invaded that country? What about Australia’s population, thanks to our rather dubious decision to send so many of our convicts there (many of whom were convicted of minor misdemeanours borne out of necessity due to poverty)?

      Colonialism was one aspect of British history that was mixed up in a whole bunch of other stuff: good and bad. British inventors were at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution, with the development of engines, factories, canals, railways, etc, despite the downside of the resultant pollution. Of course all that would have happened anyway, as other countries were fast on our heels in these developments. Working conditions for the poor were horrendous, particularly in the developing factories, the mines and on the farms for example, while the slave trade was an abhorrence that only a few recognised as such.

      It’s a hard question – should Britain have been less colonial? On the one hand the last 50 years have seen us recognise that our colonial history, and the mis-treatment of whole peoples, is not something we should be particularly proud of. On the other hand, it was a negative part of a wider story that had much to be proud of: our inventiveness and a willingness to push boundaries into new developments and new ways of thinking and doing things.

      Without colonialism we probably wouldn’t be anywhere near as multi-cultural a society as we are. Would that be good or bad? I don’t know. But it would also means those communities would not be marked out by disadvantage the way they are in our country, which would presumably be good. What I find ironic is the racial prejudice that has existed between Afro-Caribbean and Asian communities in our country.

      It’s an interesting question. Thank you for asking.

      As an aside – I have just found out that according to our 2011 census 1% of our population has Polish as their first language. Higher than I would have expected. 80.5% of the population describe themselves as White British, while 14% are considered part of the ‘ethnic population’ (whatever that actually means).

  5. Thanks for your comments too.

    Yes, in everything there is generally good and bad. European colonialism exploited Africa and created countries that don’t always follow tribal boundaries, and so create tensions. But they also introduced modern medicine, agriculture and education.

    In Australia, we don’t seem to have quite the racial tensions it seems you may have in some parts of UK, possibly because our economy may be doing a bit better. So mostly immigration has been a benefit, bringing greater diversity of culture and food for example. But we have seen some problems with Middle Eastern and Asian crime gangs.

    Interesting, 27% of Aussies were born overseas (5% UK, 3% from NZ and South Africa, 19% from elsewhere), another 20% have at least one parent born overseas (again, about 4% UK and another few percent from other English speaking countries). So we probably have a larger overseas born population (by percentage) than the UK does.

    Best wishes.

    • True. Although the economy situation is very important I think another key factor in the UK is simply overcrowding. Once outside of towns it’s better but there’s little space between the smaller towns and villages.

  6. Yes, I think you are right. Our cities are very spread out, which from an environmental point of view is bad because it makes public transport inefficient and increases fuel usage and all forms of transport pollution (I used to do environmental planning and policy). But from a social viewpoint, it may be better for the reasons you give.

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