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).