I had to read an article titled “White” (Dyer, 2000) for my African Cultures Thru Film class last week. I found his perspective extremely interesting, since the topic of whiteness itself is and has been on my mind a great deal lately (and maybe always). Dyer, the author, talks about his understanding of color informed by his primary schooling, where he discovers “white is not anything really, not an identity, not a particularizing quality, because it is everything” (734). This “everything and nothing” around whiteness is the “source of its representational power” (734). I could not help but think of a panel event the Women’s and Gender Studies program hosted back in Fall 2017 on “Challenging White Supremacy,” where Sunny Spillane gave the most riveting description of her understanding of whiteness, an understanding that had evolved over time, and had not always been clear and apparent to her.
Spillane stated, “What I did not understand was that whiteness is not just another racial category; it is the axis around which other races are constructed in hierarchical relations of power and privilege. Race is a social fiction that exists in order to maintain White supremacy. Among the many privileges of whiteness are the privilege to ignore race, and to choose which racial battles to fight, privileges people of color rarely have in any context.”
For the first time in my life, it hit me–no matter what I did, who I engaged, who I refused, what cultural practices I gravitated towards outside of the dominant majority, what color my children or love interests were; none of those erased, or made amends, for the category of whiteness forever a part of me…a category always positioning me in certain ways in society. I have often considered the philosophy of “everything and nothing” as being a paradox true to the human experience, yet I had never considered it in terms of race, specifically regarding whiteness, or that this encompassing was in fact the source of white power.
Earlier in the week, I had a conversation with someone, a Black Muslim, educated in Arabic schools in Europe and the Sudan. We were discussing culture, and how if someone asked me to explain white culture, I couldn’t. He replied, “Because whites have no culture. They stole it all.” I considered this, and easily understood the truth behind that widely held sentiment. Even the so-called progress and economic developments marking the U.S. and Europe as world powerhouses, were born on the backs of people of color. Therefore, its curious to say as “white” people, we have a culture really our own.
I remember being very small and recognizing the disparities between “races”. I remember being so aware of it even in primary school, that I knew I wanted no ties to it, no association with the assumed power and privilege. I would not say there was ever a time I did not want to be who I was, but more so, I wanted the color of my skin not to matter the way white skin matters, the way it is situated above and against all other categories. I deliberately chose to engage mixed race interactions, knowing I did not want white children to further the supremacist society I grew up in. I acknowledge the nuanced responses this comment may receive, but these ideas manifested in the mind of a child who suffered enormous abuses at the hands of white power. I made choices to intentionally push back against the reigning dominance, even when it nearly killed me. I meant to blaze a trail. If I I left nothing but ashes in its wake, then at least I would burn it all down with me along the way.
I dyed my strawberry blonde hair a deep auburn some years ago to move away from the typical “white girl,” blonde hair and blue-eyed stereotype marking white women as superior. I despise being referred to as “white girl” because in fact, I am part Native American (and quite likely a host of other things). The power assumed because of my light skin makes me cringe. I may share in part a certain lineage, but I cannot say I have ever felt one with that part of me, nor ever been proud of what it stood for. I do not deny my light skin has awarded me a world of privilege, even when juxtaposed against the many layers of oppression and trauma I have experienced as a female in a violent patriarchal society, one who nearly always stepped out of bounds in a gendered, sexist, classist and racist world. I have always enjoyed discovering new ways of being in the world that do not ascribe to ideologies of normalcy. I am someone who deliberately muddied the waters and lived more of her life in the company of different cultures and peoples, than within the confines of her own dominant majority white backdrop. I did so in order to (try to) deny white supremacy its power and privilege, in the only ways I knew how.
If at the end of the day I am still associated with certain stereotypes, while admittedly positioned from a privileged occupied space, I accept that. However, I do not ascribe to whiteness in any way that presumes me, or others with white/light skin, superior. I vehemently resist dominant ideologies of white superiority at all costs, because in fact, they have done enough damage in a world riddled with racism rooted in the category of whiteness existing as the “primary axis”.
This is me recognizing my position while simultaneously trying to position myself elsewhere, in a space of multiplicities. This is me challenging us to consider how naming limits, confines and restricts, makes less than and tries to define what is most often undefinable. This is me asking the world to remember in the words of Kierkegaard, “If you name me, you negate me. By giving me a name, a label, you negate all the other things I could possibly be.” This is me asking we stop focusing on the color of skin when making non-generative assumptions that create bigger divides. This is me, beyond my white skin, asking to be seen as the complicated nuanced mixed up embodiment of a woman who has lived across time and space, beyond limits and expectations, within and outside of complex narratives…a woman who is simply more than one aspect of an identity can remotely begin to encompass.