Too often, I engage in a conversation on race and the discussion hones in on the black and white binaries of skin pigmentation. Merriam-Webster defines the term race as “a category of humankind that shares certain distinctive physical traits”, and most commonly the distinctive physical trait is the color of one’s skin. But is that all? Merriam-Webster also offers another definition where race is “a class or kind of people unified by shared interests, habits, or characteristics”. The latter definition is rarely ever applied to conversations on race because when we discuss race, we typically group individuals by blackness or whiteness—all their individualities, shared interests, habits and characteristics fall aside. In this respect, our common interpretation of race is limiting, which isn’t surprising when you consider the reality that race and racism are man-made inventions.
When I think of whiteness, especially the American ideal of whiteness, I envision my younger sister whose pale complexion, freckles and strawberry hair allow her certain privileges that are absent from my life solely because I am a person of color. But if you look at my sister and I on paper, we are genetically made up of the same Portuguese, Native Brazilian, and African blood. Simply because the melanin in our bodies are produced differently, society views us separately.
I’m curious to know what whiteness, or even blackness, would be if you were to consider factors beyond skin pigmentation. Would you look towards History and identify whiteness as superiority over (what they once perceived to be) inferior races? Although white individuals today are not personally responsible for the atrocities that happened in American History, such as slavery, they still benefit from the consequences and systematic constructs still in place. For instance, the extremely large count of imprisoned African Americans is not a result of crime and punishment, but a consequence of a systematic racism. Consider the 13th Amendment of the United States Constitution which announces, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Pay attention to the bold text and understand that this fine print is a loophole that equivocates slavery as a legal method of punishment for criminals.
Slavery is well alive in the United States—a country that claims to be a great “post-race” nation built on freedom and opportunity. In reality, not everyone is free and has access to the wealth of opportunities this country offers simply because their race—their exterior appearance—profiles them as lesser beings. In this case, does whiteness stem from fitting the American standard and having the opportunity to pursue the American Dream free of consequence? Is whiteness a child’s ability to walk down the street with their hood up? Is whiteness Brock Turner’s ability to be labeled a “Stanford Swimmer” instead of a “Rapist” and not have to serve his full sentence? Is whiteness Trump’s ability to publicly voice sexual assaults against women as President of the United States? The list goes on.
The truth is, in all those instances, the ability for white individuals to walk away is rooted in privilege. Although this privilege is garnered in race, what would whiteness be if we constructed the term to constitute more than skin pigmentation? In the article “What Is Whiteness?”, Nell Irvin Painter writes, “The ‘abolition’ of white privilege can be an additional component of identity (not a replacement for it), one that embeds social justice in its meaning. Even more, it unifies people of many races.” In response to Painter, I’m curious to know what eliminating white privilege would look like. What method could we possibly pursue to make a difference that would ultimately benefit white identity? The question is difficult, but the discovering an answer has the potential to correct a number of injustices in our society.
Until the answer is provided, I cannot easily envision a world without white privilege, but that is not to say it isn’t possible. With that being said, I find the more appropriate course of action would be for white individuals to first acknowledge their privilege and then use it for the better. Consider the following video as an example of how white privilege can be utilized for the benefit of others.
As I leave you with this, consider again, what would whiteness be if we could reconstruct its meaning?