Before I could mumble a word about myself, I was white. This is evident by the information on my birth certificate. I never knew my biological father and I have never met him. He left before I was born. Nonetheless, he was white, my mother was white, and so I was white. I had no say. It was what people told me I was. Simple enough? Well, not really. It’s quite complex.
I grew up the first decade of my life in Detroit, MI attending Detroit Public Schools. I went to Larned Elementary, a predominately black school. During this experience I connected with many of my peers. I learned a lot from them. I adapted to the culture. You could say that on a surface level (language, music, dress, arts, etc...), I identified culturally with many of my black peers. However, I was white and they were black. My ability to fully absorb the culture was limited because I didn’t have the same racial experience as them and this racialized experience informed the culture in many ways. During this experience, I learned that I was white. Why? I was told so. I was perceived as white, nurtured as white, and treated as such in most cases. When we lost our house in Detroit, my mother and I moved in with family who lived in white suburban and rural settings. I attended 4 schools in a matter of a couple of years. In these settings, I was once again reminded that I was white. Why? I acted in a way that white people thought conflicted with what should be white. It was a rough experience. They attempted to turn me into a “good little white boy.” It felt like people perceived me as a white boy who was “tainted by blackness.” Nonetheless, since I was perceived as a “WHITE work in progress,” I received numerous benefits including access to the communities that provided me with the resources I needed to get where I am today.
During this experience though I learned that I could hide behind that perceived whiteness and minimize my “blackness.” I learned how to disappear into the white world and began to talk like them, walk like them, listen to their music, dress like them, present myself as to think like them, etc… After I did this they left me alone. I found that I wasn’t being referred to as a “n*gg*r anymore. They had “civilized” me, “rescuing me” from my blackness. However, I would never be fully accepted into these white communities as my authentic self.
Inside, I felt like my soul was dying. I couldn’t be myself because the world told me that I didn’t even know who I was supposed to be. Even in 2011, 20+ years later, a colleague suggested that I didn’t know who I was supposed to be. Nonetheless, during my teenage years and early 20s, I covered that pain with alcoholism and drug abuse. The impact of white racism/white supremacy had caused me so much pain and confusion that I wanted to disconnect with my surroundings. However, on the flip-side, my whiteness provided me with access to an education and other resources to help lift me out of that despair. When you step back and think about it, being perceived as white provided me the resources needed to save my life.
You see, it’s complex! I wonder what life is like for those who do not realize they have privilege being perceived as white even when they don’t self-identify as such. I wonder what life is like for people who don’t identify as and are not identified as being white. What is their experience like?
Being white is not the sole contributor to my success. It does not encompass my entire being. It is not the only identity that I have. It intersects with many other aspects of who I am and who I am perceived to be. Nonetheless, it is a very powerful aspect of my identity and certainly has played its role in my life, for better or worse. This is inescapable. No matter how I identify, the world will identify me on its own terms and treat me accordingly. We often hide behind our privilege and our marginalization. Once in a while, the world will pop its head around the corner and tell us to get real, reminding us that it is more complex than we’d like to believe.