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HANDOUT 1: Discovering Whiteness

I was born White and have been that way for more than 60 years. The first 18 of those years can best be described as a period of "cultural encapsulation." (J. A. Banks, 1994) Since I had never met a person who wasn't White, I had never experienced the "other"; race for me was a nonrelevant concept. In my youth, I had no conscious awareness of anything that might be called "racial identity." Like water to a fish, or the air we breathe (Tatum, 2003), Whiteness to me was the centerpiece of a constant and undifferentiated milieu, unnoticed in its normalcy.

It wasn't until my senior year in high school that I discovered my Whiteness. A White male friend, who was going out with an African American student from another school, asked if I wanted to join them on a double date with one of her friends, also Black. This was the first time I had ever been invited to dip my toes in the river of racial consciousness. It was the first intrusion into to my white-washed world. I was afraid. I was confused. I was curious.

As for most of my fellow White Americans growing up in suburbia in the 1950s, people of color had existed only on the distant periphery of my social reality. "Amos and Andy," Tonto in "the Lone Ranger," and clips of civil rights activities on the evening news were my only tenuous connections with the other America. And even those limited images were, of course, coming through several layers of White media filtering, with all the inevitable prejudice and racism intact.

This simple invitation to meet a new person, to go on a date with an African American woman, shook loose one of the basic linchpins of my social isolation. It is interesting that my initial response was fear. Fear is the classic White American reaction to any intrusion into our cultural capsule. What will happen to me? Will I be safe? What will other White people think of me? What will "the other" think of me? How do I act? What do I say? Will I survive? I was overwhelmed by an emotional flood of narcissistic and xenophobic trivia.

Reflecting back on this experience, I realize that members of the dominant group in any society do not necessarily have to know anything about those people who are not like them. For our survival and the carrying on of the day-to-day activities of our lives, most White Americans do not have to engage in any meaningful personal connection with people who are different. This privileged isolation is not a luxury available to people who live outside of dominance and must, for their survival, understand the essential social nuances of those in power. The luxury of ignorance reinforces and perpetuates White isolation.

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Last updated on Saturday, December 10, 2011.

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