Let’s Talk About Whiteness

A long while ago, a friend asked me how being white impacted me living as a man. I had no ready answer, despite years of reading and studying feminist texts. These texts and my gender transition from female to male, said gender was my primary source of dysphoria, oppression and privilege. It was as if these texts gave me a map, which contained one and only one path to understanding. But even Buddha says the path to enlightenment is an eight-fold one.

When I began to explore my friend’s question, I found my understanding of myself as white a slippery one. One minute I saw my race privilege, other minutes that same understanding evaporated. The more obvious instances of my racial privilege I could, and can still, grasp.

The chances of me being pulled over for driving while white? None. The chances of me being paid less because I am a white man? None.

But the more long-standing forces – laws enacted in the Jamestown Colony, for example, that attempted to legalize what we now know as racial distinctions – that seemingly only whisper a kind of indirect privilege today, drive my work.

When I talk about whiteness, I’m talking about layers of truths, reflections and echoes. (photo copyright Jay Sennett)

Part of this work means studying history. Part of the work means finding new metaphors. The term white privilege is one I’ve used often. Not everyone agrees on its definition. And not every white person believes they have it.

National Book Circle Critic’s Award winner Eula Biss uses the phrase opportunity hoarding to describe how white people – particularly middle- and upper-middle-class white people – achieve better schooling, housing and job opportunities. I believe I have own a debtor’s note as a white person in the U.S. Having said that, I must acknowledge I feel this way more than I know it.

My feelings derive from a well of empathy towards African-Americans. My feelings also derive from a personal belief that all the constitutional, judicial, congressional, and presidential actions to systematically create a class of people we see as less human than we are, echo through me today. My debtor’s note also contains a special line owed to poor white people. Nancy Isenberg’s work in White Trash argues for the absolute vital role poor whites have played in rich white’s actions and beliefs. The result of these actions and believes – yet another kind of opportunity hoarding – have also benefited me as a member of the upper-middle-classes.

Admiration alone cannot help us to repay our debt to African-Americans. (photo copyright by Jay Sennett)

Biss provides an excellent example of how white hoard opportunities at the expense of blacks in an interview with Krista Tippet, host of “On Being.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates has written really beautifully about this, especially in his piece, “The Case For Reparations.” He very elegantly lays out a history of legalized housing discrimination. And to some of his examples, his particulars come from Chicago. And when you look at that history, you can see a highly-intentional and entirely legal history of white people hoarding both real estate and financial resources like mortgages at the expense of other people.

Miss doesn’t stop with practices now outlawed in the United States. More recent practices of predatory lending have also created opportunity hoarding for whites at the expense of African-Americans, and, I will also had, countless poor and working-class white people.

And even in the case of predatory lending, there’s people making money at the expense of African-American families who lose their houses because of the unfair loans that they’ve been given, the poor terms of lending. So buying a house was another moment where I felt that I was kind of forced to reflect on how I was benefiting personally from a long history of racist policies in my country.

The histories and legacies of medical experimentation on live, human subjects in the U.S. obsesses my work today. Right now that work expresses itself in a novel and the work here. Unless otherwise noted, all photographs on here are mine.