In the early days of the run-up to the 2016 election, I was just beginning to prepare a class on whiteness to teach at Yale University, where I had been newly hired. Over the years, I had come to realize that I often did not share historical knowledge with the persons to whom I was speaking. “What’s redlining?” someone would ask. “George Washington freed his slaves?” someone else would inquire. But as I listened to Donald Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric during the campaign that spring, the class took on a new dimension. Would my students understand the long history that informed a comment like one Trump made when he announced his presidential candidacy? “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best,” he said. “They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” When I heard those words, I wanted my students to track immigration laws in the United States. Would they connect the treatment of the undocumented with the treatment of Irish, Italian and Asian people over the centuries?
In preparation, I needed to slowly unpack and understand how whiteness was created. How did the Naturalization Act of 1790, which restricted citizenship to “any alien, being a free white person,” develop over the years into our various immigration acts? What has it taken to cleave citizenship from “free white person”? What was the trajectory of the Ku Klux Klan after its formation at the end of the Civil War, and what was its relationship to the Black Codes, those laws subsequently passed in Southern states to restrict black people’s freedoms? Did the United States government bomb the black community in Tulsa, Okla., in 1921? How did Italians, Irish and Slavic peoples become white? Why do people believe abolitionists could not be racist?
I wanted my students to gain an awareness of a growing body of work by sociologists, theorists, historians and literary scholars in a field known as “whiteness studies,” the cornerstones of which include Toni Morrison’s “Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination,” David Roediger’s “The Wages of Whiteness,” Matthew Frye Jacobson’s “Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race,” Richard Dyer’s “White” and more recently Nell Irvin Painter’s “The History of White People.” Roediger, a historian, had explained the development of the field, one that my class would engage with, saying, “The 1980s and early ’90s saw the publication of major works on white identity’s intricacies and costs by James Baldwin and Toni Morrison, alongside new works by white writers and activists asking similar questions historically. Given the seeming novelty of such white writing and the urgency of understanding white support for Ronald Reagan, ‘critical whiteness studies’ gained media attention and a small foothold in universities.” This area of study aimed to make visible a history of whiteness that through its association with “normalcy” and “universality” masked its omnipresent institutional power.
My class eventually became Constructions of Whiteness, and over the two years that I have taught it, many of my students (who have included just about every race, gender identity and sexual orientation) interviewed white people on campus or in their families about their understanding of American history and how it relates to whiteness. Some students simply wanted to know how others around them would define their own whiteness. Others were troubled by their own family members’ racism and wanted to understand how and why certain prejudices formed. Still others wanted to show the impact of white expectations on their lives.
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Perhaps this is why one day in New Haven, staring into the semicircle of oak trees in my backyard, I wondered what it would mean to ask random white men how they understood their privilege. I imagined myself — a middle-aged black woman — walking up to strangers and doing so. Would they react as the police captain in Plainfield, Ind., did when his female colleague told him during a diversity-training session that he benefited from “white male privilege”? He became angry and accused her of using a racialized slur against him. (She was placed on paid administrative leave, and a reprimand was placed permanently in her file.) Would I, too, be accused? Would I hear myself asking about white male privilege and then watch white man after white man walk away as if I were mute? Would they think I worked for Trevor Noah or Stephen Colbert and just forgot my camera crew? The running comment in our current political climate is that we all need to converse with people we don’t normally speak to, and though my husband is white, I found myself falling into easy banter with all kinds of strangers except white men. They rarely sought me out to shoot the breeze, and I did not seek them out. Maybe it was time to engage, even if my fantasies of these encounters seemed outlandish. I wanted to try.
Weeks later, it occurred to me that I tend to be surrounded by white men I don’t know when I’m traveling, caught in places that are essentially nowhere: in between, en route, up in the air. As I crisscrossed the United States, Europe and Africa giving talks about my work, I found myself considering these white men who passed hours with me in airport lounges, at gates, on planes. They seemed to me to make up the largest percentage of business travelers in the liminal spaces where we waited. That I was among them in airport lounges and in first-class cabins spoke in part to my own relative economic privilege, but the price of my ticket, of course, does not translate into social capital. I was always aware that my value in our culture’s eyes is determined by my skin color first and foremost. Maybe these other male travelers could answer my questions about white privilege. I felt certain that as a black woman, there had to be something I didn’t understand.
Just recently, a friend who didn’t get a job he applied for told me that as a white male, he was absorbing the problems of the world. He meant he was being punished for the sins of his forefathers. He wanted me to know he understood it was his burden to bear. I wanted to tell him that he needed to take a long view of the history of the workplace, given the imbalances that generations of hiring practices before him had created. But would that really make my friend feel any better? Did he understand that today, 65 percent of elected officials are white men, though they make up only 31 percent of the American population? White men have held almost all the power in this country for 400 years.
I knew that my friend was trying to communicate his struggle to find a way to understand the complicated American structure that holds us both. I wanted to ask him if his expectation was a sign of his privilege but decided, given the loss of his job opportunity, that my role as a friend probably demanded other responses.
After a series of casual conversations with my white male travelers, would I come to understand white privilege any differently? They couldn’t know what it’s like to be me, though who I am is in part a response to who they are, and I didn’t really believe I understood them, even as they determined so much of what was possible in my life and in the lives of others. But because I have only lived as me, a person who regularly has to negotiate conscious and unconscious dismissal, erasure, disrespect and abuse, I fell into this wondering silently. Always, I hesitated.
I hesitated when I stood in line for a flight across the country, and a white man stepped in front of me. He was with another white man. “Excuse me,” I said. “I am in this line.” He stepped behind me but not before saying to his flight mate, “You never know who they’re letting into first class these days.”
Was his statement a defensive move meant to cover his rudeness and embarrassment, or were we sharing a joke? Perhaps he, too, had heard the recent anecdote in which a black woman recalled a white woman’s stepping in front of her at her gate. When the black woman told her she was in line, the white woman responded that it was the line for first class. Was the man’s comment a sly reference? But he wasn’t laughing, not even a little, not even a smile. Deadpan.
Later, when I discussed this moment with my therapist, she told me that she thought the man’s statement was in response to his flight mate, not me. I didn’t matter to him, she said; that’s why he could step in front of me in the first place. His embarrassment, if it was embarrassment, had everything to do with how he was seen by the person who did matter: his white male companion. I was allowing myself to have too much presence in his imagination, she said. Should this be a comfort? Was my total invisibility preferable to a targeted insult?