Identity Immersion Paper (15%)
This paper will allow students to explore how one personal identity characteristic impacts her or his life experiences. A student will select and focus on one identity characteristic for an entire week. She or he should be constantly cognizant of how that identity trait impacts personal decisions, prejudices, stereotypes, and personal past experiences. Students should also consider how that identity characteristic affects other people’s perceptions and attitudes towards her or him. Students can focus on race, gender, ability, or sexual orientation. A different type of identity characteristic than those in the previous sentence might be appropriate with prior instructor permission.
White. It is the identity that always comes first. I usually say that I am a white-heterosexual-man. My journey to clearly identifying as White started in Iowa where I used to state quite emphatically that I was German. Of course I knew I was white, I just did not have my identities clearly defined. (Please note that I will use white or White depending on the sentence for purposes of clarity. The capitalized version is a necessity based on sentence structure while the preferred — lowercase, is a simple gesture in giving up a bit of my paradigm by subverting its written status!) As a 28 year old graduate student/professional student affairs practitioner, I have decided that white will be the identity that I will select as the identity for my identity immersion reflection.
Having read Helms, Wise, Tatum and hooks, my whiteness is something that I am cognizant of on a minute by minute basis. I feel like my social justice radar has been created by my ever present sense of self-awareness. I used to say that I advocated for diversity and that I was an ally for multiculturalism. (I still advocate for diversity and multiculturalism. I just have a better understanding of myself and how that affects my advocacy. It’s all about knowing your privilege and power.) I thought I was aware of myself and my whiteness. I wish I knew when I realized that I was white, but unfortunately, I existed as someone who thought they were only German, Irish, and Cherokee (the fact that my Native American heritage was completely repressed and oppressed was invisible to me) until I was twenty-seven. I do know that the second time that I found out about my whiteness was indeed a life changing event. I read Janet Helms’ White Identity Model and it changed my life forever. Helms’ writings affected me like a slap to the face. I was completely unprepared to deal with white privilege, white guilt, and the question of “what’s good about being a white person?” I have been able to address my privilege, the extreme amount of negativity that comes with the acknowledgment of that privilege, and to move towards a white anti-racist identity.
Why did I not choose my gender or sexual orientation as identities for this reflection? They are indeed part of my trifecta of identities. However, I feel that my gender (I’m a man) and my sexual orientation (heterosexual) have been fairly defined throughout my life. I do identify as a feminist and as an ally. These are important to me as well as the fact that I realize that I receive unearned privileges because I am a heterosexual man. I am well aware that sexism and heterosexism will only cease to exist if folks who have the same identities work towards the eradication of these “isms.” But, the enormity of white privilege as a complete system of unearned advantages overpowers or at least takes priority over my other identities.
A white week
This reflection is a snapshot of my experience as a white person for an entire week.
It is a huge day for me. I am teaching chapter 8, “Diversity and Relationships” to my academic success class. I usually read the success textbook readings that my class reads and then pull useful snippets of information for our class discussion. I read the text and was amazed at the rampant heterosexism and dominant paradigm language. The text, which has provided me with a lot of useful academic success tips, seemed to have been written by two heterosexual white guys hell bent on keeping their privilege. I ended up changing my “Monday formula” to include a complete deconstruction of chapter 8. The week prior, my Ethics of Diversity professor went over Suzanne Pharr’s excellent work on defining the common elements of oppression. Pharr’s philosophical and practical definitions of oppression made for an extremely useful teaching model. I had planned on using it to spark a dialogue with my class. So, the class went like this: first we deconstructed the book, then we talked about the elements of oppression, and then we talked a little about privilege and power. It was an exciting class for me. Here I was, a white guy from Iowa teaching about power and privilege. I was very aware that my students were giving me the “he’s a white guy, he’s heterosexual, he’s not supposed to be teaching this stuff” vibe. It was not easy to try and discuss racism with a class that seemed skeptical of your ability to teach it. The students of color seemed to be engaged while the white students were resistant. The expressions on the faces of my white students were of shock when I stated that racism would only end if white people ended it. I informed the class that diversity was important and that as an anti-racist white person, I was trying to use social justice as the framework for my life. This was definitely the most interesting class I have ever taught.
At 11:00 A.M., I went on the Internet and checked my blog. I wanted to see if there were any new comments from a user known as “Poor Boy.” He and I had been actively dialoguing about white privilege and I wanted to see if he had posted. He had not, so I decided to respond to one of his earlier comments. I had been trying to discover a means to opening his mind about his whiteness. I naively figured that I had been able to strip away my ego and attitude and that he could do the same. I was wrong. The conversation continues…
I headed over to work and began a mid-day micro shift. While sitting at my chair, a couple came in with a question. The front desk folks were helping them with their questions when I overheard a comment that made me raise my head from my desk. “Are you from here,” said the desk worker. The couple immediately said that they lived in town. They were both people of color. I sat quietly wondering at my desk, were they asked if they were from here because they were of color? I have never ever gone anywhere in Corvallis and had someone ask me that question. I really think it’s because I’m white. Whiteness gives me so many unearned advantages. I don’t have to put up with annoying questions. It’s always assumed that I speak English before I even say a word.
“Poor Boy” responds back to my comment. A new reader, “Fournier” joins our threesome. “Fournier,” a white guy who has similar progressive views as yours truly, writes up a comment that is more articulate than anything I have ever written. It is to no avail. White folks are not easily educated, convinced, or cajoled into an awareness of their privilege and power. My blog is causing me tension as I struggle to dialogue with strangers while the brick and mortar reality of graduate school covets my attention.
It is 4:00 P.M and that means it is time for my Multicultural Competency in Student Affairs course. The class has been a struggle. Without a meaningful discussion on power and privilege, the class has gone into comfortable resistance mode. I feel that we need to understand ourselves before we try to tackle a working competency. The class is separated into gender caucuses for the purposes of having a discussion about sexism and how we can work as individuals/institutions to end it. The best part about this exercise was the fact that the women in the class did not have to hear the blatantly sexist comments of some of my colleagues. I guess it is just too crazy to think that men ending sexism and white people ending racism can be accepted or discussed. It was an enlightening moment for me. I realized that as a white man, some people are going to resist what I have to say because they are not used to hearing it from a white man. If it sounds crazy, it might be just crazy enough! My philosophy professor has emphasized to me that there is not a hierarchy of awareness. I would posit that there exists a hierarchy of resistance that must be acknowledged and erased.
It is time for day two of my academic success class. I plan on showing a clip from the Voices Project. This is a ground breaking documentary filmed by the Office of Community and Diversity. It features a segment on diversity and discrimination. Several students, staff, and faculty are asked a series of questions related to racism, power, and privilege. This is the second time that I have used the Voices Project as a teaching tool. I played the clip and then gathered my students for a discussion. Several of my white students shared their views about racism. The students of color were unusually quiet after I played the clip. It is so difficult to create an affirming, safe space while at the same time allowing folks who may have harmful views the space to share and learn. I reflected on my own journey as an undergraduate student who was unaware of my privilege and even my whiteness. It was a quieter class period than Monday. We ended on a teachable moment. One of my white students admitted that he is afraid/intimidated by African American football players who pass by him on the sidewalk. I told him that I respected him for his honesty and his courage. I said that the first step on this journey is self-awareness and that I grew up as a white person in a mostly white community. I said that the important thing would be to try to move beyond two-dimensional relationships that allow for only fear, distrust, and a lack of knowledge. I said that I had met several of the African American football players in my Ethics class. The players had in fact expressed sadness in a previous class that they were often vilified or feared because of their size. A few days later, the white student wrote me an extremely long email about his thoughts on what he had learned. He was journeying. It was an amazing moment for me. I had been able to connect with a white student about our whiteness. It was professional rejuvenation!
Due to an emergency, I had to substitute teach for a friend. She was the victim of institutionalized oppression. I will not get into the actual occurrence, but please note that she was the victim of racism and a few other “isms.” She has support and a few of us are going to involve offices that can stop this from happening again.
I stepped in to teach her class. The class had only a few students in it and once again, I felt like the students were shocked that a white guy was teaching diverse issues to them. I had the opportunity to reflect on the fact that due to my whiteness, I would never have to go through an experience like my friend and that I would always be questioned for trying to subvert the paradigm in which I will be a lifelong member.
It is late, 3:30 P.M. to be precise. My blood sugar is low and I feel sleepy. This means that it is time for my Legal Issues class. We have been discussing free speech and hate crimes and they are both on today’s docket. Thus far, the legal briefs have focused on cases where racism and sexism have been affirmed by free speech laws. I think that most of the white students in my class have absolutely no idea that it HURTS to hear about racist and sexist acts that have been committed and absolved. It HURTS. It hurts the people of color in the room, it hurts the women in the room, and it hurts me. What our epitome-of-fence-riding professor does not seem to comprehend is that by choosing cases in which racism is labeled as entertainment, he is hurting people. Can we have at least one case in which Black face and cross burning is prosecuted as hate? Please!
On Friday I had the opportunity to debrief Tuesday’s gender caucus with a fellow student. She is a white person who has also struggled with her whiteness. We had a nice chat about the scarcity of time and the necessity of learning. We come from different philosophies but agreed that self-awareness is key to understanding what it means to be white.
Later in the day, I encountered a candidate for my graduate program (Friday was the second day of a campus visit and interview process for potential students to the program.). The student was visibly shaken up. Another student and I sat down and the candidate immediately shared that she had a horrific experience. She had been in an interview for an assistantship when one of the interviewers asked her an incredibly incompetent question. Apparently the question implied that normal students equaled white students and what, if anything would the student do for other students. The candidate was near tears. My colleague and I reflected that this was not the first time this had happened. We agreed to complain to the appropriate authorities. The candidate was shaken so much that she said she wanted to drop out of contention for the program. I encouraged her to stay. I said that she was needed. Her competency and commitment was needed. I said that “when” she gets into the program she can file a formal complaint. This conversation occurred between white people: my colleague and I, the candidate, and the racist questioners. It was a frustrating moment that further illustrated to me that most of the folks in the program have a lot of learning and reflecting to do, myself included.
Writing about my whiteness is really easy for me. I believe that I have found my voice and I am screaming. It feels good. It is risky to “come out” as a white anti-racist. The system desperately tries to put me back. I feel it. It pulls and I resist. It makes me a better person. This was one week. This identity is not something that I look at and then forget. I know that forgetting is part of the system. Forgetting disempowers me. It is an act of powerful self-awareness to be able to give up power.