Making Whiteness Visible

by Joe Slavens

Colleagues, both known and unknown, are integral facilitators and nurturers to my growth as an anti-racist, and their writings in particular have had a significant impact on my personal development.  Richard Dyer, for example, in The Matter of Whiteness (2008), writes a short, succinct, yet compelling critique of Western culture’s propensity to consider Whiteness as normative whereas all other races are different, strange, perhaps delightful but not ordinary.

Unfortunately, as a White individual, I have been so inclined to think this way.  I have enjoyed my position of power and privilege as a White male and have not had to think differently about my identity.

How does one go about changing this culture of White normativity?  How can we begin to see White people as particular and perhaps even strange, just as we readily view someone who is Black, Yellow, Brown, or Red?

If we’re going to celebrate diversity and differences within our colleges and universities, can we not also recognize that White people are different too?  White people are not, rather should not be, the norm for what is human.  This power we White people derive for “being ‘just’ human” (p. 10) is inexcusable.  Whites must be raced too.

I confess that I have too easily supported the lie that White is standard and all other is different.  As I process the complexities within me, I identify with the Apostle Paul when he wrote, “Wretched man that I am” (Romans 7:24)!  I see within myself the heart of a racist, because I have enjoyed my privilege, even while it has inadvertently oppressed others.

Now in the process of repentance, I have begun the self-reflective work that is needed to modify my thoughts, inclinations, and lifestyle.  But, how do I also raise the awareness within my immediate culture and with the people surrounding me of this deception that is too often embraced:  “Other people are raced, we [Whites] are just people” (p. 10)?

Can one begin work on dismantling the system of oppression that has privileged Whiteness by first identifying all by their particular race, including White people?  I have often referred to peoples of color’s hues but have been complicit in maintaining Whiteness’s normativity by not also naming Whiteness when I have seen it.

In the past, when I referred to a Black colleague I provided a qualifier, “my Black faculty colleague,” but in referring to a White colleague I simply called her my “faculty colleague” as her Whiteness was assumed.  This assumption, though seemingly innocent to some, polarizes us from each other, creating insiders and outsiders, normal and abnormal.  These assumptions must stop!

So, moving forward, what can I do as a developing anti-racist?  I will attempt to openly and in communication reference Whites as White.  This step is a very small one, I admit.  However, it is a step in the right direction.  As I do so, will you join me in naming Whiteness when you see it, making Whiteness visible and less “normal?”

Dyer, R. (2008). The Matter of Whiteness. In P. Rothenberg (Ed.),White privilege: Essential readings on the other side of racism. New York, NY: Worth Publishers.

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