Today was supposed to be my day for writing. On Thursdays, I sit down to add pages to a book that I have been apprehensively working on all summer. I started writing a memoir about White identity and my lifetime of experiences with race. Many of my life lessons were learned in Black and Latinx communities. It is better to sit with things before you speak them out, so I have been doing a lot of sitting and much less typing than I would like.
Identity brings up all kinds of deep emotions for most people no matter what facet of it is being explored. I often think this is a core cause of what has now come to be known as ‘White fragility.’ Emotional work is often pain-producing. Seventy-three percent of America has White skin. History books are written from our lens, we are the stars of most movies and media, policing is designed for us…the list could go on. We are not provoked to confront our interface with the rest of the world when everything centers around our norms. Conversations about racism invite the distressing challenge to consider how White identity intersects with others.
Then I received an email this afternoon about Jessica Krug’s Medium apology. I am not going to link to it because she profits off of views. If you are not familiar with who she is, I was not before today either. If you have not yet seen the media around it, she is a White woman who claimed she was Black and built an academic career around Blackness. She apologized because she was at risk of being outed by students.
Instead of writing today, I had to sit to process the amount of privilege it takes to co-opt and claim a marginalized identity that one does not own. Jessica claims mental health issues were the root cause of her choice to lie about who she was. Academically, she is a historian in African politics and culture. She also created an activist identity for herself. She knows the history of racial injustice. She understands the privilege it takes to do what she did in a way most White people still do not grasp.
And yet, I could relate. Perhaps I can relate more to Jessica Krug than I would care to admit. Because one of her sentences struck a chord. She said:
“No white person, no non-Black person, has the right to claim proximity to or belonging in a Black community by virtue of abuse, trauma, non-acceptance, and non-belonging in a white community.”
Around twenty years ago, I spent the majority of my time in predominately Black communities. How I got there is a story for another time. But I also live with a lifelong rare and invisible illness. I move fluently and easily in White culture, but never quite felt like I fit anywhere. When I found myself involved in Black life, I was drawn to it. There are many legitimate reasons for that to be true. Black people and Black culture are amazing. We reflect our social circles, and I too tried to fit in with what I saw as Black cultural norms of dress, speech and hairstyle.
I do not think my morals would have allowed me to lie about my racial identity if my appearance had given me that choice. But if someone would have mistaken me for Black then, I may have let them believe it once. Once can become twice, then five times, then ten times, and then a lifetime. Mental illness aside, it is not hard for me to imagine how Jessica got to where she is today. We do become our lies. Whiteness has its own lies about what it actually is to the world around us.
Just as America is predominately White, statistics say that the majority of White Americans do not have friendships with people of color. So I imagine that if my experiences are outside of your context they might be easily dismissed. Fifteen years later, I began to review my own unexamined identity around my rare disease and how my illness affected the way I walked through the world. That awareness brought tremendous freedom. Unsurprisingly, it was a Black woman who helped me navigate this. I also saw how some of my own feelings of non-acceptance in White communities due to my accessibility needs caused me to identify more strongly with Black communities than my own at times. True, twenty years ago I was at the age when everyone explores who they are. But we do that because identity matters. We are not as free as we think we are if we do not understand Whiteness.
Whiteness can and does cause harm. Individualism and White culture go hand in hand. When the system works on our behalf, lack of success is personal failing. This is literally a selling point written into the marketing collateral of coaching programs, online courses and advertising. And yet, we do not live in a world where we are able to escape failure and pain. Still, the consequences of our personal emotions of pain have to go somewhere. The insinuated American narrative that we live in a country of boundless and endless success is dangerous and also currently crumbling rapidly. Collectively, White America has not had to navigate a climate like the one we are living in and we do not know what to do with that kind of trauma. The consequences will come out somehow. Anger and pain held in too long either explodes or implodes.
Unlike me, most of us will not even consider claiming an identity based on Blackness as a result of our trauma. So far, we have collectively dumped our trauma on the shoulders of marginalized communities who have born the weight of it for far too long. Even when Whiteness claims good intentions toward other races, our culture is the victor. Economic disparity is a reality everywhere in the world, but in America inequities are racialized. If you do not believe White people have an effect, observe an ethnic neighborhood five years after White people decided it was a good place to live. Gentrification benefits one side of the equation. It is likely that I have not convinced many who do not already agree with me. Identity is uncomfortable and there is no way around that.
Privilege is abundant in White America, but it is not a privilege to be unaware of how your racial identity causes you to show up in the world.