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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Whiteness as default

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“I’m an American; I’m not an African-American. I’m an American.”

When Raven-Symoné made the above statement to Oprah Winfrey last October, I thought little of it. Identity is deeply personal, and if a childhood Disney TV star doesn’t relate to the common experiences of black people in this country, or doesn’t identify within the LGBTQIA community despite being in an “amazing, happy relationship” with her same- sex, same-gender partner, then I think she has the right to proclaim her disinterest in living under those labels.

I follow a lot of conservative outlets on Facebook, and the serious problem I noticed, following Raven-Symoné’s comments, was the ensuing flurry of white social conservatives rushing to hold the young actress up as a role model for everyone in minority communities. Statements like, “This girl gets what it means to be an AMERICAN!” or “Why can’t more people have this attitude?” Colorblindness: maybe that’s so Raven, but that’s so not me.

My mother is Japanese and my father is white, and I identify as a white person and also as a person of color. I can speak to my experience in both groups, and my engagement with each of my families has shown me how differently each group tends to perceive and experience race in the United States (with exceptions, of course).

It’s no surprise why so many white Americans would like to unilaterally abandon the idea of race. We white people hardly need to identify within common experiences that define our whiteness, because our own identity has been affirmed by society at large since before we were born. As a white person, I have never once struggled to find positive representations of my race in the media. As a white person, I have never once suffered from the low expectations of teachers, or the racial profiling of a police officer. As a white person, I have never once been forced to leave my language and culture behind at the doorway of an American school.

But as a person of color, I am constantly seen first as an outsider, and secondly as a human. As a person of color, I am constantly shamed for expressions of my heritage (while I’m expected to tolerate the appropriation and caricaturizing of it). As a person of color, I constantly experience stereotype threat: the situational anxiety induced by the fear of confirming a negative stereotype about my race. As a person of color, I frequently find myself worrying whether I’m acting too much like, or not enough like, my race. As a person of color, I frequently find myself in rooms where I am the only person of color, and/or where I am expected to act as a spokesperson for my entire race, or for the entirety of nonwhite Americans. Yikes! As a person of color, I have to actively search for nuanced, complex characters in the media that look like me, and when I find them, they’re almost always sidekicks!

That’s why when I see another person of color, or another mixed-race person, or another queer person, or another person living below the federal poverty level being brutally victimized by oppressive systems that I am all too familiar with, I get angry. I get frustrated and hurt, because I know from experience how that could have been me.

This nation was built on white supremacy, and no amount of multicultural Coca-Cola commercials, or peace prizes for Obama, or seasons of The Wire is going to fix that. So when certain white Americans want everyone to be Raven-Symoné, I say they’re participating in a long-standing tradition of cultural erasure. As a white person, and especially as a non-black person who gets to casually scroll past the daily stories of racist police brutality with the knowledge that it will never affect me, I don’t get to tell black people to just shut up about race. I don’t get to tell people of color to forget about it and move on. People of color are tired of being told by white people how to feel. As a white person, the first instinct I should have when hearing someone speak to a perspective that I will never be able to experience, is to listen.

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