By Todd Nelson
It’s taken me my whole life (well, not yet) to realize that I am white. That is, that I am of a particular race. Getting beyond the philosophical or theoretical, it’s the granularity of experience that has given me understanding. Somehow, I’ve been “passing” all these years. I simply thought I was a “non-racial” person, despite the predominance of Northern European blood in my ancestry (I’ve done the DNA). But I’m thinking about something beyond the molecular level, and beyond my attitude toward civil rights and equality.
Granularity is not the same as the administrative understanding I’ve always known, like which box to check on official forms: Caucasian. That was easy and obvious. But that’s not the level on which I experience my whiteness — the level on which other people experience my whiteness.
Growing up, no one in my family talked about our race. We were just unprejudiced people. But not thinking about our race doesn’t mean that it has not been a factor in the arc of our American experience — as immigrants, as foreigners, as people speaking a foreign language, as people working our way into the economy, settling Western states, carving farms out of North American forests … other peoples’ land. We were “leavers,” evidently — willing to travel and voyage for betterment. Of our own volition. Because we could.
Discrimination has nonetheless been a factor in our lives for generations now. Due to our race, we have enjoyed benefits that must not go unacknowledged. The evidence had been there all along, but I took it for granted, without the awareness of having done so. I had privilege, without understanding it as such.
Other races bore the brunt of the accommodation I enjoyed. With very few exceptions in my life I’ve always walked down the street without feeling jostled by glances, words, or physical intimidation. And I certainly never felt that I was the intimidator, the person affecting public space. Women do not cross the street as they approach me on the sidewalk. I am rarely in a part of town where everyone else does not look like me. I do not elicit suspicion or fear (that I know of).
And then there’s this: my father never sat me down for “the talk” about being careful in social interactions due to the color of my skin. When I enter white space, it’s not called white space. It’s just space. I have never been challenged about belonging in a particular place. I belong wherever I want to be, apparently.
I need not keep my hands on the steering wheel in plain sight, move slowly toward the glove box for my registration, or talk with purposeful politeness when questioned by law enforcement. I’m not stopped by virtue of being white.
I’ve never been approached with suspicion at a place of business — never been followed through a store; never asked “May I help you?” with a tone that suggests I’m not welcome; never had the police summoned by the false prerogative of a suspicious onlooker (for removing things from my own house, or standing at my front door fumbling with my keys).
No one has ever wondered if I’m able to pay. I do not have to buy a candy bar to use the restroom at a convenience store. Never had a problem sitting and waiting for friends in a restaurant without making a purchase. Restaurant managers do not worry whether I’m truly waiting for a friend. I can use the restroom without purchasing a double tall latte. Growing up, I don’t recall anyone in my family exclaiming, “White people on TV!” as Oprah once shared. Only for her, it was the rare, astounding appearance of her own skin color on TV.
Unlike recent Smith College and Yale University episodes of black students being reported to security because “they looked like they didn’t belong” as they enjoyed a common room — reported for being black in public — I’ve never been the subject of police inquiry due to the color of my skin, unless to be an automatically reliable witness. Such episodes are daily and legion. Witness social media.
Now that I’ve begun to understand certain things I had unwittingly taken for granted, I hope I can be an effective spokesman for my race — now that I acknowledge having a race. For something only skin deep, it certainly profoundly affects almost all interactions. I’d like to be “a credit to my race,” now that I’m a white … man. Man! Now thereby hangs another overdue reckoning. Some people think it’s a tough time to be a man. It’s not. It’s just fraught with unacknowledged privilege. Until it isn’t. See granularity again.
Todd R. Nelson is a former English teacher and school head, and father of two daughters and a son. He lives in Penobscot.