Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Experiencing whiteness

My neighbors to either side are African American. Those across the street are white. I sense in myself both an interest and an obligation to greet my black neighbors but only an interest in greeting my whites ones. Somehow with whites I feel less compulsion to prove my interest.

I know everyone’s name, but I admit I feel closer to the whites, less of a boundary between us. I'm not sure yet from which side such a boundary is imposed, and the boundary I sense is not harsh or exclusive. More of an inhibition. It arises from a perception of difference that does not seem as pronounced with my white neighbors. There are other differences, of course, owing to class more than anything, but I experience these as less salient.

It is interesting, given what I’ve just said, that the only immediate neighbor who has visited our house for a meal is African American, and this because she shares more of our interests than the rest. And she has only been over once in nine years.

When I walk down my street I sense the gaze of African American youth while I don’t even notice white youth – it’s a transitional neighborhood, once largely black with a few older whites like me and several houses with groups of white youth under thirty.

Sensing the gaze of black youth suggests, because I notice, that they are also in my gaze. The whites may have me in their gaze, but I don’t know as they are not as fixedly in my mine (and I doubt that I am in theirs for the same reason they are not very much in mine).

Of course I notice all these people. I see them as individuals on the street. I am thinking here of who rises to the level of potential engagement – where I feel some desire or need to greet, nod, wave, smile, make eye contact.

This is where some of my internalized racism kicks in, albeit in a sort of progressive way. I am more likely to greet a black stranger than a white one, for I want to communicate my friendliness, my not being like some whites I can think of. And this, I think, is a racist gesture (though one that is easier on the soul than others).

So far I have been describing my neighborhood. The experience changes in other parts of town, and varies depending on how I am dressed and my purposes.

When I visit public housing projects, I am aware of my whiteness in an embarrassing way, wishing I were not so obviously white. I feel an urge to connect and also a sort of geeky awkwardness like I couldn’t possibly.

Of course, the feeling changes if I know people, and then I often feel an exaggerated sense of belonging. This speaks to a desire to connect, belong, and the importance here of reciprocal cues from others.

When I walk or drive into Hillcrest, unless I see someone I know, people, particularly black males, look at me, it seems, with suspicion and curiosity. They are not waving at me but staring. If I nod, they nod back, but they track my passing, and I sense in myself a degree of anxiety – not fear, just wondering if I am confronted how I will react, whether with grace or awkwardness.

On the other hand, when I walk downtown and into the Chamber of Commerce building or a bank or a bookstore, I am untroubled by any sense of feeling out of place. I may feel awkward with or invited by particular individuals. But as an individual entering the company of others I do not know I feel nonetheless at home.

Perhaps this is one of the lower rungs of privilege – the sense of affordance among strangers that I enjoy as a white male entering places that in our community are associated with privileged people.

In a backward way, white privilege is tied with the initial sense of uncertainty and apprehension I feel among strangers who are not white. I can only suppose this weird combination of feelings owes itself to the anger-suspicion-ambivalence I anticipate from people of color, particularly poor people of color.

Whence comes that? I suppose it is a form of guilt - my guilt - an awareness of my privilege in relation to them, a sense that there-but-for-fortune-go-I, that I too might feel angry at me, if the situation were reversed.

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