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Friday, June 30, 2017

Acknowledging Whiteness, part 1

When I was in 2nd grade, our music teacher asked everyone in class what our ethnic origin was. I said that I was native American. She said that I was wrong and that I should talk with my parents. She didn’t engage in the difference between native with a lower-case “n” and Native with an uppercase “N.” So, being the overly literal and pedantic person that I was even at eight years old, I did ask my parents – convinced that they would say that I was correct. Alas, no. Instead they told me that I was German.

Over the next few years, I learned that I was not pure German – I was also part Luxembourgian; this was a great disappointment to one grandmother, who liked to brag about the purity of her family’s German lineage. I also found out that I was part Jewish on the paternal line (hence the last name Schomberg). Not religiously Jewish, but in terms of ethnic ancestry. This mostly meant that the more intolerant side of my family doesn’t support anti-Semitism and considers our Jewish ancestry a sign that we’re part of God’s Chosen People. (Don’t ask me to explain this; I can’t. Yes, they’re Trump voters.)

I can’t tell you when I first heard the concept of Whiteness, but I do know that I was resistant to being labeled White for many years. I went through the stereotypical counterclaims: I’m not White, I’m German; I’m not White, I’m part Jewish; I’m not White, I’m Catholic. Never mind that ethnic Germans haven’t been considered a race since the 19th century; my Jewishness is two generations removed; and European Catholics have been considered White at least since JFK was elected.

Being introduced to the concept of race via ethnicity did me no service in terms of actually understanding 20th century politics and culture. However, reading about Germany to try to understand my heritage made me aware that being German-American is not the same as being German-in-Germany. So, during my formative years when I was creating mental models of in- vs. out-groups, in many ways my models were based on my cultural heritage more than race. That’s not great for challenging Whiteness, but it was helpful for me to have a meaningful touchstone to return to other than Whiteness.

(Side note: my parents’ wedding was the last time my father’s German-American community held a shivaree! I was part of the last generation to still have traces of pre-assimilation culture.)

Another challenge to my accepting my Whiteness was white supremacy. The only White people I ever saw call themselves White were overt racists. Whiteness was a rallying cry for violently oppressing non-White people, and I was not down with that. Even though I was ready to accept that I was a person of European ancestry and therefore white in a certain sense, I still thought acknowledging race was racist.

I came of age when cultural icons including En Vogue promoted being “color blind.” I still love their music, but I’m glad the zeitgeist has moved beyond that.


Over the years, I had moments that poked holes in my self-conception. Like the time I was in a Moroccan restaurant in Greenwich Village with a Korean-American friend and a Puerto Rican-American friend, and the owner came over to our table, thanked me for eating there, and expressed the wish that more White people would be as respectful. It was a little awkward, being thanked for basic decency, but it also made me think about what sort of abuse he’d had to put up with. Or when I lived in Seattle and was the only non-AAPI person in the apartment I shared with three other people. Those were moments where I had to be conscious of my race, because I was in the outsider position. The house rules weren’t designed with me in mind. Other memorable moments include going to college in a very rural part of a very white state, where Black students were recruited from Chicago, New Orleans, Orlando, San Diego, and left to deal with a hostile racial environment without institutional support. Through these interactions, I had to let go of the idea that race didn’t matter and that we should all be “color blind” but I still wasn’t quite able to acknowledge my Whiteness as anything beyond a default state. (<-- note that idea of Whiteness as a default state. That’s important. We’ll come back to that in part 2 of this series.)

So here I am, a white person who was friends with people of color, a white person who thought I wasn’t racist, a white person who was concerned about diversity issues…. But I still couldn’t acknowledge my own race without making excuses.


In spring 2012, I was planning my research sabbatical for the next year. My original goal was to read a bunch of stuff and do original research about cataloging assessment. Spring 2012 was also when Trayvon Martin was murdered. That moment made me grow up. It made me put aside my racial illusions, because I saw what harm they caused in a way that somehow hadn’t hit me before. It was also the moment when I realized that race is fluid. In Florida, George Zimmermann was accepted as White. My eyes, accustomed as they are to Scandinavian, British, and Germanic whiteness, were very confused.

Because I felt so angry and confused, I started reading more about race and racism. Over the course of the next several years, I read novels including The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison and Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. I read non-fiction texts including Good White People by Shannon Sullivan, Wages of Whiteness by David Roediger, An Indigenous People’s History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. (A mostly-complete list can be found here.)

That same anger prompted me to become more involved both in diversity initiatives in my community and in explicitly anti-racist initiatives. I still struggle with fully acknowledging my Whiteness, because I don’t want the oppressive power that gives me but I also don’t want to be That Person. You know that person. The one who can’t acknowledge their privilege? But talks the social justice talk? I’ve been that person, I probably still am that person, but I don’t want to be. I want to un-be that person.

I’m not sure what awaits on the other side of that un-being. But I am determined to find out. Because we can’t take apart Whiteness without first acknowledging it.

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