The “White Problem:” An American experience in racism

The “White Problem:” An American experience in racism

The earliest memory I have of noticing my race is when I was very small. I remember sitting at the kitchen table, staring at my thin legs dangling freely above the floor. I looked at them and thought, 

I wish I was white.

What could make a little girl hate the color of her skin? Many of you reading now have experienced this feeling. Feeling like you can’t get “too dark” in the sun, or that sense of unease in a room full of crowded people where none look like you. This question would be asked primarily by those who never had to think about skin color.

To be clear, I am not Black. I’m Italian and Puerto Rican, yet I was raised, and told, that my ethnicity is 100% Italian. As an adult, I understand why.

The interactions with those in my community were crucial to my development, my self worth, and unconsciously dictated the opportunities for advancement in American society.

I am light enough to pass for full European descent. This passing privilege allowed me to hear the explicit secrecy of what my peers and society said about Puerto Ricans and Black people. But I was Italian, so no harm, no foul, right?

I grew up on the Jersey Shore in the 80s and 90s. The demographic then was primarily white, or those who now identified as such. They were Italian and Irish Americans whose ancestors assimilated to white culture generations before.

Barely any of the adults spoke their native language outside of a few words, if that. 

I remember there were three high schools. Everyone knew the reputation for them all. We knew where the nice houses were, and what neighborhoods were “bad.” We didn’t know how they became that way, but we knew enough to stay away.

My hometown was structured much differently than California, where I live now. One noticeable difference is that people are more greatly divided by distance depending on their socioeconomic status, and more times than not, that meant racial and ethnic differences. Those of us that had darker complexions on the better side of town were assimilated to white culture. 

This was my first unconscious observation of systemic racism. Back then, it was simply a different experience. A separate socioeconomic class was just minutes down the road in my hometown, but always in a separate school district.

I’m sure some things have changed since the days of my youth, but the town is still divided. As is the rest of America.

We learn what is “normal” or “acceptable” from the information around us. This process is called socialization. Our beliefs about the world are shaped by who our family is, what we see and hear in our neighborhoods and communities, what we learn in school, what we watch on TV and see in movies, the music we listen to. These are all factors in shaping our culture, and in turn, identities.

A perfect example of what I viewed as “normal” or “acceptable” as a child of the 80s is this old commercial for Seaside Heights, NJ that a friend posted on Facebook. Through her now-adult eyes, it’s nostalgic and filled with happy memories of the Jersey Shore. Through mine, I only saw what was missing— Black and brown representation in a dominant white culture. It’s no secret integration into mainstream society was lacking in the 80s. It is a huge secret that Black and brown integration is still severely lacking in America.

You may be thinking, But we’ve come a long way! I see all races on TV now. There’s a lot of rich Black and brown people! And I agree with you.

We have come some ways, but we haven’t gone as far as some might think.

When you consider that an average of 90% of the people who control the information we receive are white, it’s not surprising that the world didn’t see a Black Disney princess until the year 2009 when The Princess and the Frog hit the box office. Along with Hollywood, white people dominate:

  • Teaching jobs
  • College professors
  • Film directors with top-grossing productions
  • What music is produced
  • What news is covered
  • Which TV shows are aired
  • The US presidential cabinet
  • Military advisor positions
  • The majority of US governors
  • US Congress
  • US President and VP

This means that every major sector of American culture is shown from white perspective. To see this from your own point of view, think of the following:

How many teachers of color did you have growing up compared to white teachers?

How many college professors?

How does the news you watch typically portray Black and brown people?

How do TV shows portray them?

Are the two similar or different?

We understand who we are and our place in society through the process of social conditioning. You’ve heard the metaphor, a baby’s brain is a sponge. It’s true. We’ve been soaking up information from the time we could see, hear, taste, and touch. What “it” is depends on who you were born to, in what country, and of what culture. And in America, the dominant culture is white culture.

Here and now over the world, thousands of people have flooded the streets protesting the murder of another unarmed Black man in America, George Floyd. And like a song stuck on repeat, the same responses come out of both sides. Protesters demand justice; while others blame the victim. Regardless of our feelings, the fact is that Floyd is one of countless Black men and women that have lost their lives unnecessarily due to excessive police force.

It’s an age-old tale. In fact, the original police force were called the Slave Patrols because the whole point was to capture runaway slaves. Back then, a cop could murder an unarmed Black person too. As you’ll see in the upcoming blogs, there are still many ties in 2020 dating back to a time that many claim is so far gone that it should be irrelevant.

But to know where you’re going, you have to know where you’ve been. Or in this case, where you’re stuck.

Sociologist Robin Diangelo assigns this widespread lack of knowledge about racism to the fact that “nothing in mainstream US culture gives us the information we need to have the nuanced understanding of arguably the most complex and enduring social dynamic of the last several hundred years.” It’s no wonder half of our country thinks racism is over.

Our system pretends that education is fair, that the justice system is fair, that health care is fair. Our media portrays different races and ethnicities like we are all equal when statistics prove time and again that we are not. We continue to live in a dominant white culture. 

It’s a privilege to believe that hard work is all you need to succeed when the system isn’t working against you.

In the upcoming posts I will attempt to break down the various complexities of racism into digestible sizes. As you will see, the stink of systemic racism is a root bound deep in US soil that that has kept our country divided since the dawn of America.

Although most of us who are not Black work hard for what we have, we walk around daily with the privilege of falling somewhere in the middle of the racial hierarchy. A hierarchy that you will find has woven a dominant white culture into the fabric of our society so subtly, it’s convinced many people over centuries that the victims are the problem.

Comments like, “if they would only work harder there’d be a different result” are only good for those who aren’t at the bottom of a system that was built to keep them there.

All the Black and brown kids throughout history who thought, I wish I was white. Even the Uncle Toms in the back can hear it: I wish I was white. I’ll remember for the rest of my life, but I don’t wish I was anything other than I am anymore, especially after watching girls turn themselves orange for some color. Our individual experiences with privilege and disadvantages will vary. A privilege for me has been my ambiguous ethnicity. 

I left my hometown a long time ago and became a chameleon among the masses. Yet I couldn’t help but wonder how much worse my experience would have been if “Puerto Rican”–or godforbid, the PC phrase “African American”– was checked on the demographic box of my hometown school?