In case of any confusion: “You” in this text usually means me. But if you’re
white and privileged like me, it also means you.
“Get your white ass out of here!”
I think I could count the number of hours in my life spent on thinking about
the colour of my skin on one hand. I’ve spent quite a lot of time considering
other people’s skin colour though. What it must have been like to be black
in 1930s America. Or any time before that. Or after.
What it means to be Asian in a world where the ideal of beauty is completely
western even in the Asian countries. What it’s like getting through
airport security at Heathrow if your name sounds Arabic.
All the while forgetting what it’s like to be a very white European.
Of course, trying to “imagine” what that’s like is completely superfluous.
It’s my life. But considering what it means…
Being a white European, coming from a long line of equally pale Europeans,
and with a name to match, means applying for a job and worrying about your
resume – not your last name. It means turning on the TV and seeing a
thousand versions of yourself – a lot of them with not just the same eye and
hair colour as you, but also the same accent, religious background, holidays and
traditions… It means privilege.
But most importantly – It means never having to call yourself white.
Until you leave your comfort zone, that is.
Like when you go to New York. When you go to Harlem on a Sunday,
and become a tourist. Stray away from the churches and crowds of Germans and
Italians and become a white tourist. And an incredibly uncomfortable one
at that. Though not too uncomfortable to snap lots and lots of pictures of all the
pretty houses, with all their neat little cracks, and all the interesting people and
all the AUTHENTICITY.
Floating in amateur photographer’s heaven until someone yells
“Get your white ass out of here!”. Until you start noticing the stares.
Noticing yourself holding a camera and not only being a tourist, but a
tourist in exotic lands.
In that situation it’s hard to say what part of you feels the most white
– The one being stared and yelled at because of her skin colour, or the one
unintentionally exotifying the residents of Harlem by going on a photo safari
in their neighbourhood.
Because even though you might argue race only exists when someone uses it to
describe or ascribe (looks, personality traits, whatever) it has been used in
exactly that way for a long time. It has been used by people like you, watching
“them”. Whoever they might be.
And when you go there, were they live and watch them live their lives in their
neighbourhood, it’s very difficult to keep that wall from going up.
Whether it’s you putting it up with the use of a camera and an expression of awe,
or someone else putting it up with a “white ass” or an expression of… well, awe.
Or something like it.
And even though race isn’t definite, in this situation, you are definitely white.
Before my trip to New York, I had never been outside of Europe. I’ve still
never been anywhere outside of Europe apart from the US.
So I wouldn’t say I know the true meaning of being white where
white isn’t the norm. And even if I did, if I had experienced that,
I wouldn’t pretend it’s the same thing as being non-white (whoever you
put in that category…). Like I said, being white means privilege.
For most people considered white anyway. It means being in the slightly
more fun end of the power pyramid.
Ultimately, that’s why thinking about what it’s like being white once in a
while is just as important as trying to imagine what it’s like being put and
living in one of the other categories. Because the advantages you have are
created through someone else’s disadvantage.
Your privilege is their disfranchisement and deprivation.
And the reason you find Harlem exotic is because people from the same category
and part of the pyramid as you pushed the “others” to certain parts of the cities.
Or even the world. The wonderful authenticity of the houses and cracks is
the reality of your skin and background, and its relation to their
skin and background. The wall is already up.
And your privileged, white ass is as white and privileged as ever.