When Did You Realize You’re White?

by Catherine Whittaker

with contributions from Christiane Brenner, Eveline Dürr, Hannah Michel and Brendan Röder

Black Lives Matter protests in San Diego, California, 8/8/2020. Photo: Catherine Whittaker.

When was the first time you became aware of your Whiteness?

In light of the recent Black Lives Matter protests around the globe, the conversation about racial privilege and the need to become “woke” has gained new urgency. To what extent are we aware of our Whiteness and how does that shape our actions?

At the interdisciplinary “Subjectivation Working Group” of the conspicuously White Collaborative Research Center “Cultures of Vigilance” at the LMU Munich, my colleagues and I routinely reflect on why people become vigilant and in what ways that vigilance comes to shape who they are. Vigilance often involves self-observation, such as when Christian individuals seek to avoid falling into sin, or when Black Americans anticipate how they will be perceived by White Americans.

This led us to some self-reflection of our own. How vigilant are we ourselves with respect to our “White privilege”?  What is it and how do people become aware of theirs?

The concept was originally introduced by the feminist theorist Peggy McIntosh in 1989 and refers to the “systems conferring dominance” to White people that often remain invisible to them. Worded differently, White people have societal, structural advantages compared to non-White people, which can be very subtle. In the US context, where the concept was developed, White people often live in majority-White neighborhoods that are safe and comfortable for them and they are well-represented in the media and in politics. In popular discourse, people also invoke White privilege to explain why White people are more likely to succeed, when White and non-White people are competing for the same thing under the same conditions: they are starting from a more advantageous position and are less likely to be held back.

Alpha Stock Images Original Author: Nick Youngson. Original Image.

Hidden Privilege

Over 40 years later, White privilege remains a key concept in the anti-racist toolkit, and continues to provoke interesting debates—perhaps especially when applied outside the US context. Not everywhere is structural racism glaringly obvious. Looking at contexts where racial tensions are often left unspoken helps to shine a light on the more insidious manifestations of White privilege. My working group colleague, the Historian Brendan Röder, shows this in the context of the German border:

“When thinking about privilege, I first had to remember how in September 2015, I was not checked when crossing the border between Germany and Austria by train. This was entirely normal within Schengen before, with the police carrying out no checks or only some based on racial profiling. But with the increase in migrant numbers, the trains were full of migrants, who were being sent to Germany by Austrian authorities. At the border, controls were introduced. Indeed, the police checked everybody, even if only to give the appearance of fairness. I had asked the police officers what was the point of making all the people around me leave because they lacked proper documentation. The officers responded that this was none of my business. However, they did not want to see my ID after this, my question had apparently indicated my privilege sufficiently.”

Röder’s experience is a classic example of the ways in which White privilege is often only thinly veiled – making claims that it isn’t there tenuous.1 Supposedly treating everyone equally can be a way of masking racist practices.

White Spaces

The spatial dimension of White privilege, access rights and notions of belonging became obvious when Social Anthropologist Eveline Dürr accidentally passed the checkpoint of a gated community in Mazatlán, Mexico, July 2009:

“I was walking by the entrance of a gated community and looked at the brown-skinned, uniformed security guard. He responded to me by nodding and – to my surprise, opening the automatic mechanical barrier. He obviously assumed that I had the intention and the right to enter this controlled space and maybe somehow he assumed that I belonged there. The guard smiled at me and mumbled in a polite and friendly way, “Good afternoon, Señora, how are you? Do come in.” “Many thanks, very kind,” I replied a bit perplexed, but took the opportunity to pass and explore the compound. I asked myself if he confused me with somebody else because White gringas look all quite similar to him. Or maybe he had been notified that someone from the compound expected a visitor and thought that was me?

When I passed the threshold, making my way through the saliently White and fancy complex, I decided to put on my sunglasses to feel less recognizable and more incognito. Even though I probably looked like I belonged because of my appearance, I knew that I did not, which made me feel uncomfortable and doubtful. When I met other people while walking, I asked myself if they might recognize that I am not one of their community members, and that I am actually intruding into their space without any permission. I tried to look confident, adjusted my pace of walking as if I would know where to go and had the right to do so – but the only access right I could think of was my skin color.”

This scene brings the ambivalent nature of vigilance into evidence, as its micro-governance works on various levels. Dürr was mistakenly perceived as a person of privileged access based on her physical appearance. Quite literally, barriers were removed for her without her doing anything, not even asking for it. The gated community is a strongly controlled and vigilant space, where certain people belong, live and enjoy the amenities, while others do jobs for them, such as gardeners, chauffeurs and security personal, who are asked to report unusual behavior or bodies. While Whiteness is a marker of belonging in this case, it also becomes obvious that it triggers specific assumptions in less privileged non-White individuals, stereotypically classifying people.

Dürr felt uncomfortable in the compound because she anticipated what other people might think she is. Writing about his experience of being Black in the US in 1903, W.E.B. DuBois wrote about the need to cultivate a double consciousness, “looking at one’s self through the eyes of others”. Intriguingly, there is a similar kind of anticipation involved in this example for Dürr as a White person, an anticipation that shapes socio-spatial relations and racialized suspicions.

Note, however, that for White people, specific moments or spaces of double consciousness, such as the scene described by Dürr, typically involve low stakes. Even if she had been identified as an intruder, she would not have been treated as a threat in the same way as a non-White person might have been in her place. By contrast, for many African Americans, double consciousness is a fixture in their lives and a matter of survival in encounters with law enforcement and other armed White individuals.

Intersecting Identities

It’s also important to recognize the ways in which race intersects with other identity markers, as Intersectionality theorists, such as Kimberlé Crenshaw, Patricia Hill Collins, Sara Ahmed, and many others remind us.2 Medieval Studies scholar Hannah Michel, for example, reflects on the way in which her White privilege intersects with her vulnerability as a feminine young woman:

“I remember talking a lot about privilege and discrimination with a former colleague of mine. He is second-generation Turkish-German, I am a White woman. Surprisingly, we found a lot of common ground, especially when talking about developing a sixth sense for dangerous situations (like walking home late at night). While I have developed a skill set that can generally be ascribed to growing up as a woman, he had a lot of experience at recognizing racists and racism. Once, he told me, a gang of drunk Neo-Nazis decided to beat him up when he simply walked by.

It was then that I realized the big difference in our situations: While I could be perceived as a potential victim, I had no experience at being perceived as a potential threat. The emphasis here lies on “perceived,“ because ultimately the supposed threat that he posed circled back to being a victim.”

In the upshot, Michel considers herself to be more privileged than her Turkish-German colleague in that, unlike him, she will never be perceived as a threat. This is, of course, a classic theme in Race Studies. W.E.B. DuBois famously asked, “How does it feel to be a problem?”

At last, many White people are beginning to ask themselves the same question. When a White woman feels threatened and calls the police on a Black man because he is taking up public space or moving through it, it is not the Black man, but the White woman who constitutes the threat, for it is she who is weaponizing her privilege and anti-Black stereotypes.3 However, while this form of White behavior is often called out by other White people, other problematic White behaviors often go unnoticed by their peers. For instance, White people often fail to recognize how hurtful it can be for their non-White friends if they invite them to a party as the only melanin-bearer. It can make the Brown or Black guest feel unwelcome or even wonder whether their friendship with the white person is tokenistic.

Beyond “Woke”

What is needed, then, is for White people to develop a kind of “double consciousness,” as mentioned earlier. Black Americans have long cultivated an anticipatory awareness of how the White people around them are likely to perceive them in a given situation. The BLM protests are calling White people to develop a similar awareness of their privilege vis-à-vis Black people as well as other non-White people. In this sense, becoming anti-racist requires more than just being “woke” to White privilege in principle – it requires constant vigilance and self-monitoring.

Black Lives Matter protests, San Diego, California, 13/06/2020. Photo: Catherine Whittaker.

This awareness is also needed in relation to other kinds of less privileged, symbolically “less white” people, as Historian Christiane Brenner compellingly argues. Beyond intersectionality, we have to consider Whiteness as a heterogeneous category, her story shows:

“When I studied in socialist Czechoslovakia in the late 1980s, having a West German passport brought me a lot of freedom and advantages. It not only reassured me that risky situations – such as demonstrations – were less dangerous for me than for my friends, but it also allowed me to travel relatively independently. This created a power gap: It was always I who came and went again, and who compared the ‚two worlds‘ (sometimes smugly aware of my knowledge advantage).

My privilege primarily lay in being from the West. But being West German was particularly important. In the eyes of my Czechoslovakian friends, it distinguished me positively from the numerous GDR Germans, the tourists, but also the exchange students, who often lived in the neighboring socialist country for several years. Here, my West German appearance seemed interesting and promising, in contrast to being East German. I was one of the better Germans.

The West-Germanness of a person – unlike skin color – is only recognizable at second glance. Turning this to my advantage, I often made it clear which Germany I came from without directly saying so. I avoided being mistaken for a GDR student; or, I obscured my background, so as not to draw any attention to me, and not to have to pay twice the price for a taxi ride.

Socialist societies were very homogeneous. The few foreigners stood out – those whose skin color was dark or whose facial features often provoked rejection. This particularly affected so-called temporary workers and students from ‚developing countries‘ who were poor. But wealthy foreigners also experienced racial exclusion.

Coming from Western Germany was only one shade – a whiter White within the White majority society. Like most Berliners, having believed myself an anti-racist by default, it took me a while to recognize the big difference that small differences make. When I finally did, I felt shame.”

Shades of Whiteness

Brenner’s observations also ring true within Germany today. A recent sociological study led by Naika Foroutan found that East Germans have been excluded from German mainstream society on a symbolical, emotional, and identitarian level, much like Turkish Germans. Yet while West Germans recognize injustices against „migrants“, they often invisibilize injustices against East Germans, but tend to ultimately blame both groups for their problems. The study further shows that although East Germans are more likely to espouse racist views, in part because of a misplaced sense of competition with migrants for the „second place“ within German society, West Germans use this as an excuse to externalize their own racism as an East German problem. They essentially shift the blame, instead of tackling bigotry.

Accordingly, part of what makes Brenner’s example so interesting is how it exposes the facility with which people like her become complicit in reproducing their unearned privilege in relation to individuals who are considered “less White” or the “wrong” kind of White. Along with Dürr’s example, it therefore opens a window onto other imagined sliding scales of Whiteness and anticipations. I have similarly chosen to focus on evanescent Whiteness in the academic context in my own example.

I only really started to gain an awareness of the implications of my Whiteness for my anthropological research in Uruguay, where I attended a workshop that, despite its genuine intentions, violated every one of the principles it was discussing theoretically. This was the turning point for me. I felt complicit in capitalizing on social justice rhetoric to score funding, prestige, and a good conscience, while practicing injustice, inaccessibility, and unsustainability. The workshop was dominated by cis-hetero, able-bodied males, who had not adequately planned for disabled or vegetarian attendees, and there was of course nothing sustainable about flying a dozen UK scholars all the way to Uruguay. Despite these unfortunate circumstances, I learned valuable lessons from hanging out with Brazilian workshop attendees.

They explained that, in Brazil, the vast majority of the academic elite are White and therefore enjoy White privileges. However, outside of Brazil, they are often perceived as Latin@s, and therefore non-White. This makes them all the more aware of their privilege and makes many of them assertive anti-racist educators. Hearing about my Brazilian colleagues’ experiences of working in times of political upheaval, I learned that, contrary to my White British colleagues’ “humble” suggestions that academics have but little influence on the real world, being political is not a choice. Our words have power.

In conclusion, becoming vigilant in relation to one’s relative Whiteness, and what it entails in different private and academic settings, is absolutely vital – quite literally. This is particularly true for privileged White academics such as myself and my working group colleagues.

Cite this article as: Catherine Whittaker, When Did You Realize You’re White?, in: Vigilanzkulturen, 21/08/2020, https://vigilanz.hypotheses.org/508.

  1. But see, for example, Jon Greenberg, “10 Examples That Prove White Privilege Exists in Every Aspect Imaginable.” Yes! Magazine (July 24, 2017). []
  2. For a brief primer on Intersectionality Theory, see Arica L. Coleman, “What’s Intersectionality? Let These Scholars Explain the Theory and Its History.” Time Magazine (March 29, 2019). []
  3. For a recent example see here []

Ein Gedanke zu „When Did You Realize You’re White?“

  1. Dear Hypotheses blogger,

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