White and Female
I used to think I only had to deal with being born female; being white was just an accident. I wrote this piece in the mid 1990s. I’ve grown since then, yet the issues named here are alive and well where I live. I’ve reformatted and edited it lightly so it’s easy to read.
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My family is white. We’re part of the history of white people in the USA. My need for male approval has been a need for white male approval.
Like gender, whiteness binds me in ways I don’t understand, ways entrenched long before I was born. Yet unlike gender, it worked in me for years as an invisible binding.
- No one punished or humiliated me because I was white.
- Nor did I long to be nonwhite the way I sometimes longed to be male.
I’ve avoided what it means that I’m a white woman. Instead, I focused on issues I thought concerned all women.
- I thought of myself as simply a woman rather than this woman.
My race was an accident of history over which I had no control and for which I thus bore no particular responsibility.
- It was part of the air I breathed.
Since I wasn’t intentional about choosing whiteness and it didn’t seem to disrupt my life, I didn’t need to be intentional about investigating it with reference to myself or my theology.
- I resented white people who, over several decades, regularly invited me to examine my racism.
In my academic work I was interested in theologies from women of color.
- Yet I didn’t yet recognize in their work an invitation for me to reexamine my side of the story.
- I heard it as their story, not as a story that also shed light on my story.
As I looked back at the history of US, I absolved myself of responsibility for slavery by pointing to the obvious.
- I wasn’t present when those atrocities were committed.
I eased my conscience by splitting myself off from history.
- I thought I could distance myself from the racial sins of white men and white women.
- I thought I had the power to declare myself untouched by the sins of past generations.
My family had always been kind to black people, especially after we moved to the South.
- Yes, there was a problem, but it wasn’t in me or in my family.
Yet there’s a deep connection between the history of my family and the history of my country. The air I breathed in my family helped perpetuate, almost effortlessly, a complex web of familial and racial sin. I inherited at least this:
- A white legacy of unconscious and conscious racist attitudes
- An inclination to play it safe by looking the other way or keeping silent
- A tendency to blame, punish and humiliate people who are vulnerable
- A need to believe I’m not racist
I once thought that because I’d read all about it, I understood what it means to be white and how racism affects me. Now I’m learning by being caught in the act:
- Caught in the act of oversight or presumption
- Caught feeling uncertain, uneasy about how I’m perceived by nonwhite students, colleagues and friends
- Caught needing their approval
- Caught hoping someone else will speak up
- Caught in ignorance about the myriad ways I’ve benefited from growing up white and female
- Caught unaware of being white in everyday situations of overwhelmingly visible and unfair white advantage
Becoming a theologian means learning to attend to things I would rather avoid or forget.
- This means attending not just to doctrinal beliefs, but to corners and rooms in my life as they begin coming into view.
I’ll never understand myself fully. I can, however, form the habit of looking inward and backward, using the present crisis, fear, boredom, confusion, blindness, anger or self-destructive habit as a guide to what comes next.
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© Elouise Renich Fraser, 17 March 2015
Excerpt from Confessions of a Beginning Theologian, pp. 28-30, InterVarsity Press 1998