Why are white people just starting to act now? Police brutality has been going on since the inception of America, and we’ve been seeing videos of it for over six years, so why are just waking up?
I have been trying to answer that question in my own case, especially since I listened to this podcast episode on Performative Allyship and Black Joy, where one of the speakers said: “What a monster one must be to say ‘Oh my goodness I watched that video [of George Floyd’s murder]and now I understand what Black people go through. And I’m like ‘Oh you just admitted to me that you’re a fucking monster…’”
Ouch. This guy was calling me a fucking monster, and I couldn’t really disagree with him. It’s not that I didn’t know or didn’t care or didn’t feel horrified about what was happening to Black people in America before. But I saw it, in the words of Dwayne Reed as a “Black issue that I need[ed] to empathize with” rather than my issue that I needed to solve.
Any time I have a problem to solve, I think it’s important to look at why I have the problem in the first place. So I took advice from trauma therapist and author Resmaa Menakem. In an episode of On Being, he says: “White people, don’t look for a black guru…Find other white people, and start creating a container by which you can work race specifically…You specifically deal with the embodiment of race and the energy that’s stored with that.” In my own effort to do that, taking the first step to break down my relationship to race. I’m sharing my process, in the hopes that it can help other people do the same. Because only when we understand our behaviors can we make a meaningful and lasting change from within.
As you read this, I challenge you to let your thoughts bounce off mine. Think of where my experiences intersect yours and where they don’t. Answer the questions for yourself, unpack your own relationship to race, and see what you find.
So how did I become white? Before my ancestors came to America in the early 1900s, they were not part of dominant ethnic groups (except for a few ancestors of mine who are Swedish, but they were not present in my family, so their experiences were not passed down to me). My Armenian ancestors were refugees fleeing genocide, and my Jewish ancestors came from Eastern Europe, where they were discriminated against, and potentially faced ethnic violence. But when both of those groups came to America, their physical features and geographic history opened the opportunity to gain all of the economic and social privileges that come with whiteness. And, faced with the opportunity to never have to live as second-class citizens again, they did everything they could to become white. Over the generations, members of my family gave up their languages, their religions, their cultural traditions, their family connections and sense of community, and even changed their physical features to assimilate into the category of whiteness.
Part of assimilating into whiteness also includes absorbing and learning racism. Both sides of my family learned to fear Black and other people of color. My Armenian family moved from their homes on the South Side of Chicago during the era of blockbusting after real estate agents told them that Black people were coming in to ruin their neighborhood. My Jewish grandfather used to often express fear that California was becoming “a minority state.” I too, became white. My family was already white by the time I was born, but no one is born white. It’s not a natural characteristic; it’s a construction. So I became white by living in a middle class, largely white neighborhood, by knowing mostly white people, by being raised by a family that had learned whiteness, by going to mostly white schools, and by being treated as white by the society around me.
I also became white in opposition because whiteness cannot exist on its own. It must have something to be compared to. In the earliest experience that I can remember, I was a point of comparison. I went to a Catholic elementary school with people who were mostly from Irish and other European cultures, and had light hair and small features. My dark hair, spiced school lunches, and strange family history made me stand out. But even there, I believed that if I just tried hard enough, I could become fully white like my classmates. I stopped using my Armenian name, I started getting my eyebrows done the moment I hit puberty, and when people would ask me what I was, I most often remember saying that I was Swedish. I did not know any other Armenians growing up, so I never had any conception of being in a minority group; I just assumed that these traits were unique to me.
Things changed when I went to much more diverse schools for middle school. Looking different no longer separated me from the majority. I found myself in a group of friends that was mostly Black, and it was the first time I was in a social group that was not majority white (which says a lot). As someone who never had to seriously deal with race, I didn’t think much of it. I mostly remember thinking it was cool that my friends’ family parties were different from mine. In this group of friends, I began to see myself, not as someone who would be fully white if I could change a few things, but as someone who was definitely white. Mostly, I was just happy to have a group of friends who seemed to accept me more than my friends ever had in elementary school.
But then in high school something changed. Suddenly there was a huge influx of kids coming to our school, and the friend groups started to shift. I came back the fall of my Freshman year to discover that the Black kids were hanging out with the Black kids and the white kids were hanging out with the white kids, and my friends no longer felt like my friends anymore. So I had made a mistake, I figured, and I should just stick with the white kids where I belonged.
Looking back on it, I realize that what I read as my friends rejecting me was actually the discomfort of feeling that I didn’t belong because of my race. I was not used to feeling that I did not belong because I was white, so I thought that, if that ever happened to me in a space, it meant that I should leave. Since, then, I realize, I have shut myself out of a lot of conversations and important learning experiences because I was afraid of feeling that my whiteness made me different.
Internalizing the ideas of white supremacy, I had learned to accept that experience of people making me feel like I didn’t belong because of my ethnicity when it came from other white people. Any time my white friends told me that I was exotic, or said that my eyebrows were too thick or my name was weird, or collapsed my entire identity into being “that Armenian girl,” I thought that I should change myself to be more like them because I saw whiteness as supreme. But any time I was in spaces dominated by people of color (not referring to POC-only spaces here, just spaces where there are mostly non-white people) and they even looked at my light skin in a way that made me feel different, I would run away to a white space where I felt more “comfortable.”
I realize now that by accepting white supremacy, I narrowed my social circle by leaving any spaces where whiteness felt uncomfortable. I accepted this artificial separation between “white” and “non-white,” until I felt so separated that it took me six years of seeing videos of Black people being murdered to think that this was my problem too and that I needed to do something about it.
Now, this is not to say that I don’t experience white privilege. Because I absolutely do. I benefit from three generations of family experiencing white privilege, which is part of why it’s so important for me to have this moment of reckoning. Deconstructing whiteness reveals that whiteness is a condition rather than a characteristic, which means that they behaviors of whiteness are learned, and they can be unlearned. My hope is that, with the new knowledge that I will feel different in any group I am in, I can take another recommendation from Resmaa Menakem: go into spaces where I feel uncomfortable, sit with that discomfort, feel how it feels, and learn from it. I can unlearn the separation that I have created between myself and other people because the way American society has categorized us. I can work towards not being an “ally” separate from a cause, but part of a movement.
And in case you’re wondering, “What do I do now?” Here are a few resources: