What's it like to be white?
It's one of several questions that MTV's new documentary "White People," seeks to answer -- What does it fees like to be young and white in America? How do white people feel about their own race? How can they become more comfortable with speaking frankly and openly about race in America, not only as it applies to people of color, but as it applies to them?
The realization of my blackness came early on.
I was 5, and a little girl at daycare (who was Filipino) told me that she didn't want to play Barbie with me because my "dirty skin" would rub off on her white dolls. More than pain, I felt confusion, and then, gradually, a slow dawning of realization that my dark brown skin made me different from her, different from the dolls and, somehow, this was a bad thing.
In the years since, I've had numerous realizations like these -- big and small moments that have shaped what being black means to me -- how it affects the way I see romantic partners, friends, coworkers. How it affects the way I see myself.
I think about my blackness, for better or worse, every single day. And it's exhausting.
"We talk about race in this country a lot," host Jose Antonio Vargas says in the documentary, "But we don't include you [white people] in the conversation. It's only us."
This is a striking and profound idea, and one that in 40 minutes or so the doc explores, though not in depth. The film won't solve racism, or quell the racial tensions currently plaguing the country with stories like Sandra Bland's death, but it starts a vital conversation that is rarely had.
I welcome this conversation wholeheartedly. I welcome white people into the mix. I'm sick of talking about race, talking at you, and getting called out for "playing the victim." White people are victims of racism too. They are not oppressed or at a racial disadvantage the way people of color are, but we're all suffering from the divisions and miscommunication that racism creates. I don't want white people to talk over me, dismiss my experiences, or derail conversations about race but I do want them to engage.
So as a black person, watching the documentary, there was something strangely cathartic, gratifying, about watching white people talk about being white. It's cathartic because it dismantles the idea that whiteness is a kind of default race, and that black people and minorities are just "obsessed" with race and are the only ones who have anything to say about it.
I've always had a certain frustration in talking to some white people about race, because I feel as though there's always either an acute fear from them of saying the wrong thing and being called racist, a need to overcompensate by shitting on other white people (as if they're not complicit in the racist power structure as well), or a desire to prove they're as much "victims" as we are.
There's a moment in the documentary where Lucas, a white man who teaches a college workshop on white privilege, confronts his ultra-conservative stepdad Mark about making him feel scared to talk about white privilege and his progressive beliefs on race.
"You can't just slam [the concept of white privilege] into me and say 'you're a jerk,'" the stepdad replies, "And I don't want to be ashamed that I'm white."
It's frustrating, but fascinating to think that some white people feel that recognizing their privilege -- or recognizing that racism exists and somehow benefits them -- means having to be ashamed of being white. But it's not surprising.
I have close white friends who I know, probably, at one point in their lives have said or done something that might have offended me as a black woman (singing all the words to "N****s In Paris" for one). I'm a straight person who views herself as an ally to the LGBTQ community, but I can think of several times that I've said or done things that I'm ashamed of, that I know my friends in the community would be disappointed. But ignoring that part of me and not talking about it frankly does no one any good -- most of all myself.
So much of our racial conversation hovers around this idea of shame. It's shame, and fear, that hinders us. As a black person, contrary to popular belief, I don't love to talk or even write about race. I do it because I feel I have a responsibility to do so, but it's exhausting.
And, at times, it's just as terrifying for me as it is for white people. My experiences make me passionate about race, but there's always the fear when talking to white people, even some of my closest friends, that if I become too frank I might alienate them or make them feel uncomfortable.
I've been socialized to protect white people from having to talk too deeply about race, and conversely white people have been socialized to feel as though they don't have to (or shouldn't) talk about it all. But we need to push through.
This is never going to be an easy conversation. But it doesn't have to be.
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