Rev. Irene Monroe, a theologian and fantastic speaker and writer, asked a roomful of MIT students and staff that very question. And she wanted us to answer, aloud.
We of Caucasian skin were taken aback--to be directly asked a question about our race is so rare and so difficult to respond to. But that's exactly what Rev. Monroe was trying to point out. Whiteness is invisible to those of us who hold it because that is the very nature of privilege. My race is seen as neutral, as "the standard," and no one distrusts me or is afraid of me or makes negative assumptions about my level of intelligence or my ability to speak English, just by virtue of my skin color.
Our black peers in the room had a much easier time answering "how do you know you're black?" because for many, it is a daily confrontation. Just about every major politician (president excluded, of course!), lead character in popular shows, the majority of people in commercials and the richest people in America, are white. How exactly can people claim we live in "a land of equal opportunity" when so clearly the deck is and has been stacked in favor of perpetuating whites as the ruling class?
Her second question to us was, "How white are you?" This was an even more uncomfortable question. For if I as a white person acknowledge that racism still exists, and that I have been socialized to maintain the current social order, then I must acknowledge I myself am racist. Even if I don't act hatefully, I am complicit in racism because I benefit from being a part of the racial group that is accorded power in this country. I am very white. And I only become less white when I begin to see my whiteness--my unearned power and privilege--and to ask questions of it.
In my interview for my current job, my boss asked me, "Have you ever been supervised by a person of color?" The answer--to my astonishment, as I mentally ticked off the 7 jobs I've held--was no. Not one. Given that, he said, "how do you think it will be different?" The answer, I have learned in these few months on the job, is that my whiteness is more visible than it has ever been, and so is the whiteness of others around me.
This helps me do my work at the LGBTQ Center more effectively--such as thinking about the racial make-up of my student staff, and the potential positive impact of drop-ins seeing a racially mixed crowd. Or noticing that the speakers I had wanted to bring were all white, and what message that would send to the diverse LGBTQ student community at the school. Or seeing the dynamics in a meeting, and how the white facilitators didn't seem to notice or care that none of the people of color spoke the entire time.
I don't want this to come across as an easy or noble thing--in fact I have to confront a lot of problematic and uncomfortable things about myself to start knowing that I'm white. I can put some of the blame on society, but much of it belongs to me as well. So thank you for asking me to look at my whiteness, Rev. Monroe, it's about time I started understanding better.