I am privileged. I accept and admit that. Being a white, middle class, educated woman has granted me access to people, places, situations and things that others do not have access to. I have never been asked to leave somewhere or been denied a job because of how I looked. I have never known what it feels like to be hungry and not have access to food. I have always had a place to rest my head at night. I can walk into nearly every establishment and be treated as if I belong there (even if I don’t). I often take these things for granted and forget that not everyone has these same comforts and privileges.
Living in Hawaii is a bit different than what I’m used to. I am not in the majority here. I have, on occasion, felt people’s anger and hatred towards me because of my color. I have been in places and situations where I am accepted only because I am there with my husband (who is Hawaiian). I have seen, first hand what complete assholes white tourists can be and I am embarrassed sometimes, many times actually, to be white.
But just like people of color cannot change their color, I cannot change my whiteness. Despite the fact that I have always gravitated towards people who are different than me, have always had interest in learning about other cultures and have a deep love and respect for those cultures, I am still white. At least on the outside, where, to many, many people, it counts the most. And that is sad because the inside is really where it’s all at. You can look one way on the outside and be someone completely different on the inside. I have to be reminded sometimes (usually by my children) that I’m white. Which is funny. Except not really.
Many of us “whites” have lost our own cultures through the process of assimilation into the American culture. My father’s family came from Poland and France but neither the languages nor any of the traditions that my great grandparents brought with them are remembered or practiced by any member of my family. I know people whose ancestors came from the Middle East or Latin America who see themselves as white now because they can pass as white. And they want that privilege of being white. They want the country club and the big house and the access and the stuff and they don’t care what they have to give up to have it. Some even vote for politicians who create laws that oppress the people with the same racial and cultural backgrounds that they themselves have. And they don’t even realize that they are contributing to the oppression of their own people by giving up who they are to have what they have. My ancestors did this too and I am privileged because of it… but at the cost of losing where I came from and, as a result losing who I am
So yes, many times I am embarrassed to be white: When I read about the atrocities committed here in Hawaii by people who look like me I am embarrassed. When I witness first hand the damage caused to the environment here because of the selfishness and greed of people who look like me, I am embarrassed. When I see white tourists appropriating the Hawaiian culture for their photo ops or enjoyment, I am embarrassed. When I am either ignored or greeted with hostility by people of color when I attempt to speak to them I am embarrassed. I’m embarrassed by that last one but I get it. I get why some people dislike me. People who look like me have been oppressing other peoples for hundreds, if not thousands of years. People who look like me have caused the near extinction of virtually every indigenous people on the face of the Earth. People who look like me have raped this land, poisoned its people and continue to do so because of pure greed. People who look like me continue to benefit at the expense of others and many do horrific things to insure that they continue to benefit and exert their power over others.
There is good reason for me to feel embarrassed for my whiteness; I continue to experience privilege from being white and I most likely will for the rest of my life. I did nothing to earn these privileges and I can’t give them back but I can acknowledge that they exist, I can give back to my brothers and sisters of color with my time, my talents and my resources. I can be an ally to people of color in how I think, how I speak, how I vote and what I do. And I can encourage other people who look like me to do the same. So I encourage you now (whether you look like me or not) to acknowledge the privileges that you benefit from and think about what you can do to be an ally to those who don’t benefit in those same ways.
Sending you much aloha,