I grew up white in a place that is predominately various beautiful shades of brown. A place where the effects and scars of colonialism are still seen and felt in the land and its people. I grew up “haole” in Hawai’i.
The word is used to mean “white person” and/or “foreigner”. Most often, in my experience, it was descriptive, to mean someone with white skin.
But sometimes, depending on tone, context, and whether it’s preceded by a cuss word, it can be a slur. It literally means “without wind”. Wind in this case meaning soul.
Hawai’i was a monarchy until 1893 when Queen Lili’uokalani was overthrown. Not by her people. But by American businessmen who wanted to control the land and government to advance their interests at the expense of the Hawaiian people. They acted with the aid of the US Military. The US still maintains a very active military presence in the islands. Add to this that a significant part of the economy is tourism, being haole carries many layers of history and culture. It means both the people who visit, live, contribute, and build with respect, and those who feel entitled who take and take over what doesn’t belong to them.
And so I tried not to appear too white. To not be one of “those” white people.
I took my shoes off when I came in the house (still do). Hawaiian and Japanese words and phrases were a part of my daily vocabulary. I tried very hard not to get sunburned, but also to have a tan so I would look like I belonged and wasn’t a visiting “shark bait” tourist. When my lineage came up in conversation, I made it clear that I was the second generation of my family born on the island, and that we hadn’t come as a part of the military.
And so I’ve also been on the outside of a dominant culture.
Even though he spoke it, my father yelled at me when aspects of Pidgin English slipped into my speech patterns, and so I internalized a sense that people who spoke it were aggressive and stupid. We didn’t often eat local food. (Sadly, my love of Spam musubi arose only after I’d left home.) There were places on the island where I stood out and felt uncomfortable because of my skin. A friend told me that had I gone to public school I would have been beat up once a month on “kill haole” day. While I never personally faced violence, I knew others who had, and I altered my behavior accordingly to not draw attention to myself as one of “those” white people.
Given all this, I thought I knew what it must be like to be a person of color.
I was dead wrong.
And it was only a few years ago that I learned just how wrong I was. I was telling my experience to a friend and he kindly said, “Yes, you were othered, but was it institutional?”
His question stopped me in my tracks. I had never thought about it like that before. I never considered the fact that while I did feel “other”, it was only sometimes, in some cases and places.
While I felt outside socially, I never had to think about how my skin color might make it harder for me or my family when trying to access the resources of government and society. My parents didn’t have to teach me about the dominant culture so that I knew how to “pass” as one of them and/or appease them to keep myself safe. I might feel uncomfortable sometimes, but I was able to easily avoid those places. Though we didn’t have a lot of money, thanks to a small inheritance left to me by my grandparents, I had the economic privilege to receive twelve years of private education.
I was never at risk of violence or discrimination at the hands of those in power because of my skin color.
In short, I have white privilege.
(I hold other privileges as well. I’ll talk about that in a bit.)
What I had to learn was that, while everyone experiences struggles as part of life, there exists a systemic and systemized oppression that compounds these struggles for some of us more than others. This oppression is woven through every interaction and every institution.
What I had to learn, is that for those who are the target of this system, its effects are pervasive and unavoidable.
It’s not just one thing, one time. It’s not even some things, some of the time. It affects every aspect of lived experience. It is the trauma of everything all at once. From housing to banking to health care to work to voting to art to employment to public safety (or lack thereof). To one’s very skin and hair. One’s own precious name.
What I had to learn to see, and to believe, was that we aren’t all having the same experience. We aren’t all living the same American Story.
This is by design.
In the current storyline of America there is a “hero” and every aspect of our society is built for the advancement of the people who have certain “character traits”. Audre Lorde calls this the Mythical Norm–The “Main Character” at the center of America’s storyline. This person is white, male, straight, cisgendered, able-bodied, wealthy, well-educated, and Christian.
Main Characters still struggle. Often times they struggle a whole hell of a lot for a long, long time. But. The story is made for them. It is made for their growth and learning and exploration. The whole world they inhabit was created for the full expression and experience of their story.
And if you are like I was and aren’t able to see the truth of this, this is by design as well.
The further away from this default “Main Character” you fall, the more your story is made invisible. And the more the system is designed to silence, exploit, and oppress you to “advance the plot” of the Main Characters.
In this case, NOT seeing a thing is also proof of its existence.
This is also why the seemingly well-intentioned statements I used to make like “I’m colorblind” and “I don’t see race” actually serve to perpetuate racism. They are another way of erasing real people’s real stories. This is also problematic because a) I was clearly lying and b) I was avoiding taking responsibility for examining the ways I benefit from and participate in racism by claiming to be a “good white person”.
People of color and people further away from the Mythical Norm have been doing the labor to tell us their stories in millions of ways for hundreds of years. But the system of power is designed to be invisible to the people it benefits. And what is more, this invisibility allows people who don’t experience oppression to say it is “all in the heads” of the people who do experience it, or to otherwise doubt or diminish its existence and validity.
The system is designed to protect itself by keeping us blind to its influence and not only suspicious of but divided against each other.
But we can say no.
We can chose to see it. And we can chose to do something about it.
What if, instead of distancing ourselves from the situation because we “can’t see it”, we used the struggles we have felt to better understand another person’s story? To open our hearts. To listen.
What if we changed the way the story is structured so that the world we create nurtures and supports us all?
As a white person I need to come to terms with the fact that a great deal about what I thought and what I was taught is flat out wrong. I need to come to terms with the fact that even though this story was invisible to me, it is True. I need to be able to take an honest and unwavering look at myself and see that the way I get to move through the world isn’t the same way that others are allowed to move through the world. I need to see that there are things about this way of moving that are made easier for me because many parts of my life fall into the Main Character category. And I need to see that by not doing this internal and external work I am hurting (even, and especially without meaning to) people I love and the planet at large.
It is hard to look at ourselves this way. Looking at where we are wrong can, brings up a lot of discomfort. But being uncomfortable is not the same as being in danger. And it is our work to do. And it is necessary.
It is time to examine our upbringings. It is time to examine our blindspots.
It is time to write a new story. Together we have the power to create a whole new world. One that is designed for the full expression of us all.
And the time is now. Right now. Lives are at stake.