Matt Wray: I think that is a key question. When I think about what it means to be in a position to cross borders, I think about the idea of being a traitor. People like Mab Segrest and Noel Ignatiev have written compellingly about what it might mean for progressives to think of themselves as race traitors. A traitor is someone who is not loyal, someone perfidious, someone who forsakes an obligation, a responsibility, an allegiance. Traitors betray. What exactly am I trying to betray?
First of all I am trying to betray a certain notion of white identity, a certain kind of whiteness. I grew up in a small, rural, all white town in New Hampshire. Whiteness took many different forms there, from trailer park "white trash" to blueblood WASP. Historically, one of the main ways whiteness has been constructed and lived in America -- its hegemonic form -- has been an arrogant identity. Whiteness thinks itself supreme. Whiteness thinks it belongs. Whiteness always has a sense of entitlement -- it gets pissed off if it gets left out. Whiteness knows it deserves the best. Whiteness knows what is fair and just and whiteness knows what is equal. Whiteness believes it invented equality, therefore when whiteness speaks, everyone must listen. White makes right.
Something may be puzzling about the way I'm speaking: I'm saying "whiteness does this and whiteness does that." In so doing, I'm giving agency to this thing called whiteness, this ethno-racial construct, this set of embodied social practices, this discursive formation that shapes our identities, both constraining and enabling us. Whiteness is bigger than any one white guy -- it's something that only exists as collective interaction. In short, it is precisely the sort of "special interest group" mentality about which neoconservatives have railed against for the past 20 years, although they seem to be blind to their own special interests as whites. Maybe by understanding whiteness as something outside of or beyond white-skinned people, as a nonessential part of being white, we can begin the necessary work of decoupling white bodies from whiteness. White identity need not be a supremacist identity.
How then, I ask myself, am I to think about whiteness? Is it a kind of mass delusion? A narcissistic gaze that allows us only to see others as negative images of ourselves? How whiteness works is an extremely important question, one that white people are just beginning to ask themselves. There isn't time to explore this question further here, but it is important at this historical juncture for white people to understand and recognize our own whiteness, to be able to see when we are being white, in the hegemonic sense which I've described above, in relation to the debates around affirmative action.
Like Sean and David, I have a story to tell: I remember when I first came out to San Francisco in 1990. It was kind of a shock really. Having been raised in rural, small town environment and having gone to college in small towns, I wasn't really prepared for the radically different experience of living in an urban zone. I had lived for about 1 1/2 years in Chicago, but Chicago is not SF! San Francisco seemed to me incredibly diverse and remarkably integrated, both racially and culturally. I spent a lot of time just sitting on the bus or taking the BART train and watching people -- staring and trying not to stare at all the different people, fascinated by the mix of unknown tongues, of colors, of the babel of body languages. Now, when I think about all that watching-- it makes me a little uncomfortable, but at the time, it was something I had to do-- as if I needed to learn all the cues.
I had moved here to apply for a job in an environmental organization. There were two job openings and I was applying for both, quite confident I would get one or the other. It didn't really matter to me which job, as director or assistant director, since I was qualified to do both and the pay was not significantly different. But what did matter to me was that I get to work with a woman. The organization was, at that time, heavily male dominated, and I felt strongly that the directing team must be gender balanced. I made my convictions known to the all-male hiring committee, in my first interview, but as the interview cycle progressed, all the female candidates were eliminated in the early rounds. Two things were clear to me, although they were never explicitly stated: one, they wanted to hire me; two, they were not going to hire a woman.
I didn't know what to do. I felt trapped. I couldn't really turn down the job. I had no other job prospects and my rent was coming due. Once again, my morals and politics were being steamrollered by economic necessity. I caved in and took the job. Over the next two years, I tried to hire as many women into positions of leadership as I possibly could. Maybe I ended up making a difference -- maybe not. I tell this story because it keeps coming up for me whenever I think about what it means to be white and male. However much I might not want to admit it, I got that eco-job in large part because I was a white man. My loyalties, however mixed, were for the most part not with the white men who hired me, but with the white women and people of color who were absent from our workplace, and who were hardly visible in the organization at large. Did the privileges and power accorded to me as a white guy help me make a difference for others? Was I acting like an ally? Did I act responsibly? How could I have acted differently? I'm not sure. But, for me, the important thing to remember is that, in a sense, these questions don't go away. At least, I don't think they should go away, because they are key questions for all of us, particularly for white men, who want to work in coalition politics.
At the same time, I think there is a danger in getting hung up on these questions. There is always the potential for there to be something slightly sad or even absurd about white men sitting around bemoaning their race and gender privilege and trying to "come to grips with their white manhood"-- it can be, as that phrase implies, a solitary, masturbatory, anti-social act. As Tony says, the danger in talking about oppression as we do is that we might come to believe that we are oppressed, thereby losing sight of the ways in which we are privileged.