Learning to Call Myself White

(Cross-posted from BLT)

I remember how hard it was to learn to call myself a woman.

Growing up, through high school, my female classmates and I were called “girls,” of course. (Or very rarely, “young ladies,” though mostly when we were in trouble.) So that’s what we called ourselves.

That’s what our mothers called themselves, too. They talked about “getting together with the girls”, “girls night out.” Occasionally “ladies,” usually in a humorous vein.

In college, I didn’t much like any of the words I might use to describe myself. I paid close attention to their counterparts for my male classmates. We all called them “guys,” which would mean I should call myself and my female friends “gals”: which I did, often, but it felt just a little too cowboy-Western to me. If my male friends weren’t “boys” then I shouldn’t be a “girl”; only on the rare formal occasions when they were “gentlemen” should I be a “lady.” “Young men” and “young women” sounded both too young, and too nineteenth-century. “Males” and “females” sounded both insufficiently human, and even more nineteenth-century.

I remember when I went to a sleepover party, the summer after sophomore year, with some reunited high school classmates of both sexes. One of them had made signs that designated separate sleeping areas for “Men” and “Women”: spelled out in a hand that was big, bold, unapologetic, and perhaps just a little self-conscious. I remember looking at that sign, “Women”, and thinking, I would not have had the nerve to write that word.

It wasn’t until I was out in the working world, aware that I was facing sexism, aware that the male-dominated field in which I work would further aggravate it, that I got serious about actively trying to own the word. It helped that having a fulltime job with a steady paycheck and my own apartment made me feel like an official grownup, but it was still hard. I had to practice saying it. It felt awkward for about the first two years, I think. If I hadn’t been a determined feminist, I would have given up.

Because it felt so awkward. It didn’t feel like something nice girls say. To call myself a woman was to assert my adulthood, my identity, my expectation that I would be taken seriously. It meant owning my embodied, space-taking-up identity, and naming it. It was an assertion of power: not something that girls are socialized to do.

Learning to call myself white reminds me of that.

It feels awkward. Oh, I can do it all right if I’m reeling off all my social locations, perspectival-theology style: Catholic, Christian, theist, straight, cis, white, American, middle-class. When “white” is just one of many defining characteristics that I’m naming, it doesn’t stand out so much.

But simply to say “I’m white”: it feels, again, like something nice girls don’t say. It feels rude, in fact: because “white” means “privileged,” it means systemically better off in a number of ways, and I was raised to believe that it’s rude to point out how you’re better off than other people. (And you probably heard the echo in my writing, the echo in American society, that whispers, simply, “better.”) It, too, is a statement about power.

It feels wrong, too, because as a child of the 60s and 70s, I was socialized into the belief that the civil rights movement was successful, the era of Jim Crow was over, and we were all Americans now, and race didn’t matter anymore. That meant it wasn’t something you talked about. Nobody told me that: it’s just that nobody did, once the songs of the integration era were no longer played on the radio. I had tacitly learned that you don’t talk about race because we’re all not supposed to see race anymore: the word “post-racial” wasn’t coined until later, but the attitude was there.

And it feels wrong because I was taught that the correct term to use to describe such persons, when a term was necessary at all, was “African American.” And “white” is not the counterpart to “African American.” “White” is the counterpart to “black,” and until very very recently, I did not use the term “black” to describe people. “Caucasian” is the term I was taught to use to describe myself, as the counterpart to “African American”; but it isn’t, is it? The counterpart should be “European American.” But nobody ever says that; it sounds silly. (Because European-American is what “American” means, whispers society.)

But I persist, awkward as it feels. I persist because I believe, as I did when I was learning to call myself a woman, that it is important. It is important to name that privilege that I have, that power. It is important to talk about race, because the civil rights movement of the 60s did not solve everything, because race still matters, because structural racial inequities still exist, and if we cannot even name ourselves in terms of race, then how in God’s name can we talk about racism? And we need to talk about racism.

I persist because I was dumbfounded at the fulminating responses from the white men in the Senate to Sonia Sotomayor’s statement that the court needed the perspective of “a wise Latina.” It was so obvious to me that her lived experience as a Latina did bring an important perspective that white men simply did not have. I could see, in the discourse around that interaction, the privilege of the white male perspective that perceives itself, and is accustomed to being perceived as, the “neutral” and “objective” (and “correct”, whispers society) perspective.

I persist especially now, after something I heard while participating in an excellent twitterchat on James Cone, father of black theology. Someone said something that made me fully realize, for the first time, that white theology is contextual theology. White theology is contextual theology. White theology is just as contextual as black, indigenous, feminist, queer, asian, mujerista theologies are.

My brain went on reciting White theology is contextual theology over and over again, as if it were sitting in a classroom, writing lines. Even though I had studied contextual and perspectival theologies in grad school, I had missed that “white” was being treated as the neutral, objective, unconditioned, unmarked, default. (“Traditional”, whispers the academy). For the first time, I realized I had the same damn blinders on as those Senators whose ignorance had stunned me.

So I persist. And I keep practicing.

Hi. I’m Victoria Gaile, and I’m a white woman.


Thanks to my BLT co-blogger Kurk, whose comments on my self-identification as white in other posts and comments prompted this post. And thanks to @DruHart, @h00die_R, and the other folks of @AnaBlacktivism, who hosted the excellent #JamesConeWasRight twitterchat.

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One Response to Learning to Call Myself White

  1. Pingback: But what can we do? For white people who feel helpless | Gaudete Theology

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