Monday, April 9, 2012

Presuming Whiteness

A little while ago I was reading Hunting Season by Nevada Barr. At the beginning of the novel we find Anna Pigeon sitting in a church for a wedding at which her boyfriend, Paul Davidson, who is a priest and sheriff, is performing the service. The groom is named Lonnie and is a deputy sheriff. As the wedding progresses, we are told that the bride's name is Showanda.

As I heard the name I remember thinking, "oh, they're black." I was struck by the simple fact that in hearing the story I just simply assumed that the characters were white, until I was given information that indicated otherwise. I also then made the assumption that if Showanda was black, then Lonnie must also be black as well. That is, I quickly came to the assumption that this was not an inter-racial marriage. Later we are told that Lonnie is indeed black, but why did I make that assumption to begin with?

The simple fact is our society makes the assumptions that people are white, unless we are told otherwise. Just as we make the assumption that someone in a leadership position or certain occupations are men, unless told otherwise, and in other occupations (like nursing or teaching) we assume that they are women, unless told otherwise.

I just finished John Grisham's newest book and I assumed all the characters were white. I did so for several reasons. The first is that their ethnicity was never described, except for one character, who was described as Asian. If a character is not white then we need to say so, but if they are white we don't say anything because everyone will know they are white. The second reason I assumed whiteness is because, like nearly all Grisham's novels, it was about attorney's, and we assume "professionals" to be white, unless told otherwise.

We can also see this in the recent controversy surrounding The Hunger Games. Now I have to be honest that I had never heard of these books until the movie came out, and still no nothing about them, but there has been quite about made that the characters were played by African-American actors. The problem for some is that they never saw them this way, they presumed they were white, even though they are described in the books as having dark skin. But people wanted to identify with them and so they made them white, and when they saw otherwise they were quite upset, even to the point of one person saying that Rue's death wasn't as sad because she was black. It was sad when she was white, but not when she was black.

Because whiteness has been normalized, and also elevated as the preference, then we make the assumption that characters and people are white until we have evidence otherwise. Does this make us racist? To a degree, but more because it's ingrained in us then because it's something we consciously act upon. But we still act upon it and for non-whites the outcomes for this unconscious racism are the same as for those who are overt.

In studies done on hiring practices, researchers have found that people who have names that are assumed to be white are much more likely to be called for interviews then those having names that might identify a race, especially for blacks. Thus the information that changes the presumption of whiteness changes their ability to actually get a job.

This leads me to the Trayvon Martin case. I don't know anything about George Zimmerman. I don't know whether he is a racist or not. But, the one thing that no one is talking about is the fact that he lived in a gated community. This is noted in news stories, but is not being discussed.

One of the main reasons for gated communities is to keep "undesirables" out, and to protect those inside from "those people." All too often those "undesirables" are minorities, and in particular blacks. These are communities that are almost exclusively white,and thus unstated, but there all the same, they are the "right" people. I am guessing this is why the news media initially assumed that Zimmerman was white, and then later continually referred to him as "a white Hispanic."

So when Zimmerman saw a black youth, and one with a hoodie on (and we all know what that means because we've all seen the portrayal thousands of times) in a white community, the only thing he could think was "this is a person who is suspicious" because people like "that" don't belong in gated communities. What happened next is totally unknown, and will probably always remain that way because the only person there who can tell us who is still alive is Zimmerman and he obviously has something to protect.

But the simple fact is if Trayvon had been white, even wearing a hoodie, he would have been safe because he "belonged" where he was, because we presume whiteness and assume it to be safe. But Trayvon didn't fit that stereotype because we have given black men another one. Zimmerman was just acting out of the presumptions that we as society have, and all of us have it even when we don't want to.

I don't want to assume that characters are white, but I do, and when I catch myself making those assumptions I'm always disturbed by them, but they are there nonetheless. They are what we are taught and they are continually reinforced throughout our lives. The simple fact is we presume whiteness and until we get past that then race will always be an issue.

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