Friday, August 19, 2016

America's Killer New Epidemic: Secondhand Whiteness

[Editor's note: It should be obvious that white people are not actually the real victims of racism. Those horrors are large and small and you should go read the many smart people of color writing online and follow anti-racist activists and support them.]

A scourge is rampaging through our nation’s cubicle farms and family reunions. What once may have been described as some kind of “race-related social awkwardness among white people” finally has a name: Secondhand Whiteness™.

Firsthand or Primary Whiteness is, of course, a person of color being on the receiving end of ignorant white bullshit, but Secondhand Whiteness is another tragic side effect of white privilege. It occurs when more or less “enlightened” white people witness other, clueless whites doing embarrassing white shit re: race/ethnicity/nationality/religion. Secondhand Whiteness is not the same as being horrified by overt racism. No, it is that sinking feeling of shame you get when you see suburban white moms get “sassy” when “joking around” with the black lady who works in Accounting or when your father-in-law tells the Latino host at the (non-Mexican) restaurant that you need a table for “cinco.” You are mortified both for and by them. As a fellow white person, you feel somewhat responsible for your race’s ignorance and feel guilty about the unfortunate people of color caught in the crossfire. Speaking up may or may not be worth the trouble depending on the situation, but either way, you are incredibly embarrassed by proxy.

Goddammit, white people.
Some instances of Secondhand Whiteness could rightfully be classified as microaggressions. Others are just severe social missteps the offenders don't even realize they're making. Secondhand Whiteness is cringing at other whites who generally mean well, but just don't fucking have a clue that they don't have a clue. The precipitating acts that lead to Secondhand Whiteness are often directed toward people of color, but can also be statements made about them to other white people. 

Secondhand Whiteness may affect you in situations like the following:
  • A white bartender asks your friend “Where are you from?” when he sees an unusual name on the credit card. The server is confused when your friend says, “Here.” Bonus points of your friend has stopped trying to correct people after they can’t get the pronunciation right after a couple tries. 
  • You overhear your white coworker ask your black boss if she can touch her new hairstyle. 
  • An older white relative keeps talking about all the super-smart Asian kids he’s taught over the years ever since someone in your family started dating a Filipino. 
  • Your friend’s white mom pretends she doesn’t know where your friend’s little brother picked up those racial slurs. She’s got a black coworker at the store she’s friends with, after all, and boy is she a HOOT! 
  • A white guy in your improv class puts on a wincingly stereotypical accent in a scene. You can tell he thinks he’s being subversive and “not-racist” because he makes the character smart/kind. 
  •  In real life, white strangers come up to your mixed-race friend and ask, “What are you?” 
  • Your white family member won’t stop pronouncing it “MOO-slem.” 

Do you feel like climbing inside a rocket ship and launching it underground while reading these? If so, you may in fact be experiencing Secondhand Whiteness. While certainly the horrible effects of systemic racism and bearing the full brunt of Primary Whiteness is a much greater burden, let us not forget the more or less innocent white bystanders who are right now super-uncomfortable.

This is not happening.
Symptoms of Secondhand Whiteness may include:
  • Extreme embarrassment 
  • Bruises from your jaw dropping onto something hard 
  • Shame over one’s shared cultural/racial background with the offender 
  • Eye strain from rolling them too much 
  • Liberal guilt 
  • Jim Halpert Face 
  • General squirminess 
  • Muscle strain around raised eyebrow(s)
  • Feelings of smugness over knowing better 
  • Neck pain from excess head-shaking 
  • Financial loss when you feel like you need to go donate to an anti-racist cause to counteract what you just witnessed 
  • Incredulity that no one else seems offended 

Secondhand Whiteness is akin to those moments during any Ricky Gervais production when that “I want to crawl under a blanket to hide and also die from the awkwardness” sensation rolls over you, overpowering any comedic value to the situation. It’s pretty much like that, but for real people in real life and also with (more) casual racism.

Girl, for real?
Locations where you are likely to be exposed to Secondhand Whiteness:
  • Work 
  • The suburbs, in general 
  • Cable news 
  • Family get-togethers 
  • America 
  • Just anywhere white people are, really 

Now, those of us on the receiving end of Secondhand Whiteness are not perfect. We are all products of a racist society, and even if some of us have taught college level Ethnic Studies classes, we say and do stupid shit, too. We have almost certainly been accidental dicks to people of color and exposed others to Secondhand Whiteness. But we can all do better! And if the person white-ing all over the place is someone you know and will probably not punch you in the face for doing so, maybe direct your Jim Halpert Face directly at them to let them know they are being Not Cool. Or, pull them aside later and say, “Hey, not cool.” If somebody tells you that you are being Not Cool about a racial thing, try to take it in and consider that perhaps they are right instead of automatically getting defensive because you don’t want to be racist, because racists are Bad and you are a Good Person. Even Good People can do racist stuff. But Good People can also learn and change.

Let’s get back to the matter at hand, though: Please, other white people, consider whether you should make that “joke” that contains a “positive” stereotype. Maybe think twice before you get a little too invested in somebody else’s culture or take a Free Pass in All Social Situations to Make This Particular Joke because you have that one first-gen American friend and she thinks your impressions of her immigrant parents are hilarious. Yes, you’d be perpetuating a white supremacist culture--but also, think of the other white people.

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