"Whiteness was a self-invisible norm that many of the women could not identify with; to identify as white in any concrete way seemed racist to most of them."
That quote is from the Guardian’s obituary of Ruth Frankenberg, the Welsh-born sociologist whose work is a key building block of intersectional criticism, or analysis of the interplay between class, race, sexuality, and gender. She has died of lung cancer at the age of 49.
Frankenberg’s groundbreaking 1993 book The Social Construction of Whiteness: White Women, Race Matters, was based on a very small number of interviews (30) with American white women on how they perceived race in their own lives and the lives of others. What Frankenberg found is that many women professed to a "color-blind" mentality, claiming they felt they had no racial identity and did not ascribe racial identities or characteristics to others.
Now I’m going to tell a story about my mom, and I hope she doesn’t mind. I may have forgotten the details because she shared this memory with me when I was about 10 years old. My mom grew up in the Bronx during the 1950s and 1960s in a very racially and ethnically diverse working and middle class neighborhood. One day after school, she accidentally bumped into a group of black girls on the sidewalk. The girls responded angrily toward her with racially-tinged words. (I can’t remember exactly what they did or said.) This shocked her, my mom remembered, not only because her bump hadn’t been malicious, but also because she had always considered herself "color-blind," and was thus especially hurt by intimations that her behavior could be racially-motivated. The black girls, on the other hand, thought about color all the time.
One other anecdote: A former baby-boomer colleague of mine considers Jews "people of color." While I describe my ethnic identity as Jewish, I consider my race to be white. I think there’s two reasons for this. First, I grew up in a town and attended a public school system that was about 50 percent white and 50 percent African American, Latino (including many new immigrants), and Asian. Race and class were very much linked in my hometown, so much so that when I arrived at Brown, while other white kids talked about their excitement to be in such a "diverse" atmosphere, the bigger change for me was unlearning my assumptions about the family structures and economic statuses of people of color.
For me as a kid, being upper middle class and Jewish was a subset of being a white person, in large part, I think, because of my school environment, which felt somewhat polarized between "white" and "non-white." To whatever extent my idea of myself as white was unformed or unarticulated in me before college, it crystallized at Brown. Freshman orientation featured readings and lectures about "unpacking your backpack" of all your privilege. But now that I revisit it, that idea of "unpacking" privilege is rather odd. Once you take your wealth, whiteness, able-bodiness, and the like outta there, what do you do with it? Do you put it on the table and discuss it? Do you try to leave it behind you and continue life as an identity-less person in the name of egalitarianism? Or do you pack it right back in there and try to use that privilege to do some good?
I know I’ve bitten off a lot here, but these are my thoughts after reacquainting myself with Frankenberg’s work. I think that fundamentally, her theories are about that lifelong process of learning to "unpack."