Understanding Whiteness

Examining Whiteness (A Personal Reflection)

by Indigo DaCosta


While my title is “Understanding Whiteness,” I want to make it clear that I want to talk about the need for white people to understand whiteness. From what I read, POCs generally already do; and in any case, I would argue that it’s not their job to understand whiteness. It’s ours.

For anyone who didn’t attend the Swope lecture this semester, here are my two main takeaways from Rev. Irene Monroe’s talk “Stonewall to Pulse”:

  1. She didn’t mention either Stonewall or Pulse until prompted to in a question, but that didn’t undermine the quality of the talk for me.
  2. She asked us to consider the questions: “How are you white?” and “How white are you?”

I am going to attempt to answer these questions and challenge white readers to do the same.

How are you white?


Bear with me for a moment on the “intentionally” answer.

I’m forgetting by whom, but I have been told that a defining factor of a privileged identity is that those who have one can ignore it if/when they want to. So for example: while I could engage with race, I often don’t, and I haven’t been forced to come to terms with my own racial identity in order to survive in society. I would attribute this to my white privilege. On the other hand, I would argue that having been forced to engage with and be able to explain my gender in my day-to-day life—and I would attribute this to not having cis privilege.

However, the reason my short answer to this question was “intentionally” is because my heritage is such that previous generations of my family almost certainly did not have white privilege. To me, that suggests that my family subsumed itself (per se) into whiteness at some point. This becoming white is likely a common story—Rev. Monroe asked among other things, “When did the Jews become white?” and “When did the Irish become white?”

My family is Jewish, and I often don’t tell people that because I don’t practice religiously and so have felt unqualified to take on the label culturally. I’m wondering if that in itself is an act of becoming white, even if that wasn’t my intention. Something I see for sure as an act of becoming white, however, is my family name. In previous generations, my family name was Levi, which you may recognize as a stereotypically Jewish name, until one man in my family like switched his last name—Levi—with his middle name or first part of his last name—DaCosta—in order to sound less Jewish and more American. Of course, “DaCosta” is Portuguese, not Anglo-American, but I suppose it sounded American—or white—enough. I don’t say this to blame the specific man who did it, because I don’t know enough about the situation and because he probably did it for personal safety and/or acceptance in society, but I do believe that this safety/acceptance resulted in an act that I would classify as one of becoming white.

How white are you? (To what extent are you white?)

To the extent of my white privilege.

For me, I call upon my privilege to think about how white I am because I can’t think of how my whiteness has any other meaning for me. Whiteness isn’t really my heritage—my heritage is Jewish, Lutheran, Portuguese, Jamaican (?), Polish, Prussian, Norwegian, Scotch-Irish, and Anglo-American—though that’s not to say that it doesn’t affect my life. Of course I have white privilege. I haven’t been taught to worry about what a police officer will think of me, I haven’t been told explicitly or implicitly to “go back where I came from,” I’ve never had to look far for examples of white people succeeding in many ways,* and I’ve never been told that my successes were some sort of unfair advantage due to my race or background. There are more ways I could talk about the absences of bias and prejudice towards me based on my whiteness, but I think it would begin to look like a laundry list that someone else could word better. What I want to say is that my whiteness is not an identity in the sense of a heritage; instead, it’s an identity I’ve been subsumed by, and it’s something I experience. As was pointed out during Res Life training, it’s not that white people don’t have an experience of racism, it’s that we have a white experience of racism (and one that allows us to ignore it at the expense of others).

If this seems foreign to you, it may be helpful to put a similar idea in another context, especially if you, like me, have more literacy in queer theory than in race. It’s similar to the way arguing that sexism doesn’t affect men at all is false—of course men don’t experience “sexism against men” or the direct consequence of sexism—but sexist institutions that uphold the notion of feminine people as weaker or more vulnerable in turn promotes toxic masculinity: men don’t have zero experience of sexism; men have a masculine experience of sexism.

Why am I talking about this at all?

Because I believe doing so is an important step in engaging with my own biases.

Because you should be talking about it, yourself.

What I glean from Rev. Monroe’s speech (among other things) and from the Internet is

  1. that POCs don’t want white people to try to understand them; they want white people to try to understand themselves, and from there
  2. recognize their own racism.

While I am still working on these things myself, and while there is much more I could say about the biases and racism I still have to recognize within myself, I consider my exploration of my own whiteness as a starting point. I hope it can be the inspiration for your own starting point to consider your own whiteness.

In addition to Rev. Monroe’s talk, here are some sources I drew upon and would recommend as per the importance of engaging with whiteness. I could try to explain on my own, but I think they do it better:



*I have had difficulty finding many examples of (famous) trans people who have succeeded. It’s not that it’s impossible; it’s more that it’s not mainstream. And when trans people are famous, people often consider their trans-ness to be a key aspect of it, i.e. “Look at what this trans artist did.” This is just my perspective, but as someone who personally wants to be able to exist and have the same successes that cis people can have without their gender identity being a part of it, I find it frustrating. Of course this whole discussion upholds capitalistic ideals of success and productivity, but that would be a conversation for another blog post.


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