To My White Friends: Understanding the Privilege of Your Individualized, "Non-Political" Identity
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Politics and Activism

To My White Friends: Understanding the Privilege of Your Individualized, "Non-Political" Identity

The difference between being seen as an individual versus part of a politicized group is stark

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To My White Friends: Understanding the Privilege of Your Individualized, "Non-Political" Identity
Dr. Rich Swier

When thinking of my identity as a white woman I often struggle with seeing my personal identity as being formed, at least in part, by historical and cultural factors. It is very easy to fall into the trap of thinking of my identity formation as something wholly individual, and not politicized, due to the “neutral” perception of white histories (and bodies) and their influence in a Global North-driven globalized world. This struggle does not result from a failing on my part to recognize the privilege traditionally and contemporarily afforded to “my” stories—my degrees in Politics and History of Art & Visual Culture keep me actively interrogating how global histories have been reduced to appalling white master narratives by ethnocentrism. But it does stem from how little connection I feel to these histories, and how much effort I have spent critiquing and rejecting their validity, and the value systems imposed and reinforced when such veracity goes unquestioned.

I do not feel very deep ties to my cultural past—as my ethnicity is an amalgamation of European nationalities, I do not even feel a confident link to a specific region—or my cultural present. Which other white people am I supposed to have commonalities with, and why? Only others of the same European decent, even if we have no direct knowledge of the customs or value systems in our past? What if we have the knowledge but not the pride? Who do we turn for solidarity to then? In fact, in my study of identity politics, I often catch myself envying those with a more immediate connection, through material culture and in their relationships with one another. To the outsider looking in, this presents an outward, although false, sense of coherence in collective identity as a result. But while I may, at times, desire for a collective identity to which I can relate and attach myself, I must stop that way of thinking as soon as it arises, because I am privileged enough to not be lumped into a "group" and its stereotypes in my daily life. And if one cannot be read as an individual with complex humanity, it can be easy to lose a sense of being and place in the world, so I must be willing to put away my yearning for cultural continuity in my life to avoid flattening the experiences of myself and others.

In light of all of these contradictions in understanding myself as a middle-class white woman in a larger political framework, I feel great privilege in my ability to remain self-assured in an individual (and therefore, interior) understanding of my identity and its development. The historical, cultural, and economic factors that influence my political identity (as a part of the sum collective of white individuals) are often difficult to neatly trace within that structure, but are actually quite clear to me on a personal level. This may be due to the closeness of my immediate family—I am an only child and grew up with two very hands-on parents—but the strong impact of my parents and their personal identities and histories (culturally and economically) have made themselves altogether evident in my personhood since a young age.

My father’s family history just between the generations of his parents and his siblings has had a huge impact on the way my dad wanted to raise me: he came from an upper-middle-class preppy East Coast family who made their money in agribusiness and were locally famous in rural Pennsylvania. They always strongly valued education, enough for my grandparents to finance eight children’s college careers, but were also pretty “square,” leaving my father a black sheep (or at least piebald) who went to the big cities of New York and Los Angeles to work in the entertainment industry. My mother’s family history was vastly different but led to similar values: my maternal grandmother was the daughter of an Italian immigrant and American-born Italian who, in an effort to assimilate their children, greatly restricted the presence of Italian customs in her home. With this history, my grandma grew up filtering herself through the lens of respectability politics, but finally cracked this oppressive force when she divorced my grandfather, successfully raising three daughters on her own while having an equally successful career, securing retirement funds for herself and financial support for her children. My mom grew up with a strong female role model who, as an individual, broke the mold of societal expectations for women; thus, unlike my father, individuality was always a celebrated part of her worldview, but she wanted to give me some of the structural support she had missed (like a solid educational foundation) while her mother was busy fighting harder every day to be respected in spite of her difference.

This beautiful marriage of structure and freedom was present throughout my upbringing and is, to me, the clearest characteristics of my personality (what I think of as my internal identity); I’m determined and work well within the rigors of institutions, but have always celebrated my uniqueness and the beauty such self-confidence allows to anyone willing to accept the complexity of their individuality. It is with this self-identification that I feel a connection, to the immediate family I know in relation to myself and through their stories that I have to draw upon. However, I must always be able to hold this in tandem with my outward identity, the histories written on my skin that are read with as little as a look. I cannot forget that these histories’ political influence shapes my ability to self-identify the way that I do, and sometimes that is just as important, if not more, as the identity I am fortunate enough to construct.

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.
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