I think its about time I explained the name of my blog. For those that don’t know how heywhitegirl came about, the name be seem strange, offensive even. I promise you my intentions are pure, this is not a white feminist supremacist blog, and there is a story behind it which will explain away all your doubts.
One night, around the time I was trying to come up with the name for heywhitegirl, I was out at a bar opening with some Taiwanese friends of mine. As I made my way to the counter to buy myself a drink I suddenly hear someone yell, “Hey, white girl”, from a few metres away. At this point I had been a few weeks in Taiwan and was growing accustomed to the stares, but having someone single out my skin colour in such an obvious way was unprecedented. Without being quite sure why I felt a rush of intense irritation, and turned to find out who had the gall to shout at me like that. He was a tall, sandy-brown haired, Caucasian man (an American and the owner of the bar I later learnt – not that that made the slightest bit of difference to me).
He stood a distance away from me, drunk and smiling, oblivious to my hostile reception. “Are you actually just yelling at me because I’m white?” I retorted back, still not quite believing what had happened. He waved me off and returned to his friends at which point I went to the bar to get myself a drink (which was very much needed at that point).
I returned to my friends and recounted what had just happened. They were surprised but also couldn’t understand my reaction. ‘Surely being white is not a bad thing’, they countered. I was still trying to process it myself. I was quite sure he did not mean it as an insult, but I still found myself unnerved by the situation. I knew it had something to do with the reductiveness of the American man’s statement, and in such a public and coarse fashion too. Unable to put it into words just yet how I felt, I decided to subject my friends to the same treatment. “Oh hey Taiwanese boy”, I purred repeatedly to my chosen victim as he recoiled visibly at my sickly sweet tone, understanding immediately how I felt.
“Hey girl”, I could have handled. But, “Hey white girl”, meant something different. He was targeting me for a physical quality that was fixed, immutable, and utterly out of my control.
“Hey white girl”.
I had to admit, it had a ring to it (especially coming from Ryan).
I began by thinking my whiteness had more to do with them than with me.
When you move to a society where you are the exception to the rule, you quite quickly become aware of what makes you different. Aware of what makes you other. I had anticipated the stares. I knew it was because of my whiteness, my blonde hair & blue eyes, and it did not bother me the slightest. But having someone shout this out to me across a bar was different. It became confrontational. It made it my business. It was part of my identity that was being called out.
When people merely stared and turned me into the object of their fascination, I felt that it had little to do with me, and more to do with their fascination with Western culture. Yes, I was becoming aware of my whiteness in a way that I had not previously. Yes, I was became more comfortable being referred to as a “Westerner”. My skin colour served as an inflection to which side of the world I came from, but it was a mass membership that had little to do with my sense of personal identity.
“Hey white girl” changing things
Having someone shout “hey white girl” across the bar, a white man himself nonetheless (the Taiwanese are far too polite to act in such a manner) brought my whiteness into the personal sphere. This time there was engagement, or an attempt at least, that was blatantly incited by my gender but even more pointedly by my skin colour. It was easy to bat off strangers that were always destined to remain strangers, but to have a social interaction sought out and determined by my skin colour in such an egregious way was deeply unsettling.
Let me make it perfectly clear at this point that I am not complaining about being white. I am aware that it is a privilege. If anything, this post is an admission of my ignorance to the extent of my privilege before the aforementioned incident. Prior to being called out for my skin colour I had an intellectual understanding of white privilege. I did not know all that it encompassed, to proclaim so would be naïve, but I knew it gave me unfair advantages.
I thought about skin colour in a grandiose, worldly & historical sense of racial discrimination, affirmative action and slavery but not on the minute level of an individual forming their identity in relation to their blackness. I mostly though about skin colour in relation to black people, but not myself.
Unaware of my whiteness
Growing up in Ireland, going to an Irish language school, I grew up in a bubble that did not bring me into contact with people of many other ethnicities. My whiteness made me the same as everyone else. Although of course knew I was white, I was unaware of my whiteness in a deep sense and especially in relation to my personal identity. I though of it purely as physiological manifestation of my body, as unrelated to my sense personal identity as the length my fingers or toes. I realise now that being able to travel to life blissfully unaware of my skin colour was an absolutely privileged position. Of course my skin colour had an impact on my life, but because it was always a positive benefit that made me homogenous to the rest, it was a factor that could remain below the surface of my consciousness while I remained oblivious to its deeper meaning.
From discussions with friends I knew that for people of colour being black formed a part of their identity. Again, it was something that made sense to me, but I never really comprehended what it meant till now. With the mainstream media’s obsession (as opposed to respectful appreciation) with black popular culture (as opposed to the issues facing black communities) it is easy to forget that for black people in white societies, the context above anything else forces them to encounter their blackness in a way that does not happen with white people (or white people in a predominately white society to say the least). A huge part of our self-awareness is derived from understanding what makes us similar or different from others, but precipitating such encounters requires certain contexts & situations.
Let me also make clear that being a white person in Asia did not subject me to the same experiences of a black person in a white society. Far from it; being white in Asia is probably the furthest thing from equivalent and if anything elevated my position of privilege.
What I did gain is a more visceral understanding of the dramatic influence our skin colour has on our experience in the world, as well as our understanding of self. For people of colour this understanding is tangible, thrust upon them as they are the ones considered ‘different’, as opposed to the relationship of difference being equally shared. Being white affords me the luxury of figuring out my identity one degree less in relation to my physical attributes; I can think of myself as a ‘girl’ as opposed to a ‘white girl’. This is something I am currently re-examining at the moment.
White people tend to think of skin colour in relation to other people as oppose to ourselves, but given that we live in a world that continues to bear the stain of racism it would be naïve to think that our skin colour has not moulded our identity in some shape or form. None of what I have said is new, or ground-breaking; it has all been said by people of colour before. My words should not be given any extra weight because I am white. This is simply me detailing my own experiences and efforts of keeping my white privilege in check. It is a form of vigilant self-awareness we should actively pursue, but crucially, it must be of our own volition. It is nobody else’s duty but our own, and certainly not a burden we should place on people of colour.
More to come on this.