'Witnessing Whiteness': The concept of whiteness is elusive

by Mary Ann McGivern

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Shelly Tochluk, author of Witnessing Whiteness, says the concept of whiteness is elusive. When I'm in a group that's mostly black, I feel "all eyes," looking out from myself and knowing I stand out even though I can't see myself. What does it mean that I'm white in a black group?

What does it mean to me to be one of a few whites marching with blacks? Then I'm proud  and hopeful that change can happen.

What does it mean to me to be a white member of a mostly black small meeting? Then I'm a little nervous, monitoring myself that I don't speak too much and assessing if I could do tasks that would take me into the black community or if I should work with whites.

What does it mean to me to be one of the few white riders on a crowded early-morning bus? They're going to work, and I'm carrying my suitcase on the way to catch a plane and visit friends and family. Then I feel conscious of my privilege, and I squirm a little, seeing lunchboxes carried by middle-aged men and women looking tired already in the early morning. But I also feel a little envious of the camaraderie of the regulars among themselves and with the driver. I'm the interloper.

But when I'm white with whites, I lose that self-consciousness and forget to question my privilege or wonder what it means that I'm white in a white group. Tochluk says some days, she's absolutely clear in her perception of whiteness, and other days, the perception blurs. She quotes Ruth Frankenberg that viewing whiteness as a process can be helpful.

Tochluk brings lots of resources to bear as she looks at whiteness, and I begin to focus not on how I am with blacks, but how I am with whites and how I am in my own skin.

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