My Whiteness Is a Lie

It was just over a year ago (early 2015) that I started learning Mandarin. Since then, I've been surprised to realize the extent to which continuing in this effort is a fundamental part of building my self-identity and my relationship with the world.

"But you're white! How can learning Chinese be part of your self-identity?" This six-article series explores my answers to this question.

Part 2: My Whiteness Is a Lie

One of my key insights while learning Chinese is that "being white" isn't a good explanation of your identity. (Or: it is, but it shouldn't be). Here in Toronto when someone says they're "white," they position themselves as a fully authentic Canadian, obviating the need to learn about and answer for the European existences of their ancestors. White People thereby avoid having to know about the process by which The System (of power relations that structure our society) grants us our privileges. In Canada, "whiteness" is an identity process through which someone gains centricity in Canadian society, and along with it, the ability to erase their heritage and replace it with the generic "Canadians are so nice, eh?" myth. We don't have to answer for (or even understand) the actions of our ancestors, the actions of other White People, or even the actions of other White Canadians. "We're a peace-keeping nation, we're a cultural mosaic, we don't do Things Like That (TM)." (A strange thing to tell yourself when your federal government conducts ongoing cultural genocide against its Indigenous citizens, but that's for another article series).

If your skin is very light and your English accent sounds very similar to mine, these privileges are assumed onto you for free, regardless of how long you've lived in Canada, or where your ancestors used to live. If your skin is not as light and your English accent doesn't soud like mine, you aren't cast as a full Canadian, you aren't granted the privileges of erasing where your ancestors are from. You're held accountable for being from somewhere.

Has your family lived in Canada since the 15th century, but you grew up in Québec so you have a French accent in English? You can still be Canadian, but you're pushed to the edge. Real Canadians speak English---French was just a weird thing we did in high school because we had to. Oh that's weird, you're from Quebec.

Has your family lived in Canada since the beginning of the 20th century, when they arrived from China to work on the transcontinental railroad? Yeah, you don't look Canadian, so your English accent doesn't even matter. Where are you from? Vancouver? No, where are you really from? Like, your parents? Your whole family's from Vancouver? No, come on, you know what I mean, where are you from?

(And let's get this out of the way off the top: my ancestors came to Canada decades after those who came to work on the railroad. But because I'm White, nobody ever asks where I'm from).

There are three points I'm trying to make about this issue of White Canadian privilege. First: White People aren't authentic Canadians, we're from somewhere too, and it's our responsibility to find out where that is and why our ancestors came to Canada---even if it means exploring ten distinct paths back to Europe. Mixture and hybridity do not make a clean slate, they make a complex one. Second: Nonwhite Canadians are authentic Canadians as much as (and only as much as) White Canadians are, and We (White) keep pushing coloured identities onto Them (Nonwhite) in order to mark Them as Other, thereby retaining Our ability to act white power over Them. (Not a conscious attempt, but in the end it's the same thing). By implication, retaining Our clean slate of Whiteness disallows Them from gaining the full privileges of being Canadian. Third, the authentic Canadians are Indigenous people, who tend to show up as footnotes in the White discourse we invent about being Canadian.

And guess what? Did you see how Indigenous people are only the third point just there? And sure it's better than a footnote---it's a full sentence and now a full paragraph---but I'm about to ignore Indigenous issues again. I'm part of the problem here. My reason is that I can't do everything at once, I need to focus on what I can do and how I can improve incrementally. Yet as much as that's true, it's also true that my considerations in this article series largely ignore the cultural placement of Indigenous Canadians, and thereby reinscribe and reinforce the discursive strategies that continually marginalize and disempower Indigenous Canadians. I have a choice between saying and doing nothing, or necessarily reinscribing racism---that's what The System allows me. Super!

What This Means for Me

I'm in the centre of my society. I lived for twenty six years and some months using the cover of my Whiteness to avoid answering difficult questions about my existence. Now I realize that my Whiteness, and Whiteness in general, is a harmful lie. I'm from somewhere, I have a history, I have a community, and now I'm here with what I have because of that. If I'm serious about helping others realize their own identities, about helping our society grow to its full potential, I can't continue to live under the lie that I'm just White. I must disassemble my Whiteness and replace it with awareness of the specificities that lead to my existence.

This project is quite new for me, and I'm not sure what it means. One of the ways I'm taking this up is by seeking answers to the literal questions: were did my ancestors live, when did they move to Canada, and why? But I also need to seek answers about what's happened in Canada. How have my ancestors used Whiteness to create special advantage for themselves? How have they used Whiteness to disempower other people? How can I discourage people from seeing me as "oh you're just white?" How can I encourage other White Canadians to investigate and answer for their ancestry? I don't know yet.

I should also note that I don't by any means believe I'm the first or only person to be thinking along these lines. This post is about how I am coming to terms with my own Whiteness. For years, I've seen humanities scholars and students, social activists, and periodically media on the web. In 2012 I first read Homi Bhabha's writings about stereotype. I'm trying to draw together all of my influences to create something basically for and about myself. One of the implications is that readers who aren't already thinking on this level won't agree with many of my assertions. That's fine, I'm not citing my sources or explaining a complete why behind what I'm saying, so I wouldn't expect someone to believe me unless they know the justification from elsewhere.

Are you saying it's bad to be white?

When I talk about these issues with other White People, I'm often accused of saying that it's bad to be white. People ask me: should I be ashamed of who I am? How am I supposed to stop being white?

That's not what I'm saying. My point is that it's harmful to society to be capital-W White, to use Whitenes as a generic shield. In other words: I wish to encourage people to say "I'm from Canada but my ancestors are from Hungary, France, and Scotland." Reach out and grasp the specificities of your existence. And as a general rule, don't ask about someone else's ancestry unless they ask first.

Why can't I ask a simple question?

White People also often ask me why they can't ask about someone else's ancestry. It's just a simple question, they say, I don't mean to be racist, I just want to know something that's important about living in a multicultural society, why can't I ask a simple question?

This is a complex situation. It's not that you have to avoid finding out, it's not even that you can't ask as such, but you shouldn't do it in the same ways as usual. The problem is caused by the difference between the intention and perception of an action. White People intend to ask innocent questions with no additional implications, but because we're White it's virtually impossible for us to understand how that's perceived. (Lots of people of colour wrote about that already, go read what they say).

My point is to recommend against asking in the usual way. Don't say "Where are you from? No really, where are you from?" The first thing is, when you want to ask this, you probably don't need to know. people usually don't hide this information. When you meet someone new and you want to learn about them, it usually won't take long for a conversation like this to occur:

Them: Last time I went back to Iran, something something something.
You: Oh, so you're from Iran?
Them: Well I was born there but we moved when I was six.

Boom, done. You let the other person tell you when they were ready. Isn't that just polite? Or:

Them: Well my name means "good news" in Arabic, so I like to bring happiness to people.
You: Oh, so do you speak Arabic? Or is it just your name?
Them: Not that well any more, but I studied it in school for a few years in Saudi Arabia.

And there it is. A much better conversation, where you learned about the person rather than trying to pin them down by finding out their race. Those are real conversations I had, by the way.

Next in This Series

  • Part 3: While blood-related family members are an important part of my identity, my Chinese Canadian friends have also significantly influenced my identity and the ways that I think. In this way, my quest to discover Chinese Canadian culture unexpectedly turned into a quest to discover myself.
  • Part 4: Learning a language is hard work, and it's especially easy to become discouraged when you realize that you may be doing more harm than good. In this part I discuss three such incidents that made me reconsider whether to continue learning Mandarin, and why I decided to continue.
  • Part 5: My primary goal was to learn about the ways Chinese and English cultural space interact. Just over a year later, have I learned anything? (Spoiler alert: yes).
  • Part 6: A summary of the preceding articles and a few "take aways" for those of you reading at home.