White People Don’t Know They’re White

Before I Explain What I Mean

First, let me tell you why I’m writing about this.  This is a post about people not knowing what they don’t know.  When you don’t know what you don’t know, it really gets in the way of being effective.  If you are completely unaware of something, then you are missing out on a whole world.  If you are basing your understanding of the world on the assumption that everyone thinks like you, you CANNOT communicate effectively because you are starting from the wrong place.

Now Let Me Explain

I have to be careful how I explain this.  I told a close friend that white people don’t know that they’re white–several times–and  years later a conversation made it obvious that not only did she not understand what I meant, she didn’t believe me either.  I have always thought I was pretty aware of the issues of race relations. I know now that I really didn’t have a clue.

A few years ago, I worked for a large minority organization.  I was one of two white employees.  I was aware of my “whiteness” all the time.  My mind did that to me.  It made me think about it all the time. There are lots of studies about this–we notice differences.  Most importantly, we notice how we’re different.  I was aware of my difference.  It was a new experience for me.  Minorities feel this all the time–wherever they are in the minority–in the grocery store, at movies, at restaurants.  That awareness–that you are different–and the assumptions you make about what the others are thinking shape your interactions with people.

A Fish In Water

If you never have a minority experience, though, you never become aware of your “whiteness” or your “otherness-of-any-kind”  (this doesn’t just apply to white people–it applies to all majorities).  If you never have that experience, then you never really “get” it.  Being white in many communities in the United States,  is like being a fish in water–the fish isn’t aware of the water.  It just exists in that environment.  There is a lot of baggage that goes with that water–privilege, history of mistreatment, institutional racism–that many white people are not consciously aware of.  That doesn’t mean it isn’t there, though.

The hyper awareness that minorities experience helps create the assumption that white people are equally aware of minorities.  They aren’t.  Of course there are situations where what I’m saying isn’t true.  And certainly, there are racists who are more aware.  Most white people, though, are not only unaware of their own “whiteness,” they are pretty oblivious to non-white people, too. They don’t walk into a grocery store and notice all the minorities.   At a conscious level.  There is stuff happening at the subconscious level, though, for everyone.

I learned from one of the best professors I ever had, Dr. Martin Gooden at Wright State University, that there is a thing called in-group favoritism.  People see  members of  their in-group as having positive characteristics and members of their out-group as having more negative characteristics.  This applies to OKC Thunder and Dallas Maverick fans, to Democrats and Republicans, and to majorities and minorities.  This happens without our thinking about it, at the unconscious level.  It has very far-reaching impact though.  It gets in the way of openness to getting to know each other.

Let’s Make It Better

So, why is this important? Because it plays out all over the place.  Non-white people don’t experience the freedom of not thinking  about being a minority.  They also aren’t aware of what they experience at the unconscious level–their unconscious assumptions. White people don’t understand that  non-white people have a difference experience.  And all that unspoken/not understood stuff plays out at work, at church, in politics, everywhere.

Until we understand this and pull it out into the open, it never gets any better. That means that we need to talk about it.  We need to understand the tricks our brains play on us.  We need to understand the water we swim in.



Filed under Communication, Diversity, Inclusion

4 responses to “White People Don’t Know They’re White

  1. Dallas

    It’s interesting to see some my co-workers outside of the firewall. At times while out shopping I may see a co-worker who I’ve worked closely with, and In this social situation, I can tell they are uncomfortable admitting to their spouse, or other family / friends that they know someone that is black. Or it’s always interesting to note how a white person that I know from work, just don’t see minorities, unconsciously, this is a non-white person, no need in me looking in that direction, because I only know white people… Talk about a fish in / out of water, being black, so often you are the only black person on the team, in the meeting, on the project. I once asked a white co- worker how would he feel being the only white person working at a black owned company, he responded, that he wouldn’t take the job. My response was, I deal with this everyday, as a matter of fact, I’ve been doing it so long that being the fish out of water starts to feel normal…. In the news lately, men making decisions about women’s health, I often wonder how can a room full of white people in the C suites make decisions about race and diversity and they not have a clue of the experience of being a fish out of water…

  2. really insightful. makes you think

  3. Cynthia Hauck

    I have been a member of the majority in Ohio, and a minority in Asia. I became aware of the minority experience on one level when I lost one of my best programmers because he felt he could not find a large enough minority community to find a social group and a life partner. (He is now happily married with a 2 yr old in San Diego) Other incidents happened over the years and I’m grateful to my minority friends for tolerating my ignorant questions about their personal lives. (Why do black people seem to spend so much on obituaries in the paper? Where do you all go for fun, I never see you in the clubs/restaurants I go to? and so on)

    On one occasion, I remember a group of women meeting for dinner at a local restaurant. Our lone black member showed up a bit late, asking for the women’s group. She was told there was no such group! Because the hostess assumed it would be a group of black women… no malice intended at all, just a deep seated perception. And unintended hurt, embarassment, and other emotions on all sides. Thankfully, we were all able to discuss it, but likely couldn’t “fix” it.

    I learned what it’s like to be a minority when I moved to Asia and came to appreciate the level of comfort in my surroundings that I had taken for granted. I never realized before how hard it can be to constantly be the one who feels different. None of the people I work with and cherish as friends here would ever consciously make me feel uncomfortable, but it’s always a relief when I get home and can just relax, or call my friends back home who understand me on a deeper level. There are barriers here that I can’t even begin to understand or remove. (I never stop trying though!)

    For now, I try to balance my desire to blend culturally with my need to be comfortable. And I forgive myself when I just want to be around other professional, American, white, single, childless women living in a foreign country. Talk about a minority! I usually have to settle for whatever subset of that demographic is available to share a glass of wine when I need a dose of being a fish IN water!

  4. Reblogged this on Jo McDermott and commented:


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