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We use terms to label ourselves and others. We struggle over what the terms mean and how they should be applied. But we also define ourselves by the stories we tell. There are two different stories I could tell about myself. Which is true?
I was born in a small city in North Dakota, to parents in the lower middle-class who eventually scratched their way to a comfortable middle-class life through hard work. I never went hungry and always had a roof over my head, but I was expected to work, and I did. >From the time I started shoveling snow as a kid, to part-time and summer jobs, through my professional career, I worked hard. From the time I was old enough to hold a steady job, I have held one. I was a conscientious student who studied hard and took school seriously. I went to college and did fairly well, taking a year off in the middle to work full-time. After graduation I worked as a journalist, in non-glamorous jobs for modest wages, working hard to learn a craft. I went on to get a master’s degree and returned to work before eventually pursuing a doctorate so I could teach at the university level. I got a job at a major university and worked hard to get tenure. I’m still there today, still working hard.
I was born in a small city in North Dakota, to white parents in the lower middle-class who eventually scratched their way to a comfortable middle-class life through hard work. The city I grew up in was almost all white. It was white because the indigenous population that once lived there was either exterminated or pushed onto reservations. It was extremely cold in the winter there, which was okay, people would joke, because it “kept the riff-raff out.” It was understood that riff-raff meant people who weren’t willing to work hard, or non-white people. The assumption was there was considerable overlap in the two groups.
I was educated in a well-funded and virtually all-white school system, where I was taught a variety of skills, including how to take standardized tests written by and for white people. In those schools my accomplishments were applauded and could be seen as part of a long line of accomplishments of people who looked like me. I mostly studied the history of people who look like me. Indigenous people were mostly a footnote.
I worked in part-time and summer jobs for which I was hired by other white people. One of those jobs was in a warehouse owned by a white man with whom my father did business. In that warehouse, we sometimes hired day labor to help us unload trucks. One of the adult men we hired was Indian. His name was Dave. We called him “Indian Dave.” I, along with other white teenage boys working there, called him Indian Dave. We didn’t give it a second thought.
I went to college in mostly white institutions. I had mostly white professors. I graduated and got jobs. In every job I have ever had, I was interviewed by a white person. Every boss I have ever had (until my current supervisor, who was hired three years ago) has been white. I was hired for my current teaching position at the predominantly white University of Texas, which had a white president, in a college headed by a white dean, and in a department with a white chairman that at the time had one non-white tenured professor.
I have made many mistakes in my life. But to the best of my knowledge, when I have screwed up in my school or work life, no one has ever suggested that my failures were in any way connected to my being white.
Both of those stories are true. The question is, can we recognize the truth in both of them? Can we accept that many white people have worked hard to accomplish things, and that those people’s accomplishments were made possible in part because they were white in a white-supremacist society? Like almost everyone, I have overcome certain hardships in my life. I have worked hard to get where I am, and I work hard to stay there. But to feel good about myself and my work, I do not have to believe that “merit” alone, as defined by white people in a white-supremacist country, got me here. I can acknowledge that in addition to all that hard work, I got a significant boost from white privilege, which continues to protect me every day of my life from certain hardships.
At one time in my life, I would not have been able to say that, because I needed to believe that my success in life was due solely to my individual talent and effort. I saw myself as the heroic American, the rugged individualist. I was so deeply seduced by the culture’s mythology that I couldn’t see the fear that was binding me to those myths, the fear that maybe I didn’t really deserve my success, that maybe luck and privilege had more to do with it than brains and hard work. I was afraid I wasn’t heroic or rugged, that I wasn’t special.
I let go of some of that fear when I realized that, indeed, I wasn’t special, but that I was still me. What I do well, I still can take pride in, even when I know that the rules under which I work are stacked in my benefit. Until we let go of the fiction that people have complete control over their fate — that we can will ourselves to be anything we choose — then we should expect to live with that fear. Yes, we should all dream big and pursue our dreams and not let anyone or anything stop us. But we all are the product both of what we will ourselves to be and what the society in which we live encourages and allows us to be. We should struggle against the constraints that people and institutions sometimes put on us, but those constraints are real, they are often racialized, and they have real effects on people.
This essay is excerpted from The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege, City Lights Books.
ROBERT JENSEN is a professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .