What Makes White People Feel Invisible?

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(The Root— In the latest in a series of Reddit "Ask Me Anything" sessions, our Race Manners columnist, Jenée Desmond-Harris, opened herself up to more of readers' questions about race (and about the story of the Race Manners advice column itself). Check out the conversation here.

Bandjo: How do I apologize for being a white man of no color? Also, if I am of no color, does that mean I am invisible?

Jdesmondharris: I'm pretty sure you're not invisible. But I think what you're saying is that you resent the phrase "people of color" because of the way you feel it leaves white people out or suggests that whiteness is irrelevant, blank or meaningless.


That reminds me of a piece I read a long time ago that really stuck with me. In "The End of White America?" the Atlantic's Hua Hsu quoted a sociologist:

They don't care about socioeconomics; they care about culture. And to be white is to be culturally broke. The classic thing white students say when you ask them to talk about who they are is, 'I don't have a culture.' They might be privileged, they might be loaded socioeconomically, but they feel bankrupt when it comes to culture … They feel disadvantaged, and they feel marginalized. They don't have a culture that's cool or oppositional.

I think that's a huge problem, and I take very seriously the concern that white people feel left out of conversations about racial and social justice that affect "people of color."

I think resentment about the guilt surrounding white privilege, and about feeling "invisible," as you put it, is also something we all have to take seriously if we want everyone to participate in racial progress.


I'd refer you to author and essayist Tim Wise for some reading that might help you start to think about being white in a diverse country in a way that doesn't make you feel left out or defensive but, rather, that you can have an important role in efforts for equality.

Also, if I were you, I would try not to stress out too much about terminology when it comes to race. It's always going to be imperfect, and it will never make tons of sense, because the idea of race itself is imperfect and doesn't make tons of sense. Plenty of people of color don't like the phrase "people of color," either (and plenty would agree with you that it's really problematic that we think of white as "neutral"). And any kindergartner could tell you that humans aren't literally "black" or "white."


My advice is to shelve the concerns about language as you try to address the struggles you're having around how your individual identity is going to interact with the society we live in — where "color" still matters very much.

MintyTyrant: How long have you been doing this work?

Jdesmondharris: I've been writing Race Manners since March 2013. For about a year and a half before that I was writing for The Root, doing a lot of work that touched on the intersection of race with politics and culture. And I've been obsessing over race and racial identity probably since I was around 15 (and formally since I started at Howard University in 1999).


Bonkersmonkers: Very cool! How did you start writing race advice? I've never heard of anything similar.

Jdesmondharris: Hi! Thanks for your question. Well, I've always loved advice columns of all kinds (mostly because I'm really nosy about the types of problems other people have in their lives). I used to try to predict the advice the columnists would give before reading their responses.


A few years ago I started reading Dear Prudence, which is written by Emily Yoffe at The Root's sister site, Slate. She got a few really intriguing questions that touched on race issues. For example, there was this guy who, when he found out his (Asian) wife couldn't have biological children, decided he'd really prefer to adopt a white child. Awkward.

A few questions like that gave me the idea that an entire column dedicated to hard questions about race and the way we interact with family, friends and co-workers could be really interesting. I love it because people write in with sincere questions and really want to understand something, help someone or do the right thing.


And it's so rare that we hear race and racism discussed in that context. Usually we don't address it until someone has been attacked or offended, and then the public conversation is adversarial, and no one's in the right state of mind to think critically or compassionately. I try to take the time to talk to experts, read up on history and write understanding responses that encourage empathy, so I hope RM is refreshing in that way.

cyhawk31: How do you personally feel about stereotypes?

Jdesmondharris: I think they exist (obviously), and we're all (really, all of us) affected by them to some extent. Normally the question surrounding a particular stereotype is "Is it based in truth? Is it generally true?" I think a better one is, "How would you feel if someone applied that stereotype to you and treated you differently because of it?"


Normally the answer is somewhere between "annoyed" and "pretty terrible." So I don't think the best idea is to beat up ourselves and others for buying into or mistakenly perpetuating stereotypes. It's probably more productive to just try to be more aware of when we're doing it and to think about whether the intellectual laziness is worth the potential harm to others and to our relationship with others. Most times, that would be a definite "no."

The Root's staff writer, Jenée Desmond-Harris, covers the intersection of race with news, politics and culture. She wants to talk about the complicated ways in which ethnicity, color and identity arise in your personal life — and provide perspective on the ethics and etiquette surrounding race in a changing America. Follow her on Twitter.


Need race-related advice? Send your questions to racemanners@theroot.com.

Previously in Race Manners:  "Please Stop Assuming All Blacks Are Christian"

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