Cook: What does it mean to be white?

Cook: What does it mean to be white?

June 8th, 2014 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse /Times Free Press.

Let sincere white individuals find all other white people they can who feel as they do.

- Malcolm X

It's been 20 years since O.J., and racial healing and understanding in America remain out of reach, like two figures in a white Bronco speeding down the highway that we never can catch.

We talk and argue about headlines -- Donald Sterling, the neo-Nazis coming to town, playing the race card -- but we dodge and dance around what's underneath them. So we get nowhere.

There is one largely unnoticed question we in America should be asking, and it's only a question for some of us, the ones in white America.

What does it mean to be white?

Here in Hamilton County, white people are 75 percent of the population. We own 86 percent of the businesses. Our richest neighborhoods are full of white people. So are the board rooms, private schools and chambers of government.

But what does our whiteness even mean?

When we mark "white" in the race box on the forms we fill out, are we simply identifying ourselves as people with light skin? Or is it more -- much, much more -- than that?

Is there such a thing as white culture? If so, do I share in it with every other white Chattanoogan?

Can I be proud of my whiteness without sounding like a skinhead?

These questions matter, because we are the elephant in the room -- the white elephant, our color the dominant color in most every page of the American story. It's time we understood what it means, for it is in our obliviousness that we cause the damage we do.

Our whiteness is a luxury; in a society where black and brown Chattanoogans are acutely, daily and sometimes painfully aware of their color, we in our white skin can go our entire lives without ever thinking about ours.

"White people need to talk about this with white people," said Rachel Rudi.

Not long ago, Rudi and I -- two white Chattanoogans -- sat down together and talked about what it means to be white.

"I'm from Vermont," Rudi said, with a grin. "We're nice and liberal and white and middle class. We all like black people; we just don't know any."

Rudi awoke to the issue of race through music. In school, she studied and sang black spirituals and ancient songs from Africa passed down, as she put it, "in a waterfall of tradition."

One day, it hit her: She, a white woman, was singing black songs, full of history and heritage. Where was hers? And were these songs ever hers to sing, or had they been misappropriated by a voiceless white America? Something in her mind creaked open:

What is your heritage? Who makes you what you are and why?

That was many years and much soul-searching ago; these days, Rudi tries to engage her white friends with these questions, guiding informal discussions around what it means to be white.

"We, too, are scarred from the orchestrated whitewashing of our own heritage in order to perpetuate racism, and we need to recover from it," she said.

To talk about this is to enter a land of contradictions, shame and pride. White heritage is everything from American presidents to slaveholders (sometimes, one and the same). It is Confederate flags, the invention of Apple, baseball and grunge rock. We are Margaret Sanger, Emily Dickinson and the men who crucified Emmett Till.

So we cannot examine the contributions of our whiteness without also examining our -- yes, our -- legacy of racial violence, and doing so can leave us struggling in a negative space of hesitancy and confusion.

"The negative space is that we don't know how to reconcile what we've done," Rudi said. "The struggle is to reconcile aspects of your culture that you love and are ashamed of."

Whiteness is a privilege, a daily checkmate. Like those moving walkways in airports, we find ourselves automatically ahead of things, without even trying. Yet whiteness can also be a beautiful thing, part of the panoply of color that makes up humankind.


Or is our whiteness only to be measured in contrast to the experience of non-white America? In other words, did we become white only by making others black, brown, yellow or red?

This is what we as whites have a responsibility to talk about. We must work to understand all shades of who we are -- "the trauma and the heritage," Rudi said -- so that our whiteness can become more of a color and culture, and less of a weapon.

Contact David Cook at or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.