Dear Fellow White People,
The time has come for us to stop Whiteclaiming. The time has come for us to stop feigning in aspects of the cultures of non-white people by virtue of proximity. For the sake of brevity I am dubbing this phenomenon whiteclaiming. Whiteclamining occurs when a white person claims specific special understanding of something they associate with an ethnic group based on who they know or where they are from. I’ve seen this most often in discussions of cuisine, in which people will claim to have developed particular special knowledge of Mexican, Chinese, Vietnamese or perhaps Indian food, because they come from an area with a lot of Mexican, Chinese, Vietnamese or Indian restaurants.
Recently my partner and I experienced a very direct and clear example of whiteclaiming. We met with a new friend for beers at a local tap room. As our new friend, a thoroughly urbane and frighteningly pale, graduate student whom we shall call Sarah, sat down she aksed about our evening so far. When mentioned that we grabbed some food at the Mexican American food restaurant across the street and she asked “But was it Good Mexican food?”
My infinitely patient non-white partner who is also the son of Mexican American Immigrants (Yes documented immigrants and that question is a bigoted micro-aggression). Replied that it was solid so-cal Mex.
And she went on to explain with earnest insistence, “Well I’m from the Central Valley of California so I really know Mexican food”.
My boyfriend deserves an award his poise and self control as he did not reply, as I might have, “Well my abuela wasn’t in the back cooking but the tortillas were fresh,” rather he went on to politely guide our obtuse, white friend into a more neutral discussion about central California geography. I was really surprised that the entire interaction didn’t turn confrontational. Later that night after we saw Sarah to the bus stop. I brought it up as soon as she was out of earshot. I was shocked and outraged at her condescension in the specific way that white girlfriends are when they are presented with the everyday expressions of white privilege we never noticed until we’re in an “inter-racial” relationship. He had noticed it too and found it offensive but it wasn’t deal breaker offensive. Sometimes he just wants to have a pleasant evening and get to know a new person without having to explain to that person that her very outlook on life is predicated on assumptions she is only able to make because being a white person lets her walk around unchallenged most of the time. It was more shocking me than it was to him because the behavior is so familiar to him.
Being the well meaning white person that I am I can’t just let that sit. It’s incumbent upon me to use whatever platform up and tell some other white people to stop doing this shit. So fellow white people please stop whiteclaiming.
Stumped Mom How is this an expression of white privilege or a micro-aggression or whatever you snowflakes call these things?
Well, my dear white person, if you lived near volcano would you claim to know all about volcanoes? Sure, you would be aware of the volcano and you know what it looks like, you might have personal stories about rumblings and ash falls but would you sit across from a known volcanologist and claim that scientific credentials? Likely, if you had any sense of self awareness you would not. Thusly growing up near Chinatown no more make you a sino-cultural anthropologist than growing up in Vancouver Washington makes you a volcanologist. So what is it about being a white person and having some tertiary experience of another culture that makes us feel like we have a form of special knowledge? Let’s just sit with that question for a while especially if it makes us feel uncomfortable.
Stumped Mom this sounds like Whitesplaining Don’t you Mean “Whitesplaining”:
Good question fellow white person. The most precise definition I can find for white splaining is in the Wiki Dictionary:
whitesplain (third-person singular simple present whitesplains, present participle whitesplaining, simple past and past participle whitesplained) (colloquial, derogatory, chiefly Internet) To explain (something) condescendingly to one who is not white, especially regarding race relations or minority behavior, presuming the listener’s inferior understanding because of their race.
While whitesplaining is a good frame of reference for understanding whiteclaiming, I have coined the term, to call attention, more precisely, to the ways in which white people will use relational, geographic or other forms of proximity to claim expertise. I expect this may seem obvious to persons of color. And one or more person of color may have already coined a phrase for this phenomenon but I haven’t seen it nor found anything in my searches that captures this particular expression of white privilege. I have noticed that its one of the forms of racist dialogue that white people participate in most often around other white people.
But Stumped Mom this isn’t fair! Can’t I talk about other cultures and other cultural experiences?
Of course you can. And you can do it without sounding like a total blowhard. They key is to qualify your statements. For instance. Our sweet, palid Sarah could have said, “I loved eating at the Cal-Mex restaurants in the central valley where I grew up, how would you say this place rates?” The difference might seem subtle but by being more specific about her experience and expressing curiosity about other, this version of sarah is being humble and genuine.
As a parent I find it is always more effective to correct a behavior by focusing on replacing it rather than eliminating it. When you meet a person of color and you want to talk to them about your understanding of their culture, try treating them like you would an acclaimed volcanologist. Share specific experiences and ask them contextualized questions in ways that recognize them as the authority on the subject. In time you might find that this increases your understanding and maybe even helps you diversify your social circle.