“Daddy What are You?”: thoughts on white skin and Whiteness

I know the day is coming. It won’t be tomorrow, but it is coming. Some day, relatively soon, my daughter is going to ask me what I am. She is going to notice that I am a lighter shade of brown than her mommy. She is going to ask me if I am White. She is also going to ask me if she is White. The easy and most obvious answer is “yes” to both of these questions, but as I have learned– too often the hard way– the easy and most obvious answers are not always the best ones.

In one sense, of course I am White. I am an American of European descent and, in this century and most of the last, that means White. But there is so much more to the story than that. What is White? Where did White come from? What does it mean to be White? These are just some of the questions few take the time to really wrestle with. That is not an accident. If we, folks called White, took the time to wrestle with these questions then race-thinking would be exposed for the house of cards that it is. But that doesn’t help me answer my daughters question. I can know that Whiteness develops out of colonial Virginia after Bacon’s Rebellion. I can know that it was meant to divide and conquer a multiracial underclass and keep them fighting for a semi-elevated position within a inherently violent and oppressive hierarchical social structure. I can even name that this very same strategy is why so many are lured to Donald Trump and the promise of “Making America Great Again” but then what?


As we continue to see, Whiteness erodes the cultures and communities that provide grounding, roots, and sustainability for people and the planet, it is becoming increasingly more important to envision a world free from capital “W” Whiteness. And this is where it can get tricky.

When my daughter does finally ask me what I am — or,more likely, when someone tells her that I am White– they are probably going to be talking about the level of melanin in my skin, and possibly, if they are observant, combining that with other physical features. At least that’s what happens at a conscious level. Subconsciously much more is taking place. When Whiteness, again capital “W”, is prescribed onto folks it is not simply an observation of biology, it comes loaded with sociological implications. It is these implications that make make the “W” capital, that transforms white from a simple adjective into White, the noun.

White, the noun, with the capital “W,” comes with a set of social expectations and norms that perpetuate race thinking, and keeps the revolutionary potential of “the people” from ever coalescing. When folks with white skin accept these social expectations and norms they become White. They become the folks that poison entire cities. They become the folks that justify brutality. They cling desperately to stereotypes and blatant falsehoods to soften the edges of their own brutality. Whiteness is consumption. As Jack Forbes argues Whiteness is cannibalism. Whiteness encourages the objectification of the Earth and the people on it. I do not want to be that. My daughter will not be that. So, how do I answer the question?


When my daughter was born the person who came in to get all the documents ready asked her race, I remembered what my brother told me he said when my niece was born and responded in the same way, “liberated human.” There was an uncomfortable laughter and my wife said biracial to ease the process. Liberated human. Think about that. What would it take to liberate ourselves from the boxes of race thinking and census bubble forms. I just read that Hispanic is now an official race. What does that even mean? What were those people before they were Hispanic? Science has consistently proven that there is truly one human race, and we all belong to it. But too often this scientific truth is leveraged in the service of colorblindness and the norms that White people have established. For there to be a such thing as a “liberated human” the first thing that must be broken are the chains of Whiteness. Those of us with white skin must begin to conceptualize ourselves differently so that we can act in the world differently. We need to be creative, and brave, and sensitive, and fully all the things that humans are or we stand no chance.

When my daughter does ask me what I am. My plan is to answer: “Free.” Here is to getting free.


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