Thursday, September 24, 2009

Nice White Lady

Monica Yancey will be a Peace Corps Volunteer in Niger for 27 months starting in October of 2009. Her blogs are Monica's Universe and Compassionate Witness.

What's with the tittle, you ask? Click here before reading further and find out.


There is a great line in Al Gore's Inconvenient Truth (which I am recalling only from memory)—where he says that many people approach global warming with three stages--denial, knowledge and then despair. He suggests that there are more choices than that--despair needn't be the natural progression of increased knowledge. We can create a world where we have no reason for despair. When it comes to my own understanding of race and racism, I have too often fallen prey to either denial or despair, only briefly pausing to experience knowledge.

I will be serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer for the United States Government in Niger, Africa for the next 27 months as a Community Health Educator. One of the issues with my Peace Corps Service is my own discomfort with being Nice White Lady. My problem with being a Nice White Lady really lies in the reality that as an outsider I do not know what’s best for a culture I am not a part of. I could go on and on. Of course, I don’t mind being an actual nice white lady (I am white and I do tend to be nice). However, the savior motif as seen in the Nice White Lady film genre is ridiculous at best.

"Whitely" is a term introduced to me by Dr. Fred Lee--it describes a white person who is (often obnoxiously) unaware of how his or her privilege and worldview are impacted by their racial identity. Dr. Lee said to me, "You can be white, but you don't have to be whitely." In other words, you can't help being Caucasian, nor would anyone suggest that you do, but you can try to think about your racial identity once in awhile in relation to other people and make choices from a thoughtful space. (I tried to find the original "whitely" source but could not--excuse my simplified definition).

In my experience, white people don't typically face discrimination based on skin color and even when they do it differs from the racism that people of color face—if for no other reason than historical context and the power that historical context carries. Actually thinking about race, for me at least, has been a conscious decision. To compare, no one had to explain feminism to me--I totally understood gender inequity ten seconds after I was born. Race, however, has been a different process because I was born into a system where my race was absent, natural, default and normal. In short, I was born white and whitely.

So what now?

The opportunity to be in the Peace Corps is not something I take lightly and if I didn’t believe that I could spend my time in Niger in a meaningful and non-whitely way I would not be going. I want to help when help is needed (and not help when it isn't). I know ultimately, it is me going to Niger, not a Nice White Lady. But let’s face it—I can't go to Niger without being a white person. I have to wonder what that will mean. I wonder what the impacts of my racial identity will be on those around me.

I am going to keep Al Gore's idea in mind here and try not to used increased knowledge as a quick stepping stone from denial (white and whitely) to despair (nothing I can do).

Ignorance would be bliss if it didn’t harm those who have no choice but to see. It is for this reason that I choose knowledge over denial and despair.

In Niger, I will be white, but hopefully I will not be whitely.

43 comments:

Bonnie and Jinlen's African Adventure said...

Great post- I look forward to more of your experiences. I am writing my Dissertation on Education For All, a UNESCO education program. I am doing an ideological critique based in CRT. I conducted my interviews in Mali, Benin, Burkina Faso, Ghana, and Togo. I am a white woman and I was very conscious of my words and actions. I had many experiences that have hopefully helped me not be whitely. Good luck and thanks for sharing.
Bonnie

Cat Up North said...

I am going to use your explanation of the "whitely" term with my students this year, and see if it helps them grasp the ideas of self-reflexivity around issues of skin privilege. Thanks for this post, and good luck in the Peace Corps.

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