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My white friend Alice

February 18, 2010

Often in the past I have described a colleague or friend by their race when talking about them – that is if they were a person of color and the person I was talking to was white.  It seemed perfectly normal to me to highlight the difference in skin tone; why it seemed perfectly normal is a question I have asked myself many times. I had never described a white friend by her race color until I played The Race Game.

Thandeka, an African American theologian and author, challenged a white colleague to become aware of her own racial identity by using white as a description for all her Euro-American friends and family members every time she mentioned their name. She recounted how the Race Game worked:

She must say, for instance, ‘my white husband, Phil,’ or ‘my white friend Julie,’ or ‘my lovely white child Jackie.’ . . . I guaranteed her that if she did this for a week and then met me for lunch, I could answer her question [What does it feel like to be Black?] using terms she could understand. We never had lunch together again. Apparently my suggestion had made her uncomfortable.

From Learning to be White: Money, Race and God in America, 2006, p. 3.

Thandeka had similar responses when suggesting the Race Game with others and noted that “they do not hesitate, as I’ve pointed out, to make racial references to others, but they avoid making racial references to themselves and their own community.”

As a white person, I have used terms that I presume to be race-neutral, like woman or man, when they are actually understood as meaning white woman and white man unless I use color as an adjective.

I shared this with a class of graduate students consisting of all white students except for one student who identified as African American. She noted that she uses color descriptors when talking about people and gave some examples, “my Chicano friend,” the black woman” “the white girl.”  What I noticed is that she uses a color descriptor for all people; not just people different from her race.

My white friend Alice and I are talking about this habit we have learned. We are working to unlearn it.

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