Are we whites afraid of not being white enough?

The Rev. Dr. Thandeka is a Unitarian-Universalist minister, theologian and consultant who previously had a successful career as a journalist and TV producer.  “Thandeka” is an African name, meaning “one who is loved by God,” and was given to her by Bishop Desmond Tutu.

In LEARNING TO BE WHITE: Money, Race and God in America (1999], Thandeka told a story about how a white friend asked her what it was like to be black.

Thandeka told the friend to perform the following experiment, which she called the Race Game.

Every time the white friend referred to another white person, she was to say: “my white friend, Bill,” or “my white minister, Rev. Smith”, and report back on her experience within a week.

The white friend couldn’t do it.  Only one person, out of all the white people she asked to try the experiment, could do it.  Why is that?

I imagined myself playing the Race Game.  I would feel uncomfortable doing it.

It is not because the white people who stress white identity the most are racist neo-Nazis and neo-Confederates.  It is rather that, by expressing myself that way, I would be separating myself from white people as a group.

But I don’t believe in white superiority or supremacy.  Why should that make me feel uncomfortable?

Thandeka wrote in 1999 that white racism makes most American white people feel, from a young age, that they would not be loved by their parents or anyone else if they were not white.   Many learned this lesson as children when their parents told them not to play with black children.

White racism is a system of social control that not only holds down black people, but many white people, Thandeka stated; historically, white people were at risk of losing their white status if they married black people, were friends with black people or joining forces politically with black people.

Two particular groups of white people were especially at risk of being considered not quite white enough.

One is the so-called “white trash,” poor rural Southern white people descended from slaves and indentured laborers brought from the British Isles to the American colonies, often in chains and treated no better than livestock.

When the white planter elite decided to replace the white slaves and indentured servants with black slaves from Africa, the poor whites still were poor and politically powerless.

The so-called “wages of whiteness”—the self-esteem that comes from superiority to black people—were paid in counterfeit money.   They were little better off economically than black people and were just as far below the rich white planters and the educated white professionals as they always were.

Much has been made of how millions of black people were excluded from Social Security because it did not cover farm laborers and household servants.  But these same rules excluded millions of poor rural Southern white workers.  The same measures that held down poor blacks held down poor whites.

The other group whose whiteness was in question was the so-called “white ethnics,” immigrants and their descendants in Northern cities, who were regarded by the white business elite as little better than black people.

Newspapers in the early 19th century depicted Irish immigrants as gorillas, and every kind of racist insult that has been applied to black people was applied to Irish and later waves of immigrants.

So-called scientific racism, which was commonly accepted in the Western world at the end of the 19th century, made distinctions not only between whites and other races, but among white subgroups.


As a youth in the early 1950s, I read textbooks about how the Caucasian race was classified into Nordic, Alpine and Mediterranean sub-races.

American immigration law from the 1920s through the 1960s classified Nordics as more desirable immigrants than Italians, Slavs and eastern European Jews, and, of course, Nazi ideology was based on Nordic supremacy, not just white supremacy.

The white ethnics were tasked with proving themselves true white by renouncing their old customs and adopting the ways of the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant upper class.

Thandeka said the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 sought to organize an inter-racial Poor People’s Campaign, but was rejected by most poor white people both North and South.

The “white trash” and white ethnics who supported Gov. George Wallace hated the wealthy white elite, but not because they felt exploited.  They thought the civil rights movement’s goal was to push them down to the level of black people.

Of course they were not the only ones who needed to think of themselves as white, either consciously or subconsciously.  I doubt if many of Thandeka’s white liberal friends were either white ethnics or poor Southern white people.  My own ancestors have lived in this country for at least 250 years, but I would be uncomfortable playing the Race Game.

Thandeka said that white people will only free themselves from “white shame” when we come to realize how much our self-esteem depends on differentiating ourselves from black people, and the phrase “people of color” applies to everyone.

She rejected the notions of “white privilege” and “white guilt,” likening these ideas to the doctrine of original sin.

I would be interested to know what Debby Irving, author of Waking Up White, would have to say to Thandeka.  I would be interested to know whether white Millennials would be willing to play the Race Game.

This is an expanded version of a review published in the May issue of the newsletter of the First Universalist Church of Rochester, NY.


Rev. Thandeka home page.

Why Anti-Racism Will Fail, a talk by Rev. Dr. Thandeka to the 1999 Unitarian Universalist General Assembly.

The Absurdity of Saying “White Privilege” by Teodrose Fiske for The Ghion Journal.

Tags: , , , ,

One Response to “Are we whites afraid of not being white enough?”

  1. williambearcat Says:

    I had forgotten how I Learned that there were three kinds of white.I think the race game sounds intriguing. Might like to play it around some of my family members.

    I do remember that one of the race upsets when I was growing up in Muncie, Indiana was when the area known as shed town “threatened to be integrated. This, as you can tell by the designation shed town was among the poorest areas of Muncie. Poor whites and poor blacks living in the same poor neighborhood was disturbing to say the least.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: