published Sunday, June 8th, 2014

Cook: What does it mean to be white?

Let sincere white individuals find all other white people they can who feel as they do.

— Malcolm X

It's been 20 years since O.J., and racial healing and understanding in America remain out of reach, like two figures in a white Bronco speeding down the highway that we never can catch.

We talk and argue about headlines -- Donald Sterling, the neo-Nazis coming to town, playing the race card -- but we dodge and dance around what's underneath them. So we get nowhere.

There is one largely unnoticed question we in America should be asking, and it's only a question for some of us, the ones in white America.

What does it mean to be white?

Here in Hamilton County, white people are 75 percent of the population. We own 86 percent of the businesses. Our richest neighborhoods are full of white people. So are the board rooms, private schools and chambers of government.

But what does our whiteness even mean?

When we mark "white" in the race box on the forms we fill out, are we simply identifying ourselves as people with light skin? Or is it more -- much, much more -- than that?

Is there such a thing as white culture? If so, do I share in it with every other white Chattanoogan?

Can I be proud of my whiteness without sounding like a skinhead?

These questions matter, because we are the elephant in the room -- the white elephant, our color the dominant color in most every page of the American story. It's time we understood what it means, for it is in our obliviousness that we cause the damage we do.

Our whiteness is a luxury; in a society where black and brown Chattanoogans are acutely, daily and sometimes painfully aware of their color, we in our white skin can go our entire lives without ever thinking about ours.

"White people need to talk about this with white people," said Rachel Rudi.

Not long ago, Rudi and I -- two white Chattanoogans -- sat down together and talked about what it means to be white.

"I'm from Vermont," Rudi said, with a grin. "We're nice and liberal and white and middle class. We all like black people; we just don't know any."

Rudi awoke to the issue of race through music. In school, she studied and sang black spirituals and ancient songs from Africa passed down, as she put it, "in a waterfall of tradition."

One day, it hit her: She, a white woman, was singing black songs, full of history and heritage. Where was hers? And were these songs ever hers to sing, or had they been misappropriated by a voiceless white America? Something in her mind creaked open:

What is your heritage? Who makes you what you are and why?

That was many years and much soul-searching ago; these days, Rudi tries to engage her white friends with these questions, guiding informal discussions around what it means to be white.

"We, too, are scarred from the orchestrated whitewashing of our own heritage in order to perpetuate racism, and we need to recover from it," she said.

To talk about this is to enter a land of contradictions, shame and pride. White heritage is everything from American presidents to slaveholders (sometimes, one and the same). It is Confederate flags, the invention of Apple, baseball and grunge rock. We are Margaret Sanger, Emily Dickinson and the men who crucified Emmett Till.

So we cannot examine the contributions of our whiteness without also examining our -- yes, our -- legacy of racial violence, and doing so can leave us struggling in a negative space of hesitancy and confusion.

"The negative space is that we don't know how to reconcile what we've done," Rudi said. "The struggle is to reconcile aspects of your culture that you love and are ashamed of."

Whiteness is a privilege, a daily checkmate. Like those moving walkways in airports, we find ourselves automatically ahead of things, without even trying. Yet whiteness can also be a beautiful thing, part of the panoply of color that makes up humankind.


Or is our whiteness only to be measured in contrast to the experience of non-white America? In other words, did we become white only by making others black, brown, yellow or red?

This is what we as whites have a responsibility to talk about. We must work to understand all shades of who we are -- "the trauma and the heritage," Rudi said -- so that our whiteness can become more of a color and culture, and less of a weapon.

Contact David Cook at or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

Comments do not represent the opinions of the Chattanooga Times Free Press, nor does it review every comment. Profanities, slurs and libelous remarks are prohibited. For more information you can view our Terms & Conditions and/or Ethics policy.
vegetable2 said...

Why don't you and Rudi ask the many poverty stricken white people how privileged they feel? Colors are not weapons. The worst weapon people have going against them is generally themselves.

June 8, 2014 at 7:52 a.m.
aae1049 said...

Oh you bleeding hearts that think you also understand the black experience.

You don't have a clue.

June 9, 2014 at 12:08 a.m.
timbo said...

That was about the dumbest thing I have ever read. I know it is getting old, me saying that about Cook, but it just gets worse and worse. Cook, like most liberals, is confused about racism and cultural bias.

He says, "Our whiteness is a luxury; in a society where black and brown Chattanoogans are acutely, daily and sometimes painfully aware of their color, we in our white skin can go our entire lives without ever thinking about ours." Yea, this is a guy that teaches at GPS. That culture made fun of my Soddy-Daisy culture unmercifully when I was growing up. This is the guy who is teaching us about race.

Believe me, you liberal white guilt idiots and ethnic groups continually try to make us think about it. It is the excuse they all use for failure. Whitey did it to me, it was whitey's fault, blah, blah, convenient. Where are these white people meetings going on to plan on how to keep the black man down by the way? I have never been invited to one.

This is not a racial thing in is a cultural thing. I believe that some cultures are superior to other cultures when it comes to competition and survival. European culture has dominated the sciences, politics, and economics for 3 thousand years. When other cultures emulate this success, they become successful also. Prime examples are Japan, India and China. They kept the important parts of their cultures but emulated the Western culture to become more competitive.

If some cultures choose to ignore these facts and they fail, it is no surprise.

Black, brown, polka-dot, doesn't matter, if you work hard and make cultural changes you can make it.

Also Rudi said, " "The negative space is that we don't know how to reconcile what we've done," Rudi said. "The struggle is to reconcile aspects of your culture that you love and are ashamed of." Can you imagine sitting an talking to Cook and Rudi? I would rather watch too soap operas at the same time.

I haven't done anything to anybody. You don't have to be "ashamed" when you haven't done anything. What a small majority of white people did hundreds of years ago has nothing to do with me. Should Africans today pay reparations or be ashamed of the African potentates who sold their own race into slavery hundreds of years ago? There would have been no slavery if that hadn't happened.

Anyone that feels the way Rudi does is free to find a black person and write them a check for your white guilt. Your just not getting any of my money for something I didn't do.

The liberal mind is so confused it is mind-boggling.

This newspaper has turned so liberal it is difficult to not puke when you read it. All the local columnists are liberal/democrat except Robin Smith (and she is too preachy).

Cook is awful.

June 9, 2014 at 11:45 a.m.
conservative said...

With that caption and Mr. Cook writing the piece, why read it?

If you know the character of the beast you can predict the conduct of the beast.

June 9, 2014 at 12:05 p.m.
timbo said...

conservative...I know..I know..I shouldn't have but it is like a train can't help but look.

June 9, 2014 at 3:13 p.m.
ryansflamingo said...

"Yea, this is a guy that teaches at GPS. That culture made fun of my Soddy-Daisy culture unmercifully when I was growing up. This is the guy who is teaching us about race."

Timbo, I don't agree with Cook's take on this either. However, I fail to see how your opinion of GPS has anything to do with this. Cook no longer works at GPS but he was an excellent teacher while there. Maybe you should visit there. Best, a GPS graduate from Soddy Daisy

June 9, 2014 at 11:55 p.m.
timbo said...

ryansflamingo... I said when I was growing up. I graduated in 1973. When we played basketball with Baylor of McCallie or GPS, we would even see students holding insulting signs. One I recall said, "When you grow up you will work for my dad."

I know nothing of GPS, Baylor, McCallie, now. The point that I was making is that a lot of us could claim being mistreated in one way or the other , not just ethnic groups.

As far as Cook's ability to teach, with his obvious bias and strange philosophy I wouldn't want him teaching my kids. Philosophy matters in the way teachers guide course work and make sly comments to push their political agendas. I had teachers that did that constantly.

I respect your opinion.

June 10, 2014 at 10:11 a.m.
webber87 said...

This "whiteness" fad is great! Yet, we always seem to leave the American Asians out of the conversation and how well their doing despite my skin color. Speaking of white heritage and the mentioning of the Progressive idol Margret Sanger(Founder of Planned Parenthood), I know no other White Liberal that killed more people of color than her. Let us have more informal conversations about how Progressive/Liberal White American heritage.

June 10, 2014 at 10:48 a.m.
sagoyewatha said...

Timbo, you are SPOT ON! Pleasure to read your contributions.

June 10, 2014 at 11:24 a.m.
mtnreader said...

aae1049, unless you are black, you can't understand the "black experience" either. "Have a clue" is a gross overstatement, however. And it has nothing to do with being a "bleeding heart," which is simply another label you attach to people with whom you don't agree. Just because we can never fully understand how it is to be another gender, race, etc. does not mean we shouldn't try to understand and appreciate others' positions -- just as we hope they appreciate try to appreciate ours. And how much do we, as white people, actually examine or know our own histories? Because we've made up the majority, our history is often taken to be everyone's history. The truth is our history is the combination of everyone's history in our nation and the world. To quote the nephew of Byron de la Beckwith, whose uncle lived on Signal Mountain after he assassinated Medgar Evers, "it's not just your history -- it's our history." (link below). And to attack anyone for encouraging us each to examine our history is just another way to deny your own history.

June 16, 2014 at 12:18 p.m.
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