Sartaj Anand

Founder, Egomonk , Melton Foundation

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What does it mean to be White ?

The historical oppression and plight of people with darker skin color has been extensively documented in the recent past and I've found that a great deal of "Black" identity is tied into color.

And this makes me wonder if "White" people ever think about themselves in terms of color. So I ask you, what does it mean to be White ? Does it shape your heritage your thoughts your views or your life ?

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    Nov 19 2011: I start my answer with an illustrative story. I know a woman who worked in a factory after her father threw her out of the house for standing up to his abuse. He was a tyrant at the factory too and his men hated him. When she started there they made her life miserable for being his daughter without ever stopping to realize that she was a far greater victim of his abuse than they ever were.

    I have lived my life as a white woman. As a young adult I learned that my great grandmother was a First Nations woman. My French Canadian great grand father realized the sense in marrying a full partner in a harsh land. Their daughter, a half breed- married a white man who treated her like a slave and she died at 56 after giving birth to more than ten children.

    My grandmother on the other side came from England as a bonded servant. As an orphaned child of 13 the English put her on to a ship to slave for seven years in a strange land at a time when they were clearing their society of undesirables.. She had been told that she was 18 and it was only when she tried to retire that they informed her that she was actually 5 years younger than she realized and she had to work for 5 more years in a hosptial laundry. A more interesting point is that she might not have really been an orphan but the half breed daughter of an English soldier and woman from India.

    The point of my story is this: Who do we hate in the stories above? What is the point? Do I untangle my DNA to hate part of myself or do I realize the real lesson? There are NO purely white people anywhere. There are no victimless histories. Even among pure white people, the greatest victims might be their own women and children. If we are to create a better world we must realize that hating is simply picking up the tactics of the broken and the cruel. Why bother with them? Why not start with a heart and a purpose that does not mimic the slavers, the oppressors and the short sighted of all colours who destroy and just do better?
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      Nov 20 2011: Well said my dear, well said. I could not have put it any better.
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      Nov 20 2011: Debra, it seems reality is more fictitious than fictions !!!
      Emotively touchy facts you shared......
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        Nov 20 2011: Salim, we all have amazing family histories of suffering and triumph. I am just willing to share mine so that we can all use it as an illustration. Big hug to you my friend.
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      Nov 21 2011: I posed this question to see how others would choose to interpret it. Would they think of race, history, human nature or would they simply be led to introspect on something they simply assumed and hadn't given much thought ? The responses here have covered much more than I ever anticipated and I'd like to thank you Debra for sharing your story, participating in the collective intelligence and making this discussion so much more personal.
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    Nov 20 2011: The answer to the main question is
    lack of enough melanin pigment according to science.
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    Nov 20 2011: QUOTE: "What does it mean to be White ?"

    I'm white. And I live in China where some people see me as inferior, some see me as superior, and some see me as a person.

    I have also lived in Africa (for seven years) where I was quite obviously a member of a visible minority.

    I don't really know what it means to be white. I don't think of myself in those terms but, apparently, some do.

    I guess one thing it might mean is I would have to go back a few more generations, than some, to find my black ancestors.


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    As to historical oppression: I don't really think it's a "white" thing; I think it is a "human" thing (that I hope we have outgrown.) The history of the world includes many, many tales of "a people" oppressing "another people." They have not always been white.
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      Nov 21 2011: I am a Sikh (an ethnic minority) and had similar experiences during my travels in China. The way they saw me was an eye-opener and made me introspect.

      You are right about oppression being independent of race. I merely mentioned it to highlight how strongly it ties into the "Black" identity as, for example, is expressed through ragtime, jazz and numerous other musical (and cultural) offshoots.
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    Nov 20 2011: I heard this song today and thought of your discussion Sartaj so I thought I would share it here:

    "The piano keys are black and white but they sound like a million colours in your mind" Katie Melua

    http://youtu.be/tK2z1G20_9U
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    Nov 20 2011: She then came to live and stay with my ancestor. She helped around the house and was a nanny to his children there she learnd to speak a little english and went about with paper and pen describing and drawing pictures of the life of her people and her. They lived on a somewhat isolated island from the rest of the population . When it became known that my ancestor was harboring a young native girl. The local bishop stepped in with disapproval and had the girl removed from my ancestors care. Upon my ancestors return from a business trip from england he was insenced and petitioned the govenor to have her returned as he was afraid for her safety and proximity to the white population. The Governor Hamilton husband of Lady Hamilton of Lord Nelson fame) agreed as my ancestor was a very prominent person in the district. a local business man and Magistrate. Some time later while he was once again away on business. The bishop and a famous explorer and anthropogist came and took the young native girl.To the City and there they studied her and introduced her to the High society as some sort of freak . Before my ancestor could petition again against the church and high society the girl succumbed to a disease she contracted from long exposure to the white population. Later she was denied the dignity of being buried in a Christian cemetary as she was not baptised. The ultimate insult of her short life. It was not until my ancestor Petitioned very strongly that she was finally permitted to be buried in a christian cemetary . The point of this story is simple this story made me the person I am today and the person I have always been. Not the colour of my skin but the colour of my mind.
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      Nov 21 2011: Thanks for sharing your story Gerry ! So much of who we are stems from where we come from and our collective experiences. Our thoughts and our actions define us and I was glad to hear your take on this question.
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    Nov 20 2011: ``What does it mean to be white` When I was a young boy my mother related a story to me of my ancestors.My first ancestor to immigrate from england in the 18th century was a young man of 20 . he was somewhat educated and was brouhgt to work as an apprentice boy. He lived alone in the wilderness and did his work which was catching and purveying salmon for his bosses ,He did all manner of managing his part of the river system he was responsible for. Sometimes the native people would come and take things from his cabin. without permission . Of course they had no idea this was not acceptable behavior. It was not part of their culture to have individual possessions. This made my ancestor irate. to the point where he would shoot at them on sight. Needless to say this didn`t make for good relations between my ancestor and the natives.Indeed he had a verry poor record in this regard. Jump forward, when his son came from england some years later.He was a much different man with the natives he looked for ways to communicate with them to try to understand their needs and to try to establish relations for the good of both parties.( Usually the conservatives of one generation become the radicals of the next, and vise versa.) He tried to help these people in the best way he knew,the sad thing is by this time their population had been reduced by starvation and desease. One day some native women were brought to him, they were found along the seashore sick and in very poor health.He took them in and tried to heal them but one of the young women died the other two were better in some time so he sent an expedition back with them and many supplies hoping this might finally help to make contact with the last few remaining native people. Sometime later one of the this same young native women was found againand brought to his attention. She said that she was the last of her kind. Having searched the land for any sign of people they came to the same conclusion. she indeed was the last
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    Nov 20 2011: It means you're probably bald already, if you're a male and over 35.
  • Nov 19 2011: Continuing on.....your specific question. The only time I think of myself in color (white) is when I look in a mirror. Other than that (and perhaps a reflection of my earlier background - extensive travel and living in many different countries) I think of myself as a citizen of the world. Curiously the only time I have felt discriminated against is in America and France, the situations being an inner city black neighborhood in the USA and, apparently, my limited ability to speak French with the proper dialect (a request for where is the nearest bathroom went ignored by 10 people I politely asked the question of with my 4 year old daughter and wife standing beside me). Interestingly, in the Ivory Coast, I have never felt more unnoticed and just accepted as another person than there. So what does it mean to be white? I can't tell you that since I do think of myself in that term. Did being white give me some advantage....certainly. I would say the work ethic of the society in general, the benefits of a democracy and capitalism (indirect to me actually and not recognized...just accepted) and how we were raised (very distinct differences). These differences are significant and in my country have advantages. They do not necessarily convey advantage in another country (a much longer story). My view of life has been to help where I could and when I could. In reflection it was teaching, sharing and giving knowledge freely.
  • Nov 19 2011: The issue you may be skirting around is not white, not even race but oppression or perceived oppression by a group. That "group" may perceive itself (or be perceived) for racial, technology, wealth or religious reasons and undoubtedly others to be better. The historical record has many "races" that have demonstrated this....from the Moguls, to Hitler to slavery around the world to the caste system in India (and of course literally thousands of other examples particularly within religions). And a bottom line....prejudice,or perceived prejudice, exists. And it exists at all levels....."your dumb and I am smart" being the simplest. It is also fueled by your question and if the goal is to eliminate racism then an "understanding" of man's inherent nature might be a better focus (rewording your question). As for me, I can't speak for all, yes I think in terms of color. I happen to be white, my (our) ancestors immigrated out of Africa to a northern climate and lighter colored skin had a genetic advantage. I am also a minority in the world and for reasons that are complex (and have no reflection on IQ) recent history has given white people greater economic advantage. Part of that (at least) is due to the forms of governments many 'whites" created, accepted or endure (in some opinions). Today India has a vastly improved economy. It opened it's doors. many years ago I tried to bring a large American electronics firm into India.. I was told no. The reason given (after 6 weeks of talks) in a private discussion was, "you need to understand us, we are proud. we believe in reincarnation. Whether or not we are successful materially is not important, It makes no difference." (an undersecretary to Indra Ghandi by the way). Had this happened it would have put India on the path to it's current position in the world. In this example those factories went elsewhere. This is an example of government not necessarily working for it's people. Different scenarios exist.
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    Nov 19 2011: Its meaningless we all look the same when cut open (technically speaking) im white and i very rarely think about what my skin means other than the fact that it sheilds my body and contains whats really important myself
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    Nov 18 2011: I lived a privaliged Life. By this I mean I had a father and mother food on the table clothes on my back. education . But I worked from the time I was 10.i helped to prepare food for our resturant business which helped to feed and cloth us. And in the summer I worked on our farm I did not recieve a salary .Just the basic needs of life. One thing I was very proud of in our family was everyone was equal. at the dinner table after we ate we were encouraged to talk about anything we wanted. This lead to some very interesting discussions and they did not always end in agreement. But we were always listened to no matter how young our how foolish or ideas might be. My parents had friends of many racial and ethnic backrounds. and we were encouraged to ask questions. There was no topic that was taboo. I dont ever remember my parents saying oh that is not appropriate to ask that person or other. If you sat at our table you were fair game.From this experience I learned many things of other cultures and religions and view points.
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    Nov 18 2011: This is a very good question . As a person of white heritage you have struck on something I have rarely considered before. As a child It did not matter to me. As an adult it brought with it a lot of shame.When I saw how europeans went about conquering other peoples I found it totally disgusting. Of course this does not let all the other races off with their share of atrocities over history. The white race did not invent or monopolize oppression or ways of torturing others different than them. This is a human condition . Whether by race or tribe. People with `darker skin`have also preyed upon one another not so much documented. Even within an ethnicitiy people of predjudice prey on one another. This is nothing unique to white people. We only have to look at early African slave trade to know village chiefs were the ones who sold their brethren to arab slave traders for profit. Just as India set different parts of society In a ridgid Caste system which still is very much alive today. Many countries today still have vigoris prejudices instilled right into the fabric of society.Be they from all manner of racial and ethnic lines. This is not just a phenomenem of western or white society. However to get to my feelings of being white. Yes it has played I would believe a great roll im my life. Both positive and negative. asI said I don`t think of myself as white first. But more as human as it was not taught to me to see others as being different from me by their skin colour. What set them apart from me was their values and needs. If someone needed my help it did not matter what colour he or she were.I learnedthis early about myself when I simply defended a young black kid in my nieghborhood who was beign bullied by some other kids.I wasn`t thinking of his skin colour or even whether I knew him all I was thinking is that he needed help. It was pointed out to me afterwards . what are you doing hes black. It was then I realized my friends must have my the same values as me.