White? Or European-American?
Wrestling with Identity

by Dirk Velten

"A white guy leading a workshop on Valuing Diversity sounds problematic, if not downright foolhardy." That was the initial, and only partly tongue-in-cheek, response of a new acquaintance upon learning about my vocation. I sometimes refer to her statement near the beginning of a workshop when I'm not co-facilitating with a woman or person of color. The participants, still in that process of trying to gauge where on the scale between worthwhile and waste-of-time the hours ahead are likely to fall, tend to raise a few eyebrows.

I go on to say that, while there was some humor in the statement, I appreciated her underlying point: does someone who has never personally experienced the systemic barriers and daily inequities faced by members of other groups--especially in the corporate world--have the understanding and credibility to address those concerns? I suggest that while, as a white man, I can never truly know those experiences, I can reach out to touch and be touched by them.

More importantly, I continue, it seems unjust that the members of the groups who have been most negatively impacted over time should be the ones to carry the additional burden of addressing the unfinished business that is the legacy of our painful history. Those groups are, after all, not the ones who created the problems, but suffered the most obvious cost. For me it is simply appropriate that I, and others of my group, take a deeper level of responsibility to work toward the healing that remains.

A number of participants, regardless of gender or ethnicity, have indicated to me that one of the things that caught their attention was to hear a white man speaking of himself as a white man. In fact, for much of my life, like many other American men of European descent, I have not thought of myself as a "white man." As has been pointed out by those who study and understand the dynamics of systemic racism, not having to think about what it means to be white is itself one of the privileges that comes with being a member of my group.

About twelve years ago, however, I made a commitment to work with others in addressing racism, sexism, and homophobia. This work, and the learning journey it called me to embark on, has led me to examine and come to terms with how those issues intersect within me as a white, heterosexual man. What has become clear to me is the remarkable number of privileges I gain--from the subtle to the blatant--by mere virtue of my belonging to these three groups. Even as I face the challenges and hardships that come to everyone with being human, I live in a world where my ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation generally afford me certain advantages not granted to others.

It seems to me that these privileges have two basic sources. One stems from the fact that achieving what is considered success will come more easily to those whose personal culture most closely matches the dominant culture than to someone whose grounded culture is of a different background. There need be no ill will or bad intent for this to be a barrier for women and people of color living and working in a society and within institutions where the norms and what is valued were established long ago by men of northern European descent. Not having to navigate those differences to be seen as successful translates, for me, into advantage, into privilege.

The other source is, sadly, one of maliciously intentional design. That is to say, the ideologies of racism and sexism, were indeed consciously created for the benefit of one group of people at the expense of others. The quintessential example of this is the concept that some people are "white" and thus "superior" in a hierarchy from human to less than human. This baseless notion--justified with pseudo-science and false theology, and codified into law--to some degree shaped the institutions, as well as the psyche, of our nation. To the extent that this ideology remains institutionalized, and otherwise continues to influence people's behavior, I will carry additional privilege whether I seek it or not.

So what does this mean to me in terms of my sense of my own identity? My instinct is to step away from the term "white," given the fact that the term was invented only some 400 years ago by men who created the concept primarily as a justification for the oppression, enslavement, and genocide of other cultural groups. This is not something, if I could choose, that I would care to be associated with. And I am drawn to the term European-American, which has a certain resonance for me as someone born in the United States of parents who immigrated from Germany three years earlier in 1950.

But the truth is that, in real terms, I cannot disassociate myself from "whiteness," and the white privilege that comes with it, as much as I may want to. And I still have much more to learn about how that identity plays out and how it has effected my sense of who I am. One way I've heard it put is that before we can DIS-own our whiteness, we need to OWN our whiteness. So, for those reasons--and because how others see me matters as much as how I see myself--I self-identify as a "white man" much of the time.

At the same time, I want to continue to disentangle the dysfunctional aspects of "white culture" from the positive attributes of European culture that are my heritage. Likewise, I will make distinctions between the negative reality of what is termed "the Patriarchy" and my own positive sense of my masculinity. While I received many dysfunctional and questionable messages in my upbringing about how I should be and act as a (white) man, I also received much that was positive, a code of honor, if you will, shared (though not exclusively) by many men of European descent. These principles, such as fairness, integrity, courage, tenacity, and honesty, serve as an inspiring resource as I engage and address these issues. So I will also refer to myself at times, and proudly, as a man of European descent, a German-American, a European-American.

I believe that some day we will do well to retire the term "white" in relation to people. In addition to reflecting the supremacist ideals from which it was born, I believe that to self-identify with that word evokes an unconscious "archetype" of purity and exclusiveness that adds to racism's intractability. But we have a lot of work to do before that day comes so, for now, I will continue to learn what I can from the interplay between my "white" and "European" identities. The more clear I can become within myself, the better a partner and ally I can be with people of all backgrounds as we each do our part to create a truly equitable world.

Copyright Dirk Velten, 2001

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