On Whiteness (Interview)

Interview of Ashley Putnam conducted by Sarah Ngu

Q. You’re appearing on panel in February 4th for church to talk about race and your grappling with whiteness. When did you start being conscious about race? 

I think I first starting grappling with race and privilege when I started working in social services in NYC. I grew up in Texas, I went to Barnard College in NYC and then moved away. But when I moved back to NYC in 2008, I found Forefront and got a job working in frontline social services in a “Welfare-to-Work” type program, serving low-income New Yorkers who were looking for a job.

The first thing that surprised me in my work was really me coming to terms with my own bias. The people I saw, the people living on public assistance, included college-educated people, middle-class white people. I didn’t realize I had a preconceived notion of welfare, very much influenced by stories we hear in the media.

The work itself also brought me to grapple with racism in ways I had not expected. I began to see the systems of discrimination that impacted my clients. For example, who was perceived as qualified for a job? Having dreadlocks, for example, might make someone “not a good fit” for an employer. At the end of the day, people tend to hire those who look like them, talk like them. We have decided that a certain group of people are less qualified for a job based on implicit and sometimes even explicit bias.

I really struggled to come to terms with how unfair this was, and also how it benefitted me without my even being aware.

But I don’t think I thought about structural inequality until more recently.

Q. How did that begin?

 During my time in policy school in NYU, I was really interested in welfare policy. This narrative of people being lazy and “living off the system” was really pervasive in how people understood what I was doing for a living. When I started to research, I learned that welfare in the 1930’s was initially only intended to benefit white widows, and local policies made it difficult for women of color to participate. The policy itself was discriminatory, even before the Ronald Reagan stereotype of the welfare Queen and all the implicit ideas we have now. And yet, in the country at large, there are way more white people on social services than people of color.

We have a racialized idea of poverty. I didn’t realize that I assumed all of the same things until I was sitting down with a family after the recession that could have been my mom and dad. I thought, “Ok this can happen to anyone.” These are human beings making difficult economic decisions. Policies have put all these parameters on how they can live their lives because we make assumptions based on this same narrative of “laziness” or “working the system.” We now regulate people’s lives so intensely, we have more or less criminalized poverty.

I started working for the City after grad school, about two years ago. At work I was offered the opportunity to go through a training called “Undoing Racism.” It was perhaps one of the most difficult and game-changing experiences I have had in both my personal and professional journey.

It was a 2.5 day course — I recommend it highly — and it really talks about our mainstream American definition of racism and how to start to think differently about race, structures, inequality.

Q. What is the mainstream American definition of racism? 

Coming from Texas, the response might be, ‘I don’t use the N-word, so I can’t be racist.” Or it’s, “Sometimes I think all the taxi drivers are from this one country, and I’m not racist —it’s just a presumption.” Racism is often defined as explicit prejudice or bias. In our post-Civil Rights era America, we define “racism” is this individual choice we all make to not be explicitly offensive to someone. But racism isn’t just prejudices and biases.

The Undoing Racism training focuses on structures of privilege and power. For instance, although my work in social services was in cities where there are primarily communities of color, one of the questions that I’d never asked was, “Why do people of color primarily live in cities?”

As one point in our country’s history, they didn’t. This shift to cities was a result of racism in rural areas and discriminatory housing policies. We basically forced people of color into certain areas, refused to give loans to people in their neighborhoods (redlining) and now we say, “Look at those people in the ‘ghetto.’ Stop being lazy and go find a job.” We don’t even realize that we created those “ghettos.”

This training was also the first time I’d ever talked about what it meant to be white. Someone had asked me, “What do you like about being white?” I was stunned. I didn’t know how to answer that question.

The only answers I could come up with were more about privilege than they were about culture. It was about power, being treated a certain way in a situation as opposed to how someone else might be treated.

Q. What is whiteness? 

A lot of the training is about how race is a construct — we are all part of the human race and we’ve created these arbitrary lines in the sand. “Whiteness” is a kind of blanket term for “majority culture.” My heritage is Dutch, German, English and French, but I don’t know much about my family that settled or what their culture was or what foods I eat that are part of that culture. American-whiteness is about assimilation to that which is the “mainstream culture.”

One of books I’ve been looking at is How the Irish Became White, which is about what it takes to get the things that come with whiteness: Power, privilege and economic preference. Because when Irish people came here, or Catholics or Italians, the American majority culture didn’t like them either. This was probably true of my German ancestors when they settled in Texas. And in many ways, oppressing other people is how new groups get a step up on the economic ladder.

Q. What are some a-ha moments you’ve experienced when it comes to race?

I think coming to terms with racism and whiteness is a constant journey. It means struggling to undo what you’ve been taught your whole life: That society is fair and just and treats everyone equally.

When I first started dating Dart, I remember having a moment I really failed to listen and understand. I was waiting for him on the stoop of his apartment in East Harlem. I remember being angry because he had left me waiting for a while in a neighborhood I didn’t know very well.

Ashley & Dart

Ashley & Dart

After waiting a while, I had given up and gone to a friends’ house when Dart called. He told me he had been stopped by a cop, harassed, and given a ticket for walking through the park near the house, because you’re not allowed to be in the park after 10pm.

I basically called him a liar – I assumed it was a bad excuse for blowing me off. I said, “That’s not true, I’ve been in that park at night. There are always people in the park at night. It’s fine.” He told me how the officers were really aggressive with him, even after he demonstrated that he lived down the street. He even pointed out a woman walking her dog through the park at the same time, asking the officers, “If the park is closed, why is she allowed to walk through the park?”

I was horrible to him after that conversation. I think I was trying to rationalize my own understanding of the world. I told him, “You’re just whining and complaining and being dramatic. You should’ve been nicer to the cop.”

Since I’ve lived in East Harlem, I’ve interacted with police in the neighborhood regularly, and my treatment is very different. It’s often, “Are you okay miss? Are you all right?” There is this mindset of, “I need to protect your innocence.” Especially as a white female, I realize how very differently I’m treated in certain spaces, especially in a neighborhood that is presumed to be a “bad” neighborhood. I see more police officers in my park in East Harlem on a Saturday than I ever did in Prospect Park where people were openly drinking without any concern for a ticket.

Q. If we define “racism” simply as saying offensive things, we wouldn’t be able to make sense of what happened to Dart…

Not at all. One of the things I’ve been thinking about is how you may not harbor any racial animosity towards anyone or think anyone is less valuable, but we all participate in and perpetuate a system that encourages officers to stop someone who looks like Dart and not someone who looks like me.

He and I could be doing the exact same thing – being in the park after 10pm – but the presumption that I am innocent means the law is applied to him, not to me. It could be that the officer had other reasons he had to make that stop – a quota or something he needs to fulfill – but at the end of the day the outcome is still biased.

Dart was stopped and ticketed for nothing—he was literally carrying my takeout dinner through the park on his walk home.

It’s always been hard for me to understanding how traumatic and frustrating that must be for people. I would imagine thinking, “Am I less valuable as a member of this community? Why do I have less right to be here as that woman next to me with her dog?” It must have only made it worse that I refused to believe him.

I couldn’t acknowledge what had happened because it hurt for me to see that my experience of the world was not true for everyone. So my way of not acknowledging it was to say you’re wrong, you did something wrong, as opposed to acknowledging that something is unfair or unequal. I think that’s the harder part of coming to terms with racism for people who don’t directly experience it – we need to listen, empathize and believe people, instead of saying, “I don’t see it so it can’t be true.”

Q. Where would you like to see Forefront grow when it comes to race?

When I worked in the social service sector, we never asked clients about what they wanted. We just assumed we were doing a good thing, that we understood their needs better than they did. Churches are in danger of doing the same thing: “We ran a soup kitchen and therefore we did good for the community.” And it’s a whole other thing to have difficult conversations about racism. It means we also have to talk about power, decision-making, and why we do what we do here.

I think the other difficult ask is to talk about racism with people who aren’t here in our immediate community. Many of us moved here from places like Ohio, Indiana, Kansas, and, in my case, Texas.  We have a much deeper calling to take these difficult conversations home to our people. Imagine, you may be the only person a friend of yours or family member encounters who will speak about your own journey to understand racism in this country. We too often rely on people of color to do that work for us. I understand – it’s uncomfortable to talk about race, I certainly don’t feel like I have the answers – but these are OUR friends and families. If we don’t talk to them, who will?

I’ve been doing that informally with some Forefront members – almost like an accountability group. I often want to get mad when having these tough conversations, but that’s not productive. Talking about race requires a lot more thoughtfulness and empathy. It’s awesome to see how Forefront is approaching it. The next step is just to listen: Where should we go from here? What does it look like to have a group in the church that cares about racial justice? Where can we support communities of color that are already doing this work? I’d love to see ways our church can do that.