Dancin’ and singin’ and movin’ to the groovin’
And just when it hit me somebody turned around and shouted
Play that funky music white boy
Play that funky music right
Play that funky music white boy
– Wild Cherry, “Play That Funky Music”
(CNN) – The first time I realized white people are people too is when I heard the song “Play That Funky Music.”
It was a monster hit in the summer of 1976, especially in my neighborhood, an all-black community in West Baltimore. The song blasted from car radios and TVs tuned to “Soul Train.” As soon as my friends heard the opening guitar riff, someone would shout, “Oh, that’s my jam,” and people would start bopping their heads and singing along.
I thought the band behind my summer anthem was black. Then one day I turned on the TV and experienced what psychologists call “cognitive dissonance.” My jaw dropped when I saw “Wild Cherry,” a bunch of skinny white guys with permed afros, tear into my song. I remember suddenly feeling guilty for liking it and wondering if some racial boundary had been crossed. I had never heard white people talk about being white before.
I hear plenty of it today, though. There’s been a rise of racial consciousness among white Americans. “Whiteness studies” programs are popping up at colleges across the US. Rural white Americans are the focus of popular books like “Hillbilly Elegy” and “White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America.” Whites now believe they suffer more from racism than blacks, according to a recent study. Some political pundits even attribute President Donald Trump’s election victory to an “uprising” among rural white voters.
Basically, white has become the new black.
This could be awkward
This is a flip of the traditional racial script in America. Being “American” traditionally meant white. It was the norm. “If you’re white, you’re alright,” one popular expression went. Whiteness, according to author Toni Morrison, was the “definition of ‘Americanness.’” People of color were the ones who traditionally told stories of suddenly discovering they were different, of not fitting in. These are the painful stories heard in CNN’s new video series, “The First Time I Realized I Was Black.”
Now white people are telling the same kind of stories. Here are three people talking about the moments they discovered they are white. One says it was triggered by a simple question on a school test; another points to an innocuous question from a girl; and a third cites an encounter that ended with him bleeding and confused.
’My parents knew I’d eventually figure out I’m white’
A Sunday School teacher once asked Dani Fitzgerald’s mom: “When are you going to tell her she’s white?”
Her mom, Debbi, laughed it off.
“We don’t talk about people’s color, ever,” she told the teacher.
Sometimes we hear people say they don’t see color, that their family taught them to ignore racial distinctions. But Fitzgerald’s story illustrates how raising someone in a racial cocoon presents risks as well as rewards.
Today, Fitzgerald is a 23-year-old teacher with cherub cheeks, blue eyes and, occasionally, a tiny silver nose ring. Her racial cocoon was a predominately black church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. That’s where she spent most of her childhood.The Pentecostal church was led by her grandfather, and the only white people in the church were members of her family. Homeschooled by her parents, she says they never talked about people’s races, including their own.
“As a child my parents never made a distinction between races – ever,” she wrote in an essay titled “I Didn’t Know I Was White,” which was published by her college newspaper two years ago.
Black people weren’t “those people” in her world. They were her people. They were the people she prayed and sang with in the pews and laughed with at church picnics. Even today the songs she sings to lift her spirits are drawn from the black experience. She loves black spirituals like “Have a Little Talk with Jesus” or “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.”
Around the age of 10, though, she started sensing she was different from her church family. Her parents invited white friends to their church, but they rarely accepted. When they did, they were visibly uncomfortable. Only later would she learn that her parents were criticized for having black friends.
“I can remember the tightened faces and widened eyes of our white friends as my church family embraced them with a hug and wet kiss on the cheek,” said Fitzgerald. “It was little moments like that where I noticed something different about my church family and my white friends. It was confusing.”
The confusion intensified as she got older. Though her parents attended a virtually all-black church, they lived in white suburban neighborhoods. When she became a teenager, her parents let her attend a public high school. There were about 2,000 students in the school; only about a half dozen were black.
Still, she said, her church held such a powerful hold on her that she was unsure of her racial identity. Then one day in 8th grade she had to take a standardized test that asked her to check a box for race.
“That was one of the first times I can recall having to put down my race for anything,” said Fitzgerald. “Seeing the races lined up like that, I had no idea what to put.”
The First Time I Realized I Was Black
She looked at the kid next to her and saw he checked “Asian.” She did the same thing.
It wasn’t until a year later that she realized her mistake. She overheard a group of white students talking about how odd the word “Caucasian” was because they only used it on test forms.
“It hit me like a flashback,” she said. “It was then that I remembered I put the wrong race. … That was difficult because at my age, I should’ve known that I was white. When my friends were talking about being ‘Caucasian’ I felt really stupid. How didn’t I know that?”
Later, Fitzgerald would see another disconnect: Some of her white friends’ descriptions of black people didn’t match what she knew about her black church family.
Once she was in a car with her white friends when they entered a black neighborhood.
“I remember their parents saying, ‘Lock the doors! Lock the doors!’ And when I looked outside, I saw black people.”
When she started dating a black guy – now her fiancee – some of her white friends were bewildered. Some still are. They ask her how her parents reacted.
“When I give a quick explanation of my parents’ love for all people, the reply is usually, ‘Yeah, my dad would kill me if I brought home a black guy.’ And they give me an explanation for how ‘totally not racist’ their father is.”
I asked if her mother ever sat her down to tell her she was white. It never happened.
“My parents knew I’d eventually figure out I’m white,” she said. “They just didn’t want to have an influence on that. They wanted me to grow up in an environment where I’m loved by all people, some white, some black.”
Her family’s attitude toward race is rooted in their faith. Jesus ignored racial, cultural and gender distinctions. So should his followers, she said. One of her favorite passages comes from Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Those are beautiful sentiments. I wonder, though, if Fitzgerald will retain her parents’ optimism when she has children.
She is currently teaching English as a second language in Thailand. When she returns to the US, she plans on marrying her fiancee, who is studying criminal justice, and starting a family.
What racial box will she tell their children to check?
Or will she, like her parents, not “talk about people’s color, ever”?
“They shouldn’t have to pick one race because they will be as equally black as they are white,” said Fitzgerald. “But how does that look practically? I’m not so sure.”
’I have never fully grappled with my own race’
Whitney Dow once thought he knew what being white was all about. A bespectacled filmmaker who talks passionately about race, he’s given speeches on the subject, appeared on television and made films for PBS on civil rights – including “Two Towns of Jasper,” a critically acclaimed documentary about the murder of a black man in Jasper, Texas.
But it was a simple question from a 7th grader that made him realize he was white, he said.
He’d been invited to a fundraiser to talk about the making of “Two Towns of Jasper.” A group of middle school students came to hear him speak; afterward a young girl asked about his experience working with his black filmmaking partner, Marco Williams.
“What did you learn about your racial identity working with Marco?”
Dow’s response was instinctive: “I don’t have one,” he told her. “I’m an individual.”
But then he thought back to his experiences in Jasper and had what he calls a “racial epiphany.” He realized he was more than an individual. He was white, and there was a huge difference between understanding this intellectually and experiencing it emotionally.
While filming in Jasper, he’d gone into a black-owned auto shop to talk to workers and customers about the 1998 murder of James Byrd Jr., who had been chained by the ankles to the back of a pickup truck and dragged to his death by a group of white men.
Dow said he felt like a crusading filmmaker getting the true story. But then Marco later went to the same shop and filmed his own interviews with the same people. When he and Marco compared footage, Dow was stunned.
The black people in the shop had given Dow false names and an entire set of false stories. His good intentions didn’t matter. They didn’t see an individual; they saw him as a threat, a white man in a town where other white men had tortured and murdered a black man.
Dow was 14 when he met Marco, and he thought they were similar. But it wasn’t just their footage that didn’t jibe; they clashed over certain goals and scenes in the film.
“We got to the point that we couldn’t agree on reality,” he said. “We left the film feeling that there were certain gulfs that could not be bridged.”
By asking her question – and triggering his memories of Jasper – that 7th grader changed how Dow saw himself.
“I had never fully grappled with my own race,” he said. “I had never really understood that this was an active, dynamic component that impacted every moment of my life.”
I heard about Dow because he’s become an authority on “whiteness.” His latest work for PBS is an “interactive investigation” called the “Whiteness Project.” Dow travels the country asking people who identify as white or “partially white” to talk about what being white means to them. Two installments have aired so far.
When Dow approached potential donors for the “Whiteness Project,” some thought he was joking. It’s easy to understand why. At first glance, defining whiteness seems so elusive. People tend to think of it in extremes.
“Whiteness is on a toggle switch between ‘bland nothingness’ and ‘racial hatred,’” author and historian Nell Irvin Painter wrote in a New York Times essay, “What is Whiteness?”
But the evolution of whiteness is so much more complex. It was invented; not inherited. Some race scholars say it was created around the 17th century as a legal term to confer certain protections and privileges on Americans of European descent. It was also used to reinforce the notion of a superior white race – and to justify slavery.
Dow gives some of this historical context in the “Whiteness Project” in between interviews with his subjects. But I think the most fascinating part of his project is seeing white people grapple with their racial identity. Some people denied their whiteness. Others were apologetic. One young white man said “I’m not happy that I’m white,” citing the historic oppression associated with his people. Another guy wondered why black people still get hung up on “the slave thing.”
One interview stood out above the rest. I could see the moment a young man discovered he was white.
He was a white millennial in Dallas, Texas, who looked like he could be a J. Crew model. He was clean-shaven, square-jawed and broad-shouldered. He was also a former drug dealer who sheepishly confessed he had been arrested at least 20 times, but that the only mark on his record was a public intoxication charge.
He said he knew if he got a lawyer, the judge would go easy on him because of how he looked.
“I basically did whatever I wanted to, knowing that there were absolutely no consequences,” he said. “I would be in jail if I wasn’t white.”
Dow asked him if he ever felt guilty about his past. He paused to consider the question. A look of confusion on his face gave way to realization.
“Me talking about it,” he said, “is making me realize: Damn, I’m pretty lucky.”
Dow, 55, said he understands why more white people are talking about being white today. Some have a sense they are being left behind. They might not see more people of color in their personal lives, but they see them in movies, on newscasts and throughout popular culture.
“It’s almost as if you’re a person of color, you are on the trajectory up,” he said. “It’s a positive narrative. It’s against oppression. Things are getting better. It’s not a straight line, but the narrative is we’re working for equality and freedom.”
Dow is still working to understand what being white means. He said the 7th grader’s question inspired him to start the “Whiteness Project.”
“I don’t think she realized that she changed my life,” he said.
In that moment, she also inspired him to change his answer. After he told her he had no racial identity, Dow thought about his experiences in Jasper and decided to answer again.
“Of course, that’s not true,” he told her. “I have the most powerful racial identity in America. I’m a white male.”
’I felt this overwhelming sense of sadness’
Editor’s note: The section below contains language that could be offensive to some.
What if racial categories aren’t set in stone but stretch like taffy?
That’s the analogy I thought of when I considered the story of a black man who discovered he was white.
That man is my younger brother, Patrick.
I don’t normally write about family. But my brother and I belong to the “partially white” category Dow explores in his “Whiteness Project.” We are biracial. When I told my brother about this story, he told me about the day he discovered he was white.
It was one of the saddest and strangest tales I’ve ever heard him tell.
Our mother is Irish and our father is black. But we didn’t see ourselves as white. We grew up with our father’s family in a black community. We didn’t meet our mother or her family until we were young men.
When we were kids, being biracial wasn’t cool or exotic. It was the 1970s and early ‘80s in inner-city Baltimore. Our world was all black. Whites were viewed with disdain. The only whites we saw were police officers or bill collectors. They were so vilified that I never told anyone my mother was white. It was a badge of shame.
And it could get you hurt. That’s what happened to my brother one day when he was 13. He was walking home alone on a deserted stretch of railroad tracks when he heard a chorus of voices behind him.
“Hey white boy! White boy! Hey you honky,” a group of boys shouted.
At first, my brother didn’t know they were talking to him. Then he realized he was the only other person on the tracks. He heard their footsteps quicken. They were coming after him. He started running.
Then they started throwing rocks – not small ones but those big, jagged rocks that line railway beds. One hit him on the side of his head. It made a strange “thwack” when it hit his skull. He started bleeding. He finally outran the boys and arrived home trembling.
“I felt this overwhelming sense of sadness,” said Patrick. “They were mad at me because of the color of my skin. I remember walking home, tears coming to my eyes, not because of the physical assault but because these were my own people. But they didn’t see it because of the color of my skin.”
I knew how he felt. I would lash out whenever kids called me “white boy.” I got in so many fights because of those two words. I can still remember the taunts from the boys in my neighborhood as I rolled on the ground fighting my latest accuser: “It’s a fight, it’s a fight; between a nigger and a white.”
My brother told me his whiteness made him feel like a person with a disability. If he walked outside, he would immediately attract second looks because of his fair complexion and hair texture.
“I thought of myself as black,” said Patrick, now 51, “but I understood myself to be white in my neighborhood.”
Neither of us had the understanding of race to articulate what we were going through then. Only later would I learn that “whiteness” is actually elastic. The Irish, our mother’s ethnic group, were once not considered fully white in 19th century America. The same with Italians, Jews and Greeks. They had to work their way into whiteness, often by conspicuously hating blacks.
Those kind of appeals to racial solidarity wouldn’t have made any difference to the boys I tangled with in my neighborhood. They saw me and my brother as the enemy.
But then, years later, my brother had his white credentials revoked. It happened during a dinner date with a white woman.
After moving to Charlotte, North Carolina, my brother joined a church where he was one of four blacks in a congregation of 1,500. There was a young German woman who had her eyes on Patrick, so he invited her to dinner. As they ate in his apartment, she asked him where was he from. Not satisfied by his answer of “Baltimore,” she asked another question: “What’s your race?”
“Oh, I’m both. I’m black and white,” my brother told her.
The woman’s eyes widened and she dropped her fork. Then a look of fear appeared on her face.
“I have to leave,” she told him. “I don’t believe in the mixing of races.”
My brother said he was too stunned to get mad.
Then one day he had an experience that should have made him even angrier – if it hadn’t been comforting in an odd way.
It happened in college after he got a job working at a home improvement store. He was using a forklift to unload a truck when he heard some voices behind him in a car yell, “Hey nigger.”
“I thought they were talking about the truck driver,” he said. “He was black. I’d never been called nigger before.”
He ignored them until one of the voices said: “Hey you nigger on the forklift.”
He shrugged as the white man in the car flipped him the bird and drove off.
“I kind of felt relieved,” he said. “I had arrived. It was comical. I remember smiling, saying, ‘Damn, I’m black now.”’
As time went on, he embraced the racial whiplash. Sometimes he checked the box for “white” on job applications; sometimes “African-American.” But he’s always seen himself as African-American because that’s how he’s viewed by most people he meets.
Does he miss being white?
“Hell no, because I’m more comfortable in my skin now,” he said. “If somebody calls me a white boy, I’m not offended, and we can deal with it if necessary.”
One crucial moment made us both comfortable with our “partial” whiteness: when we first met our mother. I was 18, he was 17.
We knew the reason for the separation. Our mother’s family had disowned us because of our father’s race. Our mother was an unwed teenager when she gave birth to us, and she was forced by her family to keep away from her children. Interracial marriage was illegal when we were born.
My brother still remembers how he felt at that meeting. I felt the same way: whole. For the first time in our lives, the circle was complete. Until then, we hadn’t felt like we belonged anywhere; we’d felt victimized by racial prejudice from both blacks and whites.
“When she came out to greet me, I didn’t see any hesitation over whether I was black or white,” said Patrick. “She was a sweet, loving person who loved her boys 100%. It really helped me be comfortable and not be ashamed of the whiteness in me. I don’t really give a flip about people who say I look too white or black, because I have two loving parents.
“And because I’m both.”
I worked out my racial identity a little differently: Meeting my mother drove me to read books about race. When I read about the Irish, I see similarities with African-Americans. Both peoples had their culture and language usurped by a more dominant group. Both were looked down upon; the Irish used to be called “white niggers.”
Few use that derogatory term today because the Irish are now considered white. Others may soon join the club. People talk about the browning of America, but already more Hispanics are identifying as white, according to a study of census forms.
It no longer surprises me when white people talk about being white. Nobody gives a second look at white boys playing funky music – or grappling with the different ways of being white.
My ultimate hope, though, is for another day – when we learn not that we’re white, black, brown or something else.
We’ll discover that we’re all human, and race no longer divides us.