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Racial Identity & A Certain Looking White Woman

Every week, I stand before a roomful of strangers in antiracism workshops. There's a lot one must be prepared for when doing this kind of work: who will be there? what's the racial makeup of the room? what's the understanding of racism and the willingness to enter this kind of work?

Usually, I depend on local organizers to bring the right people into the space. This means a lot of phone calls, emails, and trust: trust that people will organize well. There is, by the way, such a thing as organizing badly. It's possible to bring the wrong people into this work. Not everyone is ready for it. Some people want to be in the room simply to poke holes in theories, ideologies, and personal experiences. My advice to organizers is this: never knock on a closed door. Find the people who are ready.

Once there, I do an extended introduction of myself and what brought me to this work. It hinges on my own racial identity with a Black father from New Orleans and a white mother from a tiny town in South Dakota. That's when I tell the story of a Certain Looking White Woman. 

The first time it happened, I was 4 years old.

I got to choose an activity with daddy and it was just going to be us. My older sister wouldn't be coming and my mom was home, pregnant with my younger sister. I wanted to get ice cream and I had one more request. It's the kind of request only a 4 year old would give and that was to be hoisted up to be able to ride atop my dad's shoulders. 

We walked together the couple of blocks, through the park, and got in line at the ice cream shop. We weren't there very long when a white woman approached us. A more accurate word would be accosted. She accosted us. The way she walked up to us I assumed daddy knew her. He did not. Almost immediately, she was yelling. 


Kindergarten picture wouldn't be complete without the afro my mother was INTENT on picking out. 

I didn't grow up in a family of yellers. Naturally, she scared me. I didn't identify, until years later, that this is what started my panic attacks. Her face was red and she was pointing at him and then at me. Since I was on his shoulders it seemed like her finger was directly in my face. 



It didn't occur to me that I didn't belong to my father. I never considered that his dark skin against my light skin and green eyes would cause anyone to assume I'd been...kidnapped. Nothing about her accusation made sense but this was the 1970s in Chicago and, well, one just doesn't get into verbal altercations while being accused of kidnapping by hysterical white women. I'd argue this truth in 2019 as well.

I know what a Certain Looking White Woman looks like.

I can always tell. I've made it my life's work to identify them and then, for my own safety, to eschew them.

For more than 20 years I have avoided a Certain Looking White Woman. If she joined a committee I wanted to join while teaching and I saw too many of them, I would leave. When my children were in school and I became involved as a parent on the local PTO and I saw too many Certain Looking White Women, I backed out. There were a lot of instances where I saw her. She is everywhere.

She's entitled, privileged, and thinks she's doing me a favor. Most importantly, she believes she has every right to accost me, deny me, and question my humanity.

At age 8, a Certain Looking White Woman asked me if I felt "safe" when my father was out of earshot. In my teens and out to dinner with daddy, another one asked me if I needed her to call for help when my father left to use the restroom. They approach in equal measures of benevolence and terror and the look? Well, it's unmistakeable. I know when she's coming now. I brace myself and wait for the inevitable conversation that pretends to hinge on my 'safety'. 

The ways in which this has de-legitimized and belittled me are too much. I have avoided a Certain Looking White Woman for so long that it took me until my late 30s to identify it. It's shaped me so clearly in ways that are embarrassing to admit. My comfort has been to be around more Black men, women, and children for obvious reasons. They identify me quickly, even strangers. People who give me the head nod on the street or the Black woman who drops a "sis" or "girl" to me when I've passed her in a public restaurant while I'm fixing my hair. 

It has socialized me to occupy multicultural spaces with people and very quickly identify myself as Black. Sometimes within the first few minutes of meeting someone. I always find a way.

I share this part of my identity work because there are far too many white women who assume they're safe for me. Many are shocked when I identify them as the source of my fear and anxiety. Often, they've never considered the danger they pose to me. Some will ask, once I've told this part of my story, "Do I look like a Certain Looking White Woman? Is it me?" I don't answer directly. Instead, I respond to their question with another question:

Do you think your white femininity makes you a safe person for every person of color in this country? 

And, then, if I'm lucky and I've done my job in a space dedicated to dismantling the social and political construct of racism while getting participants to see they've all been co-opted into this ideology, they'll answer for themselves in a way that leads them to do their own socialization and racial identity work. 

I'll keep telling that story.



This blog post is part of the #31DaysIBPOC Blog Challenge, a month-long movement to feature the voices of Indigenous and teachers of color as writers and scholars. Please CLICK HERE to read yesterday’s blog post by Hema Khodai titled #IAmBecoming (and be sure to check out the link at the end of each post to catch up on the rest of the blog circle).

You can read all of the blog posts this month here.




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Reader Comments (2)

There are so few white men or women I can openly and honestly confront about their identity with whiteness. And it seems that ANY conversation I have I find I need to drive it to that question, like the one you asked but more personalized: "Do you think you could say (or ask) that of a Black person you didn't know? Usually the answer is about me being a 'safe' Black person because of my light skin, more European features, and standard English language (12 years of Catholic school will do that to a brother!).

May 8, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterChuck Cuyjet

Oh I am definitely one you would identify as Certain Looking White Woman. I get it. I accept it.
It is uncomfortable sometimes, and rarely, it is frustrating. I live in a majority minority neighborhood. I see the looks sometimes. Not from the obviously Hispanic and Asian people. Only from the (to my eyes) identifyable black people. I feel a little sad about this fact of my life, but I get it.

I was that teacher, when I taught in the NYC public schools in an all minority school in Manhattan in the 80's. I tried my best to provide as many minority centered books and role models that I could, but I also know that I gave extra attention to the little black boys. I was so very worried that if they did not get an excellent education along with an extra helping of self control, that they would not succeed in their teen and adult life. I was not a teacher who "punished" children, but I do know that I could have been a bit looser with the rules for some of the more wiggly young boys in my class.

I left teaching after that. Now I know better - all teachers should know better by now, as we know what the research shows us about the negative attention black boys recieve. I did the best I knew how at the time, and I can tell you that all of my children were deeply loved and got tons of hugs and loving in my class.

I'm WAY more "woke" now that I am older. I know I will likely still upset some people even as I walk down the street. I wish the pain and trauma of my black brethren had never occurred, and I will work towards educating myself to be the best and most loving person I can be.

July 19, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterSusan Harrison

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