The “It’s Not What You Might Think” Blog—Part II

By Sabrina Völz

For those of you who missed Part I, click here.

Last week, we left off with Cheryl Strayed’s long description of herself. . . . It all seems to be there, well almost. All but two things: age and race. The age part didn’t bother me too much, but the race part did. I often teach about identity construction, race, ethnicity, racism, and colorblind racism. Recently, I have begun to look more deeply at the topics of whiteness and white privilege.
While reading that long description, I began thinking about the fact that when Strayed authored her book, she took it for granted that she is white and that her readers probably are too. I reread the passage. Nowhere does she mention her whiteness. She does not need to do so as she is merely adhering to the ‘whiteness’ script of western civilization that prescribes whiteness as the norm, the spring from which Othering flows.

Quite intrigued, I began scouring the entire book, asking myself the question whether Strayed’s whiteness was in some small way partially responsible for her personal triumph. Of course, her quick thinking was essential when faced with wild animals with no protection other than a loud whistle. And having the foresight to send herself care packages at stops along the trail as well as accepting help from others at key points also enabled her to continue. Probably character traits, such as tenacity, determination, and flexibility, didn’t hurt her chances either. But why did complete strangers go out of their way to help her? Was it her good looks, the novelty of seeing a woman—a woman alone—on such a rugged trail, the American way, luck, or was it simply the fact that she is white? Would she have gotten that help at critical parts of her journey if she’d been African American or Native? I can’t answer that question, but it is certainly a question that is worthy of inquiry, a question which I will continue to pursue in my own life and teaching. What about you? If you are white, have you thought about your white privilege lately?