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?

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