In the modern world, where globalization has impacted diverse spheres of human life and migration is a natural process, people of different nationalities, races, and classes live in the same social spaces. When one perceives race of others, he or she realizes his or her own racial identity, thus becoming aware of oneself as a member of a multinational society. The process of such an understanding is related to cognition and might evolve consciously or subconsciously. In this paper, I will reflect on my personal experience of race to claim that white racial identity is often perceived as default with more opportunities provided for them while non-whites are exposed to racism.
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Since my early childhood, I have not been aware of race as a concept. My whole family is all Italian, including parents and grandparents. I did not consciously realize that I am white, and some people are not because, at an early age, I did not encounter anyone of other race than mine. However, it changed with my entrance to the school. Since I was a student of an American international catholic school in Rome, I interacted with many students coming from different cultures and nationalities. Such diversity influenced not only the way I interacted with others but also shaped my self-perception as a white Italian.
I remember my first acquaintances with people from China and Latin America. They were memorable because it was challenging for me to pronounce and remember some of their names, which were so different from those I got used to; however, they memorized my name quickly. Such a message about race and diversity came from my school community and taught me about the differences between the students of a different race and me. That was one of the first encounters with white privilege in my life.
Other messages about race I received through my life came from educational materials and media. I learned English while being in Rome, and as a part of my acquaintance with the language, I studied the culture and history of the USA, which is filled with racial disparities. The more I thought about black people suffering from racism either implicitly or explicitly, the more I understood how I have always take my whiteness for granted. When I watched movies about black Americans, I noticed that they were often portrayed as those involved in illegal actions or of poor reputation. I felt distanced from such reality because nobody ever suspected me in anything only because I was white. As Sullivan states, white privilege is “about white people having unfair advantages because of their whiteness” (7). However, this idea may only be understood in the context of the acknowledgment of the existence of other races, which must be equal in right with white.
Before these experiences, I have never consciously applied the notion of race to myself. Every time I heard such words as ‘race,’ or ‘racism,’ I immediately attributed them to African-Americans or Latinos but not to white people. Such a predisposition to being reluctant to acknowledge racism by white people imposes even more significant racial disparity in the world, where, despite striving for equality, there exists implicit bias (Sullivan 66). Therefore, in my adolescent years and later, the things I learned from my communication with the diverse school community and media shifted my self-perception from being a person who does not think about racial identity to the one who consciously acknowledges it.
When I moved to Los Angeles and entered the society that was very diverse in terms of race, the experiences I had in Rome helped me better assimilate into the new environment. Being aware of my own racial identity and the implied privilege I had as a white person, I managed to integrate into the multicultural society more easily. Nonetheless, the journey of understanding oneself as a representative of a particular race is a time-consuming and complicated cognitive process that involves self-analysis and openness. Now that I reexamine my racial identity as a representative of a dominating race, I compare white privilege to the default perception of the world by healthy people. My younger brother is autistic and has difficulties in speaking, which imposes significant complications for him in integration to the society. As people with disparities struggle to enter the world of dominant healthy people, national minorities struggle to withstand the imposed dominance of whiteness in the same way. We should understand ourselves as human beings of a particular race to be able to live in a diverse community that the modern world becomes.
To summarize the discussion, it is evident that one learns about race through different sources of influence, including personal life experience of interaction with other people, education, or media. However, being a white person, I have gone through the process of racial acknowledgment without traumatizing encounters with people of other races. In the course of my integration into a multicultural society, I observed how white privilege is a real phenomenon. That is why it is essential to understand race as a crucial element of perceiving oneself to ensure a conscious understanding of one’s identity.
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Sullivan, Shannon. White Privilege. John Wiley & Sons, 2019.