Look at Me! Look at Me!
I’m a WPGI!
pronounced “whip-gee” or White Person who Gets It.
In 2004 I attended an urban youth workers conference in Southern California. I found myself one afternoon standing with a group of friends waiting for a session to start when one of the women in my group made a crack about white people. I was the only white person in the group and I wasn’t sure what to do or how to respond. Should I laugh? Nod knowingly? Pretend I hadn’t heard? I don’t remember exactly what I did but I do remember wanting to show them that I was cool with it. I got it. No big deal. It’s fine, I’m a WPGI.
A few years later in 2007, while attending our church’s Faith & Race conference, I said something in my small group about my eagerness to learn more from the people in my group. One of the men of color in my group leaned forward and responded by saying gently, “It’s not my job to teach you anything.” I was aghast. Not because I felt like he had misunderstood my meaning. Not because I had said something stupid. No, I felt agitated and anxious because I was worried about losing my street cred. I wanted him, and everyone else in my group, to know that I’ve got this stuff down. I am white. I am privileged. I’ve got the backpack. I’ve got the wind at my back and I know it. All hail to the people of color. You know, ’cause I’m a WPGI.
Once I had passed through the stages of denial and anger, I desperately wanted the world to know that I GOT IT. I’m sure that those of you who have passed through those first two stages know what I’m talking about. We post status updates and pictures on Facebook that demonstrate just how much we get it. We let slip during oh-so-casual conversations that we love kimchee or mole or pho. We laugh uproariously at jokes we don’t fully understand, even jokes at our own expense. We write essays about white privilege awareness.
Here, though, is the primary problem with Stage Three: it’s a fallacy. There is no such thing as a WPGI. They don’t actually exist. For the white person who has moved through the first two stages of awareness, bulking up and trying to throw our weight around as a WPGI is really just a form of bargaining that stems from some semblance of survivor’s guilt. The guilt feels intolerable. And I believed, for a time, that if I could just show the world that I understood; that I got it; that I am aware of the wind at my back; I might be given a small reprieve and my crushing sense of culpability allowed to recede.
I wanted my friends at the conference to feel like I was one of them. I wanted to be the cool, aware, humble white one allowed inside the inner circle. But I will never know what it is like to be a person of color. I will never know what it is like to sit by my friends in the cafeteria and eat food that looks and smells strange to them. I will never know what it is like to have my hair touched by curious hands. I will never wonder whether or not I was accepted to my college of choice because of the color of my skin. I will never be called a credit to my race. I will never know what it is like to have my husband followed discreetly in a department store. I will never know the anguish of a mother whose teenaged son played his music just a little too loud and payed the ultimate price. I will never know. I will never get it. Trying to prove that I do, while perhaps threaded with some measure of good intention, is merely a demonstration of my arrogance and my presumption. And ultimately it only serves to show just how much I DON’T understand.
Ready for the Next Stage?
The Rest of the Series
Click HERE for Stage One: I’m Not a Racist!
Click HERE for Stage Two: Get This Thing Off of Me!
Click HERE for Stage Three: Look at Me! Look at Me! I’m a WPGI!
Click HERE for Stage Four: Awareness Fatigue
Click HERE for Stage Five: What Now?
And for the complete series all in one place, click HERE.