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Politics

Will white people now be profiled, just like the rest of us?

Esther J. Cepeda on

CHICAGO -- If it's true, as some assert, that the increased stridency of white supremacists has made it acceptable to show racial prejudice, then white people are going to start feeling the pain of being associated with a small, fringe group of over-the-top racists.

The other day, when riding the train in Chicago, I noticed that I was surrounded by several young white men, apparently on their way to work. I quickly realized that I was studying them closely to determine whether they might be white nationalist sympathizers.

Did a close haircut and the choice of a white polo and khaki pants mean anything other than just another day of cubicle-dwelling at some downtown high-rise? Did the tattooed white men also riding along with me deserve the same scrutiny?

The answers to both: Of course not.

I was being overly sensitive after a weekend of viewing images of young white men carrying Confederate flags and wielding shields emblazoned with Nazi symbols in Charlottesville, Virginia. But my knee-jerk thoughts made me fear for my husband and sons. What conclusions will others jump to when they see their white skin, tattoos and, in my husband's case, shaved head?

Suddenly, they have the potential to be profiled in the same way as I am when people see my dark features and wonder -- sometimes out loud and to my face -- whether I am an "illegal alien," a terrorist or both.

This burden is being brought down on white people by a vocal minority of sick individuals who are intent on reviving a past that this country has never healed from. But it's a strain that whites must face.

Speaking on NPR's "It's Been a Minute" podcast, Grace Elizabeth Hale, author of the book "Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South, 1890-1940" and professor of American studies and history at the University of Virginia, put it this way: "Not all white people are the same, and there are extremes of white supremacy and violence, and I would like to note them -- it is not every white person who's going to drive their car into a group of protesters. That said, for white people those privileges and those ways in which they are assumed to be at the center of American culture, assumed to be the people who matter, assumed to be the people who can happily occupy a park with a Confederate statue in the middle of it ... white people don't get to say, 'Well, that's not me, I'm not that person -- I voted for [Barack] Obama.'"

She continued: "It doesn't absolve you. ... Other people make assumptions about your identity and you are treated in certain ways, and you don't get to choose those. White people can't opt out of them by suggesting, 'That's not me, I didn't do that.' ... I think that's one of the biggest problems many white people in America have, this desire not to be blamed, this kind of visceral emotional desire to be innocent."

This is an incredibly important point.

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