Dr. Cori Wong challenges the ways in which people think about the idea of whiteness through her insightful conversations and presentations.
Seasoned speaker and doctor of philosophy, Cori Wong recently spoke at the 2020 Colorado State University Diversity Symposium. She came with the aim to create thought provoking conversations surrounding the ways in which people view the construct of whiteness, a concept she has been studying for “almost half of [her] life”.
To Wong, whiteness is something that needs to be explored and does not limit itself to just white people. Her expansive and nuanced view on this concept presents itself in a variety of ways. Wong utilizes personal examples in which she discusses in her presentations with students and other interested audiences. According to her website, she primarily leads students in the higher education realm on diversity and inclusion efforts.
Wong begins her presentation by discussing her personal identity and the way in which this affects her experiences and privilege. Wong is biracial, straddling two races. She shares her identity as an Asian American and White American individual. With this racial background, she falls under the broad category of being a person of color. However, Wong quickly acknowledges the prevalence of privilege. Throughout her life, privilege from whiteness has affected and continues to impact her, regardless of being a person of color or not. Whiteness affects Wong’s everyday experiences and contributions to society.
Wong is predominately white appearing and comes from a privileged upbringing which is why she has benefitted from the systems of whiteness in many ways. Wong’s hidden diversity of being half Asian American places her in a privileged position when it comes to whiteness in the United States.
Throughout her talk, she also reflects on the ways in which whiteness has harmed her. Wong utilizes her own life experiences to tell the ways in which she, as a mixed race individual has also been oppressed by the structures of whiteness. These systems of whiteness whiteness are so ingrained within US society due to the history of the country. Wong looks back on her poor body image growing up. These issues included trying to get rid of her dark body hair as well as comparing her features. She would draw comparisons from her predominately white counterparts to herself.
She believes the concept of whiteness, white privilege, and in turn, white supremacy, is something that we all may have participated in or still do but is something that we can all challenge in order to promote reform and restructuring of these systems.
Misconceptions About Whiteness
Throughout her presentation at the diversity conference, Wong speaks about the various ways whiteness presents itself, the misconceptions of whiteness, as well as the ways in which she believes individuals and society as a whole should participate in changing it.
Following this introduction, Wong begins to debunk the myriad of misconceptions and irrational attitudes surrounding whiteness. Along with the misconceptions come “defensiveness…guilt…” and others forms of devoid from personal responsibility. Many individuals will resort to this when confronted with the realities of white privilege and participation in structures which uphold white supremacy.
Wong explains that when people generally hear the phrase white supremacy, they jump to conclusions about the meaning. The connotation of this phrase is generally the assumption of it to mean a white supremacist. However, she tells, it actually is a much bigger picture than one or two outwardly racist individuals. White supremacy is a structure of power and systems. These systems dominate and abuse minoritized races, cultures, genders, and other groups that suffer from being discriminated against and oppressed due to identity. It is not limited to black and white, but it goes deeper and expands past these surface levels of identity.
What Whiteness Is
After discussing what whiteness is not, Wong begins to explain what it is and why it’s understanding is so important. She begins to explain that whiteness is how we navigate in the world and experience life. She explains that whiteness and white supremacy are a “maintenance of structures that benefit and elevate white people.” These structures determine issues and systems that either harm minoritized groups or benefit white groups.
Wong then discusses her belief that although white people will generally be the first to discuss their point of view on the concept of whiteness, this is not the only place to learn about whiteness. Whiteness can be learned from people of color, people of various ethnicities, people from other cultures, and more. Whiteness can sometimes be best taught by those negatively impacted by it. For Wong, she teaches about it as someone who claims to benefit from it while still having ties to her Asian American identity as well.
Why This is Important
Wong believes that upholding these systems of whiteness are extremely important to be aware of. However, she only believes that it is significant when it leads to dismantling racism and creating tangible change. With this belief, Wong relates it to the concept of “white solipsism.” She explains this “white solipsism” as tunnel vision. White people may fall under the illusion of thinking they oppose racism. In reality, the person might still refuse to value or invest in people of color or acknowledge a person of color’s “human life as precious.”
Wong explains that white individuals need to stop asking the question “how can I stop having white privilege.” This privilege will be a constant for the foreseeable future, especially within the U.S., but rather “what do we do with that privilege.” The idea that Wong attempts to convey is that understanding is important. Recognizing the privileges of being a white individual or of benefitting from whiteness is crucial for change. This understanding helps one to challenge the systems that create these systems.
Feeling guilty or trying to divest from the privilege a white individual holds does no good, she explains. This guilty reaction only recenters whiteness, rather than centering the voices of the most marginalized individuals. She encourages those benefitting or attached to the concept of whiteness to attach themselves to projects and practices of liberation. These practices can include activism in order to dismantle these systems, rather than distance oneself from them.
Wong encourages the audience to go through the process of asking the questions when analyzing their experiences; “Is this whiteness? Why? Because it upholds white supremacy. And [next], how can we change it?” Analyzing our experiences in the past and the future with a lens of recognizing whiteness is so important, according to Wong. Finally, Wong concludes her presentation with this powerful statement: “we all have the opportunity to make those willful choices to learn and critically reflect and see ourselves and our position in the world and how we move through it differently in order to dismantle white supremacy.”