Treasured Property: Our racial reality

Cheryl Harris’ “Whiteness As Property” didn’t really come as a surprise to me, for me it put everything I was already familiar with into one article. The part that stood out the most for me was the introduction, it gives somewhat of an emotional and more personal factor which made me feel a connection to the author. Harris talks about her grandmother being able to pass as a white woman, which allowed her to get a job in Chicago’s central business district. The line that stood out the most to me was on page 276, in the fifth paragraph, “Each evening, my grandmother tired and worn, retracted her steps home, laid aside her mask, and reentered herself.” This line was heartbreaking, having to endure hateful comments from your coworkers as well as take on an identity you’re not would definitely take a toll on anyone. Being white meant better jobs, nobody subjecting you to hateful comments, and overall being seen as the “better race.” Unfortunately, in today’s society, it still means a lot of those things. I think one of the main points of this article was to say to the reader “hey, being White was treasured property in the 1930s, but it’s still a thing and we should talk about it.”   

Towards the end of the article, another quote was able to stand out to me was on page 286, where Harris talks about how whiteness is a “consolation prize,” she goes on to say “it does not mean that all Whites will win, but simply that they will not lose, if losing is defined as being on the bottom of the social and economic hierarchy—- the position to which blacks have been consigned.” A lot of this article, but specifically this line reminded me of a quote that has been drilled into my mind as an African American: “In order to get half of what they have, you have to work twice as hard.” Even if we were to get twice as good, we’re still sometimes reaped with half the benefits. This took a complete 180 for me right back to the introduction, Harris’ grandmother could get a job being black, but being White opened more doors for her. Being White meant that she would be able to better sustain her family and probably even make a better income, in short being White is beneficial to White people.

Passing in Whiteness as Property

Within Harris’ article she describes her grandmother’s experience with passing. She describes how “anonymity was possible for a black person with white features” (276). Her grandmother’s ability to deceive the public’s evaluation of her immediate appearance allowed her to transcend some of the social constructs put in place at the time. Visual appearance created a societal separation between people of one race and another. This separation created opposition and animosity. To move past this social boundary some African Americans utilized their inherited “white” features to pass for white themselves. This allowed them to operate beyond the restrictions placed upon the social, cultural and racial group to which they had belonged.

In one of my prior courses, which was focused on Modernsim, we read Passing by Nella Larsen. This story describes the fictional experiences of black Americans in the early twentieth century who attempted to “pass” for white as well as the opposition to the practice. It detailed the internal struggles and fears associated with being caught within the lie. It really made the reader consider the turmoil that could happen within a person denying who they are and where they came from. This piece by Harris reminded me of this novel and made my experience reading those few lines on her grandmother’s life much more potent. I believe it also assisted me in trying to understand her perspective when writing this piece.