In chapter 4 of her book, White Fragility, author Robin DiAngelo looks at how being White shapes our perspective, experiences and responses. I use the word “our” as she did because I see this study as an exercise for my white fellow- Americans. People of color have been actively doing their own inner and outer work for years. Until now, we haven’t had to.
The first benefit that whites get from living in a racist culture is a sense of belonging. Most of us were born into a world where white doctors and nurses tended our white mother and other white mothers. Parents who attended childbirth classes likely did so with other white couples taught by a white instructor. As children we played in parks with other white children and attended schools with mostly white kids and rarely was a teacher or administrator anything other than white. Conversely people who cleaned hospital rooms and janitors in schools were more likely to have been of a minority race.
When we went to work, offices were filled with white co-workers, unless our work was at the lower end of the economic scale where it was more likely that we had co-workers of color. When we travel, the same holds true in the restaurants and hotels we use. Mostly white people greet us and assign us to our rooms, while we often see people of color cleaning our rooms.
The sense of belonging that whites are allowed to feel is supported in all areas of our lives, in the TV and commercials and movies we see, in our history books where the heroes and achievers of our country are most notably white men. Whites never have to question whether we belong. We are in the soup of what seems to be the norm.
A white person might feel they don’t belong in a subgroup such an economic class. I can still remember feeling outclassed when I went to a “tea” given for young women considering attending the college I later entered. I had never heard of a social event called a “tea”. I remember everyone wore a hat except me and my girlfriend, Anita. I was embarrassed. Anita was not. I couldn’t figure out how she could not feel embarrassed. She just had a better self-esteem than I did.
Whites have freedom from the burden of race. DiAngelo writes, “Because I haven’t been socialized to see myself or to be seen by other whites in racial terms, I don’t have to carry the psychic weight of race; I don’t have to worry about how others feel about my race. Nor do I worry that my race will be held against me.” When I worked for the Burlington Railroad years ago, I had no idea that the black women who worked in the waybill department may have worried about this. But now I believe this was a concern for them. We as whites have “a level of racial relaxation and emotional and intellectual space that people of color are not afforded as they move through their day.” As whites, we have a freedom of movement in virtually any space seen as normal, neutral, or valuable.
Whites, DiAngelo says, are “just people” – our race is rarely if ever mentioned. I spoke to this in yesterday’s blog. I rarely hear on the news that a white person broke into a bank but the race of the suspect is mentioned if that person is of a race other than white. We are the norm, just people. People of color are a particular kind of human that has to be identified in conversation. Because I am a writer, I was struck when DiAngelo wrote, “White (male) writers (are) seen as not having an agenda or any particular perspective, while racialized (and gendered) writers do.”
The parent educator in me was struck by what DiAngelo wrote about models for child development and its stages. Theorists, she says, present human development as though it were universal, but, considering all the dynamics she has discussed so far, “Is an Asian or an Indigenous child’s development the same as a white child’s within the context of white supremacy?” While I was serving as a parent educator for an early childhood class in Swanville, MN, we had the opportunity to serve women and children from among the migrant workers that served on farms in the area. There was a language barrier that we were not able to overcome before these families moved on. We regretted that we were not prepared to serve them. Truthfully, we believed that language was the only barrier and we looked at providing materials written in Spanish and having interpreters present. It never occurred to us that there may have been differences in the development of these children or in the parenting challenges given their unique way of life and their racial differences.
On the other hand, there are commonalities, I believe, issues and concerns that parents of children of any race could relate to. Not long ago I went to a presentation in a nearby town intended to help the white residents better understand their new Somali immigrant neighbors. My favorite talk was given by a man who told how he struggled over whether or not to let his daughter go to a pajama party to which she’d been invited. He didn’t know the parents and worried terribly about her safety and how she would do with these new friends. While race played a part in his concerns, his worry about his little girl was something every parent could relate to. I remember being new to a town and my daughter was invited to a pajama party and I didn’t know the family. I ended up finding an excuse to bring over a treat just so I could step into the house and meet the parents. In that instance, the parents were not home. You can imagine, I took my daughter home, much to her embarrassment. When talking about families, I think there is much to share that transcends race. We need to do more of that kind of sharing to find our common humanity.