Let’s Look Together at White Privilege – 4

On White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo. Comments on Chapter 1: “The Challenges of Talking to White People About Racism”

DiAngelo names several social forces that prevent white people from attaining the racial knowledge needed to move productively in racial issues. These forces “powerfully hold the racial hierarchy in place.” They are: ideologies of individualism and meritocracy, narrow and repetitive media misrepresentations of people of color, segregation in schools and neighborhoods, depictions of whiteness as the human ideal, truncated history, jokes, and warnings, taboos on openly talking about race and white solidarity.

In yesterday’s blog I  mentioned the woman who violently lashed out at some Hispanic workers who were talking in Spanish among themselves. This is an example of a white person thinking white, English speaking, and dressing a certain way is the “right way” to be American. Hers is an extreme case of white socialization. But all whites are socialized into the white culture and mindset by simply living here in America. The list above is how the socialization takes place.

In this chapter, DiAngelo focuses on the ideology of individualism which “holds that we are each unique and stand apart from others, even those within our social groups. Objectively it tells us that it is possible to be free of bias.” Yesterday I told the story of the youth visiting Red Lake Reservation where they listened to a speaker who told the story of the Red Lake people. He implied that they were in some way responsible for the actions of whites who tricked them into surrendering part of the lake to the state. I don’t recall exactly what he said but I suspect he used the phrase “your people”. Just as DiAngelo suggests, the kids saw themselves as unique and different from the whites who had done the people harm years ago. The native people, however think in different terms. They are part of community and each shares in the pride or guilt of the whole nation. Individualism keeps whites from thinking of white as one’s community distinct from other communities. Having experienced Native spirituality, I feel a sense of guilt when I think about what my American ancestors did to the Indians when they launched into Manifest Destiny.

When discussing the problems that immigrants of color experience when they come to the United States, I often hear people talk about their own ancestors who were not received well when they came here. I am not sure the point they are trying to make, perhaps that they understand or that the new immigrants should stop whining, hurry up and assimilate and things will be fine. I come from Polish and German ancestry. Coming to American goes back only four generation, the first ones immigrating in the late 1800’s. The first among the Poles settled on farms in western Wisconsin. This generation spoke Polish, ate Polish food and kept Polish customs. With children going to school and later working, they learned English and took on other practices and customs they learned in America. Some of this second generation, including my grandparents, moved to the Chicago area where I was born to a daughter, third generation). My grandparents could speak Polish but rarely did so once they left Wisconsin. None of their children in my mothers generation spoke the language. The had assimilated…almost.

I remember my Aunt Jo saying one day how much Polish jokes hurt her. I always thought Polish jokes were funny but she could see that they implied that Polish people are stupid. She took it personally because she felt part of a tribe, a people. My generation had lost that. I think our family was right on target for full assimilation to take place.

But Poles are white. The Irish and Italians are white. They are bound to assimilate, but what of races like Black and Hispanic and Asian? In the above story, the workers who experienced the wrath of the woman could easily have been several generation Americans. But that was not the woman’s perception. Her perception was effected by their brownness and the language they spoke. I have an Asian friend who was asked once where she was from. When she answered Minneapolis, the person said, “No I mean where are your people from?” She said, “Montana.” The man assumed she was an immigrant because of her Asian features. The problem, of course, is that in the United States, whiteness is considered the norm to which all other races need to imitate…but one cannot change their skin or features.

It is humbling to read DiAngelo’s words. Becoming more conscious of my tribal identification with the white race, I wish I could feel pride.

I look forward to your reflections and stories.


7 thoughts on “Let’s Look Together at White Privilege – 4”

  1. My Dad at age 16 and his father immigrated from Austria followed by his mother and 4 siblings a year later. They settled in a German area in north Minneapolis. My grandfather died a year after they arrived, so my grandmother had to raise the children on her own. I never heard any stories of racism, prejudices, or how life was difficult for them in the US. I only know they were all able to prosper and become American citizens. Is this because of their white skin??? This is the first time I have thought about this!!

    1. I loved your family’s German heritage. The pickle ornament that you gave us comes to mind. Yes, I suspect that their assimilation was easier because they were white. I think the author is trying to say that when people, esp. of white European descent try to use their family immigration experience as a way to identify with those who come in who are not white,,,it really doesn’t match up. Whiteness is an advantage from the start. Blackness is a disadvantage from the start and on into the future.
      A St Cloud Somali woman wrote a book about her people’s immigration experience. I thought of my own ancestors all the way through. I could see common experiences of being immigrants no matter the race, but the problems our ancestors experienced dissipated quickly, once the language barriers were overcome.

  2. My grandparents were the first gen immigrants ( Paternal Sweden, Maternal Germany) Aunts and uncles spoke native language yet fully assimilated. Grew up in North Minneapolis and working in a grocery meant coming into contact with many of the neighborhood folks so those accents are very familiar to me. especially Swedish. A Swedish accent especially still takes me on a nostalgia trip.
    The second group of immigrants i remember were the post WW2 brides, as i remeber were mostly German. Working in a grocery store presented some language challenges but we communicated. These were my high school years and left a lasting impression on me.

    1. When you talk about post WW2 brides are you referring to women the troops married while they were serving in Europe?

  3. I have read your blogs on this book so far; what a wonderful way to hear echoes of my own thoughts and insights in your blogs. I will join in as I can; I am underlining, ear-marking, and pondering the many challenges in thinking and acting that the author uncovers.

    1. As I reread my blogs, I realize that I am telling a lot of stories from my own experiences. I hope my readers will do the same. We are all learning together and sometimes our own experiences are the best object lessons.

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