Let’s Look Together at White Privilege – 14

This is the 14th issue in the study of the book White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo. Today I am commenting on her 7th chapter, “Racial Triggers for White People”. “Most white people have limited information about what racism is and how it works,” she says. Many have taken an isolated multicultural course in college or required cultural training in their workplace, but these may not even touch on racism let alone white privilege. This reminded me of the courses I took at the end of my education for parent education. The two classes I took were intended to increase our awareness of differences between cultures in practices and beliefs. I don’t want to diminish the value of these but DiAngelo is right. It wasn’t until later, in situations outside of the school setting, that I learned about racism and white privilege. It was a deliberate action on the part of social concerns communities that education was sought through speakers and inter-cultural dialogue and experiences.

DiAngelo says that when courses and training do address racism, white responses tend to include anger, withdrawal, emotional incapacitation, guilt, argumentation, and cognitive dissonance. Progressive whites may not respond with anger but “they still insulate themselves via claims that they are beyond the need for engaging with the content because ‘they already had a class on this’, or ‘they already know this’.”

Being so quick to react at the suggestion that one might be racist is the basis of DiAngelo’s book title, White Fragility. She closed the chapter with the story of a teacher addressing two female students as “Girl”. One of the students reacted. “Did you just call me girl?” she asked. The other student said it was OK because the teacher calls all of her students girl.

The teacher later shared the story complaining that he had to be “so careful” and “can’t say anything anymore.” He thought the student was being oversensitive and the other student’s statement confirmed his belief. DiAngelo said that his reaction was a typical white narrative. As I was first reading the story I was tending to agree with the teacher, until I read this: “The teacher never considered that in not understanding the student’s reaction, they might be lacking some knowledge or context. They demonstrated no curiosity about the student’s perspective or why she might have taken offense. Nor did they show any concern about the student’s feelings.” In other words, it was all about him.

This is one of those moments when I have to  take stock. If I say or do something that offends another person, rather than assume they are being to sensitive, I need to be curious about why my action was offensive to them. It may be a door into a deeper understanding of another person or, perhaps, of a whole community of people.

Let’s Look Together at White Privilege – 13

I have always been intrigued by the idea of projecting, the tendency to project onto other people characteristics we don’t want to admit in ourselves. Robin DiAngelo tells us that scholars this is what whites have done to black people. Examples she cites is how white masters of enslaved Africans consistently depicted Africans as lazy when in fact they toiled in back-breaking work from sunup to sundown. Today, blacks are depicted as dangerous even though statistics show that this is a perversion of the true direction between whites and blacks since the founding of the country.

The idea of projecting was particularly difficult for me to grasp. It leads me to want be more alert to who is making racist statements or perpetuating stereotypes.

I was interested to learn the facts about Affirmative Action. It is commonly believed that “if a person of color applies for a position, they must be hired over a white person and that a specific number of people of color must be hired to fill a quota.” Here is a more accurate description of what Affirmative Action is:

“Affirmative action is a tool to ensure that qualified minority applicants are given the same employment opportunities as white people. It is a flexible program – there are no quotas or requirements as commonly understood. Moreover, white women have been the greatest beneficiaries of affirmative action, although the program did not initially include them…No employer is required to hire an unqualified person of color, but companies are required to articulate why they didn’t hire a qualified person of color (and this requirement is rarely enforced). Additionally, affirmative action never applied to private companies – only to state and government agencies.”

As I read this I think of all the people over the years who have complained about how black people or immigrants can take their jobs away because of affirmative action. None of these individuals, by the way, have actually lost a job. That is, no one actually did take their job away. What they were doing was simply repeating racial rhetoric.

I was interested in DAngelo’s statement: “We have a particular hatred for ‘uppity’ blacks, those who dare to step out of their place and look us in the eye as equals.” I believe that this is why Barach Obama roused so much hatred. This seemed to be the case even among my Republican friends and relatives who in the past, would have simply got upset about a Democratic president’s policies but didn’t necessarily hate him. The fact that Obama was far so highly educated and so articulate made him intolerable. He was a black man who forgot “his place”.

 

Let’s Look Together at White Privilege – 12

In her fifth chapter of White Frigility, Robin DiAngelo expands on her premise that racism is a systems reality. When reduced to individual persons, it would be more appropriate to use words like “prejudice” and “discriminate”. This is helpful to me because I have been working on my own attitude and my behaviors for long time. My level of prejudice is much lower than it once was and I am vigilant about avoiding discriminating behavior. In addition to revisiting the idea of “color blindness” and “I know people of color (in my family or among my friends).” Her point is that even if we succeed in dealing with our own attitudes, racism continues and whites continue to benefit and people of minority races still have to deal with it.

One defense that wasn’t brought up in her earlier chapters is when people say, “I marched in the sixties.” My husband and I were just starting our family when marches took place in the 60’s. We did not participate in any marches, but we were keenly aware of them and had a lot of discussions with friends about what was going on. We saw ourselves as standing on the right side against racism. I was inspired by Martin Luther King. But we come across people our age who did march in the sixties, and just as DiAngelo suggests, they use that experience as a way of saying, “Therefore, I can’t be a racist.” Here is what she writes about this defense:

“Someone who tells me that they marched in the 1960’s – like the person who tells me they know people of color – is telling me that they see racism as a simple matter of racial intolerance (which clearly they don’t have or they could not have tolerated marching alongside black people during the civil rights movement). They are also telling me that they believe that racism is uncomplicated and unchanging. Yet in the 1960’s, we thought race was biological. We used terms like Oriental and colored. Nevertheless, in the light of an action they took more than fifty years ago, they see their racial learning as finished for life.”

She also brought up that some people think they can’t be racist because they live in the north, i.e. Minnesota. I have to admit that I was stung when, after George Floyd was murdered, I learned about the history of racism in the state of Minnesota. The Star Tribune reported how Minnesota is doing for African Americans compared to the other 49 states.

Minnesota ranks 39th in Educational Attainment
41st in median income
44th in Unemployment
45th in Labor Force Participation
48th in poverty and home ownership

I know that the inequities in education come up often in the legislature when it comes time for funding for education. In fact it comes up again and again which leads me to assume not much has been done to address the inequities. I was surprised to read that while racial covenants (that prevent Blacks from buying or renting in white neighborhoods) have been illegal since the Fair Housing Act of 1968, in Minnesota the racist language remains present in many housing deeds and Blacks are still prevented from buying where they choose.

DiAngelo has more to say about one’s upbringing. People will say that they are not racist because their parents taught them that racism is wrong. Knowing what I know now, I think it is more accurate to say, it is wrong to discriminate against anyone because of their race. Prejudice is an inside attitude and parents would do best to pay attention to their own language and behavior and finding ways for their children to interact with people of other races. Whether talking about race or sexuality or disabilities, comfort with people who are different than oneself goes a long way. I think honesty is important, too. We can share with our kids that we once had prejudicial attitudes ourselves.

As for racism, it takes a whole lot of education to learn the ins and outs of it in our systems. This is the task at hand.

 

 

Let’s Look Together at White Power – 10

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.

 

 

Let’s Look Together at White Privilege – 8

The term “white racial frame” was first coined by sociologist Joe Feagin to describe “how whites circulate and reinforce racial messages that position whites as superior.” He says that the racial frame is deep and extensive and stored as “bits”. I think of yeast in the dough. Work it in and the bread will begin to rise. The bits here refers to things like movies, TV, news, and other media, and stories told by family and friends. Constant use of these bits keeps the framework going and getting stronger and stronger.

The most general level of the racial framework: whites are superior in culture and achievement and people of color are generally of less social, economic, and political consequence. At the next level, because social institutions (government, schools, the military, etc.) are controlled by whites, white dominance is unremarkable and taken for granted. At the deepest level, the idea that people of color are innately inferior is reinforced and accepted.

DiAngelo offers questions we might ask ourselves about the framework in which we grew up. I will answer each of these from my memory…you might want to do the same.

  1. How old were you when you became conscious that there were people of different racial groups than your own? I think I was first aware during early school years, first in literature, ie. Uncle Remus, then in sports, Chicago’ Luis Aparicio and Ernie Banks come to mind. Later, while riding on public transportation or driving through black neighborhoods.
  2. Did your parents tell you that race didn’t matter? I believe my Dad did. My parents often got in arguments with politically racist relatives, taking the side of minorities.
  3. Did they have many friends of color? No, none that I was aware of.
  4. If people of color did not live in your neighborhood, why didn’t they? Now I think it was red-lining. When I was a child or teen, I didn’t know.
  5. Where did they live? In the areas closer to the center of Chicago and on the south side of the city.
  6. What images, sounds, kinds of activities did you think went on there? Most of what I saw was run down, absent of any parks or lawn areas, some garbage strewn about against the buildings and in the gutters. Sounds…the “el” train. (I realize now I never really penetrated the neighborhoods. I only saw the areas along the train tracks and along the highways.) I couldn’t imagine them hearing the sounds of birds except pigeons or growing flowers or vegetables.
  7. What kind of activities did you think went on there? People sitting on their stoops, talking, kids playing barefoot in the streets, watching TV.
  8. Were you encouraged to visit these neighborhoods or were you discouraged from visiting these neighborhoods? We had relatives living in areas that were turning black. We had to be cautious while we visited them or while visiting museums or White Sox Park, both in or near black neighborhoods.
  9. What about schools? What made a good school? Who went to good schools? Catholic schools were good, public schools not so  good. Catholic kids went to good schools. Protestants went to the bad schools. I didn’t think about white and black, rather public and parochial when it came to school. My cousins on the south side had black students in their schools, but they were Catholic, I assumed.
  10. Were schools in black neighborhoods considered equal to, better than, or worse than yours? I don’t recall ever thinking about that. I was pretty stuck on the Catholic thing.
  11. Why did busing go in one directions and not the other? This didn’t happen until I was an adult and I actually asked that question. In the rift between Camilla Harris and Joe Biden in the Democratic debates, I took his side…though I think he could have done a better job of articulating his position. I believed back then that the real solutions to equal education was to upgrade all schools and make them equal while working on the problem of redlining so neighborhoods would become equitably integrated. I saw busing as only a temporary measure and worried that it got people off the hook for improving the inner city schools.
  12. The next question does not apply to me, but I include it here for the readers to consider. If you went to school together, did you all sit together in the cafeteria? If not, why not? Were the honors or advanced placement classes and the lower-track classes equally racially integrated? If not, why not?
  13. When was the first time you had a teacher of he same race as yours? Did you often have teachers of the same race as your own? I never had a teacher of a different race until I went to school in the nineties for my masters. That was a teacher in my human relations class in which we studied diversity.

DiAngelo suggested to consider the geography. I lived in Chicago proper, not the suburbs, but in a middle class, white neighborhood on the north side. She didn’t mention age, but I think it is important to consider that. I was born in 1944.

I hope you will consider answering the questions for yourself. Write out your answers and send them to me, if you like.

Let’s Look Together at White Privilege – 7

Robin DiAngelo in her section on White Supremacy says that it “is a descriptive and useful term to capture the all-encompassing centrality and assumed superiority of people defined and perceived as white and the practices based on this assumption.” As I read this I thought about the hatred people had for Barrack Obama. I am talking about hatred, not distaste or disagreement with his politics. Being the educated man that he had with the confident savvy and amazing knowledge and vocabulary he had, he must have been an affront to people who were already intimidated by highly educated people, viewing them as snobs. To be a black snob was just to much to tolerate.

(Forgive me – this assumption is pretty judgmental on my part., and reflects a pretty snarky remark Hillary Clinton made about Donald Trump’s supporters during the campaign.)

As DiAngelo continues, she reminds us that racism is a structure.”White supremacy in this context does not refer to individual white people and their individual intentions or actions but to an an overarching political, economic, and social system of domination.” There are hate groups, of course, that proclaim that whites are superior, but their existence tends to obscure “the reality of the larger system at work and prevents us from addressing this system.”

Racism occurs in other cultures but the United States, as a global power, spreads the idea of white supremacy through movies and mass media, corporate culture, advertising, US manufacturing, military presence, historic colonial relations, missionary work and other means.

My husband and I had the opportunity to go to Guatemala a number of times to serve in a program managed by Common Hope, a group organized to serve the poor in that country. We worked directly with the indigenous people on projects, got to know their families, celebrated and prayed with them. I noticed that even in their homes that we might call hovels, a family might have a television set. Living in such dire poverty, they were witness to riches Americans had through programs and advertising. Directors in the program told us that the people assumed all Americans are rich. We were dismayed when the father of a girl we sponsored in the program wanted us to take her home with us to raise her. She was just a child. But the director said he believed the life we could offer her so surpassed anything he could offer. We were embarrassed by our wealth, the wealth we didn’t feel we had when we were back home in the states. The indigenous people held us on pedestals we didn’t deserve because of our American whiteness.

Charles W. Mills, author of The Radial Contract, describes white supremacy as “the political system that has made the modern world what it is today.” He says that white supremacy is never acknowledged and that fact protects it from examination and holds it in its place. Below is a breakdown of positions of power and decision-makers in the United States.

  • Ten richest Americans: 100 percent white, seven of whom are the ten richest in the world.
  • US Congress: 90 percent white.
  • US government: 96 percent white
  • Top military advisers: 100 percent white
  • President and vice-president: 100 percent white
  • US House Freedom Caucus: 99 percent white
  • Current US presidential cabinet: 91 percent white
  • People who decide which TV shows we see: 93 percent white
  • People who decide which books we read: 90 percent white
  • People who decide which news is covered: 85 percent white
  • People who decide which music is produced: 95 percent white
  • People who dictate the one hundred top-grossing films of all time, worldwide: 95 percent white
  • Teachers: 82 percent white
  • Full-time college professors: 84 percent white
  • Owners of men’t professional football teams: 97 percent white

It is important to note whites make up about 60 percent of the population in the U.S. but, according to the list above, they hold about 90 percent of the power.

How does this happen? It is actually quite deliberate. Lee Atwater, Republican strategist and adviser for presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush explained what was known as “the Southern Strategy.” It was a way to appeal to the racism of white southern voters without pronouncing it openly.

“You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’ – that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now (that) you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is (that) blacks get hurt worse than whites.”

It shocks me to read this. While I consider myself a liberal democrat, I’ve had an appreciation of the Republican party that seemed to always be keeping their eye on the budget. To think of budgeting strategies as a cover-up for preventing black Americans from achieving the benefits of their white fellow-citizens gives me pause…and I think may be even hurt my heart.

 

 

 

 

 

Let’s Look Together at White Privilege – 6

There is so much to ponder in each paragraph of DiAngelo’s book, I have to take it in smaller chunks. I am so enjoying peoples’ comments and stories. I feel like we are all in a college class together.

Whiteness as Property is a phrase coined by critical race scholar, Cheryl Harris. Just like owning property at the time of the founding of our country was a prerequisite to be a voting citizen, whiteness is a vested interest to those who have it. It provides a unique membership with special privileges in society. It is like being born into the Royal Family. Entitlements come with just being who  you are related to, in this case, the white race. Some of these privileges include resources like “self-worth, visibility, positive expectations, psychological freedom from the tether of race, freedom of movement, the sense of belonging, and a sense of entitlement to all the above.” This all rests on the preconceived idea that white is the norm for being human and people of color are a deviation of that norm.

DiAngelo tells the story of baseball great Jackie Robinson, the African American to made his way into major-league baseball. He was lauded as a man whose talent was so exceptional that no other black athlete was strong enough to compete at the level necessary to compete in the magor leagues. Imagine, DiAngelo says, a rephrasing of his story: “Jackie Robinson, the first black man whites allowed to play into major-league baseball.” This flipped a switch for me as I think of other successful African American folks. Some white person, somewhere, a person with power because of their whiteness, had to “allow” or “enable” or “clear a path” for a black person to step into a place originally designed only for white people. This idea of “only for white people” is the racism we are talking about.

Sometimes this “allowing” is quite deliberate because someone sees talent in a person of color and chooses to help them. It may even be a decision of an agency or institution, sometimes supported by law, such as establishing a hiring practice to include a percentage of people of color. My granddaughter’s Hispanic background opened the door for her when she applied for college and for a particular job. I have been a part of committees that seek people of color for the purpose of having a more inclusive representation of viewpoints. I am not sure how people of color feel about being “tokens” but I think it often reflects a genuine desire to forward the cause of fighting racism.

One sign that whiteness is the norm in our country is the establishment of Black History Month. One can’t really imagine a White History Month since our history consciousness (and textbooks) are already saturated with white history. Again, the implication is that the contribution of Blacks to the country is outside the norm.

To be white is a privileged position with advantages people of color do not have. It is noted that those who rise to places of prominence and power, such as Colin Powell, Clarence Thomas, Marco Rubio and Barack Obama, “support the status quo and do not challenge racism in any way significant enough to be threatening.” I agree, though I think that when Obama was elected president, he challenged the status quo by his very existence in the office. There are those who couldn’t see his contributions at all because they were totally blinded by their hatred for black people. It shocked me when Obama would showed compassion for families of the children massacred in Newtown, Connecticut, when he was accused of “faking it” for political purposes.

“To name whiteness, much less suggest it has meaning and grants unearned advantage, will be deeply disconcerting and destabilizing, thus triggering the protective responses of white fragility.” We come around again to the title of the book that may be making some of us uncomfortable. I suspect, though, that any white person choosing to read the book is ready to learn and to be part of the change needed to set our country aright.