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.

Let’s Look Together at White Privilege – 5

In chapter 2 of her book, White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo gets clear one important fact: people of color are different from whites in only one way. “The differences such as hair texture and eye color are superficial and emerged as adaptation to geography. Under the skin, there is no true biological race.” Anyone who says otherwise defies the voice of science and, in my opinion, their motives are suspect. It was disturbing to me when I read the life of Thomas Jefferson and discover that he was a slave owner and had written about natural differences between races, I am sure to justify his own actions.

DiAngelo notes that the idea of freedom and equality may have been a dream for those who founded our democracy, but “the US economy was based on the abduction and enslavement of African American people, the displacement and genocide of Indigenous people, and the annexation of Mexican lands. Further,” she adds, “the colonizers who came were not free of their own cultural conditioning; they brought with them deeply internalized patterns of domination and submission.”

The Great Melting Pot is a cherished image for Americans, but in reality, only white immigrants were really allowed to melt into the pot. I wrote of that in my 4th essay citing the experience of my own Polish ancestors. What I find interesting is what DiAngelo has to say about class differences. She says that the ability to enter into the American dream manifests itself along class lines where poor whites do not benefit as much as middle and upper class whites. I have always wondered why poor whites tend to vote for a party that is basically responsible for their inability to rise up out of their situation. This is because racism serves the wealthier classes when poor whites blame black and brown people for their lack of opportunity instead of blaming those in control of employment and legislation.

DiAngelo gives a number of definitions:
Prejudice is pre-judgment about another person based on social groups to which the person belongs. A relatively harmless one is that black men are good at basketball.
Discrimination is action based on prejudice. These actions include ignoring, exclusion, threats, ridicule, slander and violence.
Racism, like sexism and other forms of oppression, occurs when a racial group’s prejudice is backed by legal authority and institutional control. It is a system. This is why the idea of reverse racism doesn’t make sense. Racism is not the attitude of a individual person. An attitude or action of a black person toward a white person is prejudicial or discriminatory but not racism.

The system of racism begins with ideology, she says, “reinforced across society in schools and textbooks, political speeches, movies, advertising, holiday celebrations, and words and phrases.” I was thinking about pulling down statues of history figures. One group wanted to pull down a statue of Thomas Jefferson because of his support of slavery, I am sure. My personal belief is that we should allow the presidents of our country remain, but we should tell the truth about them. I suspect that there are few more than a handful of presidents who were not guilty of prejudicial attitudes. We need to make sure that the history books our children study, the museums that honor the presidents, and the plaques that guide tourists tell the truth about the accomplishments and errors of these men. I say this knowing full well what a terrible president Andrew Jackson was with what he did to the Native American people. We have a mixed past that evokes both pride and shame.

On the other hand, I do not support statues of military leaders who fought for the south. These were not American heroes. They were leaders of those who sought to tear down our democracy. They were technically, leaders of the enemy in the civil war and to honor them is a statement about one’s allegiance.

I want to mention the fact that many black people manage to navigate the many barriers to success that racism causes. I see many people of color who are in the public eye in politics or the arts, who are professors and business leaders…all considered successful people. First of all, we can’t assume that their experience was free of racist trials. But we also have to be careful to rely on single situations, exceptions and anecdotal evidence for our understanding of the whole.

Back to the idea of White Privilege, an individual white person may be quite supportive and accepting of the blacks in their circles. They may even have close black friends. But they still benefit from the system that gives advantage to people who are white. They can’t shake their own privilege because the racism continues to operate and black people continue to struggle more than their white counterparts. This says to me that if we really care about our fellow citizens and about our country, we need to do more. This gets back to  speaking out, writing to legislators, even running for office. Each of us whites need to find their own way to fight racism.



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.


Let’s Look Together at White Privilege – 3

Reflections on White Frigility by Robin DiAgnelo, Introduction.

DiAngelo explains in her intro who she is and how it is she came to write the book. A white woman, she was a diversity trainer whose job it was to work with people in a workplace to educate them about racism and, hopefully, improve the workplace situation. “I was taken aback,” she writes, “by how angry and defensive so many white people became at the suggestion that they were connected to racism in any way. The very idea that they would be required to attend a workshop in racism outraged them.” In order to understand, DiAngelo linked racism to the idea of being bad. As I suggested in yesterday’s blog, being racist, she said, also meant an individual would actually want to do harm to others because of race. It is no surprise that a person would want to defend themselves.

It is important that people realize that we are all swimming in the same racial water, as she puts it. If I accept that racism is unavoidable, for ANYONE, then maybe I can “understand racism as a system into which I was socialized (and) I can receive feedback on my problematic racial patterns as a helpful way to support my learning and growth.”

Years ago, I had a taste of racism and the white reaction to racism when each summer I took teens from my church to the Red Lake Reservation in norther Minnesota to do service work. It was the Catholic mission that that we visited and they put us to work in the school and on the church grounds. The staff set up opportunities for the kids to listen to speakers and have some cultural experiences while we were there.

There was on man, a native elder, who often came during our visits, to teach the history of the Red Lake people and about native spirituality. He was pretty straight-forward, even confrontational, suggesting that this group of white teens were somewhat responsible for the actions of their ancestors as they manipulated the tribe in wrangling a piece of the lakes by tricking them in the wordage of the treaty. That drew quite a reaction from the kids, as you might expect. Their ancestors might have been unjust, but THEY hadn’t done anything wrong. While I didn’t say so, I sided with the kids. I felt protective of their fragile feelings as teenagers. And my own, I guess.

I wish I had understood back then about white privilege. This would have been a perfect moment to teach them.

On one of our trips to Red Lake we happened to be there during pow-wow days. This was a fairly small pow-wow compared to others I attended because Red Lake is a closed reservation, though there were a few whites from the surrounding areas. After the pow-wow, we gathered in our space at the mission’s convent where we were housed to talk about the experience. One of the girls, who I recall was quite feisty and outspoken, said, “They aren’t very friendly.” I asked her what she meant. “Well, we were sitting there in a group and not one of them came up to talk to us.” I asked her what she expected them to do and she said she didn’t really know, just that they weren’t friendly.

I asked her what would happen if a group of young Native American teenagers came from Red Lake to attend a football game at St. Cloud High school. “If they were sitting together in the bleachers just like you were today,” I said, “what would you do? Would you go up to them and welcome them?”

She said probably not. She would be too embarrassed to do so. I said, “The people at the pow-wow may not have known why you were there in the first place. But if they failed to welcome you, it is probably for the same reason.”

There was more we could have talked about. Embarrassment, perhaps, but fear also. Fear of the other. How did the Red Lake people at the pow-wow know whether these young white teenagers were there to cause harm? If a group of native kids showed up at a football game in St. Cloud, what assumptions might the white spectators make about them and their intentions? How complicated this becomes!

I look forward to your stories and your insights.

Let’s Look Together at White Privilege – 2

I mentioned yesterday that I was already familiar with the idea of White Privilege, but the title of the book I am reading is White Fragility, a rather baffling idea. In the Forward to the book, Michael Eric Dyson explains that fragility refers to the tendency of white people to  “react defensively to being called to account for how (their) whiteness has gone under the radar of race for far too long.” Just think about how people react when they are told they are being racist in some way – total denial as though they were accused of being child beaters. You might hear someone say they don’t see color. Fragility refers to one’s fragile ego. We witness it in other ways, such as when we point out a mistake someone made and rather than thank you for giving them the opportunity to fix it, they go into denial and blame.

Racism, Dyson says, is a condition like original sin is the condition of what it means to be human in a fallen world. This is especially true in America, as the author points out, where our roots began with the genocide of the Indigenous people who first owned the land and then created an economy built on forced labor of black slaves shipped in from other lands. Racism is part of the American character, whether white people want to admit it or not.

Beyonce Knowles is quoted as saying, “It’s been said that racism is so American that when we protest racism, some assume we’re protesting America.” Think of    Colin Kaepernick who first took a knee during the national anthem to protest police brutality. People condemned him for his disrespect for the flag and betraying America itself. The actions against which he was protesting was dismissed. They insisted that he was unpatriotic or even a traitor worthy of punishment.

What I found interesting is the idea that whiteness is somehow equated with what it means to be an American. Recently I watch on the news a woman losing control as she ranted against a group of Hispanic construction workers who were speaking Spanish as they worked. She was screaming that they are suppose to assimilate now that they are in America and assimilation means speaking English, the only language real (white) Americans speak.

Author Robin DiAngelo says that it has fallen upon black Americans to try to understand white Americans because they are the race with the power to make the changes that would bring equality to our nation. In order to understand this, she pointed out that when women sought the right to vote, they needed the voting men to come over to their side because they were the only ones who had the power to change the law. So far, there has been no real need for white people to change laws because laws tend to bend in their favor. Why change something that is working for you? This is why I believe we as whites need to act, to share our power. Legislators care about our vote in a different way than they do black people. We have a power the black community does not have.

I believe that if DiAngelo is correct about Black Americans understanding more than White Americans, then it behooves us to listen. Here in Minnesota where George Floyd was taken down, I was startled every day as I listened to black leaders and how thoroughly they had examined systems and discussed solutions. This was my first written message after Floyd’s death to my Minnesota representatives. “Listen to them,” I wrote. “They have thought these problems through backwards and forwards. They can tell you exactly where in this country cities are solving the problem of police brutality. They have the solutions that will work.”