Essay / Blog

On Being White (And Talking About It) – Part 1

The last few weeks have involved lots of conversations about ethnicity, racial reconciliation, white identity, micro-aggressions, locs, Trayvon Martin, bi-racial children, “other”-ness, post-racial America, racism in Christianity, interracial dating, and a host of conversations about how to have these conversations.

This may sound overwhelming, but it’s my life.

As an African-American, third-culture adult teaching in an honors program at a predominantly white Christian institution of higher learning, married to a white American with a blended (bi-racial) daughter — I have these conversations on a near daily basis.

I have these conversations when I go to Target and I can’t find a tan doll that looks like my daughter.

I have these conversations when I teach Flannery O’Conner and one of my students reads the N-word for the umpteenth time because its in the short story we are discussing.

I have these conversations when I watch the news and there is another story about another black teen being killed in Florida.

I have these conversations when I realize that I have to convince one of my colleagues that naming sports teams after people groups is ridiculous not harmless.

I have these conversations when one of my students talks to me about the concern their parents expressed over their significant other not being “White, you know, from the same background.”

I have these conversations when I enter a classroom and I am the only brown face… again.

I have these conversations when my husband and I are watching Survivor and they vote off the Black person first… again.

I have these conversations when I am at the aquarium/park/store with my daughter and someone asks me if “her mother” would mind if she had a sticker/candy/balloon and are shocked when “I am her mother.”

I love these conversations. Especially the ones I get to have with my students. I really do. Because I have realized that, by and large, White parents aren’t having these conversations with each other or with their children.

I know this because I teach their soon-to-be-adult children for whom the platitudes of “we are all equal,” “skin doesn’t matter, we are the same underneath the skin,” “we are all the same to Jesus” do not serve them in the real world (aka college) where they encounter realities that don’t align with these.

And this is from the kids of the parents who at least tried. Many of my students parents never talked to them about race at all.

And finally, someone else has seen it and said something about it.

Last week, a friend of mine posted a link to a blog on Huff Post Parents titled, “For Whites (Like Me): On White Kids.”  My friend, who is White and will be having her first White kid with her White husband, is thoughtful and brilliant; she works hard to model critical thinking for her students (shout out to good teachers!) so when she posts something on Facebook, I pay attention. Especially when it involves race.

This article surprised me. In it, the author, Jennifer Harvey, basically argues that her college students, like mine, lack the tools to process the racial reality that surrounds them on a daily basis.  Even her students who were raised in the most socially liberal environments struggle to articulate, let alone live in relation to, a coherent paradigm about race and ethnicity.

She writes:

Time and again, my white students write that “everybody’s equal” is the “most important” thing their parents taught them about race. Time and again, a not-insignificant number of them then proceed to describe their present trepidation about a.) telling their parents they date interracially; b.) bringing home a Latino/a or black classmate; c.) Thanksgiving break, when everyone will silently tolerate the family member who makes racist comments; or d.) something else that reveals how deeply and clearly these students know this “most important teaching” doesn’t mean […] a lot to their actual white experience.

[M]any white kids have such poor facility in engaging racial difference and challenging racism despite their exposure to (liberalish) white culture’s “everybody’s equal” mantras. Turns out our kids, literally, don’t know what “everybody is equal” means. It’s an empty phrase. A numbed out flourish. (Sugar.) Meanwhile, they are daily assailed by a relentless barrage of anti-black imagery, Native American stereotypes, slurs against dark-skinned non-native English speakers and on and on. Our happy equality and shared humanity platitudes just don’t stand a chance.

I read a study some time ago comparing white and black families. It found that on average, African-American parents start talking about race with their African-American children by age 3. White parents with white kids? Age 13. Is it any wonder my white students are so racially baffled and behind? That they look like deer in headlights when I tell them we’re going to talk about race in their actual lives? It’s not just the fact of being white, and thus insulated from the negative affects of racism (though I believe white children are deeply harmed as well — in different ways), that works against their developing aptitude about race and anti-racism. We, their parents, are working against them too!

Yes. Thank you. Now what?

Just stating what not to do isn’t enough. Harvey suggests that White parents imagine the kinds of conversations that Black/Latino/Asian/Native American parents have to have with their children and use that as  “the standard for the caliber of conversation required of [White parents].”

But how, I wonder, are they imagining these conversations when they’ve never heard them or had them (not even with their own parents)?

Most of my student’s parents grew up in an America that, from their own report, was “much simpler.”  People didn’t need to talk about race because the Civil Rights Movement had more or less effected a social/racial equality, irritations of political correctness aside. And the Cosby Show proved that if Black people worked hard enough and studied hard enough they didn’t have to be thugs or drug dealers or welfare queens.  And wasn’t it enough that they had a Black friend in college? They aren’t racists. They didn’t own slaves/put Japanese Americans in internment camps/treat their Latino landscaper badly. And they taught their kids to be colorblind/not see color/everyone is equal.

But their children know that universal equality is false.

Everyone is not equal.  As they grow into adults connected to a digital world that expands their physical world in ways that their parents cannot really comprehend or keep up with.

Everyone is not equal.

I grew up knowing that equality was an American ideal, something we all wanted to be true, but wasn’t.

What is true is that God created man and woman and said that humanity was very good.

But man has, in his fallen state, taken the purity and value of humanity and sullied it with his own insecurities and shame and pride and guilt.

I have seen my students do one of two things when confronted with a glaring disparity in the real world to their beliefs about human equality – they either (1) become very uncomfortable and frustrated that their parents didn’t teach them the truth, or (2) become very self-righteous, sure that equality is real, and that anyone experiencing inequality must be morally at fault for their own situation.

All of my students know that I love these conversations, the hard ones where we wrestle with the good, the bad, and the ugly about humanity and prejudice (America is not alone in its hypocrisy). My White students come to me asking for space to process what is it to be “White” in a world where more boxes exist to be checked that identify others for whom conversations about ethnicity, prejudice, and disparity were not optional conversations around the dinner table.

They express fear and anger and frustration and shame. So do my Black/Latino/Asian/Native American students – racial identity is a complex thing; it takes a while to become an integrated healthy whole, even with the help of the Holy Spirit.

But my Black/Latino/Asian/Native American students know that everyone is NOT equal, long before they walk through my door. For them, I am helping them sort complex puzzle pieces.

For my White students, I am handing them puzzle pieces.

Since I am not White, I cannot talk about the internal reality of the process of talking and thinking about race/ethnicity beyond the platitudes. I cannot share my own experience of White identity development because that is not my identity. But it is my husband’s. But I have learned, through numerous conversations with my White students, and from sharing life with my White husband, that the complexities of White identity development are both difficult to navigate and seemingly taboo to those who dare venture into unknown terrain.

Come back for Part 2 on Thursday to hear from Jamie’s husband, Andrew.
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