What I knew about race relations in the US before I arrived in the US for the first time in the Fall of 1990 as undergraduate student was based on some books and novels I had read and Hollywood videos I had seen. Meaning, it was little. The book Black Like Me, which I read early on in my undergraduate career at Grinnell College, gave me my first real and serious introduction to it.
Since then I have done what I can to learn about it as much as I am able, partly also because of issues of prejudice and discrimination faced by people around the world, including in my home country Nepal.
Reproduced below is an excellent FB post by my (North) American (US) friend Kristine about racism, privilege, what being a White American means, and what White Americans can do about it.
Kristine is a United World College (UWC) of the Adriatic friend and a fellow teacher. She and I shared a dorm while at the UWC in 1988-89. I finally caught up with her (image above), in Colorado, for the first time in over 25 years the Summer of 2015 during my 13-month North-American travel adventure. During that short reunion, she even arranged for me to speak to her beautiful group of students.
Incidentally, there is a slight difference in formatting between her original post and the reproduction here.
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This is directed toward my white/Anglo friends, especially those who are American.
I am motivated to write this after seeing the pictures from a friend’s visit to the San Diego Museum of Man’s exhibit on race. It made me put my teacher hat on and think about what we can do to seriously and meaningful address the racism in the United States. It also made me contemplate my own journey in grappling with my own racism, as well as that in our greater society.
We as whites have an obligation to educate ourselves about racism, normative whiteness, cultures and peoples who are different from ourselves, and a more complete picture of American history.
I’ll start with normative whiteness, because most whites have no idea what that means. A lot of white Americans are so immersed in their culture that they can’t even see it; they see it as what is “normal”, ordinary, everyday, status quo. (It’s probably also normative with regard to gender and gender identity, sexual orientation, ability, religion, age, body, and more, but I digress.)
I love the way it is defined here: Paying Attention to White Culture and Privilege: A Missing Link to Advancing Racial Equity.
“By “white culture,” we mean the dominant, unquestioned standards of behavior and ways of functioning embodied by the vast majority of institutions in the United States. Because it is so normalized, it can be hard to see, which only adds to its powerful hold. In many ways, it is indistinguishable from what we might call US culture or norms — a focus on individuals over groups, for example, or an emphasis on the written word as a form of professional communication. But it operates in even more subtle ways, by actually defining what “normal” is — and likewise, what “professional,” “effective,” or even “good” is. In turn, white culture also defines what is not good, “at risk,” or “unsustainable.” White culture values some ways — ways that are more familiar and come more naturally to those from a white, Western tradition — of thinking, behaving, deciding, and knowing, while devaluing or rendering invisible other ways. And it does this without ever having to explicitly say so.”
Resources around this:
- Dismantling Racism Works web workbook
- Understanding White Privilege
- Mirrors of Privilege: Making Whiteness Visible (film you can stream for $5—highly recommend)
- White Culture Handout (PDF format)
- White Awareness (book)
- The Norm of Whiteness
Something that is really hard is seeing our own racism as whites. Most people recognize by now that being called a racist is a bad thing, and we don’t want to be called that. But have we done the work to remove the label? We live in a racist society, with biased media, education, etc (see normative whiteness above), so racism can’t be addressed passively. Tim Wise has done some tremendous work on white racism. “How nice it would be if white Americans would exercise a similar restraint when it comes to the topic of racism and discrimination in America. For although we have rarely had to know much about it — and though most of us, by our own admission, socialize in nearly all-white environments where we won’t benefit from the insights of persons of color who have, indeed, had to major in the subject — we continue to insist that we know more about it than they do.” (from White Denial: America’s Persistent and Increasingly Dangerous Pastime check out his whole site, all his essays, and his books)
There are a ton of Tim Wise videos (of his speeches and of interviews) out there, and I encourage you to watch his work extensively. (Click here for The Pathology of Privilege.)
Here’s a shorter one On White Privilege.
Peggy McIntosh’s “Unpacking the Knapsack” is a valuable tool for understanding your invisible privileges (and prejudices). There is also a very (white) American idea about pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps which just doesn’t work. If you’re born on 3rd base (in part because of what your family’s race allowed your family to do), it’s pretty easy to get to home base and score.
As far as cultures and peoples go, take a look at yourself. Who are your friends? (And I don’t mean superficial friends.) Where do you spend your time, energy, and money? What are your sources of information? (News, entertainment, all media.) Where do you travel? What languages do you speak (or not)? It’s better to go deep here rather than shallow (i.e, go beyond food, fiestas, and fun). There’s a beautiful example of that here: The Iceberg Model of Culture. This takes time, an open mind, open ears, and a quiet mouth. Think about what you can do to make your lens on the world a little less exclusively white and/or Anglo.
Read. Listen. Think.
I think we know there’s a lot of bias (and picking and choosing) in what we’re taught in school, especially about ourselves and our history. When we as whites don’t see people of color represented in what we learn about American history, we assume that they are not important people who made important contributions to our culture and society. [Emphasis added.] There’s a crazy notion out there that what is in textbooks is the unbending truth, and that just isn’t true. Kids (and adults) need to think critically about the information they receive and where the authors’ perspectives come from. Teaching Tolerance is a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center (an incredible civil rights organization), and there are lesson plans there available for teachers. We all can benefit from these lessons, such as: What Counts as History with [PDF format] handouts (set 1 and set 2) (compare that last link to a typical history textbook table of contents).
There are so many excellent sources for filling in your gaps. Even if you don’t remember it all, you will remember the gist.
A People’s History of the United States (there’s also a version aimed at children) [I read this book a long time ago and I loved it.]
And museums… there’s the one my friend visited: Race: Are We So Different?
(do your own search!)
The resources listed here are just the tip of the iceberg.
Explore. Learn. Grow. Speak out.
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What do you think?