Speaking of Whiteness

“To speak of whiteness is to assign everyone a place in the relations of racism. It is to emphasize that dealing with racism is not merely an option for white people—that, rather, racism shapes white people’s lives and identities in a way that is inseparable from other facets of daily life.”
—Ruth Frankenberg, White Women, Race Matters, 1996

Janet, 1966

It all started with a question:
How did I come to have so much unconscious racist conditioning despite being raised in a thoughtful, sincere, “good” white liberal family?

Finding the answer has become an ongoing  journey of discovery—sometimes amazing, sometimes awful. And now I’m inviting you along.

The premise here is that, growing up in the United States, white children (indeed, all children) are subject to deep cultural conditioning around race. Whether we are aware of it or not, we learn early on our position in the social, political, and economic hierarchies we live in. When it comes to race, if we are white, we belong. Most of my life I haven’t had to think about my racial identity—being white felt “normal.” This invisible training underlies much of white America’s inability to see why the issue of race won’t go away. Its influence goes far beyond the personal level, however, since most of the leaders who make policy decisions in the U.S. public and private sectors are white—and white people have held this power for a long time. This is true even though Barack Obama is president.

So, how did I learn to be white? In my case, growing up in a very white state (Vermont), I imbibed both the conscious liberal views of my parents—that we are all equal and everyone deserves opportunities to learn and succeed—and the cultural stereotypes of the fifties and early sixties. In television and movies black people were chauffeurs, cooks and “mammies,” always making funny remarks; there were “wild Indians,” Mexican bandits, “Oriental” houseboys. People of color rarely appeared in the news media as individuals until the Civil Rights movement. The history I learned in school left out, distorted, or white-washed much of what white people did to people of color (slavery, genocide, exploitation) and ignored the contributions people of color have been making to our society since pre-colonial times.

Reading my childhood diaries and school papers, I can see how these unconscious cultural messages resulted in a subtle racism that was pitted against my conscious belief in “justice for all” and that contradicted my basic goodness as a human being.

Illustration from one of my Raggedy Ann books: they're all "equal" sitting on the bench, so what's off in this picture?

As I absorbed all this unconscious instruction, along with seeing myself as “more fortunate” (although I thought of it the other way around—the Others are “less fortunate”) came a subtle feeling of power or superiority that created distance and fear, also buried under the surface. I might have been aware of discomfort around people of color, and sometimes a vague sense of guilt, but one thing was for sure: I NEVER wanted to see myself as racist in any way. And beyond how I felt about myself, there is the fact that being born white has given me advantages I didn’t even know I had. This cloak of privilege is also a veil—it protects me, but it also obscures the truth. It shelters me, but at a price.

So how did all this complexity—the unconscious privilege, the invisible fear and the taboo of speaking my experience around race—get transferred? Through the subtle osmosis of being in a family, a culture, of needing to belong and so learning the ways of “my people” in order to survive, to be loved and included. I learned what it is to be white, but at the same time I was trained to not see what I know.

If I really want to find out how I learned to be white, I have to fearlessly and honestly examine the context of my parents’ values, my church, my education, and the America of the fifties and sixties I grew up in. I have to risk the image I have of myself as a “good white person.”

My hope is that a reverse osmosis is possible when highly concentrated awareness seeps through the membrane of culture and transforms the solution of ignorance.

What about you?
How did you learn about race growing up?

What are some of the images you remember?
What did your racial identity mean to you?

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38 Responses to Speaking of Whiteness

  1. Erin Axelrod says:

    How did you learn about race growing up?
    I learned about race growing up through stories of my mom and dad’s experience living in diverse, multi-cultural cities of Detroit and Philadelphia, as I was raised in a predominantly white town in Northern California. I did not learn much about what my own white race “meant,” or if I did, it was not presented in so significant a way that I retained much of this education.

    What are some of the images you remember?
    When I visited my dad’s apartment in San Francisco, I remember having a neighbor down the street that was a Latinx family who I loved to visit and play with their children and they fed me Nopales for the first time (that were sooooo delicious that I gorged myself on them and ate too much and then got sick afterwards and threw up because of over-doing it on this delicious cultural food that was too different for my system that was not used to it). I remember feeling how “novel” and “different” my cultural experience was visiting them. I also remember being at a dinner party with my mom and our all-white family and my mom bringing up issues of race and making a statement “we are all racists” to try and raise the issue of the injustices of white supremacy and how we are all complicit with the racist system. This comment led to one member of the family, an in-law, not speaking to my mom for nearly two decades, because she was so offended at being called “a racist” and staunchly defended that she was not racist.

    What did your racial identity mean to you?
    Nothing, really. I knew that I was fortunate to be in a white body but I think I conceived as racism as “back then” and “over there” rather than thinking of it as something that created the conditions which led to why there weren’t majority people of color in my town (although there were strong enclaves of latinx folks that were largely invisible to me as well). I had an idealized conception of “native americans” too, invisibilizing the reality that the indigenous people of my community were in close proximity to me, with robust cultural ways but tucked away in enclaves due to the white supremacy so prevalent in the communities I grew up in.

  2. Beth says:

    I also grew up in Vermont (in the 80s and 90s) and had a similar white liberal “color-blind” experience growing up.
    How did you learn about race growing up?
    The first thing I really remember learning about race was when we watched Roots in elementary school. I’m not sure how old I was, and I don’t actually remember what I thought at the time. But certainly it represented my education about racism as something that happened at another time and place, that didn’t really have an impact on anyone’s present day experience. This is also how we learned about anyone that was not white (Native Americans in particular). Race was something other people (non-whites) had, while I (being white) was just a normal human. Even through high school I primarily remember learning about racism as a thing of the past.
    What did your racial identity mean to you?
    I didn’t really consider myself to have a racial identity until a few years ago when I started reading more about racism. I guess if someone had asked my younger self, I likely would have said something like, “It means I’m normal.”

  3. Stevie says:

    How did you learn about race growing up?
    I think I absorbed most of what I learned about race from television and movies. I lived in a very white city and state. My understanding as a young child was that basically black people lived in the South. My grandmother died before I was born, and I knew that she was from the South. I was actually nine years old already when I saw a framed picture of a thin white woman and asked who it was and was shocked to hear that it was my grandmother. That’s when I realized that in my head, my whole life, I had pictured her as a heavyset black “Mammy” type. I must have gotten that image from the media because I certainly had never met someone who looked like that. I also obviously wasn’t totally clear on how race was passed on in families. I actually use to think that what race you were born was chance, like a surprise when you were born – “It’s a boy! And he’s black!” I know I got that from going to school with a pair of siblings who were mixed race (black and white). The sister was in my grade and she looked black to me; the brother was in my brother’s grade and he looked white to me. So I figured race just happened to them randomly. That is how little anyone in my family told me about race when I was little.

    What are some of the images you remember?
    Black people were so rarely visible in my daily life that they were fascinating to me. Same for East Asians and South Asians. I honestly cannot even recall ever being around a real Latinx person as a child and cannot recall what I thought or heard or saw about them outside of the cartoon stereotype of Speedy Gonzalez.
    When Cabbage Patch kids came out, I got a black, male one, because it was, in my mind, the cutest.This had to be because of the popular tv shows of the day – Diff’rent Strokes and Webster – that were built around a plotline of a wealthy white family adopting an adorable, small, black boy. I had internalized the notion that as a white person, I was supposed to adopt a black child. I guess that sums up the white liberal messaging I absorbed – a patronizing attitude that people of color needed to be taken care of by white people and were basically cute curiosities.

    What did your racial identity mean to you?
    I don’t recall whiteness being spoken about. I remember hearing a lot about Christians (since I was raised Jewish in a place where Jews were quite the minority) but not about whites, and I didn’t put whiteness and Christianity together. So it wasn’t like hearing a lot about being Jewish from my family made me think I wasn’t white. I knew I was white but I just didn’t think of white as being really anything. So I didn’t think of my racial identity being anything. Part of me wished that my race was as interesting as a non-white race.

  4. Anna says:

    How did you learn about race growing up?
    I grew up in 70s and 80s. Disco and R&B was always on the radio and Soul Train, Sanford & Sons and the Jefferson’s were my favorite TV shows. My family was blue collar. Union, maybe, but not active or political as far as I could tell. I only heard about Black and Hispanic people moving into town, taking my family’s jobs and “ruining” neighborhoods. I never knew a person of color personally until I moved from Ohio to Florida in second grade. I remember Black children being bussed to my predominantly white school. I remember thinking of them as “less fortunate” but no one ever explained to me why that was. When I was a teenager, my mother forbade me from dating Black boys. She said, “We’re not racist, but the world is, and it would just be so hard on everyone.” I got the message loud and clear that people of color were “other” that I was not permitted to know.

    What are some of the images you remember?
    Aunt Jemina syrup. The book Little Black Sambo. I actually named my black hamster Sambo and everyone in knew approved of that name and thought it was cute. I had forgotten about that until recently when talking to a fellow parent who was telling me she “overlooks” racist aspects of certain children’s books. That image of my hamster Sambo came rushing back in my mind and I was in equal parts horrified and deeply saddened for my child self that she had no adults in her life to tell her how harmful and disturbing that portrayal of a Black boy was.

    What did your racial identity mean to you?
    It’s hard to say what it “did” mean because it wasn’t something I even thought about until becoming a parent myself. As I think about the overall identity of my younger self, it never felt to be mine. It was something others told me I had to be to “fit in” and that definitely included being white, even if they told me I was white silently and insidiously as the absence of what people of color were.

    I learn what I was by learning what I wasn’t. I wasn’t Black or Latinx or Asian or Arab or Jewish. I envied from an early age not having that additional layer of identity or group belonging. I wondered if I’d feel more belonging and more connection to my family and school community if I “had” a racial or ethnic identity. I believe this admiration came from TV and movies and music and not from actual people of color I knew (because I didn’t actually have a friend who was a person of color until 6th grade). I only knew of the talented, beautiful, funny, athletic Black and brown celebrities I saw on TV and listened to on the radio, and was absolutely clueless to the systematic oppression and daily violence all people of color had experienced for centuries at the whims, hands, and unjust laws of people who looked like me and who bestowed upon me this “cloak of privilege” you so perfectly describe, which only works because it “obscures the truth.”

  5. Richer and richer! Loved taking a piece of my morning to read through every word of these penetrating and honest bits of memoir on subject of our whiteness. Surely Janet’s study and her opening of this forum to all participants in this work is a great contribution to the work ahead of us — making race consciousness a positive not a negative force in all our lives. We can be aware of our differences in an appreciative rather than exclusive kind of way when we experience ourselves as individual parts of a larger human community rather than a superior or inferior group. The awareness is everything — and starts with these memory searches and honest evaluations of our personal pasts.Asking where did the conditioning come from gives us a chance to step away and dis-identify with what we’ve been taught, so that we can un-learn the unhelpful parts!

  6. Serene says:

    I also grew up in a family in which I was told that everyone was made equal. My father was very identified with being English, as his dad had been born in England and come here as a teen. My mother was very identified as being Scottish on one side, and a descendant of some of the earliest colonists on the other side. With all of these ancestries, there was some sort of palpable pride. I don’t recall any direct statement of being better than anyone, but I think it was what was left out that was the most disconcerting. It was like a silent but solid thing, that no one ever named. White was definitely normal and I had a very white perspective. My two closest friends in early elementary school, before we moved to Los Angeles, were Japanese. I remember my friend Kiku showing me how someone made fun of her by pulling their eyes up to the side and calling her names. I remember how hurt she was. That was my first memory of a personal relationship with someone who experienced racism.
    I remember my parents being very vocal about their liberal views and got the idea that liberal was good, and conservative was bad, because liberals cared about people. But caring about people and being comfortable around and familiar with people of color seemed to be two different things. My parents had no black friends. We never had any people of color over for dinner. I don’t even think they ever had my best friend’s parents over for dinner, and they lived right across the street. So the idea of the people we cared about was more of a concept than a reality. It felt odd, but we just didn’t talk about it. I remember badly wanting to be Japanese. My parents even took me to Japan town with my best friend and bought me a kimono. I think I just wanted to belong to a group in which there was a strong culture, other than a culture of “normal” and “expected”.
    In fifth or 6th grade, I remember there were only two Black boys, and one Indian boy in my grade in Los Angeles. Then came junior high school, in which the school was integrated by busing. The Black kids were bused in from Inglewood. I remember my dad being upset because he found out some of the parents of my friends would not send their kids to that junior high because they didn’t want their kids going to that school (with the Black kids) because it wouldn’t be safe. Those families were moving out of town to avoid the integrated schools. I also remember that after that time, my friendships with those kids faded. I’m so glad my parents allowed me the experience of being in an integrated school. It made a huge impact on me and on my future. I have to admit, I was scared too. Some white kids said, “They beat up white girls with blonde hair and wallabies (my suede shoes). Come to think of it, it might have been my brother saying that…just trying to scare me. Well, I never got beat up, although I think I went through junior high still pretty fearful and completely intimidated by some of the black kids, for no reason other than total lack of exposure and lack of conversation about the subject of “race”, (barring hearing comments of how “articulate” certain Black people were or were not). It took several years until I had black friends that I hung out with at school. I was minimally aware of the struggles of Latino people and Asian people. Although exposure in subsequent years increased my awareness, I still struggle with my conditioning vs what I know is right and real. Even after giving birth to three Black and Native American children, I still struggle with the conditioning and mis-education I received in childhood. But now I feel it as a divided person…One half as a protective mother, and one half as a privileged white person. I dedicate myself to continued learning. Thank you so much for this blog ❤

    • JanetC says:

      Serene, you so clearly nail the challenge of seeing white conditioning when you grow up in a white liberal family. So much that is not said but is communicated by osmosis — the “palpable pride” your parents communicated about their ancestry without ever saying, “We are better than other people.” There’s a sense of belonging, having a right to be here, that is such a given is you are WASP in this country. Also that discrepancy between their liberal ideals and how they actually behaved — not socializing with your Japanese friends’ parents, even though they were neighbors. And the fear around busing – how powerful that was! Thank you for posting your comment!

  7. Susan C says:

    Thank you for the questions and invitation to reflect on how racism shapes us as white people. I grew up in Vermont also, in the 70s and 80s. Growing up, I remember very much feeling a sense that “the north isn’t racist” and feeling pride in that. It wasn’t till my 20s that I started questioning this, and being shocked at the level of segregation and history of housing discrimination and anti-bussing campaigns in Boston. A black boyfriend of mine in graduate school shared with me that he was more afraid in Boston than in the South – because at least in the South he could tell which white folks to stay away from, and in Boston the racism was more insidious because it was buried. It’s something I’ve heard other people of color share since then. Some time after we broke up, very tragically, he took his own life. He was a complex person with a tough life, but I have to wonder how much his experience of racism on a daily basis contributed to his depression. And it makes me wonder how racism blocks white folks from seeing the deep and searing pain and trauma of people of color in this country.

    I had a black friend as a child, and I remember going over to her family’s house for dinner – I was maybe 6 or 7… And I was struck by the differences I noticed: differences in the way folks communicated, the differences in food, beauty products, the way things smelled. I remember feeling excited by these differences – having a sense of “wow, I had no idea there were many different ways to live!” When I came home and tried to share my experience with my parents, I remember having the distinct feeling that it was bad or wrong to have noticed these differences. So I didn’t mention those experiences or my excitement to them again. My parents were (and are) loving, progressive people, and my sense is that they didn’t know how to respond to me, and feared that acknowledging difference was somehow akin to demeaning people of color. This denial of difference is discussed as a form of modern racism and exclusion by Valerie Batts of VISIONS Inc:

    I remember racist expressions that my parents inadvertently passed along to me, which were embedded in their upbringing, like the term “cotton-pickin'” as a derogatory term. It wasn’t until I was in my 20s that I realized how racist this term was (and classist too) and was shocked that it was used in my household, and probably many others, into the ’80s at least – even if not directly applied to human beings, it was clearly part of racist and white-supremacist culture. My family was horrified too, and stopped using it.

    Living in Los Angeles in the ’90s and working in activist communities, and especially forming friendships with Asian/Pacific Islander colleagues, forced me to confront stereotypes I held of API folks as docile and subservient.

    I aware of my own privilege to some extent now, but it’s an ongoing journey. It’s amazing how embedded in racism is the “forgetting” part of this. Just today I was talking with a neighbor who is black and disabled and who is searching for Section 8 housing in a neighborhood that he feels safe in, in Oakland. It’s an extremely tough journey for him, and when I reflect on my own experience of finding housing, I’m overwhelmed by the privilege accorded to me as a white woman. Yet, part of the privilege is that I so rarely reflect on that. I don’t have to! I have to work to remember and notice.

    I’ve been thinking about the ways that white heteronormative women specifically are accorded an incredible amount of privilege in this country. As a group, we are considered being worthy of protecting, and our tears and pain are paid attention to and attended to, in ways that I don’t think women of color’s pain and hurt are attended to or seen as important in the same way at all. The white supremacist view of men of color as threatening begs the question: whom are they seen as being threatening to? White women, mostly, I believe. The dynamic of white women being seen and treated as a protected class is so deep. At work I’ve heard stories from my women colleagues of color about how they’ve been sexually harassed and their bodies have been seen as sexualized and available – in ways that I’ve never experienced as a white woman. That makes me very angry.

    I’d like to learn more about what my grandfathers had to do to become “white” – my paternal grandfather of (fairly recent) German heritage, and my maternal grandfather who was poor/working class from the south. Looking forward to exploring that further as part of my ancestral understanding and healing around race.

    I’m glad we’re talking about this. Thank you.

  8. Sil Machado says:

    I grew up in very White community in Northern California and, as a result, had very little experience with people of color growing up. I think this lack of direct experience, which seemed to foster the idea of race as a distant, theoretical construct that applied to others and not me, led to a very Eurocentric perspective that I still catch myself in today. It helps me to remember basic goodness here as I challenge myself to catch this unconscious “White = normal” programming, and as I continue to work to feel more comfortable with discussing issues of race. How can I expect myself to feel comfortable doing something I never learned to do early in life? I didn’t have to discuss it growing up, which I know has everything to do with the privilege I was born into.

    I did have one African American friend in childhood with whom I did martial arts for a number of years. I remember spending time in his home, with his mother and sister, and very much enjoying myself and the connection we shared. I remember at one point that his mom ask my parents for some money – my hunch would be that, as a single mom, she was struggling to make ends meet. I do think my parents are generous in many ways as middle class individuals, but they denied her request. While it was never discussed explicitly, I recall now, in hindsight, that there definitely was racial messaging about this. It’s hard for me to find the words here, as it is almost more somatic than it is cognitive, but somehow it was in the atmosphere in my family that because my friend’s mom asked for money, she had somehow proven that she was “showing her true colors” as an African American person and, as a result, we needed to distance ourselves from them. As if it was fine to be close to my friend’s family as long as they did not meet the stereotype that my family held about what it meant to be African American (whatever that stereotype was). Again, this wasn’t explicit, but I knew for sure that it was tied to race. I remember feeling angry about this – I even asked my mom why we couldn’t help, to which she responded that she didn’t want to set a precedence for lending them money. While this bothered me, I can see that this did raise caution in me, some narrative like “Oh, I should be careful with having African American friends, because they might ask me for money all the time.” I was about 8 years old at the time, but I can see how this subtle message got in and fostered what is certainly an inaccurate stereotype and harmful caution in me.

    As far as my own racial identity is concerned, I was not raised to think of myself as White. I was raised to think of myself as a first gen Azorean Portuguese person. I recall my father’s stories about mistreatment he faced when he arrived to this country in his teens, and, of course, found it much easier to identify with this oppression than the privilege I was unconscious of while growing up. This identity though, of Azorean Portuguese, was troublesome to me, given the history of Portuguese colonization around the world. So, it was a bit paradoxical – to experience my father’s oppression as an immigrant next to my own guilt about my ancestors’ oppression of others. To this day, I don’t think my father has been able to recognize this history and its implications for those who suffered as a result of our ancestors’ actions.

    There’s a lot more to peel away here for me. I appreciate reading others’ experiences and thoughts as well.

    • barbbreslaucomcastnet says:

      Comments on Speaking of Whiteness
      Barbara Breslau
      February 5, 2018

      I can identify with Ruth Feinberg’s experience growing up as a white woman in the 1950s and 60s. I grew up in Washington, DC where I attended private schools and went through the debutant circuit. However, I was aware that my parents were immigrants. They came to the U.S. from Hungary in 1941. I never felt fully accepted in the society of my peers. I had to wait a few years to get into the dancing class my friends attended, was never accepted as a member of the country club, and hosted a dinner before someone else’s debutant party rather than hosting dance of my own.

      Many years later, as an adult, I learned that I was a Jew and that my parents had barely escaped the Nazis when they left Hungary. Perhaps it was my Jewish identity and not just my immigrant status that kept me as an outsider.

      Never the less, I grew up with white privilege, living in a white neighborhood, attending all white schools. As a result, all my friends were white. At the level of being white, I belonged. Perhaps it was because of my Jewish ancestry that I grew up believing that we are all equal, that education is important, and that everyone deserves an opportunity to learn and succeed. My parents worked hard to make a living, buy a house, and pay for a good education for all three of their children. They wanted us to be able to take care of ourselves.

      I saw the cultural stereotypes of the fifties and sixties on TV and in movies where black people were chauffeurs, cooks and mammies and Indians were wild. I knew there was a history of slavery in the south, but I had no idea of the years of brutality and inhumanity that meant. I think Martin Luther King was the first African American man I looked up to as a leader.

      I felt the sting of being an outsider more than the confidence of being an insider and I certainly never felt like an oppressor. Looking back, I can see that I was shielded from the realities of the persecution of my Jewish ancestors as well as the deep wounds that white Americans inflicted on their dark skinned brothers and sisters.

  9. Karen says:

    I grew up in a white community with a black brother hanging out with other families with white parents and black and white children. My conditioning was contradictory. On one hand I got all the messages white children get about being white and I experienced the hatred, exclusion, aggression and oppression my brother felt. Sometimes it was directed at our family. Other times,though this was not a conscious act on my part, I could not be in my brothers presence and just be a white girl. Not the girl with the black brother. I never thought about him not being my brother or that because he was my brother these things happened. I also never realized that I received things because I was white. It was just the way I was. The way my family was.

  10. Stephanie says:

    I didn’t have any personal contact with black people growing up. The only thing I knew about black people was the stereotypes I saw in the media and the messages I learned from my family.

    My mom taught me that it is bad to be racist and use racist names for people. At the same time, she complained about a black student in her class that she thought acted entitled and lazy. She was afraid of being called a racist by this student. She was outraged becauae she felt the student was taking advantage of his marginalized status to cheat the system and get out of doing his fair share. Even though I felt uncomfortable with my mom’s view, I knew she was a “good Christian” and therefore could not believe that she could ever do anything racist.

    As I got older I realized how homogeneric my community was and became interested in black culture. However the stereotypes I held about black people combined with my fear of being a racist made me very uncomfortable around the occasional black person I would meet.

    In college, I took an African American studies course. I felt proud that I had “studied” about black culture, felt better than the average ignorant white person, and believed that I was on the “right side” of the race war. For sure I would never be called a racist…

    And yet to this day, my discomfort around blacks stemming from my lack of exposure and stereotypes continues. It has lessened significantly through getting to work with some black colleagues. My gut reaction is to feel shame that this still exists within me, but I know this is part of the training and am taking a powerful step by acknowledging this part of me. I am a good person and I have lots of work to do to pull back the veil of my white conditioning.

    • JanetC says:

      Thanks, Stephanie. It is powerful and dismaying to discover how deep the white conditioning goes, so far beyond our conscious intention and awareness! Shame and self-consciousness become debilitating, until we realize there is actually a way to work with ourselves to undo it.

  11. Becca says:

    Growing up all of my family friends were white. As a child I never thought about this fact or wondered if it could be different– it was my normal. The only black person I can remember knowing in my elementary school years was a black girl that played on my soccer team. She was the adopted daughter to two white parents, which gave her another layer of “otherness” on top of her race. I remember lots of adults commenting about how athletic she was, how fast. I can see now that these adults were just perpetuating stereotypes they had about black people and passing this training on to me.
    The only other contact I had with people of color was through my parents’ work– they were both in helping professions– and through a friendship my brother developed with a Latino boy. I remember always getting the impression that my family was helping these people of color. Looking back what that implied to me was that we were both good people and that we were in the position of power.
    Being a second grade teacher, I am aware of how much racial conditioning my students receive through media, TV, and movies, which assures me that those things influenced my childhood as well. Disney movies in particular contributed to my training (of racism and of sexism)– always showing the beautiful white princess as the focal point (rescued by the white prince). Any time people of color were portrayed they were caricatures, reinforcing racial stereotypes and power differentials.

  12. Cathy Connor says:

    I grew up in multiple small White enclaves (2010 census approx. 10,000 people) primarily in middle to upper middle class Bergen County in New Jersey, just outside of NYC. Pre-elementary school we lived in a trailer park and my brother and I were subsequently removed from the home and put in foster care for 1.5 yrs. Throughout my school years we lived in the only apt and/or 2 family dwelling in the multiple towns we lived. I grew up thinking that we were poor, however I later came to understand we were working class; though alcoholism, gambling and divorce often threatened out economic stability. Until recently I believed that my identity as working class “underdog” somehow exempted me from even considering the very idea of coming from privilege. I believed that most people, if they made good choices, could overcome the odds of their upbringing to succeed. WOW! That is a powerful statement loaded with White privilege.

    I internalized the strong work ethic passed down to me by my waitress mother and truck driver father. This work ethic afforded me the illusion/belief that if you worked hard you would get beyond your barriers. Since I grew up with only White people around me, I was never challenged to consider what people of other races had to struggle with to overcome.

    I went to a public state college in NJ and until recently I thought of this as one of the great turning points in my life. I believed that it was a freak accident that I even landed in college. Neither parent had graduated from HS and didn’t show much interest in me attending college. Recently I can see this differently as White privilege. A Black or Brown person with my family background would have had many more barriers to getting to college and completing with a degree. This is the first place my mind was opened to at least consider the plight of others with far more barriers than me.

    I remember a line I heard growing up: “to each their own.” I don’t remember thinking much about it until my 3rd yr. in college. I had one experience verging on a romantic interest with a Black male, initiated by him. I remember not moving forward and actually saying something to the effect that we would never be accepted by our families and friends as an interracial couple. Even though I had great difficulty with my family, as well as, feeling immediate shame; this likely lack of approval still mattered to me. I believe this reaction came from the “to each their own” water I drank throughout my childhood.

    • I was born in 1954 the year of the Brown vs Board of Education decision, but don’t remember reading or hearing anything about this until maybe college.

    • On 11/22/1963 on my 9th BD President Kennedy was killed. My father’s family was Irish Catholic from Boston. He took us to the polls to vote for Kennedy. I remember hearing the news while at school and we were all sent home early. Everyone around me was in shock and tears and there was endless talk, outrage and TV news coverage. At 9 I absorbed everyone’s grief. YET, that same year, 2 months earlier on 9/15/63 the Birmingham Church bombing occurred killing 4 young girls. I don’t recall hearing or learning anything about this event at home or at school.

    • On 6/6/1968 Robert Kennedy was killed. Again everyone around me was in shock and there was endless TV coverage of this event. I was now 13 and by then I remember responding with my own grief. YET, that same year, 2 mos earlier on 4/4/68, MLK was killed. I do not remember much in the way of news or response to this event at the time at home or in school.

    • However, in retrospect I do remember being exposed to negative talk and news coverage of the Newark riots. I would not even know the timing of this without looking it up. It occurred during 6 days in July of 1967 leaving 26 dead and hundreds injured. I’m sure I was exposed to lots of news and negative opinions about Blacks during this time at least at home.

    After moving to Berkeley and Oakland in 1978 a year after college, it was the first time I was exposed to many more people of diverse backgrounds. Somewhere along the line I was able to shed layers of the more SPOKEN toxic isolationist racism that poisoned the air and water I grew up with. Though I viewed myself as a liberal Bay area transplant, as I look back to becoming a parent and raising my own son in the 80’s, I can see how the inability to talk about race more comfortably only continued the racist training into the next generation. Fortunately, my son has done his own anti-racist work much sooner than I have come to it and he has been a great inspiration to me on this journey.

    • JanetC says:

      Cathy, thank you for sharing so much of your story and the important understanding that white privilege is still there, regardless of class. Also really interesting tracking of the difference in your family and community’s responses to the Kennedy assassinations and the Birmingham church bombing and MLK’s assassination –what is brought to our awareness as children and what is invisible to us. The things that have emotional impact. And the power of phrases like “each to their own” to echo in our behavior so many years later.

  13. Ellery says:

    Growing up in predominately White conservative Midwestern suburbia, race was barely visible because people of color were few and far between. I remember when my best friend and her family moved into our neighborhood from India. We were 6 years old. I had a mother that traveled around the world for work and would come home fascinating me with beautiful stories of other cultures and the people she’d met. I think through this appreciation of other cultures it was easy for me to appreciate the otherness of my friend’s culture, the smell of Indian spices as I walked into her home, the effort to get to know her parents and have them know me even though we were awkward to understand each other sometimes. But she and I both remember our friend shamming her for the “nasty and weird” smells of her food or how weird it was her grandpa was always wearing a turban and not speaking english. I remember my mom treating her differently, trying to socialize her, as my mom thought every mom should, to be more polite, reserved, or tame even though she was a fun loving, vivacious and talkative young girl. My mom tried to make her conform to White cultural norms despite my mom’s gloated appreciation for other cultures.

    I do remember later in high school how I was trying to conform to the “coolness” of my badass friends and would get embarrassed when she would come over to talk with me with her uncool clothes that looked like she shopped at Sears. I remember being embarrassed that she didn’t just fit it. She didn’t seem to care about fitting in then, but later she did all throughout college, trying to gain approval from the coolest and most elite, white-cultured students.

    Anyway, this long friend ship has taught me a lot about my white culture and programming. She and I together still learn more everyday.

    • JanetC says:

      Thank you, Ellery, for this vivid story, so honestly told. You are really tracking the white conditioning, the multi-layered and multidimensional aspects of it. I’m so glad you two are still friends – so many interracial friendships don’t survive the social pressures of growing up in our white-dominated society.

  14. Noah says:

    Unconsciously, I think I learned about whiteness from my education. I grew up in predominately white neighborhood of Sacramento, in the early 80s. Starting in the second grade I was moved into a magnet program called GATE (Gifted and Talented Education). While the larger student body of the school more or less reflected the diversity of the greater Sacramento area, my elementary school class was probably 90% white, and we definitely saw ourselves as above or better than our same-grade peers. The few black students in our class were often socially isolated and/or singled out by our teachers for behavior issues, and while I saw their difference in being black, I don’t remember ever considering my own whiteness. As this trend continued through middle school and high school, I became more and more aware of a feeling of separation from and discomfort around black people, in large part because I did not personally know any. My only contact was cursory: negative images, ideas, and imaginings on television, in movies, on the news, and in the “non-GATE” classes. I had no counter narrative, no personal experience, and extremely limited knowledge of any black people as individuals. My whiteness was the norm, the unquestioned, unexamined, common-place, natural experience of all (or most) of the people in my life: family, friends, neighbors, classmates, teachers, and just about anyone I had a passing familiarity with. I covertly became conditioned though consumption of a national narrative through the media, subtle (to me) messages and norms observed and absorbed in my daily life, and an absence of direct dialogue about race. It wasn’t until some time in my Junior year of high school, while learning in depth about the clearly racist and somewhat more recent U.S. history of Japanese internment during WWII and the Civil Rights Movement that I began to consider my own whiteness with a slightly more critical lens.

    • JanetC says:

      Thanks for your reflections, Noah! Isn’t it amazing with all the changes in laws and society, that the white norm is still so strong. Your story offers details of how that conditioning can still separate us. You say, “But I had no counter narrative, no personal experience, and extremely limited knowledge of any black people as individuals.” Sharing stories like yours is one way to create a counter narrative.

      • Just finished a novel you’ll want to read and recommend: by Jodi Piccoult, “Small Great things” — incredible, I won’t even try to tell you — just read it asap! I just returned it to Berkeley Library — got it after 50 holds, thanks to NYorker review — you may have see it already — a burning brand in the story of whiteness!

      • JanetC says:

        Thank you, Catharine. I’ll look for it!

  15. Zoë says:

    I started reading this post a few weeks ago, and had a lot of trouble coming up with a reply. I think my inability to remember how I learned about race is totally indicative of my whiteness. I went to a private school that celebrated cultural heritage of all kinds, and I have distinct memories of celebrating many different traditions on many different holidays. And I also remember not really identifying with any of them — and not really being able to identify what my cultural traditions were. I never asked questions about why that was.

    I grew up in a loosely Catholic family, where most of the Catholicism that we practiced was rooted in service. We would often serve meals in homeless shelters and soup kitchens as a way to practice our faith and be thankful for what we had. This early exposure to poverty in San Francisco — where people of color were in the majority at soup kitchens and shelters, while those serving at these same places where majority white — helped inform my whiteness. In these instances I was the “good white Catholic” that was “helping” to serve those “less fortunate than me.” How could I not be affected by these experiences and the difference in the color of our skin? Did anyone else have this experience growing up? How do you think it affected you?

    • Rees says:

      I grew up in a small rural town in Massachusetts. I just looked up the census data from 2010 and it is 95% white; it was probably even more so when I was a child. Racism was definitely something that was supposed to happen elsewhere—I suppose in places that had more non-white people to be racist to: big cities and the South.

      So, I had the same blinders that Janet was describing. Because I was not confronted on a daily basis with many people of color, I could presume me and my community to be non-racist, or barely racist. Of course, when I was young I had no idea of the historical causes and conditions that had led to there being so few people of color in my community.

      Interestingly, when I went south to North Carolina for college, I was struck by how much more racially aware, sensitive, and integrated my white friends down there were. It was a big shock to realize that my white liberal “Yankee” (as my new friends liked to call me) background had actually proved something of a barrier to me in relating to race in an honest and straightforward way.

  16. Loved Susan’s recent posting — especially the last paragraph about being among the ‘bad guys’ and having “no culture” — everyone else was so much more interesting! thanks for sharing!

  17. Susan says:

    Growing up in a military family, my earliest awareness of privilege was that to be an American was privileged. When we were stationed overseas (three years in Morocco, three in France, then three more in Morocco), we always had a maid (something that would have been financially impossible and totally inappropriate class-wise when we lived in the States). My mother explained that every family hired local people because it was our way of repaying the country for letting us live there. Particularly in Morocco, I was aware that we had much better living standards…money, luxuries, education, health care, etc…than the Moroccan people. I didn’t think we were better, just luckier. I thought it had to do with where you were born, and it didn’t occur to me it had anything to do with race. The American families of color seemed just as privileged as my family was.
    I was aware that my North Carolina grandfather was overtly racist. I remember once when we were visiting him and we stopped at his favorite barbecue place. I was astounded and horrified that the sign on the window said, “We cater to white trade only.” My mother would have refused to eat in a place with such a sign, but she wasn’t there, and as a preteen I didn’t have the courage to protest.
    When I was twelve, my dad went to Vietnam and my mother and my siblings spent a year in my parents’ hometown in Burlington, NC. It was 1964, which happened to be the year the schools were integrated. There a huge hubub before it happened. I protested loudly that they were worried about nothing, that people were people, and there was nothing to be afraid of. I was attacked and ridiculed for that opinion. I remember thinking the basketball coach was hypocritical and stupid when he declared, “Well, if we have to integrate, let’s integrate all the boys over 6 foot 3 first.”
    That year, I read in the paper that Coretta Scott King was coming to speak at a Black college in Greensboro. I wanted very much to be there, but wasn’t sure a white girl would be welcome. I did not want to presume I had the right to be there if I would be seen as an intruder. With my mother’s encouragement, I wrote to the president of the college to ask if it was OK if my mother and I came to the event, since “I wasn’t sure if it was accepted for Caucasians attend.” I received a nice reply saying we would indeed be welcome. I’m pretty sure my mother and I were the only white people in the huge crowd. I was embarrassed that we weren’t dressed as well as everyone else…we didn’t even have hats…but I was thrilled to be there, and didn’t have any angst about being the only two white people. Dr. King was a hero of mine, a great man, and to be in the same room with his wife and to hear her speak was a very important day for me.
    Your third question is, “What did your racial identity mean to you?” It meant I was a member of the “bad guys,” even though I didn’t feel like one of them. It meant my culture was the culture of No Culture, and everyone else was more interesting. It meant I didn’t get the color and mystery of the Moroccan people, and I certainly didn’t have what I saw as the elegance and class of the African American Americans in North Carolina (just look how they dress up for church, and how much better their choirs are). I was sort of aware I was lucky to be white, but not as aware as I am now. I had no idea I was absorbing racist ideas; I’m only just now becoming aware of that, in fact. That’s why I’m in the class; to find out what I don’t know.

  18. Lisa Carey says:

    Hi Janet. This is such a great thing to do, have a blog where people can converse about racism and all that goes with it. I like what I’ve read so far, very thoughtful, and glad to see all the links, I will be checking them out ongoing. I was uncomfortable with what I heard in my church yesterday that sounded like acknowledgement of institutionalized racism, but wasn’t talked about in a clear way and could have been taken as it going both ways, when we know that institutionalized racism “benefits” only white-americans, no one else in this country. I put benefits in quotes because we white people lose out on being fully conscious of our privilege, our words, our actions. We lose with the separation that happens. I looked at a number of youtube videos this morning of Louis CK, a comedian who talks about race and while I think he is ackowledging his privilege, he doesn’t talk about it in a clear way and I fear that he’s actually dangerous in that white people can definitely take what he’s saying in a racist way. Sometimes, the racism shows up so clearly to me, and sometimes it is fuzzy. I think one of my main goals in this work in your class, is to recognize what is truly racism, when it is coming from a place of basic goodness (which I think the fuzzy stuff is) and when it is dangerous (because it can actually perpetuate the privilege; he was saying that it’s much better to be white in this country, because black people have it so much worse, and he would choose whiteness again for that reason he likes being white- and having the privilege-he didn’t say this last part) and needs to be explained to people. I think the deepest desire is that I want to feel comfortable with all people of color, not separate, and stay conscious of what I’m saying with everyone of all races. Then I think about my unconsciousness when I make a mistake and say something that is fuzzy, can be taken the wrong way, and that it is coming from an unclear place of what is racist, not thoughtful of what someone else will feel. I made this mistake about something else in our class and am still communicating about it with my buddy.
    Thank you for all that you have researched, learned, delved into yourself to bring to the world in this way.

  19. Elena says:

    I am having so much trouble coming up with moments of my racist training growing up, which I know says a lot about how that training is really sneaky and definitely worth exploring more. I wish I had kept journals as a kid so I could look through them to look for my training. When I visit my family for thanksgiving I definitely want to look at my children’s books to see what I learned. I grew up in a town that is something like 85-90% white. It seems like my training has everything to do this. I always thought of myself as “normal”, cultureless, raceless, and to some extent I tried to be genderless. I have blonde hair and blue eyes, a body weight and size that is “average” for women in general. I remember my two best friends and I would always joke growing up that my bed was the size of Darcy’s bedroom (she lived in a trailer) and my bedroom was the size of Jordan’s bed (she lived in a mansion), so I always felt like I was the average and in the middle of everything. In this way, I somehow developed this belief that is kind of like I don’t even exist because there is nothing unique about me. I never thought of this as a privilege, but now I’m realizing it is. I never had to face existing in the world because I could always match up to peoples’ stereotypes of what a nice white girl is. Now I feel like this (which is a race-based privilege) is also a developmental disadvantage because it’s one of the main issues I’m coming up against in becoming an adult. I have felt universal, as if I don’t have a context, but I’m realizing that I’m in a very specific context and that it isn’t necessarily “normal” to be a white average-sized woman in the United States in 2012.

  20. Giles Charle says:

    Growing up my parents had a close friend who had been in a relationship with a Puerto Rican man who left her about the same time their child was born. I was born at the same time and her son Adam and I were close friends. As a child I wondered both about Adam’s color and why he didn’t have a father. My parents tried to explain the situation to me as best they could and I remember even as a child filling in what my parents told me about him with stereotypes I was already starting to absorb as a child.

    In another memory that contrasts the one above: My fathers youngest brother was black and adopted. I remember hearing stories when I was a child about him being an addict, and getting evicted from his home. In this situation I was able to take what I heard and rather then fill in the story with stereotypes I used what I actually new about my uncle, and I was confused. Why was he having such a hard time? Why was he being treated so unjustly. When I was older I thought about the significance of being black and growing up in white family. I realized that despite my uncles upbringing he was still subject to the same impact of a white supremacist culture.

    I don’t remember thinking much about being white until I got to college. At Antioch college in Ohio I began spending time with people of color who were politically and socially aware and radical. Antioch was the first time that I got called out for my ignorance of white supremacy, it was also the first time I felt shame for my race.

  21. Tara I. says:


    I was also raised to not see color and to understand racism as a personal issue in the sense that if each individual would accept differences, racism would not be a problem. As if by not seeing color, we were immune to the effects of racism. My parents taught and behaved in a lot of ways I’m proud of. At this point though, I’m able to see the limitations of this way of relating to race and how it even unintentionally perpetuates the problem. They were working with the understanding available to them at the time.

    The escalator metaphor has been very helpful to me these last couple of weeks. I can see that I have a default belief (from my family and probably other sources) that “confronting racism” means to fiercely address it head-on and to “make” the person get off the escalator or even to stop the escalator entirely. Of course, that is not possible. The escalator image helps me to see the falsity and unhelpfulness of this type of “confronting” stance, and it also helps me de-personalize it and put the responsibility for racism where it belongs, within the system of culture that created the escalator. Certainly we each individually contribute to this system, but individuals themselves are not responsible for its existence. This helps bring me back to ‘basic goodness’ kind of place from which I can tell real change is much more possible.

    ~ Tara

    • JanetC says:

      Thank you for your reflections, Tara! The question becomes how does change happen from the “basic goodness” place? Because racism still needs to be fiercely addressed. For me, one way is to be able to see both conditioning and basic goodness in myself, so I don’t just attack others for their conditioning. A much more interesting dialogue can happen if there’s a mutual exploration. There are times we just have to say, “Ouch, that hurts” or challenge policies in our workplace, or whatever we can do. That can be done from the place of feeling our common humanity, even though it’s simpler to just see it as “I’m right and you’re wrong.” I still get frozen, pissed off, and blaming, but have more options now to get past those initial responses.

  22. Thank you Janet, for taking the time to put your voice and perspective out there. We need more folks here in Vermont who have similar experiences like yourself to come forward and talk about the issues that many are afraid to see much less address: white privilege, and the barrier to seeing race, colorblindness. Thank you so much. I am a Vermonter of color. I have just resurrected my blog, Greenmountaincolortalk right here on WordPress. Hope you take a look and tell me what you think, as well.

  23. susanolofson says:

    Such courage and honesty, to speak what is true for you, and for so many of us desiring to be truly, genuinely at peace with the similarities and differences of our world’s cultures and people. I’ve learned so much in my own journey, feeling at ease living as a white woman amongst the Maasai of Kenya, yet more unsure of my “whiteness” in our US culture. I have always been moved by your writing and insights, now more than ever in reading this piece of your writing. I want to read more…the whole book….all you have to say! Blessings and love as you find your way to sharing it with us all. We need it.

  24. Catharine Lucas says:

    Love that you’ve started posting your book! This is the first blog of anybody’s that I ever tried to open, much less comment on — you’re dragging me into this century! The picture from Raggedy Andy brought back memories — Aunt Jemima on the pancake box, of course, and the mammy in the Shirley Temple movie, The Little Colonel —

    Growing up in the South (both Carolinas), I was also conditioned to believe good people were careful not to be racist, by our then definition — This meant primarily not using the [“n-word”] on pain of death, and not being rude (talking back) to our “help” Letitia or our yardman, Mose (who was also the Reverend in his own community), but also not challenging the status quo in any way that would “upset our colored citizens,” such as my wanting to cross the barrier in the segregated bus station to sit with Letitia while we waited for my sister to arrive home from camp on the Greyhound, or my wanting to bring home my newfound friend from the dirt road where she lived around the corner, a child whose family took me in, shared their comics and their Toosie pops, but who was shamed and sent away — not by my mother but by Letitia! — when I invited her home for lunch. Many other such episodes wakened in me a sense of outrage — first on my own behalf for being denied what I wanted, but soon on behalf of those I was being kept apart from. I was a second child whose big sister sported a large KEEP OUT sign on her door. I knew what it felt like to be unwanted, shut out. I think this was part of what made me imagine how awful it could feel to be a “Negro” (this word was acceptable in my family) though I also clung to the evidence of genuine (if not equal) friendships and warm affection between my mother and Letitia, for instance. So when I first met Yankees who thought all African Americans really hated white people in the South (and only pretended to be loving and kind), I knew they were wrong. And when they told me about killings and other atrocities, I tried for a long time not to believe them.

    These episodes are at the heart of my own novel, Summers, a work in progress (which you know about!) So, I’m especially eager to follow your story as it unfolds! Thanks for doing this!
    Catharine L

    • JanetC says:

      Wow, Catherine. Thanks for that window into growing up in the Carolinas! So different from me growing up in Vermont, where so much was learned by osmosis. You make it clear how painful it was trying to navigate the complex layers of messages around race and relating daily to people of color in your life. Look forward to seeing your book on my bookshelf.

  25. Billbb says:

    Janet, it’s great to see your work beginning to get out to the world, and great to read about the depth of your exploration on this slippery, too-easily-ignored subject! We have a much greater self-identity than our narrow boxes allow us to inhabit. Your words offer a way to explore those possibilities.

    Congratulations! I look forward to more!

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