“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
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.
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?