The Family of Man

The Family of Man was my first holy book.  It was big and heavy, as one expects holy books to be, but with very few words. Instead it was filled with photographs from an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art.  Nestled into the corner of the couch in the living room, I would lift it onto my lap and then carefully open it, always starting at the beginning.

The first picture to capture my attention was a girl resting face down on a lush forest floor, her nude body white against the dark pattern of leaves and ferns. How would it feel to lie naked on the earth like that? And was it okay for me to just look at her? Next came a couple entwined in each others arms under the words of someone named James Joyce, which began with “…and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes…” Intriguing, vaguely unsettling, and definitely too mysterious for an eight year old to understand! I moved on.

There followed page after page of photographs of people from all over the world – images of birth, death, love, anger, hunger, hopelessness, prayer, play, work, family, celebration… the common experiences of being human. As I took in each image, and the next, and the next, wonder, fear, curiosity, disgust, and delight moved through me in a rich compelling mix.  I was being invited to feel a part of something so big and so beyond my experience, it left me trembling.

Ground-breaking photographic exhibit for the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1955

I can still see many of those images in my mind fifty years later. The Depression-era photo of a  skinny, craggy-faced woman, dark eyes staring into space as though there is nothing for her in this world.  In  one from Bechuanaland – now Botswanna – the village elder’s eyes are alight, hands raised like the claws of a great beast he may be invoking for the delighted circle of men, woman and children around him, the power of word and gesture holding the them all in imagination and place.  Each time I opened The Family of Man,  I knew I would be affected by a mystery I could feel in my body.

Several years ago, I picked up a copy of the book and, looking through it again, felt how strongly the images were still imprinted in me. But with my new-found awareness of such things, I also noticed that the number of photos representing the human family were not at all in proportion to the peoples of the races and countries of the world. Sixty-seven percent of the photos are of white people, 33% people of other races, and 1% racially mixed groups. Representing the continents, 48% are from North America, 26% from Europe, 16.5% from Asia (including the Middle East), 5% from Africa, 2% from South America, and o.5% from Australia. (Thanks to my niece and historical researcher Celerah Hewes-Rutledge for these calculations.)

I mention this not to diminish the power of the Family of Man, but to note that for many reasons, some having to do with colonization and white supremacy, including poverty and lack of access to technology, images of white people dominate this view of the human family. And I am guessing a large proportion of the photographers were also white, although Edward Steichen says in his introduction: “Over two million photographs from every corner of the earth have come to us – from individuals, collections and files. We screened them until we had ten thousand. Then came the almost unbearable task of reducing these to 503 photographs from 68 countries. The photographers who took them – 273 men and women – are amateurs and professionals, famed and unknown.”

Looking back, I can’t find a defining moment when I realized I was “white” and other people were another “race.” I grew up in Burlington, Vermont, a very white city in a very white state.  In my liberal, intellectual, middle-class household, there were no racial slurs or jokes.  We were brought up to believe that everyone was “created equal” even if some were poor and some were rich or lived in different countries or believed in different religions. The Family of Man definitely expressed my parents’ values, echoed by Edward Steichen – “a passionate spirit of devoted love and faith in man.”

What was invisible in the midst of this deeply humanistic sentiment was the predominantly white frame through which the pictures were taken, chosen, and viewed. As an eight-year-old white child looking at this book, I’m sure some part of me was noting people who “looked like me” and people who looked different, although that wasn’t my conscious experience. Indeed, the most important thing was the deep and heartfelt connection with people that the book fostered in me. But at the same time, on another level that also had consequences, I was learning to be white.

What about you?
What images do you have from childhood about the make-up of the human family?
What filter or lens was there on your view of “humanity” and your place in it?

For a current attempt to depict “the family of man,” check out 100 People: A World Portrait. Based on statistics “If the world were 100 people…” this global educational project engages children around the world in creating a new portrait of the 7 billion people on planet earth.

For an in-depth study of the original exhibit and its influence worldwide, check out Picturing an Exhibition: The Family of Man and 1950s America by Eric J. Sandeen.

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33 Responses to The Family of Man

  1. June Gillam says:

    I can recall when browsing through our Encyclopedia Americana set seeing with a morbid fascination a photograph of a black man with standing with one leg ten times the size of his other one. He was from someplace in Africa, I think. He had what was called in the article “elephantiasis” which now that I google it, I see is most prevalent in Southeast Asia nowadays. So maybe he was not from Africa but that is what I recall.

    That was the first image of a grown up black man I ever saw. I was so ignorant about other races as a child it is shocking to me now. There was one black girl in elementary school, Stephanie Jenkins. She was super well-dressed and got picked up from school in a long black car. I heard that her parents were attorneys. She was in our Blue Bird group but never seemed close to any of the white girls in the class. She was not in our school long enough to even go to junior high when we did. There was one Hispanic boy, Bobby Villegas. He did go on through high school with us and was very popular.

    Sad to say, I saw 99.9% white people as a child.

  2. C says:

    White supremacy (and patriarchy) still gets taught to children through the literature that we read to them and surround them within our houses. While I made an effort to expand my children’s library to depict a wide range of cultures and identities, I still held onto many books from my childhood that were dear to my heart and it took effort to see them for all that they were rather than seeing them fondly through the memories of my childhood. If I analyzed the makeup of all the children’s books we owned, I’m sure they (and we as parents) were reproducing the normalcy of white supremacy. As I help raise another young child who is not my own, I’m again struck by this process reading The Little Blue Truck – alongside A is for Activist. I don’t think it’s enough to include A is for Activist while still leaving The Little Blue Truck and other similar books in young children’s libraries. And, I’m reminded again of how this process gets reproduced through the media my now teenagers consume through Tik Tok and YouTube – this is a whole other topic too…

  3. Wommie says:

    In a small sign of hope since this post was written, it is now WAY easier to find books for kids that show all kinds of people and families doing regular every day things (in addition to many books celebrating different cultural traditions and sharing the accomplishments of many different kinds of people). Children growing up right now who have parents, caregivers and teachers who are paying attention to issues of race and representation have many many more options to choose from. While we still have a long way to go, and white is still the norm, there are signs of progress!

  4. Gillian Bergeron says:

    My family always had the TV on. I even had one in my room. We watched all the usual 80s/90s sitcoms, as well as some of the classics — most were about families, doctors, lawyers, detectives. It didn’t cross my mind for at least 30ish years just how white all of those shows were. I’ve only just begun to learn about the impact of representation (or a lack of it).

    “In addition to aggravating racial tensions, the erasure and negative portrayals of people of color can adversely affect how people of color see themselves. Prolonged television exposure predicts a decrease in self-esteem for all girls and for black boys, and an increase in self-esteem for white boys. These differences correlate with the racial and gender biases in Hollywood, which casts only white men as heroes, while erasing or subordinating other groups as villains, sidekicks, and sexual objects. Studies also show how media images of Native American mascots lower the self-esteem and affect the moods of Native American adolescents and young adults, who have the highest suicide rates in the United States. The ubiquity of racist imagery can have cumulative effects on society. We cannot dismiss the media’s differential portrayals of racial groups as mere entertainment if we are to take seriously their impact on our youth.”

  5. Bonnie says:

    I lived in a white world. My Scottish immigrant grandmother spoke about Italians as being dark skinned and ‘other’. Black people appeared on the news with linked arms, marching and singing ‘we shall overcome’. We locked our doors when we ended up in neighborhoods with people of color. I got the message that we were not safe there and needed to just pass through until we got to the other side. My parents weren’t overtly racist – they were covertly racist. And I absorbed it all. We didn’t talk about it. We just knew we just needed to stay with people who looked and lived like us to be safe.

  6. Stevie says:

    Even my memories of being taught not to be racist (and I don’t have memories of being taught to be anti-racist), come with such a white privileged lens, like The Family of Man. The best type of white person, I learned, was still patronizing and self-centered.

  7. Anna Ghosh says:

    This is how dominance is maintained — it is inherited under the guise of “normal.” This book was influential to you because you were the target audience. It was never THE story of the world and chances are it was never influential to people of color. It was a way to keep the mythology of white supremacy flowing between generations of white people. How awesome that we can now see that! This brings up the conundrum I struggle with so much: how do we make it within the self-interest of white people to dismantle a system that keeps us comfortable, safe, and financially secure? I actually see it as a sign of my privilege to be committed to doing what I can to dismantling white supremacy. Because I believe that no real harm will come to me if I challenge this system, I can do it…to an extent. But what hard sacrifices am I willing to make — are any of us willing to make — to chip away at group dominance?

  8. Serene says:

    Thank you, Janet, for this wonderful, insightful post. I have noticed more and more over the years also, what is missing, particularly in film. Films and shows that I loved as a child, now bring a sense of sadness and embarrassment because I never noticed before how absent were the people of color. The Wizard of Oz, for example. Not a person of color to be found. I have recently begun a Twilight Zone binge, and have seen only one episode featuring an African American man, a boxer, and his single girlfriend who had a young son, and one episode in which an odd, eccentric man with a loving heart played with the neighborhood kids, black and white. So many movies and shows I used to watch before I had a family of color, some are now starkly Eurocentric to me, and have lost their flavor. Yet others, I admit to watching without my family as I slip into my white privilege “comfort” zone, thankfully at least aware that I am there, while feeling uncomfortably comfortable. Often, it is what is not said, and not stated, and not shown that is the most damaging. Thank you so much for this powerful post!

  9. Susan C says:

    Thank you for this powerful post, Janet… I remember strongly this book too, which was on my family’s bookshelf when I was a child, and many of the responses you named resonate with me as well.

    What is sparked for me in reading the post is remembering how much as a kid I loved the TV show “Solid Gold” – I was probably around 10-12 years old, and recall that I thought Dionne Warwick was fantastic! I wanted to be her and/or one of the dancers. I don’t recall exactly what my parents said about this, but I recall feeling their disapproval. Although the dancers and announcers weren’t all people of color, it felt to me like the celebration of black bodies and black sexuality was part of the show (at least during the times I was watching it). Reading and thinking more about what it means to be conditioned as white, I wonder now whether the disapproval I experienced from my parents was on their part (unwittingly and unconsciously) a way of indoctrinating me into “whiteness.”

  10. Steph Sieveke says:

    As I child I went to a Christian school and spent a lot of time looking at images of white people from the Bible. What is striking now is that I remember loving the New Testament message of embracing all people and everyone is of equal value (Jew or gentile, able bodied or not, etc), but the images in those passages were always still of white Jesus surrounded by other whites people. The message I gleaned was clear- only whites are worthy of my love, attention and respect.

    I often criticize my Christian family for the hypocrisy of teaching me that everyone is equal but then in practice we really only view whites (except poor whites) as our equals. Now I feel more empathy understanding where they learned these messages from in our faith tradition.

    Another source of images for me were cartoons. I loved My Little Ponies and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles! Even though they weren’t human I still have the impression that they were white because of the actor’s voices, the cartoon characters’ body language, etc. Weird, huh?

    Lastly, the main source I had for images of POC was Discovery Channel and National Geographic. I was mesmerized by the beauty and exoticism of the POC people I saw. They were always half- naked, living outdoors, very “primitive”. I knew that they were living in poverty and yet I didn’t feel the pain of their suffering because I was too distracted by the sense of wonder and curiousity I felt (which were somewhat acceptable emotions to have as a white girl). My fascination with a non-white culture was accepted by my mom (who also shared that value), but was criticized by other white family members. To this day, my desire to learn about other cultures is a way my family “others” me. And it also continues to prevent me from connecting on a deeper, emotional level with POC experiencing the hardship of poverty.

  11. Lory says:

    Janet, this was also a much-loved and eye-opening book in my childhood — eliciting some of the same feelings as National Geographic did: gratitude for exposure to a larger world and the inevitable complicity in the portrayal of peoples of color as somehow more pure — with the underlying assumption that “pure” meant more naive, less sophisticated.

    My first thought writing this was, “well, yeah, if by ‘less sophisticated’ you mean not English-speaking” (leaving aside for the moment, “not the colonizer”). But then, is “English-speaking” code for “White” — and is white code for normal, sophisticated, makers of meaning?

    In the fourth month of the UNtraining, I have become aware that when I see a person of color on the street, a story often arises in my mind. It’s not necessarily a bad story, but there is something there. It’s as if an interior mental camera flips on; I hear it whirr into action and try to accurately observe what kind of story I’m running. At the very least, other-ing. I also run stories about the “white” people I see, but their sameness gets a pass. So also, exoticism.

    It was actually your breakdown of the images in The Family of Man by percentage that led me to engage with this post. In early adulthood, I thought I had gone to a well-integrated high school, only to realize years later that the African American population of the school was maybe 12% (Venice High School, LA).

    So thank you (and Celerah) for the statistical breakdown — which offers a way to process this sacrosanct childhood icon in much the same way we can evaluate TV series, commercials, catalogs:

    How are they catering to their intended audience? Who is considered worthy of portrayal? Who is represented as a whole person with the gamut of achievements and shortcomings? What gender, body type, skin color, or other attribute, is depicted as desirable — or used to make products seem desirable? Are we able to perceive sophistication when it doesn’t look like us?

    Not new ideas, but it’s important to deconstruct the nearly constant flow of images and messages we receive — as well as the stories we generate. They start in my mind, but will inevitably be shared, intentionally or not, with others.

  12. Janet Hasz says:

    What images do you have from childhood about the make-up of the human family?
    What filter or lens was there on your view of “humanity” and your place in it?

    My view as a child of the make-up of the human family was that everybody was white and almost everybody was of German descent and Lutheran. My grandparents and great-grandparents on my mother’s side grew up in the same area I did in what was than a very small town in the midst of farms and then a town on the edge of farms and then a suburb of Chicago. Everybody I knew in my grade school and church were white, German, and Lutheran; with a just a few spouses who probably were not of German descent. On the other side of town where the Catholics, who were white, but probably not German.
    I saw people of color in my Bible History book. Every page had a picture in color illustrating the accompanying story. No, forget that. I just googled images from that vintage Bible History book. Everyone was white! Maybe a few hints of a brown shade of skin, but only slightly.

    To my knowledge, the first time I saw people of color was when my mother took me to downtown Chicago to see Santa Claus. No Santa Claus was not a black man, Many people on the street were African Americans though. I’m not sure I remember my first reaction because it is now so mixed with my mother’s pretty extreme discomfort and very stern silence. So I remember feeling shock more than curiosity and somehow shame at how I was already feeling these “other” members of my human family.

    Also, in grade school, I know there was a least one photograph in my geography textbook of an African man, with the description including the word “savage”.

    On the way in the car to see White Sox baseball games, i remember seeing black people living in the area quite close to the stadium in shacks and in conditions that troubled me a lot.

    Later I learned that in the town where I grew up, there was an unwritten law that black people had to be out of town by sundown.

    The lens on my view of humanity was very restrictively white and my place in it was one of quiet shock and horror when I was confronted with the unreality of this view. When not confronted my place was one of numbness to the rest of the world.

  13. Jane says:

    As I slowly wake up to the insidious, all-pervasive messages of who is up and who is down and what is our “norm”, I realize how asleep we are to the fullness and richness of humanity and the fear we are possessed of that keeps us blind to this. I realize our whiteness is privilege of a sort but I am wondering if it is actually privilege? Of course it is in the sense of distribution of resources and freedom from one’s body being under siege, but there is no real privilege in the fear and smallness of such a world.

    • JanetC says:

      Jane, you are touching on a really important point here — white privilege comes at a cost. Besides the “fear and smallness” of that limited view, we are conditioned into numbness that keeps us from feeling pain and suffering. There is privilege in that numbness, while at the same time it keeps us from being fully alive in this world.

  14. Cathy Connor says:

    I grew up in very small (to my eye and memory) all white towns in North Jersey. The TV shows I watched showed images almost entirely of white skinned people to my memory: Leave it to Beaver, Donna Reed, Marcus Welby MD, Perry Mason, Little Rascals, Andy Griffith show. I vaguely remember that there were 1 or 2 Black characters in Little Rascals, but beyond that all white as far as I remember. I never thought to question this, probably because everyone around me in life was white. We had no books or pictures on the walls in my home while I was growing up, so I have no imprint in those forms. My teachers and peers in Catholic school through 8th grade were all white. I remember clearly one non race, but religion-oriented experience growing up where I was troubled by what I recall being taught in Catholic school/church that only Catholics would go to heaven. I was about 7 or 8 years old when I first registered another type of church on my walk to school. I kept wondering for quite some time how it was that only Catholics would go to heaven when there were people who went to other churches. It all seemed terribly unfair. I would ride my bicycle around and around pondering this question. It never dawned on me to ask anyone about this. When I think about this now in context of race, I see a small child who based on the simple rudimentary exposure of at least seeing another church, was capable of questioning the Catholic dogma. How would this have extrapolated had I been exposed to Black or other POC as a young child? And while there were apparently 5-6 Black students in my HS class, I do not remember even one of them, even though 1 of these students signed my yearbook. Had I already learned by HS to simply not see Black people? Today as I do this UnLearning work, I am struck with my almost total lack of exposure to Black and other POC people as a child. Though I moved to the Bay Area 40 years ago in my early 20s, and have been exposed to people with many different skin tones, I still find myself very isolated in predominantly white circles. What I’m seeing now is how prevalent that conditioning to remain fairly isolated in terms of race is still operating all these years later. I also see the privilege of how easy it is to surround myself with white skinned people, yet the resulting disconnection of it all feels very sad. 4/7/17

  15. tim english says:

    I read with wistfulness or envy the author’s words about being taught in her family that everyone was created equal. While that message may have been spoken in our home (I think it wasn’t), it would have been no more than lip service, because the overarching message was filled with nonverbal as well as spoken warnings about “the blacks, the Puerto Ricans, the Jews”- all the “not us” people. And I don’t think the messages were put forth with malice- my people were just passing on historical “wisdom”.
    The messages that we aren’t all equal went deep. This weekend at an event I listened to the speaker, an African American woman, and recognized the talk as inspiring and true to my own experience, yet all the while discounting her qualifications. I knew she had not learned what she was sharing through higher education, but rather through experience and maybe sound bites. She had a good speaking style and was well-received, but I had her in a category of low-educated and marginal, in some ways. And I thought this even though she had told us of her masters degree and of being a year away from completion of her doctorate. Somehow my mind was able to take in her bio and at the same time discount her capacity for intelligence.
    It’s been unpleasant to see these underlying beliefs so clearly, yet I know that this is the only way I am going to find whatever liberation will be available to me.
    We couldn’t deny the existence of people not like us- and it is ironic that as “sheltered” as we were from people of other races in our affluent Boston borough, we sure had them in our minds a lot- I guess that is a common human defense- to look outwardly to affix blame to someone who is not us. But yes, we certainly ascribed to the view that white was normal, was the standard, and that nonwhite was the aberration, the stain. So at best, we tolerated these others, maybe once in a while allowing ourselves to feel sorry for them, because it was also obvious that their lives were harder. But we did not allow these lapses into pity occur much, because we couldn’t afford to allow our wall of protection to dissolve.
    Life is good, which means it is painful sometimes. I feel a lot of gratitude to be doing the work I’m doing related to whiteness, race, racism.

  16. Chavi says:

    I’m struggling to remember specific iconography alluding to familial structures in my youth. My earliest memories I suppose, are of my parents letting me and my siblings watch Full House on TV when I was about 5 or 6. Our parents were very strict about our television consumption but for whatever reason, Full House was okay to watch. I figure they liked it because it touted “wholesome” family values of a 90s liberal middle class white culture my parents broadly identified with…a bit of “diversity” and “tolerance” talk but not enough confrontation with difference or challenging of white supremacy to cause discomfort.

    Simultaneously I remember being taught to filter media/cultural production like Full House that reified christian secular hegemony, through a lens of my difference as a Jewish child. Until I was 7 and moved to a predominantly white middle class Lutheran suburb in MN from (the notoriously white) Portland, OR I had spent very little time around anyone who was not Jewish. As a result, though I saw myself reflected back in so many ways when consuming media like Full House as a white middle class child, there were still aspects with which I could not relate and in fact was taught to know and notice with acuity and pride why and how from an early age. I was taught to name and know my difference because that’s “how we have survived in the face of persecution for centuries”. Yet what were and are the conditions that made such critical resistance to assimilation possible for my parents and my young self? I now understand that because of my grandparents, parents and my access to whiteness in the U.S. as Ashkenazi Jews at the expense of so many others, we have had increased access to resources and safety and with it capacity to outwardly resist christian hegemony with less fear. As my grandparents assimilated and materialized their whiteness, my parents and I could with it learn to access and implement the power of erasure: the erasure of the continued and on-going creative resistance to white supremacy and struggles for self-determination of folks of color in our Jewish and gentile communities alike.

    This, the power of not being conscious of current realities because of trauma and fear of forgetting in the aftermath of the Nazi genocide serves to me, as a critical reminder of the dangers of Jewish exceptionalism and how it is used as a tool of white supremacy to violate my and others’ humanity. This, Jewish exceptionalism, cuts the critical and direct linkages between of my own struggles for self-determination, and their connection to those of my ancestors and the creative survivance and ongoing resistance and struggle for self-determination of all oppressed people across time and place. We are all connected in our struggle for freedom and I refuse to let my white conditioning be cause to forget.

  17. Victoria Nicholsen says:

    The most prominent image that comes to mind for me is the cross. I can see a large crucifix hanging in the front of the Catholic church, where I attended mass with my family, and connected to the K-8 school I went to. There is an image of Jesus hanging on the cross, with nails in his hands and feet, and a crown of thorns on his head. I was taught to pray to Jesus, believing that he would be there for me, to guide me, protect me and help me in times of trouble. The Jesus on this crucifix was white, like me. There was one black child in my class. I wonder how he felt about accepting Jesus in his heart, not seeing himself reflected back. As I remember sitting there in church, during all of those masses and ceremonies, feeling protected and safe and loved, I can see images of all of the saints hanging on the walls in the church, also all white. I was too young to question it, but there also was nothing to question. I can imagine my black classmate asking his parents…”how come no one on the walls at church looks like us?” There is a lot of pain there for me in that question. I breathe into it and let the tears flow. I hope my classmate grew up, with a sense of being seen and loved and cherished for who he was.

  18. harper putnam says:

    i grew up in a household where there were racial and anti-semitic slurs and lots of them. my parents claimed they were english and apparently that meant we were better than all other white people but especially people of color who were the scourge of the earth, especially african americans. (i recently did a DNA test and my suspicions were confirmed, somewhere along the way they had begun lying about being english, the supposed top dog. i am only 20% western european, undefined) i woke up at 9 and began to go my own way, stand up to my family and refused to go along with their hatred which made ABSOLUTELY no sense to me. for this i was ganged up on and brutalized in an attempt to break me and get me to chow down on their party line.
    when i left home in segregated boston, i could not look at a person of color without the imagery evoked by having been forced to listen to the obscene daily banter of my upbringing. i recoiled in horror, these images appeared against my will and without my permission for them to be there. thus began decades of suffering and the battle against intrusive thoughts and other related abominations of my childhood. my childhood dreams of being a decent person and being part of the solution were shattered.
    it is only fairly recently that i have begun to experience that i have any agency at all. white supremacy conditioning sucks!

    from a survivor

  19. Mike R. says:

    Funny – The Family of Man loomed large in my house too – literally. My mother had done a painting from one of the photos, of a black mother and child, which hung over our fireplace. Otherwise, it was mostly National Geographics, with lots and lots of half-naked Africans depicted as charming innocents. What your post brought to mind were the Uncle Remus stories. I remember seeing them over and over, in the Walt Disney movie and maybe cartoons (or maybe I was reading them). I think they were presented as cute. There was a lot of out-smarting, cleverness. That seemed to be a common theme on TV and movies in the 50’s and 60’s. Rochester, on the Jack Benny show, had that same quality. Clever black folk outsmarting whoever the villains were. “Cleverness” doesn’t get the same respect as “intelligence”, tho that’s what it is. And of course there was no intimation of why cleverness was necessary, and why intelligence had to be hidden.

    • JanetC says:

      Thanks for the reflections, Mike. Teasing out the implications of using the word “cleverness” as opposed to “intelligence” — why certain words are chosen (by white people) to describe people of color and reserving different ones for white people. I wonder what process your mother went through to choose that photo to enlarge as a painting. What elements struck her consciously and what unconsciously.

  20. Jeni says:

    I appreciate your highlighting the white lens, it’s too easy for white people to forget that we’re the norm by which everything else is based. Unless there’s something else about us that’s a little different, then it can come up. I grew up in a racially mixed neighborhood and don’t remember thinking about race until we moved to a mostly white neighborhood at age 8, and it became clear that my Jewish last name, curly hair and facial features did not fit with the white ideal there. However, outside of that particularly snobby neighborhood and school setting I have certainly fit with whiteness and it’s easy to slip into the comfortable sweater of “being the norm” and not even notice it. I love the link to it’s easy to access and understand, and starkly shows how skewed our white lens really is.

  21. Noah says:

    My mother four of her five siblings were born and raised for a dozen or so years in Tokyo, Japan, following World War II. I knew this from a young age, and while I understood that they were not Japanese, I took it for granted that they and other white people should be in Japan because my family knew and interacted with almost exclusively white people, so why shouldn’t they be in other countries too? Still, I’ve never considered before how this family history factored into my conditioning of white supremacy.
    Most of the media (cartoons) I consumed as a kid were animal based (teenage mutant turtles, loony tunes, duck tales, rescue rangers, etc.), so I did not really have a great sense of the human family from them. Still, I would guess that these animal characters that fascinated and filled much of my childhood were probably mostly, if not exclusively, written and voiced by white people, so maybe they did.
    Beyond the cartoons that captivated my Saturday mornings and the majority of my evenings, my concept of the human family was probably shaped by the family trips my parents took us on. We would go to a family summer camp for UC alumni every year (that was likely ninety percent or more white), Disney World in Florida (where I at least once visited the “It’s a small world” ride), and to a few different family-oriented Club Med resorts in Mexico.
    The trips to Mexico made me feel very worldly as an elementary and middle schooler, even though we never left the resorts, and just spent time playing on beaches, in pools, and at arcades, surrounded by other white guests and an international resort staff (with rarely seen Mexican maids, cooks, and other service staff). It wasn’t until high school that I realized I had never actually met a Mexican person in all of those years we traveled to Mexico, and had no idea what the country looked like beyond the resort walls. In my mind Mexico was full of other white Americans and Europeans who lounged around pools, ate at large fancy buffets, and played tennis in the afternoons.
    These experiences just deepened my white conditioning in thinking that whiteness was the norm and superior around and across the world.

  22. Michaela McCormick says:

    As a kid, I lived on the edge of a black ghetto and went to a school with many black kids, and a few Hispanics who were the most invisible to me. But my immediate neighbors were practically all white, and my teachers were all white. All my text books were filled exclusively with pictures of white people, like “Dick and Jane.” The “purist” or “holiest” place in my life was my church where everyone was white, and of course, my “savior” was white. In that church, I never heard any reference to non-white people, even though there were many blacks in our community and, in the 1950’s, the civil rights movement, led by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a huge presence in the South. On television, which we first got in the early 50’s, all the stars, heroes, and main characters were white. If we saw a black or brown face, it was that of an African “savage,” or at best, the slightly slow, inarticulate, and/or bumbling sidekick of the white hero, like Tonto with the Lone Ranger or the Cisco Kid’s sidekick whose name I have conveniently forgotten. (It’s interesting, too, that the apparently Mexican Cisco Kid was played by a very white man who, unlike his sidekick, spoke very good English without a Spanish accent.) I don’t remember ever seeing any reports on the civil rights movement on TV, even though the Supreme Court’s momentous decision to desegregate the public schools came in 1954 and Rosa Parks sparked the game-changing Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955. All the movies I went to see at the local theatre, mostly Westerns which often included savage Indians as the enemy, had white heroes. Practically every human image around me, certainly the ones most often repeated, were white, like me. I could envision myself in the most attractive, respected, and authoritative roles in my world.

  23. Katharine says:

    Thanks for sharing this. I don’t watch much TV but I was in an airport and CNN was playing nonstop (with no ‘off’ button) recently, so I was a captive audience to the media for the first time in a while. The reporters were interviewing people in Baltimore about the protests and I couldn’t help but notice how slanted the coverage was, how they focused on sound bites rather than meaningful complexity, and how it felt like the news was aimed at a white audience.

    And then one of my friends forwarded me a “cute” article about a police officer pulling over a toddler in a toy car. Both the officer and the kid are white, and yet the tone of the article seems to be that it’s just about a cute “regular human interaction.”

    The more I realize how much the media affects our perceptions of the world, the more inclined I feel to support initiatives and startups like Ideal Impact ( and, a media startup that focuses on telling stories that matter.

  24. Ben says:

    I grew up in a mostly white suburb called Newport Beach (the real OC). Diversity became part of the curriculum sometime in junior high and only rather briefly. I can remember only one class that explicitly talked about race, where we watched Roots, and talked about black history for a few weeks in February. I recall the timbre of those conversations was about paying homage to and thinking the right things about black people, who deserve respect and admiration because of all the things they have gone through. If you’re reading this, you probably know how packed that recollection is with privilege, supremacy and ignorance.There was also nothing mentioned about racism post-civil rights movement. But the thing that I’m interested in talking about is actually a little bit different.

    There were astonishingly few black people there at the time (in the 90s). There were two I knew of in a school of six grades and over one thousand children. But there were a lot of Latino kids. Not many of them went to my school, though some dozens did. But in southern california there’s Latino people and communities from diverse backgrounds. In Newport children see families working in service and labor industries that serves wealthy suburban residents (mostly white). People from these families tend to live further inland, closer to LA and in a couple of nearby cities that folks from the wealthy suburb I lived in would openly fret about driving through or spending time in. It was too dangerous, they’d say, and never say much else.

    There was a complete invisibility of this entire group of people in our educational system. The majority of our educational resources where either 90% white (books with white characters, posters with mostly white people, etc.) or depictions of people of color that seemed oddly disconnected from the day-to-day. It felt like another world where people of color lived exotic or idealized lives, that bore little resemblance the city in which we lived. Kids would get teased very often at the school, with Latino, middle eastern and Jewish kids getting racial slurs heaved at them sometimes and I never once saw a teacher or adult intervene. The school eventually got sued by the ACLU for allowing hate-based bullying when a child repeatedly showed administration the anti-gay death-threats she was getting via social media and they refused to help. There was a change in principle and some mandated training, but I’m afraid I don’t know much else.

    I grew up in a middle class home that had my white nuclear family and somewhat more mixed-race extended family in it (maternal grandmother’s children all lived in the same home – she had immigrated from Iran – my mother was the oldest but had me quite young). So, we had a lot of Persian images, materials, friends and family, but otherwise the same kind of material that we had at school. Later, some fantastic teachers helped point that out and I’m still very early on in my journey of unlearning oppression and doing anti-racism work with myself, but getting a lot from it.

    Your article was very insightful and powerful. Thank you.

  25. Susan says:

    I didn’t really think in terms of race as a child, and I wasn’t really forced to do so by my parents. I remember my dad (racist though he was) talking about how, as an 8yo in a very large family during the Depression, he had the task of earning 15 cents every day to buy a box of oatmeal for the next morning’s breakfast. One of the things he did was to pick wild blueberries and try to sell them door-to-door. He told us the white women shooed him away and slammed the door, but the women in the “colored” neighborhood bought something if they could, and offered him a drink of water or a bit to eat if they couldn’t. So even though we didn’t live in the US very much, I knew there were different colors of Americans, and I knew the brown ones were nicer to children. In Morocco our primary caretaker was a woman named Sherifa who lived with us during the week and went home to her mother and her own child in the medina on the weekend. It was Sherifa we went to with our scrapes and bruises, and when we wanted something to eat. Sherifa had a brother who was a little older than the kids in my family, and even though he didn’t speak much English and we didn’t speak much Arabic, we were playmates. There was no question whether he was allowed in our house; of course he was. I guess looking back on it, maybe without realizing it I took advantage of white privilege in Morocco. I was never afraid to speak to or to ask help from the Moroccan women and men who worked on base, while I might be shy or afraid to speak to white strangers. Was this white privilege, or just my belief that brown people were more likely to be kind and nurturing? I truly don’t know the answer to this.
    When we moved back to the States I was nine years old. A man in my grandparents’ neighborhood said to me, “Tell me the truth, what are them A-Rabs really like?” I was totally confused by his question, though I could tell he wanted to hear something shocking, or at least negative. I realized it wouldn’t sit well to him tell they were nicer than white people, so I just said, “They’re just regular people.” He gave me a look that said he didn’t believe that for a minute, but even at my young age, I guess I was developing disdain for people who had never lived anyplace but where they were born. I knew I understood more about the world that than this fellow did, even though I was just a child.

  26. Mollie C says:

    Thank you for this post, and articulating the layers of complexity in even (what seems to be from what you describe) well intentioned white attempts to bring positive messages to the world about our common human experience. It makes me question the complexity of my well intended actions in the world as a white woman who has been working to extricate the many layers of racism and white supremacist training within me for years now. How much harm to I create in my attempts to bring about positive change due to the way I approach what I do, or do not see; so steeped in my unconscious whiteness? I also think about my role as the mother of two young (4 and 7 year old) biracial (African American and white) sons and my attempts to protect them from so many subconscious messages that they take in every day. My children do not watch TV, movies, or play video games, and I think about their books and toys very carefully. This makes me weird or extreme to many I interact with, including people in my own family. It is for the reasons that you write about in your post, that I have made this decision. I know everyday they are forming their sense of what it means to be boys of color, “brown” boys like their dad (“not like you, mama”) that they were able to articulate starting at around age 3, based on what they take in though the images and people around them. How am I, in my simultaneous whiteness and pure intentions as their loving mother, unconsciously contributing to their understanding of themselves as less valued, “othered”, oppressed, abnormal, and/or unseen, members of the “human family”?

  27. Elena says:

    I remember being similarly mesmerized by a children’s book called “People” that from what I remember was an educational book about how people are all different/the same. I don’t want to say that it was intended for white folks because I don’t have access to it now, but I kind of think that it was. From what I remember (and that’s the most important thing because it’s my experience), people from other countries were often represented in their traditional clothing. So all representations of Africans were of people in their traditional indigenous clothing and even Europeans were wearing traditional clothing that one might see at a Ren Faire. I remember asking my dad if people really dressed like THAT in France and my dad said no, but maybe they did about 100 years ago. This had me very confused because the Americans (who were white) were represented wearing clothing that would have been normal in the 90s–tee-shirt and jeans–and yet everyone else was wearing this traditional stuff. It’s interesting to look back on this; I wonder why the author chose to represent people from other countries in traditional clothing. For me it had an exoticizing effect and reinforced my idea that Americans were white. I also grew up in such a white area that I could afford to hold that belief for a long time.
    I’m also realizing how basically everything from my childhood reinforced my racism. Pocahontas (one of my favorite movies) is about a white man coming and being educated by a beautiful native woman and eventually saving the day. Tarzan, Babar the Elephant, Aladdin, and so many more things that I haven’t even given thought to all created and reinforced my stereotypes. So much UNtraining to do!

    • JanetC says:

      Isn’t it amazing how much conditioning you see when you look back on these childhood artifacts with new eyes? So many subtle and not-so-subtle messages. And when it’s a favorite movie or story, it can be kind of heartbreaking.

  28. Tara I. says:

    Last night I watched part of the documentary film, The Corporation, and had a shocking moment (well, there are many shocking moments, but there is one that was especially impactful and relates here). One speaker describes how a huge percentage of the people that run corporations are wealthy white men, but that the majority of the people in the world are (1) not white; (2) working poor; and (3) women. Those demographic facts are not what shocked me. What shocked me was that in that moment I realized how I have unconsciously taken on the idea that the majority of people who run corporations (which exert untold global influence) represent a kind of NORMALCY. Shown in the light of day, I could feel the complete absurdity of that idea and yet I could also feel how pervasive it is in the world I have grown up in. I would venture to say that 99% of the people I have ever known hold that same unconscious perception. We call people of color and women “minorities” but that is patently false in terms of facts. It is true in terms of the impacts of racism and sexism but not (as the term implies) the numbers. I am stunned at the perniciousness of the ways in which (in an oppressive system) a factual minority (in this case, white wealthy men) are turned into the IDEA of a majority norm.

    • JanetC says:

      Thanks, Tara! You’re touching on one of the most powerful aspects of privilege — to define the terms of accepted norms — what is considered “normal” or “right” or even “civilized.” Poet and activist Audre Lorde talks about the “mythic norm” of what an American is: “usually defined as white, thin, male, young, heterosexual, christian, and financially secure.” It would be interesting to take each one of these factors and get the real numbers!

  29. r says:

    Wow, Janet, that post was powerful. I clicked the link you gave and checked out the statistics, and it leaves me less sad than culpable. This is not the world I want, given the statistics. What to do about it is what there is to mull over–but spend less time mulling and more time doing something about!

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