Two Little Kids in the Land of the Free

“White folks’ first experience with race is at least as far back as the moment of our births, at which time we enter the world as members of the dominant group; the group that has always made the rules, and for whose benefit the rules were made…”
—Tim Wise, White Like Me

“I came into the world on Monday, July 10, 1948… I weighed seven pounds, ten and one-half ounces and was twenty-one and one-half inches long. When I was born, I was bald or almost bald. As soon as I got hair it was bright red and it still is.”
—from essay “Me!” by Janet Carter, grade 7, 1960

I was born a little white baby. I sit staring at that sentence. What does it mean? It means something now, but it didn’t mean anything then. To me. But it did mean something, like Tim Wise says. I was marked for life. Invisibly marked with a stamp of approval, good for entrance into most circles, the ones I thought I had to work my way into, I had to earn. Which I did. Both are true.

So, how did I see myself as a young girl? In a series of essays written in seventh grade—“My Home and Its Surroundings,” “My Family Team,” and “Me!”— I come across as a self-reflective child with a sense of humor, belonging to a chaotic but happy, loving family. The oldest of six children, I felt a responsibility to help take care of the others and to do well in school, to make my parents proud.

Growing up in Vermont, I certainly never thought of myself as white. That I was an American was taken for granted. I liked saluting the flag, putting my hand over my heart, and pledging allegiance, especially proud of the “liberty and justice for all” that made the pledge meaningful.  “America the Beautiful” was one of my favorite songs, with its spacious skies, purple mountains’ majesty, and best of all the way the words “crown thy good with brotherhood” rolled across my tongue, ending with the breath-taking image, “from sea to shining sea.”

Raised in a state that was – and still is – almost exclusively European-American, I had few opportunities to meet people of other races in my classroom or community. What I learned about race and racism I learned indirectly, through family, school, church, Girl Scouts, television, books, movies, and games. And in some ways, what I didn’t learn had an equally large effect on me.

My Story: “It’s not fair!”

Me, age 9

Besides learning to read and write, school gave me another kind of training. We sat in desks in straight rows facing the front, where the teacher usually stood. Seated alphabetically, “Jan Carter” was always behind “Rodney Carr.” I learned to sit still, raise my hand, and resist talking to my neighbors. If I made a report to the class, I would stand stiffly, look straight ahead, and try to speak clearly. Body movement was only encouraged on the playground or in physical education.

My fifth grade teacher was Mrs. Patterson, a tall, handsome, soft-spoken woman, whom I loved and admired. One day while working at our desks, kids kept getting up, interrupting each other, clamoring for the teacher’s attention.  Finally, the usually unflappable Mrs. Patterson said, “The NEXT person who gets out of their seat will go to the principal’s office.” The class settled down for a few minutes. I kept working diligently, and then suddenly I just had to show her my paper. I jumped up. “Mrs. Patterson!”

She turned to look at me, slightly dismayed. Then my favorite teacher said firmly, “Go to the office, Jan.”

Stunned, I walked between the rows of seats and out into the echo-y hallway. Step by step down the stairs, carefully holding onto the wooden rail because my legs felt funny. My face was making strange motions of its own accord. What was happening to me? Oh… I was about to cry. The principal’s office! How could Mrs. Patterson do this to me! It wasn’t fair! I hadn’t meant to jump up. I just couldn’t help it. And now I was being punished.

But because I was an exemplary student, a “good girl,” I received no punishment, certainly not one I remember. In my diary that night I reported matter-of-factly, “Today in school the teacher said whoever got out of their seat had to go to the office. I got up to show her a paper so I went down. Marcia and Hershy and Ruth Ann went down too.” My humiliation was short-lived.

How different my experience of “unfairness” was from that of another child, also ten years old at that time, also an exemplary student, who would one day be my friend and brother-in-law, but whose story I would not hear for another 40 years.

Bob’s Story: “I will not give in!”

Bob, age 9

Bob McIntosh was also the oldest child in his family, the son of a black man and a white woman. His parents sheltered him in his earliest years from the harassment they experienced as one of the first interracial married couples in Seattle. The family lived in mixed neighborhoods where he had both black and white friends. Like me, Bob was a responsible student, high achieving, and he knew his parents expected him to be the best.  He did not feel that his skin color made him inferior to anyone.

When Bob was ten, they moved to one of the “projects” in South Seattle. His new teacher, Mr. Skelton was his first man teacher—white, as were all of Bob’s public school teachers.  One day, early in the school year, Mr. Skelton stepped out of the classroom for a minute. Two of the white boys started getting rowdy, throwing paper and talking. Bob, who had always been a model student, never in any trouble, got caught up in the moment and joined in. When the teacher came back, the three boys were taken out in the hall. Mr. Skelton said a few words to the two white kids and sent them back in. Then he turned to Bob and told him directly and unabashedly that because he was a Negro, he should show more respect and keep his mouth shut in class. Bob was stunned.

In relaying this story, Bob said, “There were so many layers of message in that one sentence. Here was an authority figure I looked up to telling me, essentially, that black kids didn’t really have an inherent right to be at that school, so they had to earn the right by not making trouble… being seen but not heard.  I actually don’t think he believed that black kids would ever be ‘on par’ with white students, but he would tolerate their presence as long as they behaved. If they didn’t, black kids would be dealt with more severely than white kids, and would have to work extra hard, would have to be excellent, just to be seen on par with average white students.”

But even that loaded reprimand wasn’t the most painful lesson. When Bob came back into the classroom, he looked around with new eyes. All the other black kids were staring down at their desks. He knew that they knew what Mr. Skelton had said to him. And they had known about this double standard for a long time. That was why his black friends, who were so lively and rambunctious on the playground, were so subdued in school, always keeping their eyes averted, never speaking up in class.  And that was why they were such terrible students.

Bob’s response was unequivocal. “I will not give in. I’ll show them black kids can excel,” he told himself. He says if he had not had ten years in which he had already done well, it would have been much harder to be defiant. “Most of the kids had gotten that message since they were five or six,” he said. “I was lucky.”

Eventually Bob went to Renton High School, the largest in Washington state, with a student body that was historically 15% to 20% African-American. As far as he knew, he was the first black student ever to make the honor roll.

Meanwhile I, as a little white girl, did not receive any overt messages about my race, but continued to believe that if you were smart and spoke up, you would be recognized and rewarded. If I had been in Bob’s class, instead of one where racial differences were invisible or did not exist, how would I have perceived what happened to him? Would I have noticed what he noticed about the other black kids? Would I have taken for granted that they were quiet because they weren’t very smart, and seen the recognition of my own achievements as the result of personal effort rather than any advantage of being white?

And, if Bob had been my friend back then, what would this blatant unfairness have done to my faith in America as the land of “liberty and justice for all”?

Perhaps it’s not surprising that when Bob grew up, he became an educator and a strong voice for equity in our schools.

For two current day perspectives, see “White Teachers at the Crossroads” in Teaching Tolerance magazine, Fall 2000.

What about you?
Looking back on your early school days, what do you remember or see now about racism that was overt or under the surface, or even invisible to you at the time?

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32 Responses to Two Little Kids in the Land of the Free

  1. Janet Haza says:

    In my Missouri Synod Lutheran grade school in a suburb of Chicago, there were no students of color, only we white students of mostly German descent. In my Geography book, I learned that Africans where “savages” in the heading under a picture of Africans carrying clubs and wearing loincloths. I know and remember this because I recognized my Geography book in an antique store quite a few years ago. The only people of color that inhabited my world were in the pictures in my Bible History text book and when I went to downtown Chicago to see Santa Claus at Christmas time. I remember crossing State and Madison streets, the very center of the city, diagonally, and at the same time I remember seeing African Americans for the first time as they crossed the street with my Mom and me. I must have asked about their skin color, but I remember no conversation taking place with my mother. I only remember a heavy feeling of fear, dread, shame, and the unspoken phrase completely laden with an established sense of superiority, “We don’t talk about them.” I have a remembered visceral sense of my mother’s fear, and an almost-panicked hurry to avoid any contact with the black people downtown or with me in answer to my curiosity.

  2. Cathy Connor says:

    Race was absolutely invisible to me growing up. We lived in a series of small, almost entirely white communities (as evidenced by current day stats). I do not even remember thinking anything about race at all until I had more exposure in college. What stands out to me is how invisible race was due to a total lack of exposure. My Catholic elementary school was all white as far as I can remember. Looking at my HS yearbook now, I see that my graduating class of 270 was all white, with the exception of 5 Blacks and 2 Asians. I have no memory of even registering the existence of these 7 people. Very sad to actually reflect on that.
    One of my more significant memories/experiences was my senior year in HS. Due to a chaotic, dysfunctional, alcoholic household I traveled 3000 miles to California to live with my sister to get away from my toxic home environment. I planned on staying my entire senior year, but went home in December thinking things might be better. They weren’t. I found another home to live while I completed HS. In looking back, I think I was just an average student and while I took basic courses I wasn’t in any advanced classes. I was in some “secretarial tracked” classes. At some point after returning to my original HS, I asked a HS Counselor about what I needed to do to go to college. His answer was something to the effect that you can’t just keep picking up and going to where the grass is greener and get anywhere in life. This statement made me incredibly angry, as I believed he had NO understanding what I was going through at home. All these years later (I am 62 now), I have told this story as though my anger propelled me into a “I’ll show him” stance and I proceeded to figure out how to do the paperwork to get into a state college (in NJ where I lived). I had no help or support from home or school and neither parent finished HS. I have said things like, “it was a total fluke” that I ended up in college. I can sense this attitude was laden with the feeling that I got to college by my sheer grit and determination. I have lived in the Bay Area for over 45 years now and my exposure to race has increased. Now that I have started this anti-racism work, I look back at this experience very differently. Had I been a Black student coming from a similar home background, I can see now that I would not have had the same doors open to me. Being White afforded me privilege that I had no idea even existed. I was continually rewarded throughout my childhood for my grit and determination even when maybe the “credentials” were just average and certainly not stellar.

  3. tim english says:

    I hated Tim Wise, or what he wrote, when I first started to explore race. Thought he went way too far and was an arrogant shit-disturber. I no longer see arrogance in his words, and I have great respect for what he writes. I respect and fear the shit-disturber part.
    I had no African-American classmates until grades 7- 12- but I’m not even sure if I did in those grades either. I feel discomfort in not remembering if my class of 250 or so kids at the most prestigious public school in Boston had any African-American kids. I think there were a couple. But I have no real recollection of them: their names, who they hung out with (I can guess that they were definitely the “black kids sitting together in the cafeteria”, not driven there by any developmental or identity stage but by pure necessity in the ultra-segregated Boston milieu), how I avoided them. There is a sort of paradox here- I learned to spot “race” (read ‘blacks’) instantaneously when very young, but managed to not take in these couple or few kids at all during six years at this school in a class that was not very large.
    So now after some research I find that 2 students in my graduating class were African-American. I wonder how hard I worked to not know them, to never have a (memorable- or probably any) conversation with them. And I wonder how alienated they felt by our nearly all-white class (I think there were around a dozen Asian-American kids).
    Yeah, ‘marked for life’- myself, and these two boys (Curtis and Jeffrey). I can feel the responsibility (and have the power to turn it off too) to respond to the system of markings and meanings, and appreciate this (UNtraining) group and its insistence on not getting bogged down by regret, shame, and the like. And its insistence to keep leaning forward.
    The author writes of Bob’s experience with the teacher: “telling me, essentially, that black kids didn’t really have an inherent right to be at that school, so they had to earn the right by not making trouble… being seen but not heard”. I carry that viewpoint inside of me- I hold persons of color to higher standards around things like driving, waiting in line, owning things. Another of those ugly and uncomfortable things I continue to discover in me, in my conditioning. The author goes on to question (my own responses to her questions, bracketed below, come much too easily): “If I had been in Bob’s class, instead of one where racial differences were invisible or did not exist, how would I have perceived what happened to him? [My already negative view of Bob would have been confirmed, and I would have felt a mix of comfort and unease- comfort because the teacher was helping to keep things in their right place, and unease because despite the intensity of conditioning, the light that still shines in me was shining through those years too, and I was able to recognize, if not make sense of, injustice.] Would I have noticed what he noticed about the other black kids? [I would not have noticed what Bob noticed; rather I would have felt a smugness in the black children looking down and showing subservience.] Would I have taken for granted that they were quiet because they weren’t very smart, and seen the recognition of my own achievements as the result of personal effort rather than any advantage of being white? [Yes, my assumption would have been that they were not capable of ‘smart’, like I was.] And, if Bob had been my friend back then, what would this blatant unfairness have done to my faith in America as the land of “liberty and justice for all”?” [Just like the lack of exploration I gave to the words of the Catholic prayers recited every week, even when young I saw phrases such as ‘liberty and justice for all’ as no more than platitudes. By this young age, while I still believed in and hoped for the outcomes of fairy tales, there was something sour in my view of ‘my’ country- so there was a mix of comfort and unease, as above. But the “if Bob had been my friend back then”- I see how on my first few contemplations of this paragraph I avoided consideration of that phrase. The easy way out is to say that I would not have had a non-white friend back then. But if I go deeper, and imagine the possibility, well now I see why I avoided consideration- it’s too painful to imagine. So to be fair and respond to the question, I would have tucked that experience of seeing injustice into my growing box of unconsciousness. I would have known enough to not take the question home for exploration within the family.]

    I feel the sadness of having spent so many years in delusion. I got tricked, drank the Kool-aid, and went on to sow my own seeds of racism by staying faithful to the party line. I’m super grateful for the opportunities to wake up now.

    • JanetC says:

      Thank you, Tim, for this deeply reflective and honest comment. You noted that while you were trained to see “race” (black people), at the same time you didn’t really notice or relate to the two black kids in your class. You’re not alone in this paradox. There’s a chapter in my book called “The Invisible Visible People” that explores this phenomenon. I grew up in a relatively small, very white city in Vermont. When I asked family members and others who grew up there about the number of African Americans living there, they invariably and decisively said, “There were two black families.” In the census records of that time, there were at least 100 people who identified themselves as black. Still a very small number, but more than two families. We are conditioned to see and not see at the same time.

  4. Daron S. says:

    I’ve always been teased by classmates about my innocent face. I was often able to evade punishment for little offenses because, I was told, I just don’t LOOK like I would do anything wrong. Through this piece I’ve really come to appreciate that my whiteness is a bedrock of the presumption of innocence, childhood, or benign intent, and that other children aren’t afforded the same protection.

  5. Mike R. says:

    The other day my wife and I were telling our mixed-race god-daughter that she’ll be going to summer school. Her mother wants her to be well-educated, and agrees with that choice. Her mother is also just one class short of a Master’s degree, and is working at a minimum-wage job. I’m not questioning the choice, but in doing the multi-dimensionality practice, it struck me that we have this bedrock assumption that a better education means a better life, with a higher income, and the accentuation of other aspects of white privilege that come with class privilege. It’s the default path for us. What’s it like to put in the effort, as Bob did, knowing that you’ll still need to struggle, and maybe be lucky, to reap the rewards? And what is it like to be told by two members of the white middle-class that you’ll have to put in extra effort to have a chance of getting those rewards?

  6. Victoria Nicholsen says:

    This post made me feel heavy and sad, because it speaks the truth, of which I know now, but did not know or understand as a child. Just this week, I was sharing with my buddy of my experiences in school, namely how school has always been an environment that I’ve loved. I have felt held and supported there, and was able to learn and flourish. Mistakenly, I have always attributed this to my own personal qualities as a student, along with the help of my teachers. Its’ quite sobering to look at my race as an added layer here in regards to why I excelled in school. The invisibility of it made it something I did not question earlier in my academics. Thank you for your openness in looking at this.

  7. Noah says:

    My childhood school years regularly reinforced my white privilege. I was treated as an individual without being openly associated with my racial group. My challenges and failures where my own and not generalized to other whites, and my successes where never communicated to me as being a credit to my race. I was the same race as all of my teachers until 7th grade. In the fourth grade when my classmates and I were assigned roles from important figures during the California gold rush, I was assured to have many options from historical characters to choose from who were white. I struggle to recall any specific incidents that were inherently racist towards the few black, Asian, and Latino students in my class, but it seems crystal clear in retrospect that through our entire educational journey there were many instances, interactions, and assumptions that constantly reminded them of their “other” and “inferior” status within our classrooms and social standings in society. The mere fact that I cannot provide concrete examples speaks further to the white privilege I benefited from, never having to consider or consciously concern myself about race throughout my early childhood education.

  8. rsweeneytaylor says:

    My experience growing up in rural Massachusetts sounds so similar to yours, Janet. In particular, I remember trespassing with bravado all the time as a kid. I used to sneak onto construction sites or neighboring farmland, jump over fences in the woods, or even climb out onto the rooves of my school after hours. It was all great fun, and if I ever got caught, it was just a warning and I was told to leave. These memories have always been somewhat charming and nostalgic, yet in the wake of the shooting of Trayvon Martin and others, I see that I was able to enjoy these escapades because of the safety my skin color provided.

  9. AO says:

    When I was in sixth grade, we moved to Cambridge, Mass for the better public schools. My mom and I toured a number of middle schools, and I ended up going to our first choice school, the King Open, a progressive public school with great teachers. I remember a certain self-satisfied feeling I had, that was shared by my parents, to be going to a good school that was public, that was also very racially diverse. What we never talked about was how in Cambridge, white families had better/easier access to choosing the schools for their children for a number of reasons, and this was reflected in the much higher numbers of white families attending what was generally agreed upon as the best three middle schools in Cambridge, one of which was my school. We talked and learned a lot about social justice at my middle school, which was wonderful, but meanwhile Cambridge overall had a completely unfair middle school system that served white families better than families of color, and this is still true today. This is a really big deal. People are so duped by the idea that Cambridge is ‘liberal’, and the white people (like my family) love how racially diverse their schools are, meanwhile the racism in the way the schools are structured runs deeeep.

  10. Zoë says:

    While I can’t seem to think of any stories from early education, this post brings up a specific incident that I have been thinking about recently in light of some overtly racist things that recently happened at my high school. I played basketball at a medium-sized Catholic high school, and the team my senior year was primarily white. Unlike other basketball teams I had played on or against, I had only one black teammate my senior year — the year I was captain of the team. She was our point guard, and as such controlled the court when she was on the floor. One game she got into a bit of a verbal tiff with another player on our team, which resulted in an embarrassing shouting match observable to anyone watching the game (including the other team). As a captain I saw this as a result of growing tension amongst players, and I wanted to address it right away. Within the next few days our coaches called an entire team meeting, planned to be able to clear the air. I can’t remember the specifics of the meeting, but I do remember that my teammates started berating our point guard for being too controlling and being a difficult teammate. I remember thinking that this was turning out to be a horrible meeting — and no one did anything to stop the downhill spiral! Later that night I called our point guard to make sure that she was okay, given the way the meeting went. She was not okay, for good reason, and said that she knew why we all ganged up on her. She told me it was because she’s the only black girl on the team. I was shocked! I couldn’t believe what she was saying. In my head I was so angry that she was playing the “race card.” I tried convincing her that’s not the case, and that the meeting was a horrible idea, etc etc. And at that time I was CONVINCED that it was NOT about race. Now I’m convinced it was. I wish I could remember more about the meeting and why things got out of control. I also wish I could go back to that team with a different lens to see what it was like for her to be the only black girl on a team at a school that was primarily white. She had to constantly deal with both explicit and implicit racism, and I would love to dig deeper to see what I can remember from high school that would shed light on this racism.

  11. Michaela McCormick says:

    This story reminds me of my best friend in early grade school, Steve Miller, a black boy who, along with me, was the best student in our class. We loved each other, and exalted in our innocent friendship by racing each other across the playground, running as fast as we could but never caring who won. I moved away after the 4th grade, and returned three years later, eager to reconnect with him. On the third day of 7th grade, I ran into him, walking between two other black boys, and rushed up to greet him. He looked at me with cold regard, and without a word, moved on with his friends. I rarely saw him after that. He was in none of my classes, filled mostly with “smart” white kids, and we never spoke again. I can only assume that he was excluded at some point from the group of students who were tracked as high achievers because he was black.

    • JanetC says:

      Painful story, Micaela. Besides your friend being tracked out of the high achiever classes, I am guessing there were also the identity issues that hit us all around that age, like Beverly Daniel Tatum describes in Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria

    • Aieeee! As in the cry of the heart — this brings it home. My first inkling of outrage against the separation based on color came, not on behalf of the disenfranchised but as a direct experience of my own loss, around age five, when I was told my new friend, a “little colored girl” in the parlance of the times, was not supposed to come in the front door and play with me in my room, (and she had just done, drawn in by my happy hand, and as I had been doing for some time at her house). We were told she could be fed in the kitchen if I brought her in the back door. When the child got the message and ran away home, the look she shot back at me scalds to this day.

      This may seem a far-fetched association, but there’s a movie, “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” in which the child of the Director of a concentration camp befriends a child his age who lives on the wrong side of the fence — In the end, the director’s little boy has dug under the fence for regular visits to his friend, and is there when the round up for the gas chamber sweeps both boys into the “showers” — The parents learn too late what has happened …
      I think of the wrongs done by the unconscious perspectives of whiteness and of the harm done to all, including the white children on the privileged side of the fence — and to the innocent bonds of friendship among the young — what we lose seems unbearable —

      • JanetC says:

        Heartbreaking, indeed. And not a far-fetched connection at all. A very vivid image of the cost of the wrongs done, whether deliberate or unconscious.

      • Michaela McCormick says:

        Yes, Catherine, unbearable. In my case, my first encounter with racism was similar to the one you recount, when at age seven, I asked my mother if my friend Steve could come home with me after school and play. She asked if that was the “colored boy” I’d been talking so much about, and when I said “yes,” she said it would of course be alright with “us,” but we had to consider what other people might think. I was totally baffled and dismayed by her response, but I think subconsciously felt a massive barrier dropping down between me and Steve, our friendship denied by one who loved me most.

  12. Katharine says:

    There are a lot of things that struck me here… I also agree that the statement “Body movement was only encouraged on the playground or in physical education” rings true for me as well. As a white woman who grew up in an environment that was focused on academic excellence, it took a 200 hour yoga teacher training course for me to really get comfortable with movement and being in my body – and in a non-competitive way. I’ve recently started noticing my discomfort in talking about race – such as feeling the urge to fidget when the topic comes up – and how our “conditioning” to “be polite and do the right thing” comes up as a sense of stiffness that underscores a lot of silence that perpetuates injustice.

  13. Susan says:

    I’m having a hard time reaching back in my memory to notice whether children of color were treated differently in the military schools of my childhood. It didn’t occur to me that they would be, and I doubt I would have noticed if it had happened. As a child I thought teachers liked all girls better than they liked all boys. Girls sat still and we were quiet and respectful. Boys were wiggly, disruptive and disrespectful. I didn’t notice any difference along a racial divide.
    In trying to recall my teachers, I’m pretty sure they were all white until my junior and senior years in Honolulu. I got out a 1967 yearbook from Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts, where the base kids were bused to a civilian high school. As a young teenager, I had thought of it as an exotic place, because instead of being just plain American, there were Greek kids and Polish kids, and French Canadian kids, with all the associated cultural richness. I did not find one African American or Asian or Hispanic student in the whole yearbook. Even though we moved there from Burlington, NC, where I had seen the desegregation of the city’s schools, I had never noticed that there were no students of color at Chicopee Comp. They must have been represented in the families on base; in fact, my best friend was named Neefee Salinas, and I remember she spoke Spanish at home. Odd that I can’t picture her at school. The yearbook did reveal two African American teachers, both women. One taught business (shorthand and typing) and the other was a chemistry teacher.
    I wonder what I have yet to learn. I always thought that since I grew up in an integrated military environment, and since I never felt any difference between myself and any other sergeant’s child, regardless of race, that I was not a racist person. I’m sort of startled that there is much beneath the surface that I don’t have any idea is there, the privilege that I have been able to take for granted without even realizing how much difference it made.

  14. Lisa Carey says:

    I really appreciate the stories of experiences that you all have told here. I have many of my own. One thing I am struggling with is how to get a handle on separating my experiences of “whiteness” from my experiences of learning about and being faced with and acting against racism in many ways throughout my life. It seems a way to learn about our whiteness is to see and hear racism so that like in your story Janet of your experience as a white girl being so different than Bob’s story as a black boy, in comparing how we are treated, we can feel and know these differences. I keep feeling that I am doing this all wrong in these classes because I have been so focused on detecting racism so that I can learn not to make mistakes and hurt people of color, so that I can help white people learn what racism is, and so that I can learn what privileges I have as a white person by seeing how differently I am treated than people of color.
    Being the mother of two children of color for 30 and 25 years, I have learned to be a protector. After hearing from people of color in workshops and daily life what they don’t want to hear from white people, and how they want to be treated, what they do want to hear, I am very focused on this. So now, I am struggling to try to look at this differently, focusing on myself and what it means to be white, without just focusing on myself as a self-centered white person taking up too much space, being in my privilege focusing on myself! Phew!! My head is spinning and I am willing to keep at this!

  15. Emma says:

    Thank you for writing, Janet. My thoughts too lie with the “taken for granted” idea. Our conditioning can be so deep, it feels innately a part of us. I think that’s why I have a lot of difficulty even attempting to respond to your question, and why it’s hard to accept that unconditioning actually is a choice and is do-able. When I look back on my early childhood elementary school days, I have to reeeallly reach and reach to think about anything having to do with race. One element does strike me:and that is the fact of all my teachers being white, just like me. I didn’t know any other way. Of course the people who mentored me and who I looked up to were white like me! I completely took this for granted and now I think how much easier it has been for me to get along with my dreams and aspirations when the people pushing me, encouraging me, challenging me …look exactly like me! It probably has made me think: I can do anything! That attitude is also likely something I don’t even notice in myself. Did the kids of color in my classes notice that their teachers did not look just like them? How did this affect them?

    I also am reminded me of the drastic dichotomy of, for lack of a better term, the “color of care.” While in the classroom, the leaders are European descent white like me…and on the playground after school, the nannies are Jamaican and Filipina women. Even this outside/inside juxtaposition strikes me now in a way it never did before …it’s complicated though because when we’re little, we learn so much from our time outside the classroom. So there’s a value standard that’s different: white comes to symbolize the formal setting, color (and to be fair, also white as there were white nannies) the non-formal setting. I’m young and learning in both worlds but again, there’s a value added to the formal setting that doesn’t exist in the non-formal setting. Not only a value, but a certain set of expectations exists in the all-white setting that in our culture lead one to believe that what’s learned in the classroom will dictate how one ends up in life. There’s the stereotype — and I must have picked this up when I was very young — that what you learn outside the classroom are your “street smarts,” and for me, growing up with a black Jamaican nanny, I learned my “street smarts” from a woman of color. So I definitely had/have (sidenote: something else I struggle with in terms of race is this idea of past/present tense… I tend to talk about things in the past even though they live within me today. It’s part of my shame and it’s super hard to shake.) the impression that my tactical knowledge derived from someone different from me who had more experience in the “real world out there.” This stereotype persists today: that people of color “know” the streets, know the “games.” The outside/inside — and we can say us/them — divide of school teachers and nannies is certainly something I saw when I was little and the implications of “who is an expert where” stays with me today.

    • JanetC says:

      Emma, this is a great example of what happens when we get curious and look back with intention! At first you felt like it was a stretch to see anything at all about race from your childhood, but then you bring out the profound experience of the two worlds — “inside” = school and white authority figures/nurturers and “outside” = the “real world” with women of color as authority figures/nurturers. You describe the conditioning around this so clearly, the different value systems attached to the inside/outside frames. Many white children had/have nannies of color and this can be a deeply affecting (and confusing) experience of relationship and race (and class, of course). Especially if you had one nanny for a long time. Worth exploring more for yourself. About the shame of speaking of past vs. present, perhaps a multidimensional approach can help. Of course the past lives in us now, and so do many other parts we have developed since we were children — in addition to the basic goodness of that child self who was just innocently taking in the world and trying to make sense of it. I think we can love that about ourselves for then and now.

  16. genna says:

    It’s interesting- because just like you- most of my memories in grade/junior high school were of my own sense of being treated unfairly without looking at race. I remember being called a kike by a boy who usually was a trouble maker- and I chased him around the room- ready to punch him in the face if I got that close. Other kids were laughing and cheering us on- as entertainment. The teacher wasn’t in the room at the time- but when he finally came back I told him what had happened. I looked up to this teacher, and was also a “good little white girl”- getting good grades. His response was minimal- telling that boy not to call me that and then presumed with the class. I was outraged. This boy was always so mean- it was so unfair!
    So I like what what you wrote in response to Bob’s story- would you see things differently if you witnessed what he went through or would you have pretended that it was okay and not say anything? I grew up in queens ny- and the school this happened in- was mixed, not only with race but with SES as well. Differences were apparent- and I was just starting to have a conscious about injustice- but didn’t know what to do about it. Instead- I tried to stay more invisible in that sense- not wanting to be seen as different and not knowing how to stand up when I saw something unfair. But I liked even more when you wrote: “Would I have taken for granted that they were quiet because they weren’t very smart, and seen the recognition of my own achievements as the result of personal effort rather than any advantage of being white?”- I know this is something white people unconsciously learn as being part of the dominant culture-the taking for granted part- and unless we are taught as children to look at those difference and understand the injustice- the next step in the developmental process as white people, would be to experience that shame and guilt- for being ignorant and staying quiet. I’m still figuring out how to work through this.

    • JanetC says:

      Thanks for your reflections, Genna. One thought about the shame and guilt for being ignorant and staying quiet. In the process of writing about myself as a white child, a number of times I found myself using a sarcastic tone as I talked about my ignorance. I couldn’t stand seeing that part of myself. My developmental editor said, “You can’t trash the little white girl for what she didn’t know.” This was a wake-up call about myself as a person and as a writer about this topic. The sarcasm came out of shame and guilt, which as you said, are a stage in the process of awakening. But those are not places to dwell. I see guilt as remorse for something done or not done, whereas shame is more of an overall condemnation. Guilt can be a springboard to change, if we don’t get stuck in it. Shame feels deeper and it requires a lot of self-love to work with it. As I write and explore my white conditioning, I keep coming back to the place of having to hold my experience in basic human goodness. Otherwise there feels like no way to go forward. No space for forgiveness or awareness to grow in a healthy way. As you say, if we can validate children’s sense of injustice and help them to see there are ways to combat it, we can disrupt the comfortable ignorance we take for granted as white people. And we can start with the child self that still lives within us!

  17. Courtney says:

    As I tour schools for my son and enter into numerous discussions about public schools in San Francisco with friends, I am often triggered by the notion of a “good” school and how this seems to correlate directly with the number of white students a school has.
    There are so many deep connections between our white training and schools. Schools act as creators and reinforcing agents of racism, even while claiming a colorblind approach. It enrages me and saddens me to know that Bob’s story is not isolated, but the norm. Even the discourse of educational reform — the “achievement gap” and the “school-to-prison pipeline” imply white supremacy while trying to critique it. I am encouraged, though, by the educators who want to create equitable schools and who are looking directly at their own racism and white training to make real shifts in all students’ experiences, especially those of students of color.
    I thrived in school as the “teacher’s pet” because I wanted to please the teacher and craved praise. I had an ability to learn the system and expectations and meet or exceed them, and this was certainly enhanced by my whiteness and understanding of white culture. I now have a much more critical eye for what was happening, and I am thankful for the ability to revisit this training and begin to recognize it and unlearn it.

    • JanetC says:

      Thanks, Courtney. You point out how we white people can talk about race in coded language so it doesn’t seem like that’s what we’re doing. “Good” schools, “good” neighborhoods,” etc. can be spoken of and the listener knows what’s implied, but no one has to come out and say it’s about race.

    • Tara says:

      I appreciate your comment Courtney, and that it must make these issues so much more real when you are experiencing them as a parent. I’m particularly interested in your comment about the “school-to-prison pipeline” and would like to hear more. Maybe we can chat at our next meeting

  18. Elena says:

    I always got the benefit of the doubt from my teachers. I was always really engaged in class, more because I wanted to please my teachers than because I was a really good student or smart or anything. I think that’s one of the biggest reasons why I have been able to get so far academically. The first time anyone told me that I was smart was in 4th grade when a substitute told me I was smart. She said that because I asked her if she wanted to know anything about our class. From then on, I remember thinking that if I was really nice to the teacher they would think I was smart. So crazy that I did all this mainly for attention. My mom was also a teacher at that school so I knew that if I misbehaved in class at all my mom would know about it before I even saw her after school. I can imagine that this is a multi-dimensional thing that has developed in my life, but probably because I was a girl and my mom was a teacher and because I was white–the same skin color as every single teacher I ever had until high school–that I became considered to be “smart” and was given the benefit of the doubt. I was in the higher level math group in 6th grade (already being tracked) and the whole class had a pretty easy math homework assignment that for some reason I just didn’t get. I turned it in and got it back and all my answers were incorrect. My teacher pulled me aside and told me he wouldn’t count that grade in my semester grade because he knew that I was an “A” student anyhow. That’s privilege on so many levels!
    Something that I grew up learning about people of other races is that they were more “interesting” than white people. That’s what my mom always told me (and still does). Considering that I grew up in a town where 85% of the population is white, the people of color stick out much more than for example, Oakland. Now that I look back on the boys that I had crushes on in elementary school, they were Zach–Korean, Edward–Chinese-American, Antonio–Mexican-American, and Nathan–Japanese/European-American and another Nathan–African American. Even now, the two longer relationships I’ve been in have been with an Ethiopian person and a Mexican person. It creeps me out to think that part of the attraction is this belief that people of color are “interesting.” As for the relationships that I have been in, I know that there is so much more than the race of the person I’m with, but I can’t shake the feeling in the pit of my stomach that this is some subconscious factor in me when I choose a partner. 😦 I don’t even know how I should talk to my partner about this…

    • JanetC says:

      Brave sharing, Elena! Good tracking of the effect of that early message from your parents about people of color. That tendency of some white people to exoticize people of color is certainly one end of the spectrum of white racist conditioning. One of the hard things about starting to see this stuff is we can feel like that conditioning contaminates our love and connection with people. That’s why recognizing it as conditioning, not as who you are at heart, is so important. Our racial conditioning is always part of our connection with friends and partners of color — and vice versa. It’s that social level which impacts the personal and relationship levels. But once you see it for what it is, it will not have so much power. At least that’s my experience. It’s there, but just as a part. Not a part we chose to have. But one we can choose to look at and see it for what it is.

      • catharine lucas says:

        I totally appreciate Elana’s dilemma — and thanks, Janet, for this lucid response. It couldn’t be better said — fearless awareness, honesty with ourselves (such as Elana models) is the path to some degree of freedom from being run by our conditioning.

  19. Tara I. says:

    So much to pay attention to in your story! What really jumps out at me today is this sentence: “Body movement was only encouraged on the playground or in physical education.”

    The stiffing of our body, emotions, and affects is one aspect of white conditioning that I am deeply troubled by. Personally, I’m profoundly affected by this “rule” that I should disconnect from my body. Although there are other, non-related aspects of my childhood that also fed into this “rule”, the whiteness of it is pervasive.

    I know that constraining my own natural physical movement and expression of my being deadens all sorts of things including my ability to know or set my own boundaries and also to feel joy flowing unfettered. I’ve been undoing this training for years and so can see it and work with it better now but still feel its effects daily.

    This deadening creates a kind of closing off and rigidity. And now, as I consider the larger implications of this deadening, I wonder at how much it functions as a tool that contributes to oppression and superiority over those who do not restrain their physical life-force in that way.

    • JanetC says:

      Tara, the point you’re making is huge. The way we are taught to control our bodies oppresses parts of ourselves — inhibits our free expression of joy, sorrow, anger, longing, curiosity (“don’t touch that!”) – and we then project that onto others who are freer in their ways of expressing. Defining “civilized” in our own image. White people have historically had power over the bodies of people of color — literally, in slavery and in more subtle ways now.

  20. Catharine Lucas says:

    Your refections on a white child’s invisible and unconscious privilege are astute, and Bob’s story brings up all the outrage at racial unfairness I began to feel around the age of fifteen when I began to catch on. There were of course no black kids in my schoolrooms — your query, “What would it have done to my faith in America to have witnessed this blatant unfairness” is a good one. Growing up with Jim Crow, in Charlotte, NC, the evidence of discrimination was all around me but not in a way that would suggest the possibility of protest or change and certainly nothing that dampened my enthusiastic patriotism and belief in America’s highest ideals of equality. A child pretty much takes the status quo for granted, and when I first vocally protested the separation of white and black (once in a bus station waiting for my sister, when I couldn’t sit next to our maid but had to wait on the other side of a barrier, with my daddy), my objections were firmly repressed. But not my inner rebellion, which bore fruit in coming years as young white people found ways to act in the civil rights movement and voter registration drives. Still, I carried far into adulthood the haunting sense of having been an unwitting and unwilling participant in gross injustice and injury of people whose hearts and feelings and minds were like my own.

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