This blog is a way of sharing parts of a book I’ve been working on for some years now. Good Little White Girl began as a personal research project to find out the ways my white liberal upbringing instilled unconscious racist attitudes and beliefs in me. Mid-way through my life, I discovered how powerful that early training is and how it has determined decisions I didn’t even know I was making. Despite my best anti-racist intentions, it kept me silent in response to racism, often uncomfortable in racially mixed groups, and, most of all, oblivious to the fact that being white shapes my experience every single day.
The awakening began in 1994, when I was in my forties. That year my husband and partner for nearly 20 years, Robert Horton, a white man, met Rita Shimmin, an African American and Filipino woman, at a study intensive for Process-Oriented Psychology. Out of the depth of their friendship and with Rita’s mentorship, Robert conceived a program to help white people investigate and begin to undo their white cultural conditioning. The UNtraining, as it came to be called, was focused on white people who were open to looking at the racism in themselves, rather than the usual view of seeing the racism “out there.” Initially, Robert invited a group of us to try out his ideas and I have been a part of the UNtraining ever since.
The simplest statement of this conditioning is that white people are better than other people. The statement is simple, but the social institutions and collective belief systems that maintain it are astoundingly complex and multi-layered. As I began to glimpse the forces underlying my conflicting feelings about race, I realized I had a lot more work to do. From the time I was a young girl, I have used writing as a way to explore feelings, examine confusing situations, and discover what is true for me. The question impelling this study qualifies on all counts:
How did I come to have so much white racist cultural conditioning despite being raised in a thoughtful, sincere, liberal family?
It was not enough to understand in general that I—like everyone else raised in the white-dominated society of the United States—had been “trained” by that culture in many unconscious ways, exposed to stereotypes at the same time I was taught not to believe them. As a Buddhist meditation practitioner for many years, I knew the subtle power of habitual mental and emotional patterns to shape our view of the world. I tended to see those habitual tendencies as personal, although I could see female cultural conditioning in myself and knew, as a feminist, that the values we hold and the personal actions we take have impact on the larger social environment. But when it came to race and racism, I had no clue. That cluelessness is part of the training itself.
So, I am choosing to become aware. I am learning how a little girl who did not know she was white came to identify herself as a white person and what that means, how that affects me every day. I want to know the truth, because then I have a choice, which is a kind of freedom, instead of letting unconscious racist patterns determine my reactions and behaviors. The more fully I know myself, the braver I become, the more willing I am to stand up, speak out, and above all genuinely connect to other people.
I invite you to join me in this cultural detective work, by coming along for the ride or mounting your own investigation and sharing it here. Although cultural images have changed and our exposure to the richness of our multicultural world is far greater than when I was growing up, the “white training” still exists. White privilege still exists. Stereotypes still exist. Inequity still exists. Subtle and overt racism still exist.
How do they live in you and me? is still the question.
A big source of inspiration…..
“The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do…It is to history we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations. And it is with great pain and terror that one begins to realize this. In great pain and terror one begins to assess the history which has placed one where one is and shaped one’s point of view. In great pain and terror because, therefore one enters into battle with that historical creation, Oneself, and attempts to recreate oneself according to a principle more humane and more liberating; one begins the attempt to achieve a level of personal maturity and freedom which robs history of its tyrannical power, and also changes history.”
—James Baldwin, “White Man’s Guilt,” 1965