Race has been a topic of consideration for as far back as I can remember, beginning with being harshly punished as a very small boy by my mother when I came home using the “N” word like a Klansman. Until I entered college, I attended a church in a changing city neighborhood that decided to minister to poor people of color rather than move to the suburbs. I accompanied my mother to the Civil Rights March in Washington where, at fourteen, I was inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and during the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties, I taught disadvantaged kids in one of the most segregated counties in America: New Castle County, Delaware. As Principal, I Restructured a Delaware high school that had left its African American students behind and ended my working career in Pennsylvania where, on behalf of the PA DOE, I supported failing schools across the Commonwealth, a large proportion of which had also left their African American students behind. And today, it is hard to turn around without bumping into news and opinion pieces dealing with racism, which is why it is not surprising that many of the first posts in this blog in some way touch upon race.
I should note that I am as white as white can be. My hair is white, my eyes are blue, my skin is pink except for when I’ve had a second glass of red wine or when I discover I have written something really stupid in my blog—then my skin flushes red; further, my ethnic background is “suburban,” and I have been known to say “holy cow” and the like on occasion. Imagine my surprise when, during a session of “Courageous Conversations about Race,” I found myself totally at a loss to answer this question:
What does it mean to be White in America?
For six months, I asked this question of friends and colleagues, all of whom were as flummoxed as was I in trying to answer it, and then one morning, I had a flash of insight where many such flashes often occur—in the shower—and there the answer was as plain as day:
What it means to be white in America is that a white person never, ever, has to think about what it means to be white.
That, my friend, is the benefit of White Social Dominance in America. More specifically, Whites (as do all populations that represent the dominant culture in a society) enjoy the luxury of ignorance, which allows a significant portion of us to remain grossly unaware of the cultural misalignments between White culture and the cultures of the “other.” Whites in America also enjoy the legacy of privilege, like school success, which is made easier for those who are members of the dominant group, and Whites share an assumption of rightness that allows them to unconsciously assume that certain problems like poverty are inherently inevitable for the “other” and could not possibly be a result of the structure and functioning of essential components of society—education, economics, government, and religion to name four—all of which are built and controlled by the dominant culture.
In addition to my personal revelation about what it means to be White in America, participation in Courageous Conversations awakened me to a reality that people of color have no difficulty answering the question, What does it mean to be (e.g.) Black or Latino or Pakastani in America? The answers are readily available to Americans of color because nearly every day unsought circumstances require the comparison of who each knows him/herself to be with the deleterious attitudes and distorted imagery that comprises the omnipresent societal narrative promulgated by White ignorance, privilege, and assumed rightness.
In one of my next posts, I will examine how the luxury of ignorance, the legacy of privilege, and the assumption of rightness impact the education of poor children of color, the most damaging manifestations of which may be choice, charters, and vouchers that may serve some students well, but which will eventually exacerbate the concentration of poverty and failure in urban schools while creating enclaves of elitism for a privileged few.
(Note: the luxury of ignorance, the legacy of privilege, and the assumption of rightness exhibited by dominant cultures have been identified from research into systems of privilege and penalty, minimal group paradigms, social dominance theory, and social positionality. Educators interested in culturally sensitive teaching and in learning more about Social Dominance would be well served to obtain Gary Howard’s book, We Can’t Teach What We Don’t Know, which provided me with some of the information presented in this post.)