What I Want My Children to Know about Being White in America

I am pleased to offer this guest post from Annie Reneau at Motherhood and More. This is Annie’s second post on Mommy Means It about race. You can read her first piece about growing up in a white family that did not tolerate racism here.

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My husband and I recently took our kids to see Mount Rushmore. While browsing the gift shop, our 5-year-old son picked up a bookmark with pictures of all 44 presidents on it. As we scanned the faces and found the four presidents from the monument, he asked who was president now. I pointed to President Obama.

Then my boy—my sweet, innocent, blue-eyed boy—furrowed his brow and said, “Hmm. He doesn’t LOOK like a president.”

Gulp. Holy.

I know that this was basically a Sesame Street observation. “One of these things is not like the others. One of these things just doesn’t belong.” Sorting, categorizing—it’s all part of a preschooler’s learning process. Our little boy looks at this sea of presidential faces and recognizes that one doesn’t belong. It’s as simple as that.

But I also know that he’s seeing something that he’s not even aware of yet. When you glance at a poster of our presidents, skin color is the first thing you see. Our little boy sees his own most obvious physical trait reflected in 43 out of 44 of the most historically powerful men in America. What does a boy with brown skin see when he looks at that poster? What does it mean to him?

I realized that this was my son’s first obvious—albeit oblivious—brush with white privilege. And that got me thinking.

I’ve read a lot lately about the conversations mothers of black children have with their kids to prepare them for the realities of being black in America. Are there specific things we should be teaching our kids about being white in America? We moms of white kids, especially those of us who are dedicated to fighting racism and racial prejudice, may talk with our kids about racial equality and injustices resulting from racism. But we don’t often specifically address what their white skin means for them. I’m starting to think that’s an oversight.

Obviously, I’m not going to bombard my 5-year-old with all of this right now. But by the time our children leave our home, there are some things I want them to understand about being white in America:

1) We suffer from a legacy of racism.

It’s not a pretty truth, but racism is as much a part of the foundation of America as revolution, liberty, baseball, and apple pie. The America we know and love was built on the backs of slaves—mostly black slaves. And not just for a little while—slavery thrived for more than 200 years on our soil.

Our forefathers certainly didn’t invent slavery, and there were slaves throughout American history that weren’t black (yes, there were actually some white slaves). But the fact is that America was founded by white men during the African slave trade’s heyday. The majority of white people in America at any time in its history were not slaves, while the majority of black people in America were slaves. I can’t vouch for numbers of Native Americans or other ethnicities when it comes to slavery (and being white in regards to Native American history is a WHOLE other story), but the fact that Africans were purposefully and solely brought to America to be slaves makes black slavery unique to any other form of oppression in America. And the fact that this happened while our country was being founded makes black slavery in America different than in any other nation.

As a result, racism is embedded into our most celebrated and precious history. Many of the men we honor for greatness thought it was acceptable to own a human being because he or she had brown skin. Not only that, but we had laws in place that enforced racism for much of our history. Actual laws. That doesn’t mean we can never move past our racist past, but as with all history, it’s vital to understand how our beginnings affect our present. Racism is a huge part of our story as a nation, and if we’re going to own any of that story, we have to own the whole picture.

2) Anyone can be prejudiced or biased or bigoted, but in America, racism belongs to us white folk.

No one really agrees on a clear definition of racism, probably because it’s a complex concept in its entirety. The dictionary usually has a few options that are overly simplistic, which is why we end up with erroneous concepts like “reverse racism.” What most people think of as reverse racism I would classify as racial prejudice or bias or bigotry.

Racial prejudice—the dislike or suspicion of a person due to their skin color— is awful. But compared to racism the way I understand racism, it’s pretty simple. First of all, prejudice and bigotry are fairly easy to identify. Secondly, prejudice and bigotry are usually learned, either directly or indirectly—and with some conscientious effort, exposure, and education, they can be unlearned.

Racism is much more subtle. It has to do with power and history and subconscious habits of thinking and institutional injustices. On an individual level, racism is a disease of the mind and spirit resulting from a long history of supremacy and power, and an obliviousness to how that history affects us today. Sometimes racism manifests itself obviously through racial prejudice. But more often racism is sneaky. It’s like a cancer we inherited that we don’t know we have. The symptoms are sometimes so subtle we don’t even recognize them as symptoms. It’s a disease we constantly have to fight.

People use racism like a dirty word, and it is, sort of. Racism itself is horrible. But in the same way that we don’t we blame people with cancer for having it, we can’t blame white people for being afflicted with racism. That doesn’t mean we don’t fight it. We do, tooth and nail. But don’t automatically get defensive if you get called out for racism. You are a white American a mere two generations away from the civil rights movement. Racism has been passed down to us in a million ways. It’s in us whether we see it or not. Don’t take it personally.

3) You swim in a sea of white privilege that you need to constantly examine.

There’s a lot of misunderstanding and defensiveness when it comes to the concept of white privilege. (This helpful resource explains it quite well.) In essence, white privilege means that you don’t have to think about or worry about things solely because of your white skin that other people DO have to think about or worry about solely because of their non-white skin. I’m not sure why people fight this idea so fiercely. Perhaps it’s because it’s so very easy to not recognize white privilege. Fish can’t see water because they’re swimming in it. Same thing.

White privilege doesn’t have anything to do with class or economics, by the way. Poor, struggling white people still benefit from white privilege the same way that successful, wealthy black people are still affected by racism. Race privilege doesn’t mean you have everything handed to you because of your skin color; it means that overall there are advantages to being white in America. Your sense of safety, security, justice, trust—all of those things are affected by your race at this point in time in our history. Is that the way it should be? Of course not. But that’s where we are right now.

White privilege is a direct result of our not-so-distant racist past, and refusing to acknowledge it is a symptom of our not-as-over-it-as-we-wish racist present. White privilege is an important concept to understand at this stage, because without that understanding, racism is too easy to pawn off as other people’s problem. It’s not other people’s problem. Racism belongs to us.

4) “White guilt” is pointless and unproductive.

The legacy of racism and reality of white privilege do not mean you are to blame, and they are not a reason to feel guilty for the color of skin you were born with. Having white skin does not automatically make you racist, but it does automatically put you in a position of benefiting from the ingrained racism that still exists in our society. That’s something to be cognizant of, not something to feel guilty for.

Guilt means you’ve done something wrong, and by definition both “legacy” and “privilege” mean you did nothing personally to earn or deserve any power or benefit you have as a white person. Just as you shouldn’t feel proud of the white privilege you benefit from, you also shouldn’t feel guilty for the actions of ancestors you’ve never met. No one should feel bad or guilty or wrong for the color of their skin. Don’t confuse privilege with guilt. Not the same thing.

5) Colorblindness isn’t the virtue many white people think it is.

Fundamentally, there is only one race—the human race. God looks at people’s hearts, not their skin. And in that context, colorblindness is a virtue. Skin color should make no difference when it comes to love, friendship, marriage, babies, or treating people fairly.

But to say we don’t or shouldn’t see color at this point in our history is 1) not realistically possible, and 2) not really ideal.

The beauty of diversity is, in fact, diversity. It’s okay to notice differences. And sometimes it’s vitally important to acknowledge them. From my conversations with black friends, they don’t want me to not see them as black people. There’s a historical context and experiential truth to being black in America that cannot and should not be ignored.

It’s easy for well-meaning white people to say color doesn’t matter. But when talking about racism—which is still very much alive and well—it does matter. If we say color doesn’t matter, we dishonor the experiences of people who don’t walk as freely through this world as we do because of the color of their skin. You can’t talk about racism without talking about color. And we can’t overcome racism without talking about it. Color does matter in this context.

6) Studying history, sociology, and psychology—and how those things work together—is enormously helpful in understanding how racism affects our country today.

One of the most common responses from white people regarding racism is “Why can’t we just move past this?” But you can’t enslave and oppress a group of people for 300 years (I’m counting 200 years of slavery plus another 100 years of blatant, legal injustices before the civil rights movement) and expect them to get over it within a generation or two. Your grandparents lived during a time when blacks and whites used different drinking fountains. Their grandparents lived during the slavery era. Blatant, legal racism just wasn’t that long ago.

That timing is important to understand. So are the emotional and psychological effects of trauma. I remember reading about a slave mother chastising her daughter for learning to read. It wasn’t because she didn’t value education for her child; it’s because if a slave was caught knowing how to read, the consequences would be dire. Their family would be torn apart, or worse. That fear was real. The effects of families being destroyed and the dignity of individuals being demolished are far reaching. How could they not be?

And with recent research showing that fears and anxieties can be genetically passed down through generations, imagine how much it’s going to take to overcome the fear and anxiety and anger felt during 300 years of oppression. This is a long process, and we need to honor it as such.

7) To even start to get a handle on the complexities of racism and how it affects all of us, you have to combine that knowledge of history, sociology, and psychology with ample amounts of real-life discussion.

It’s not like racism disappeared with the civil rights movement. Those slow-healing wounds are still being worn raw. I’ve yet to encounter a single person of color who can say they’ve never experienced racism. It’s not imaginary.

So learn about the history of racism, the sociology of oppression, the psychology of trauma, and listen to the stories of modern people of color living in modern America. Both of these things—learning and listening—should be ongoing habits.

We have to have a clear understanding of where we’ve been and where we are if we hope to get where we want to go. Plenty of white people think racism will go away if we just stop talking about it. (Wouldn’t that be convenient?) Some people think that because we’ve cut most of the visible weed off at the surface we’ve killed the weed. (Look! We have a black president! Race doesn’t matter anymore!)

But racism’s roots are strong and deep. Uprooting it is a long, grueling process. An immediately gratifying solution is not to be found here. And since it’s our problem, white people have a huge role to play in that process. If we don’t understand the full scope of the root system, we can’t figure out what tools we need to do the work.

8) Get used to giving and asking for grace when discussing race and racism.

Nothing about racism is easy. People don’t even agree on the definition of racism, much less what it’s going to take to eliminate it. Figuring it out requires conversations that are difficult, uncomfortable, inadvertently confrontational, and unintentionally hurtful.

Sometimes people get angry when they talk about injustices they’ve experienced. Sometimes that anger will feel like it’s directed at you, even if it’s not. And sometimes it will be directed at you, even when it’s not justified. Give people the benefit of the doubt and space to express themselves, even when it’s uncomfortable for you.

Sometimes you’ll try to talk about race and fall flat on your face. Sometimes you’ll say something with the best of intentions and offend someone and not understand why. Sometimes you’ll be blind to racism (that fish in the water thing) and have to trust when enough experienced voices tell you it’s there. Ask for forgiveness when you accidentally step on toes. It’ll happen.

Nobody is perfect at discussing racism. I’m 100% sure I’ve already said more than one thing here that will offend or upset someone. We all need grace when talking about race. Get used to forgiving and asking for forgiveness, as many times as it takes. Humility goes a long way.

9) Everybody’s house has weeds, but tend your own yard.

White people don’t hold the patent on racial prejudice. People of all races have all kinds of biases and prejudices. And America isn’t the only nation with race issues. Racial prejudice and racism exist in other countries—in some places much more openly and fiercely than the U.S.

At the same time, we have a unique history when it comes to racism, particularly between white and black people. We live in a society plagued with racism, yet very few people other than actual white supremacists would call themselves racist. Clearly, there are a whole lot of us in denial.

Your job as a white American is not to call out everyone else’s prejudice. Your job is to work on racism as a white American, which looks different than working on racism from any other viewpoint. You should absolutely speak up about injustices you witness, but don’t go looking at everyone else’s yard to draw attention away from your own. Your job is to tend your own heart. There’s plenty of work to be done there.

10) A lot of white people who read this list stopped listening at #1.

It’s really really uncomfortable to acknowledge that racism is any part of you. It’s really really uncomfortable to acknowledge that your white skin makes a difference in how society sees you. It’s so uncomfortable that many people’s response to it is flat out denial. Deny-and-defend seems to be the gut reaction of a lot of white people whenever racism is called up.

It’s understandable. I get it, but I won’t defend it. I was raised in a faith that actively teaches racial equality, so racism has been a major topic of discussion amongst our family and friends since I was a child. I’ve only reached these conclusions myself after years of reading and listening and praying and reflecting. You are being raised in the same kind of environment. But not everyone has that perspective. You’ll meet many people who haven’t given racism the study or thought it deserves. Their responses to these kinds of discussions will often be reactionary and, unbeknownst to them, racist. Be patient, try to see where they are coming from, and speak the truth as you understand it.

This is the truth as I understand it. I’m certainly not an expert; I’m learning all the time. But don’t ever believe that because you’re white, you don’t need to think about, learn about, or talk about racism. Racism is our problem, and we are responsible for doing our part to overcome it—at least until we have a few more shades of brown on posters of our presidents.

 

About the author:

Annie Reneau writes about motherhood and other hilariously beautiful things on her blog, Motherhood and More. Her writing has been featured on Scary Mommy, Simple Homeschool, Brilliant Star, and Patheos. Last year, she convinced her husband and three kids to live as nomads around the U.S., which was every bit as crazy and amazing as it sounds. She uses her Facebook page as therapy and occasionally hangs with the cool kids on Twitter