How do we as human beings, as Americans, as fellow citizens, have a civil, emotionally intelligent and astute conversation on whether “whiteness” has inalienable inherent privileges, entitlements, power and control in comparison to “non whiteness?”
Should there even be such a conversation in the 21st Century? Do these questions create a dividing line that separates us from one another?
How does a white audience remain connected to the conversation without immediately feeling threatened and having to defend one’s learned identity? How do we remain at the table of discourse without feeling blamed, shamed, guilty, lacking readiness to discuss such controversial subjects, or do we just want to avoid the subject altogether because of the discomfort and anxiety it causes?
A major step towards understanding and remaining engaged regarding “White Studies” is to not immediately associate it with the manifestos of Domestic Terrorism, White Supremacy, Master Race, Fascism, Neo-Nazism, White Nationalism and Hate Groups.
The second meaningful step is to not believe or fear that such a conversation will lead to being accused of being a racist. This step requires emotional intelligence, awareness and confidence to enter this space.
We can agree that to be accused of being a racist is deplorable. The very word Racism is contaminated – diseased – pathological. Therefore, to address its roots, peripheries, layers and nuances can be a daunting task not easily confronted. But how do we ever feel ready and somewhat able to discuss such a controversial subject?
One strategy is to consider questions that lead to knowledge-bases, definitions and clarification seeking answers. Dealing with the language of Diversity, Inclusivity and Equity provides awareness and confidence to be at the table of discourse. The following questions are the major focus of Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic on White Studies.
- How was whiteness invented, and why?
- How has the category of whiteness changed over time?
- Why did some immigrant groups, such as the Irish, Jews, and Italians start out as nonwhite and later became white?
- Can some individual people be both white and nonwhite at different times, and what does it mean to “pass for white”?
- At what point does pride in being white cross the line into white power or white supremacy?
- What can whites concerned over racial inequity or white privilege do about it?
While working through the maze of these questions, an ever present major underlying point is the fact that “whiteness” has historically possessed access to dominance, power and control. In other words, it had worth, value and capital that was not afforded to “non-whites.
To clarify, I am using the term “capital” to designate importance and significance. Therefore, when asking what race or what gender has “capital”, I am referring to the value, respect and esteem that society places on such constructs. In turn, how does each of us view the “capital” of our identity and that of others.
When the words “that men are created equal” were uttered, what was not said was, “for men with power, control and dominance. Men with property, land and slaves – and who happen to be white.” It was at that point that we began to assign “capital” to everyone who was not a white man – and we could argue – Christian.
America has been debating that part of the unspoken paradox mentioned above – its “capital” for centuries and how it directly connects to how Americans think about the degree of power – “capital” they possess given their identity, which is part and parcel of our education at home, school and social-cultural curriculum.
The “capital” we assign to ourselves and others is taught, constructed and learned. This does not excuse us from exposing and deconstructing social -cultural -isms and phobias learned. Supposedly, 12 years of education provided such tools . . . or not.
I posit that we did not have ample opportunities to deal with the construct of race during elementary, middle school and high school and therefore entered the adult world without the readiness to address it, individually and collaboratively. Therefore, we were left, as adults, to figure it out on our own.
An example of expressed “capital” comes by way of a course I taught on Diversity Literacy to college graduate students. The course was an attempt by the university to provide students with some Diversity Literacy before they went on to their degrees and professions. Therefore, the school of engineering, law, medicine, art, nursing, technology, and education were well represented.
It would not be a surprise if I shared that many did not want to be there. Some even thought that, they knew all there was to know about diversity, given their identity, ethnicity and/or affinity group(s),
I usually began the class by providing students with the entire treatise of Peggy McIntosh on White Privilege, Racism and Sexism.
The students were asked to read the document, write a brief reaction paper, provide critical questions, prepare a brief oral report and listen to each other’s reactions, critiques and comments. A discussion followed each synopsis. Nothing difficult right?
But I learned to brace myself as students were not used to such discourse. They were used to dealing with familiar specific content associated with their major which they felt comfortable dealing with. Our class was a foreign landscape and journey.
What I share took place the first day of a summer semester. A white student, who seemed to have been stewing about the syllabus and the McIntosh assignment, raised his hand and said with emphasis,
“I was hoping that this class was not going to be about white-bashing.
I’m tired of being called a racist. This article is racist!”
I informed him that Peggy McIntosh was white and that her ancestors had come, literally, on the Mayflower, and that the article was her opinion on the “capital of whiteness” as it pertained to her experiences as a white woman. I stressed that he would have an opportunity to provide the class with his critical questions, critique and comments during the next classes.
But, some of the students of color did not wait to challenge affirming that white privilege needed to be openly studied and discussed, because it existed. The white student stood his ground and said that he was tired of being race-baited and bullied. He was sick of being told that he was a racist because he was white.
To his surprise, other white students countered with a “Let’s wait and see – let’s read the article and hear each other out.” The self proclaimed defendant dug in. Upon feeling cornered he said without hesitation,
“You can say whatever you want and call me whatever you want but there is one fact that all of you can’t deny and that is that regardless of white bashing, at the end of the day, we own everything!”
A moment of silence followed! It was a poignant moment. He had spoken his truth . . . as he saw it, felt it and owned it. He succeeded in muting the class and demonstrated the elements of dominance, power and control. That is, control of the narrative. He planted his “Don’t Tread of Me” flag in the middle of our class and dared classmates to capture it.
He also succeeded in creating a tension in the class that all of us would need to work through . . . and we did. Each student presented not only their analyses and critiques but also personal stories and counterstories that provided context to McIntosh’s backpack.
The students were asked to journal after individual presentations so that there would be uninterrupted quality time to process what had been heard and felt. Volunteers could share their journal entries without rebuttals. At times the journaling produced a poem, a sketch, a remembrance of ancestors, a song, a painful experience. The students were not learning from academic materials but from each other.
During the journaling, the silence was deafening, as some students could not hide their sorrow with what had been experienced by their fellow students in respect to overt, covert and aversive racism, prejudice and biases. This sharing was poignant and powerful. These were moments that would linger beyond our class time. Some students met after class to continue the conversation.
Not to lose hope, by the end of the term, the student who wanted to avoid “white bashing” had found ways to appreciate McIntosh’s definitions and left with new lenses by which to view the world and fellow classmates.
The students while challenging each other, never gave up on each other. But it made me ponder just how many Americans have the opportunity to deal with issues of diversity, inclusivity and equity, for several hours a week for six weeks. When do we get opportunities to not give up on each other?
The students had ample opportunities to reflect on articles and hear each other regarding their views of racism, xenophobia, homophobia, sexism and divisionism. For several hours they could hear voices seldom heard speaking from the “I” perspective with not only emotional intelligence but moral courage as fellow citizens. The majority of students, via their evaluations, shared that such opportunities were rare during their college experience and wondered when they would ever have this type of opportunity again – personally and professionally.
American society is presently structured so that white people have few opportunities to literally experience life as it is lived on a daily basis by African American, Latino/a, Native American, Asian, Indian (subcontinent), Middle Eastern and/or African communities. This is because of the prevailing norms of accepted separation and segregation that prevent people of different racial/ethnic groups from interacting with each other. Inclusivity has not been prioritized nor normalized.
Rural, urban and suburban communities seemingly wall each other off – many by choice and design. This perpetuates preconceived attitudes, labeling, predispositions, prejudice, feelings of being persecuted and/or accused of being racist. As the isolation and silence persists, so does the perceived power, control and dominance.
So where else can we actually point to the ‘capital’ of white power, control and dominance? Melvin L. Oliver, Thomas Shapiro and Tara J. Yosso have written extensively on the subject and I encourage further research by way of their findings. Oliver and Shapiro provided a model defining the meaning of Communal Cultural Capital with peripheries of Income Capital, Wealth Capital, Aspirational Capital, Familial Capital, Social Capital, Navigational Capital, Resistant Capital, Linguistic Capital and Cultural Capital.
Each has a history, knowledge bases, networks and available resources. These studies surfaced in the 1990s and continue to have significance to this day, because while there is progress being made regarding ownership of ‘capital power control and dominance’ understanding how it works empowers each of us.
Of course, unlike my students, America can’t be required to pause for a semester and ask every family, business, politician, CEO, employees and schools to participate in a NATIONAL RETREAT on Diversity Literacy. It may sound crazy, but imagine, if for one week the entire nation would pause to focus on each other, listen to each other and tell our stories to each other. What would be the ‘capital’ of such an idea?
Critical White Studies I: White Privilege
Critical White Studies II: White Knapsack
Critical White Studies III: White Capital
Critical White Studies IV: Aversive Racism by the Well Intentioned
Critical White Studies V: White Loss