Racism, Whiteness, and Progress in America

Final assignment for Education and Democracy from this summer.  This writing could rankle a few, so if you would like to ever discuss my position with me, I will gladly make time to do so as long as you promise to read what I wrote repeatedly and reflect upon what I wrote before we get together.

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“We hate some persons because we do not know them; and will not know them because we hate them.” — Charles Caleb Colton

NOTE: I use age, race, and gender descriptions in lieu of names in this paper to offer more descriptive information than names could provide while maintaining anonymity and confidentiality about the primary actors / actresses in my “text” for this assignment.

Background (“Text”) with Some Thoughts Interspersed: Day 6 of Equity and Democracy in our section ended up containing one of the more in-depth, provocative discussions of the course; the initial spark for which occurred on day 4 during a discussion of Toni Morrison’s Bluest Eye. On day 4, a young, black, female student posed a question as to whether society had a responsibility to ensure that black, female [primary and/ or secondary] students overcome their feelings of self-doubt and self-loathing regarding how they looked [as compared to, and generated by, the apparently pervasive messages, in the majority of mediums and forums, that the most beautiful people in the world are white and that anyone who is not white is not beautiful]. I, a much older, male, white student, followed up with a question as to whether she felt redress was only for black female students and she replied in the affirmative [which was understandable since she mentioned she identified strongly with that segment since she was a member, of that segment, at one time and (had) felt that way about herself]. While her question went unanswered in the class, after lingering a moment or so in awkward silence, the latent energy in it was apparently absorbed by the class, the instructor, and me, specifically, and ignited the discussions of day 6.

On day 6, the discussion moved to contrasting Allen’s (2004) use of “racial distrust” as opposed to “racist” and the same student, along with a few others, believed that the use of the term “racial distrust” by Allen, as opposed to “racist” / “racism,” watered down the significance of the issue. Several others, including myself, felt that they were nearly synonymous, and I posited that racial distrust could be viewed as a cause for racism; one begets the other. While clarifying her view of, and preference for, the use of the term “racism,” or “racist,” the student stated that she defined racism as “power + prejudice.” She further stated that [in the U.S.] she also viewed racism as the views embodied by “whiteness” versus those of all non-white persons / people of color.

I stated that while I could support her, personal construction of whiteness vs. all others, I had a problem with it serving as the accepted, general definition for use to describe U.S. society, today, since it simply framed it in a dichotomous fashion, one that did not take into account the variety of localities and situations where white people were not in power, or in the majority, and also seemed to fuel and perpetuate an “us versus them” mentality. I also felt strongly that I did not see myself as a racist, and I surely am white.

Afterwards, another young, female student of color, sitting next to this student, mentioned that she shared the same definition for racism vis-a-vis whiteness contrasted with all non-white races. The class ended shortly afterwards with an apparent feeling of dissatisfaction lingering among many students.

Fortunately, after class was over, a few female students, one white (young), one black (the same as above), and one mixed race (the other as above), remained and were talking with the instructor (a youthful thirty-something, Hispanic, female), when I popped back into the class to speak with the instructor to clarify my position and statements. I joined the group and we had a refreshing, sometimes slightly contentious, but enlightening discussion where we all sought to understand each others’ positions. While total understanding was not achieved, nor possible realistically, significant progress was made in better understanding each other; we could sense that we were all passionate and wanted to become great teachers, ensuring equitable access and treatment for all of our future students. Nonetheless, we differed in perspective, experience, understanding, and shared vocabulary as to how to have a fruitful discussion about racism, racial distrust or other race-related issue. In fact, I felt as if my indigenous meanings and schemata for race, racism, etcetera was woefully inadequate, for an intelligent discussion in the realm of academe, since I had not had earlier access to the language of ethnic studies; my undergraduate studies were in electrical engineering and graduate studies in finance and marketing. Towards the end, and somewhat facetiously, but also with grains of truth, I mentioned to one student that I was the minority in the discussion, not knowing the vernacular of ethnic studies, since others had exposure to those teachings, and I had not. My observation was not accepted, which I found ironic. Notwithstanding that minor disagreement, I was most appreciative of: our conversation, our desire to seek mutual understanding, and our passion for doing what we believe is the right thing for our students, even if the “right thing” may vary from student to student, and situation to situation.

My Question(s): Does it benefit the eradication of racism, in the U.S., or anywhere, to frame the situation as “white / whiteness” versus “non-white / colored?” Or does that construct simply perpetuate an “us versus them” mentality that always will see differences in the “opposing” camp’s actions, beliefs, etcetera?

As Nunez discovered in Wells’ (1904), The Country of the Blind, being viewed as an outsider, from either direction, is not fulfilling, and can lead to disastrous consequences. Should Nunez have his eye removed so that he could marry Medina-sarote or risk near certain death attempting to scale the precipice he fell over at the outset of the story?  He felt as if there was no middle ground available to him, and rather than sacrifice something he valued so highly as integral to a life worth living, he chooses to attempt to live the way he desired with death a small price to pay for being in integrity with his desires.

McDermott (2008), himself, recognizes the danger of duality in his paper, The Concept of Culture in Educational Research: Considerations and Exercises, where he lists in a table of what is titled “Commonly sensible conceptual dichotomies guaranteed to lead to long discussions with little result.” While contrasting dualities, in and of itself, is not necessarily wrong, for it is human nature to view the world that way, it is fraught with peril when attempting to rectify problems, real or perceived, between the two entities. Analysis and associated discourse tends to gravitate to what McDermott terms “versions” that are limited, ineffectual, and do not grasp the complexities of reality. As McDermott so eloquently states:

“…If race and poverty are only partial events inside a cultural system, then any correlation between them and measures of school performance can be seen as a redundancy, a cultural fabrication in which the same interpretive machinery that brought us arbitrary distinctions between kinds of persons can also bring us arbitrary measures of learning and systems for noticing and explaining their correlation. If culture can arrange for that much coherence, and if that coherence can cause us so much trouble, we need a constant cultural analysis to resist the constraints of the categorical coinage of our minds.” [emphasis added]

Hence, we should not constrain our analysis to what seems like a reasonable analytic framework simply since it suits our way of thinking, and feels “right,” or perhaps more precisely, allows for the framing of the historical majority, in general, as a unit of analysis within the framework in order to right past, present, and, sadly likely, future wrongs. This is not to sanction wrongdoings, discrimination of any sort, or the perpetuation of inequity; it simply is to say that fingering an entity in such a dichotomous fashion engenders disenfranchisement, not harmony. Thinking like our children think, before they are too corrupted by our societal, cultural, familial and personal, adult, views has more likelihood of success in my opinion. As Toni Morrison, in The Bluest Eyes, strives to show, let’s work to see beyond segregation, labels, and stereotypes.

Having said that, I understand the benefit, and associated catharsis, possible with a group that has made significant mistakes, often intentional, occasionally horrid, and never acceptable, even in the absence of malicious intentions, to evolve from a fractious, exclusionary, and self-righteous state of being to a more universally embracing, and harmonious one. For this to occur, naturally, and I would argue effectively, it must come from within and not be forced from the outside. No one, in all of time, willingly accepts dogma forced upon them without harboring resentment; those who have been wronged for so long should know this best, for as the old maxim goes, “two wrongs don’t make a right.” As Morrison so intensely illustrates for us in The Bluest Eyes, imposing the norms of one segment upon another alienates the two, and stirs up animosity, distrust, and self-doubt. Lin’s (2007) description of “the capes” professional development exercise in “(Mis)-Education into American Racism” supports this position since first impressions often reveal cultural biases, norms, or other views that are difficult to share across racial boundaries, especially in the fashion used in “the capes.” Henry (1963) also opines that “inherent in the human condition is the fact that we must conserve culture while changing it; that we must always be more sure of surviving than of adapting – as we see it.” In other words, those in power while evaluating the necessity to change, will nonetheless conserve as much of the culture as possible while undergoing change. History reveals this to be a truth worthy of note; that is, until a shift in power causes a role reversal and depending upon the size of the shift, could cause the annihilation of the former majority.

So does being a majority absolve a racial segment in our democratic society, specifically, those who are classified as “white,” from the duty and responsibility that accompanies being the majority, in aggregate, at present or in the future? No, not in the least; very few, educated, white adults would feel otherwise – but sadly, the ignorant and cold-of-heart still need to be constrained in some fashion since they would seek to disrupt any gains made by either side. And sadly, I do not envision a world where ignorance has no hold; I wish that were not the case, but in some twisted, perhaps Darwinian or Faustian fate, these scourges are inevitable – why escapes me though. However, with continued discourse, as my instructor, fellow students, and myself experienced, an appreciation for both sides occurs with the desire to live in harmony and strive for understanding, if not complete agreement. As Allen states, let’s have citizens engage in a dialog that arrives at true equality for all, not one that is constructed to fail at the outset by emphasizing overly simplified labels such as “whiteness” and “colored” which McDermott cautions all to avoid.

Additionally, if it is possible for the majority of us who are classified as white, by the U.S. Census, for example, to accept being categorized as “whites” for use in discourse about racial relations and inequities therein, assess the academic research in this area of ethnic studies, and institute corrections throughout all of societies institutions, but most importantly, education, then perhaps we should continue with the depiction of “whiteness” versus “non-white / colored.” I just have my doubts that this utopian view can ever exist; few majority segments turn the microscope on themselves in unanimity. Hence, my concern for framing discourse in oppositional terms which lead to a high probability of at least one side losing out; if all outcomes were equal, there is a 75% chance of one or both sides experiencing a loss – not great odds for harmony, or even civility. As Tyack (1993) observes that “…issues of social diversity [tend to] polarize politics…”

The world is not black and white, or “colored” and “white.” It is kaleidoscopic; colors of all forms exist, some evoking pleasure, some pain, some neutrality, some opposition, some good, and some evil. Sadly for humankind, the contrast between good and bad, via white and black, carried over into skin color. I would like to know when that occurred in history and why. Was it simply ignorance? Biased by religion, superstition, or artificially constructed teachings tied to the early associations tied to the colors white and black? Did all societies throughout time, everywhere have the same associations with those colors? Was the contrast simply de facto circumstance and simply for survival sake as in my tribe versus theirs? Was it purely random? I do not know. Again, this does not excuse, sanction, approve or condone the evils of the past, present and future committed in any way due to racial differences. Evil is evil, regardless of color. Many colored humans were killed as a result of other colored humans: 20th century China sadly experienced the deaths of 50-70 million people as a result of Mao Zedong’s policies. Many whites have been killed because of whites: 1) Josef Stalin is believed to have been responsible for killing over 15 million in the Soviet Union, 2) Hitler is responsible for the deaths of at least 6 million Jews, and 3) hundreds of thousands of white (and black) Americans killed each other in the Civil War. Ignorance, hatred, oppression, discrimination – these are not the sole domain of those of the white race though; evil like this knows few bounds – power and prejudice, as my fellow student stated, is the common thread, not whiteness. It just so happened that the dominant race to date in America, once the native Indians were overrun, happened to be white. And it is simply natural, and understandable, but not acceptable, that the rules, mores, and views of society were predominantly driven by the dominant, white race; that fact, again transcends race, religion, ethnicity and other factors around the world, except gender.

To reiterate, the fact that the atrocities, wrongdoings, and discriminatory acts, are carried out by individuals, groups, or institutions, regardless of race or other demographic construct does not excuse their occurrence. It is wrong. Always and forever. But how is it best stopped? Or if not stopped entirely, minimized? I believe that it is not by focusing energy on ensuring the dominant race accepts a label, which magically might awaken them to see themselves as they mistakenly, but naturally, view others. I think not. Labels simply set the stage for differences to exist and for one party to attempt to dominate the other, or vice versa. As Horton and Freire (1990) state it is critical that the teacher, or anyone for that matter, understand that their role is to help students, or others in the context outside of an educational setting, by “speaking with them and not to them;” a dichotomous relationship sets the stage for “talking to” more so than “talking with,” and is, hence, less effective.

Focusing on the deeds, the acts, the evils themselves is the most effective manner, irrespective of perpetrator. Let citizens coalesce around virtues, not vices or a shallow delineation that allows one group to point to another as an evildoer. If that helps certain segments deal with their internal conflicts, external pains, or whatever wrongs, real or perceived, that exist, so be it. But do not expect that delineation, depiction or duality to lead to significant progress since it continues to define opposing camps that will never decamp from their perpetual war of words, actions, or beliefs, even if the balance of power shifts from one camp to the other.

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About Dave aka Mr. Math Teacher

Secondary math teacher teaching math intervention, algebra 1, honors precalculus, and AP Calculus AB. I spent 25 years in high tech in engineering, marketing, sales and business development roles in the satellite communications, GPS, semiconductor, and wireless industries. I am awed by the potential in our nation's youth and I hope to instill in them the passion to improve our world at local, state, national, and global levels.
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2 Responses to Racism, Whiteness, and Progress in America

  1. eo says:

    I don’t think you actually addressed the issue: whether society had a responsibility to ensure that black, female [primary and/ or secondary] students overcome their feelings of self-doubt and self-loathing regarding how they looked [as compared to, and generated by, the apparently pervasive messages, in the majority of mediums and forums, that the most beautiful people in the world are white and that anyone who is not white is not beautiful].

    Instead you made a lot of valid points about racism, but these never address the core question. Is there an inherit responsibility to address the self-loathing engendered by the pervasive culture? I think your answer is yes! It is part of what you are about. Yet the question throws into a defensive stance, where you go off on the abstract problem of racism. Why is that? What would it mean for you to acknowledge personal responsibility, and therefore collective responsibility, to address the wounds created by the pervasive culture?


    My personal opinion is a member of this culture, regardless of race or ethnicity, can not escape unconscious prejudice engendered by the cultural trance. Is this racism? I say yes, because it leads to discrimination. And therefore when you say you are not racist I believe you are acting unconsciously. In order to amend the “wrongs” we have to acknowledge first that we are all victims of it. Otherwise we stay unconscious and act from that place.

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    • Thanks for your comments, EO. This is a great topic for a longer, face to face, discussion someday. I believe I am fully conscious and addressing the wrongs that happen whenever I see them; I do not believe that my position is that of a racist, if that is what you meant to imply. Quite the contrary, my position is a race agnostic one, at least in terms of my openness to any and all that mean me, my family, friends, and others, no harm or ill will; while that might be simplistic, it suits me well and is easy to follow.

      For now, the question / issue you pointed out was not intended to be addressed directly. It simply served to set the stage, as background, for the question I specifically posed titled “My Question(s)”, which I did answer, solely from my perspective. Hence, I was not evasive or on a side road, at least for the purpose of my writing.

      Now, if I were to answer the question / issue you highlighted, my answer is society has a responsibility to ALL people, irrespective of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, etc. to help them believe in themselves by outlawing discrimination of any sort against any, or all, segments and supporting all, especially in early ages through school, to believe in themselves and their nearly unlimited potential. However, in my opinion, I do not believe it is a responsibility limited to specific segments of society, which was the main concern I had with the one student’s question, and her response to my clarifying question. And in terms of my responsibility, I do not view it as amending the sins of the past, but serving as a vanguard of the present and future, which ultimately creates the same action, but under a differing set of names.

      More importantly, and perhaps more contentiously, I do not subscribe to the belief that there is prejudice, overt or not, in a malicious sense, embodied in our culture; that view is too mistrustful in my opinion and abdicates responsibility for self-development from the individual, their parents, extended family, etc. I even question whether there is a “pervasive” culture in the U.S. any more; in contrast to the more rigid, near homogenous national culture that existed prior to the cultural revolution of the 1960’s era. I do not believe there is a single culture in the U.S., any longer, for that matter.

      Does my belief mean that I think it is OK that certain looks, values, ways of being, ways of thinking, etc are emphasized, formally and informally, as superior more frequently than others? No. Do I agree with the various messages? For many messages, no, I do not agree with them. Does this mean we should restrict them? No, unless they intentionally and explicitly are meant to bring harm; whether someone “might” interpret them in a harmful way is subject to debate, and redress in courts of law, which I fully support. Otherwise, we could end up in a state-controlled media environment that would suppress the spirit of America.

      What action is required to eradicate any prejudice? To love and respect all as you do yourself; which is simpler said than done. And there lies the main problem, in my opinion. Too many do not love themselves, so they neither have the capacity to see the beauty in others, nor the energy or wherewithal to work to get to a place where they can love themselves, and, hence, all others.

      This is where our society could have its greatest fault: it perpetuates individualistic thinking, and the right to further oneself, without regard to how ones actions impact others. Hence, in our scramble to take care of ourselves and our loved ones, we ignore the plight of ourselves, emotionally, and of those in need, in any way, and do not give ourselves or others the care and support we need to reach a place where we can overcome our limitations, whether self-imposed, forced upon us, or a result of socioeconomic circumstances.

      So, do colored, female youth in U.S. deserve to feel good about themselves? Absolutely! Does society have a responsibility to ensure that they do? Absolutely. How? That is a much more difficult question, however, minimally, it should provide frequent opportunities for these youth to receive positive, self-esteem boosting encouragement, especially from public institutions like school. Does this require society to create a special program for these youth? I do not believe so, however, it is entirely appropriate for a private organization to champion this cause. Do I need to feel responsible for how these youth may feel about themselves? Not unless they are charges of mine where my actions may impact them or I observe a situation that causes them harm, or might cause them harm. Does that mean I do not care about them? Not in the least, however, there are over 6 billion people in the world, and I frankly, only have energy to worry about my family and those people with whom I have some relationship with, even if it is as brief as passing someone on the sidewalk, sharing an elevator, or a place in line at a grocery store. But I do hope that many others think that all deserve respect, or we are destined to live in the same world, full of inequitable disparity and damaged psyches.

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