This article provides some suggestions for how to talk to white kids about race relations, specifically white privilege. First of all, this is not an article wherein I attempt to convince anybody it exists. And really, that's never really been my interest. It's one of those things you're either willing to admit or not.
But I'm willing to argue two things: 1.) The only people arguing it doesn't exist are white; and 2.) If you're white and you can't admit that at least your race does not play an actively negative role in your life then you're in a place of denial and nobody's going to break you out of it. (And please save me from the "no white guys are getting jobs" "reverse-racism" Affirmative Action routine. Sorry, but look at the data. I don't care about your husband/friend/son/father's terrible case of mistreatment. From an overall perspective, white people are not exactly the "disempowered" population.)
If you don't think it exists, cool. This article is not for you.
But if you would like to talk to your kids about it, read on. Also, I'm not an expert. I have a deep interest in these issues and focused on American/cultural studies in my M.A. program, but I'm no bell hooks. (Um, I felt sick inside even comparing myself to her in a joking manner.)
I am a white woman who, after reading people like Tim Wise and bell hooks and Michael Omi, realized I had never really thought about race at all, that I dismissed it as a "non-issue," that I believed it was "fixed" in the 1960s, that I thought people should stop whining about it, that I fully believed hard work and determination were all that was necessary to "achieve," and I realized that I thought these things because I enjoy the privilege of being white.
Yes, exactly. Race is not an issue, but only because I am of the privileged one.
As James Baldwin said: "Being white is never having to think about it."
Hard work and determination are all I need.
Things were "fixed" in the 1960s.
We are a melting pot. We are color-blind. We are unbridled equality of opportunity. Only laziness stands in the way of achievement.
When I learned the rest of the story, I grew determined to raise my kids with more awareness than I had. If we want to change, the first thing we have to do is admit the problem exists.
So here are a few suggestions for explaining white privilege:
- Understand that race is a social construct.
Race is not biologically real — it is socially and politically constructed via law, public policy and social practices.Though slavery (and racism) has been justified by the argument that black people are biologically inferior to whites (that unavoidable genetic differences exist between whites and blacks, making one superior to the other), the fact is that "race" is socially defined. In other words, "Race is not biologically real — it is socially and politically constructed via law, public policy and social practices" (Source). The example I often cite to demonstrate this is that Mexican Americans used to be considered "white" by the Census Bureau (Source). In fact, in California, during anti-miscegenation laws, "white" people could marry Mexican-Americans because they were considered "white" as well, but they could not marry people of Asian descent (because they were not of the same race). This is a basic example, but it demonstrates how race is slippery, unreliable and constructed socially.“„
- Define white privilege.
In very concise words, white privilege is the systematic monetary and social benefit white people receive as a result of their skin color. Or, "White privilege refers to the concrete benefits of access to resources and social rewards and the power to shape the norms and values of society that whites receive, unconsciously or consciously, by virtue of their skin color in a [racially stratified] society" (Source). Peggy McIntosh wrote a very accessible, simple list of what this privilege looks like in daily life. Read it. It may be eye-opening. This webpage provides a list of other helpful sources to help you define white privilege.
- Dispel misunderstanding.
Not all white people are white supremacists, but all white people benefit from white supremacy.As my grad school Professor Dr. Hellen Lee repeated like a mantra: "Not all white people are white supremacists, but all white people benefit from white supremacy." Explain to your kids that when we are talking about "white privilege" we are not talking about "white people." Not all white people are racist, but all white people benefit from being white (in the ways outlined in the McIntosh article (among others)).“„
- Look at history.
Part of understanding current race relations is to see how race has played an integral role in America's economy, and how racism has served to drive wedges between races for labor interests. Tim Wise has a brilliant segment on that. Please watch it now. From slavery (it all started for labor) to immigration and naturalization laws to American colonies in the Philippines (and elsewhere), racism has reinforced the social constructs that afford power and money to the privileged race. Racism serves economic interests. It is not merely a "belief system."
- Understand racism is systematic.
Whites may endure bigotry or racist thinking on an individual level, but as a whole, the system works in their favor.We're not talking about individuals or "mean beliefs". We're talking about systems, about institutions that methodically benefit people of a certain race: "As a system, racism is an institutional arrangement, maintained by policies, practices and procedures — both formal and informal — in which some persons typically have more or less opportunity than others, and in which such persons receive better or worse treatment than others, because of their respective racial identities… institutional racism involves denying persons opportunities, rewards, or various benefits on the basis of race, to which those individuals are otherwise entitled" (Source). For this reason, "reverse racism" cannot exist. Of course on an individual level people can dislike an entire race through their own bigotry, but only one group has the power to systematically disempower the racial "Other," so the argument claiming that "since whites also endure racism things are equal" is false. Whites may endure bigotry or racist thinking on an individual level, but as a whole, the system works in their favor. Period.“„
And finally, make clear that the job of whites is not to "feel guilty." "White guilt" is a ridiculous concept, in my opinion, because we are obviously not responsible for slavery, or for how our country developed along racial lines. However, if you are white and you feel "guilty" for enjoying advantages based on your race, well then good. But rather than think we've done something by merely "feeling bad," we should ask ourselves what we're doing to change it. "Feeling bad" does nothing. Sentimentality is not what we're going for here.
It's only through actions that we manifest our concern.
It's only through moving our feet and mouths, talking about uncomfortable things often and openly, that we assume the responsibility that is in fact ours, as humans, to change a system of violence (Trayvon Martin, anyone?) and systematic inequality.