Invisibility=White

Thursday, February 02, 2006

**This was from the first part of the paper. As I said before this was a very, very long exploration from several angles. Yesterday's piece was from the final section. This piece is about white priviledge and learning to "see" that I had benefitted from being white.

We are driving to Montreal this afternoon, so I will be away- sans computer- for several days. Enjoy your weekend! ****



As an Early Childhood educator, I recognized the importance of this work on behalf of the children and families we serve. Without an exploration of our internal bias and recognition of the privileges that come from being white in a white society, how can we hope to welcome all families and children into the classroom? If, as a White college educated woman, I cannot recognize and be aware of the advantage that I am automatically granted as a member of the dominant culture, how can I truly advocate for all families and children? How can these families feel welcomed in a classroom in which I teach?

My mother-in-law in Detroit will often tell me that white people are crazy. I used to assume this was a kind of funny endearment. When I asked my husband about this, his response was “White People are crazy. She means it”. I have come to understand the meaning of this phrase, not as an endearment, but as an extremely serious statement.

I am fortunate. I am the white member of a black family from Detroit. They love me as a member of their family and I am afforded a unique view into a family from a race and culture other than my own. They view my questions and inquiries about these obvious issues with patience and love. The white culture in which I was raised did not openly address these topics and I am asking things to find out. I want to know because they are my family too, and because I am the mother of a bi-racial daughter, who will have to navigate these unsteady racial waters in ways that I never was required to think about.

When my mother in law says this phrase “White people are crazy” this is what she means. White People are the dominant culture in the United States. They are the holders of nearly all the political, social and economic power in our society. They design and control our government, our schools, and our legal system. White people control most of the media outlets – radio, television, and newspaper and book publishers. White people have designed a total system that grants them implicit favors and privileges as they navigate these systems. Yet, they blatantly, as a group, deny this. White people point to a select few of other racial heritage that have been successful as examples of the equality and fair treatment afforded to all Americans. White people will tell you how all of that discrimination “stuff” was in the past, that they had nothing to do with that. Most of the White people who say these things truly believe them. However, for American persons of other non-white heritage, this is a glaring un-truth. To co-opt a phrase from a twelve-step group – The elephant is in the room and only the white people can’t see it.

For my mother in law and husband, the refusal to “see” on the part of white people makes them crazy and untrustworthy. Terrance’s wife, her daughter in law and mother of her granddaughter is one of these white people. I am a white person and admit that I spent most of my life not seeing the elephant.

For my journey into the issues of anti-bias curriculum, the beginning came with my relationship with my husband. While there had been no overt statements of racial or other bias in my family, I was taken aback by the vehemence of my mother’s reaction when I announced my relationship with Terrance. The stream of racist and hateful language that flowed from my mother shocked and horrified me. I was told, in no uncertain terms, that if I was to go out with him that day, I could find another place to live and finance the rest of my college education. The threat was unveiled and clear. Walk away from the black man, or walk away from your comfortable life.

In those moments, I made a decision that would influence the rest of my life. I uncovered my mother as racist. I consciously walked away from the privileges of my white family. This action solidified my emerging sense that issues of race and culture were to be a crucial part of my personal and professional life. However, my liberal education and background was shaken to the core. My white liberal Democratic people were not supposed to react like this when confronted with issues of race. I was ashamed and embarrassed that my family behaved this way.

When I discovered the Anti Bias Curriculum shortly after my graduation from college in 1992, I felt as if it were a professional revelation. This was what I had been looking for! While the topic of “multi-cultural education” was broached during my teacher education at the University of Vermont, it was not a central part of the education of emerging teachers. Preparing white teachers in Vermont did not seem to necessitate the discussion of issues of race and culture in society. We were, on the whole, upper middle class white students, preparing to teach white students.

During this time, I was also falling in love with a man not of my racial heritage. I was experiencing, for the first time, the obviousness of race in an all white environment. Walking into restaurants or stores, I noticed other white people noticing us. My invisibility in my culture, of which I had never been aware, was no longer afforded to me when I walked beside Terrance. I had crossed over a line that I previously did not know existed.

With time, my assimilation into a dual cultural role became as second nature. I stopped noticing because life consumed my attention. A career, a marriage and then a new baby shifted my focus from issues of race and culture to those of every day life. Occasionally, I would be jolted from complacence into thinking about this uncomfortable topic. From the elderly white woman who approached me with my infant daughter inquiring when I “got” her to the white father who loudly inquired to me why the child care center was closed for Civil Rights Day when there were no black people here; these incidents were always unexpected and left me speechless. I had forgotten that as a white woman, without my husband nearby, I visibly re-integrated back into the dominant white culture. This invisibility seemed a tacit permission, allowing other white people to say things in my presence that they would not dare speak of with my husband at my side.

As an educator, I had done a fair amount of exploration into the topic of Anti-Bias curriculum while teaching in my own classrooms. In pursuing accreditation by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, it was a criterion to be integrated into the mission and philosophy of the child care center. As the director of this center, I led the conversations of this topic in order to infuse everything we planned with an awareness of the messages we were sending to all families. As a mother of a bi-racial infant daughter, I became more aware of the urgency of the message of Anti-Bias curriculum on the part of the families we served.

These were not always pleasant conversations with teachers or parents. I was accused of being Anti-Christian, Racist, a promoter of Homosexuality, and even told I was a person looking to psychologically damage young children by removing holidays from our center curriculum. I preserved. My personal agenda to make that child care center a place of welcome and support for all families and children became a consuming work. Those staff that did not agree with my vision of anti-bias curriculum eventually left and I found others who shared a similar vision and were willing to commit to it.

Our NAEYC validation visit was scheduled on Halloween of 1999. The validator remarked that she had never seen such a calm, peaceful child care center on Halloween in her career. There were no costumes or candy. There were no excluded children due to religious beliefs. While not perfection, we were living much closer to the intent of Louise Derman Sparks work in Anti Bias Curriculum. We were not standing on the traditions of “we’ve always done it this way”, but rather examining the motives behind our traditions. We asked, “Is this good for children and families?” and let the answers guide our curriculum and policies.

17 Baleful Regards:

Mama D said...

You are a beautiful writer. I am afraid to say anything in case I make a fool of myself. As I think you already know I live in Canada. The small city I am from is predominantly white. Our main other 'ethnic' group are aboriginal although in the past few years with the opening of a meat packing plant there have been a lot of immigrants moving here. Mostly from El Salvador. I am so happy to see this city becoming more diverse in culture and believe it will force a lot of people to become more comfortable with people who are 'different' than them. It has made me sick growing up and hearing the hateful remarks about the native people that live in our community and the denial that we ourselves keep them living in a way that we criticize them for. And I also feel ashamed for having sometimes said or acted in a way that is discriminitory. I am hoping that my daughter will grow up in a culturally diverse city and will never experience the feeling of being different or better because she is white.

Mama D said...

Oh, and I like the new look of the blog by the way!

TB said...

Love the new template!

Both this and the last post really made me consider some things from my own past. My father was a racist, but he was the worst kind. A racist who did not believe he was one. And while I always knew his beliefs were not right, it has taken me the rest of my life to get to a place where I can really be honest with my own feelings and reactions to and about racism or divisionism of any kind.
It's writing like this that will keep people asking the hard questions of themselves and society. Good work.
And have a great weekend!

Nancy said...

I will never fully understand what you experience as the wife of a black man and mother of a biracial daughter, but your writing on this was so clear and powerful that you have made me see a lot of things very clearly. Thanks for that.

Have a great time in Montreal -- one of my favorite cities!

Diana said...

People's ignorance just sickens me. (The old woman and man in your paper-)
It breaks my heart...
and the new layout is great!

Meghan said...

Thank you for posting this.

My mother (white, as am I) taught elementary school for years in Minneapolis. She would be very interested in your paper. I think I will pass the link along.

I learned a lot about white privelge while in college, and am willing to admit that I still don't fully get it. I am willing to learn though! Except so many people ARE afraid to discuss it. Conversations like this are crucial to garner awareness. Thank you for planting some ideas.

mama_tulip said...

These are such powerful posts. Thank you for sharing them.

Eve said...

How eye opening- to hear about this topic from someone with such personal experience, and with such wonderful writing ability.
Thank you!

mothergoosemouse said...

Dawn, thank you for sharing your experiences, and so eloquently too. I've never been in your position - while I've had crushes and fooled around with men of other races, I've never actually had a relationship wherein I was exposed to the same sort of judgment that you were (and still are). I can only begin to imagine what it must be like for you and Terrance to help Emily understand the world around her.

I've known interracial couples all my life - even in the affluent suburb where I grew up - and I've been directly exposed to different cultures all my life, so any sort of racism has always been baffling to me. It was one of my major concerns, moving out here from the NY metro area. Would Tacy and CJ grow up knowing how big the world truly is? I've been pleasantly surprised by the diversity and acceptance I've seen here, but I'm still on guard.

roo said...

When I was in college, I took a class about Native North American cultures. I was horrified to learn how the brutal treatment of Native Americans at the hands of whites had by no means ended with the Trail of Tears and Wounded Knee.

In one of my papers, I wrote about how ashamed I was, reading these stories and knowing I belonged to the oppressor group. I'd never heard the phrase "white guilt" before, and that was my first conscious experience of it.

My professor wrote a long note to me on the back of my paper, telling me that it was good I was becoming aware of the advantages I unfairly enjoyed. He said the only way to assuage that guilt was to try to recognize the opportunities that were mine because of the color of my skin, and not to take them.

But it's difficult sometimes to perceive those tainted opportunities. Reading your paper has helped me to see them more clearly. I appreciate it.

The Gradual Gardener said...

Have you considered writing a book on this subject? You are an excellant writer, and the combination of being part of a multi-racial family and also an early-childhood educator gives you a unique perspective. You really should think about it.

halloweenlover said...

Beautiful post, Dawn. I second the gradual gardener's suggestion that you write a book. You're an awesome writer.

Jaelithe said...

Due to certain experiences I've had, I have a better perspective on this, I think, than a lot of "white" people (For the record, I'm not really just white. I'm mixed race-- 1/4 Native American. But what with my blonde hair and pale skin, I've passed accidentally for a pure pasty white girl my whole life, and that's how I'm treated by most people, so that's what I classify myself as when talking about racial privilege).

For one year, during a particularly bad financial spell for my mother, who was working her way through school, I went to a terribly poor, all-black elementary school in a terribly poor neighborhood. When I say all-black, I mean it. I was one of three white children in my entire grade. I was the outsider there. I was constantly teased, harassed, and even regularly beaten by gangs of other children on the basis of my skin color. My books and belongings were constantly being stolen and destroyed. I was humiliated and ignored by teachers, who apparently felt the need to prove they weren't going to favor me by shunning me instead.

It was a harrowing experience for a ten-year-old girl.

I wouldn't trade it for the world.

When I remember that year, and think about how some people have to endure that sort of treatment everywhere they go, for their entire lives, I see that ugly elephant you speak of, sitting right on top of an entire society that just keeps on turning a blind eye.

You really should write a book on this. Your unique perspective could reach a lot of people, I think.

little.hoot.owl said...

Dawn, I can relate to what you're saying because I married a Puerto Rican. The initial prejudice from my family was not at all what I had expected, but not nearly as bad as yours. We lived at that time in the Midwest where Latinos are very common, but since moving to Maine a few months ago I have definitely noticed the sense of separation that he feels when out in public, and that I feel when with him. He is one of about 10 non-whites in a town of 15,000 and I had no idea of the sense of isolation that would happen. Thanks for this post that made it all come into focus.

IzzyMom said...

This was a wonderful piece, full of insights that I myself might not have fully considered. While I am white, my own experiences with race and family have been somewhat complicated. It's a long story and I don't want to bore you with the details. I'll just say that I know there is nothing simple about being non-white in America.

Great blog! I've read you before but never commented :-)

C.ELLA said...

My son's second grade school is about 75% black 24% white and 1%Hispanic. Since he is white he is in the minority. I admit I worried about how he would feel about being different, particularly since at his previous school the ratios were the exact opposite. It hasn't bothered him for a minute. The truth is kids notice color differences but, aren't interested. All they really want to know is do you like Sponge Bob? I see hope in our children.

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