Invisible = White

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

*** I started my TA position in Multicultural education today. I had forgotten how much I love this topic, but it came rushing back today as we started simply talking about some of the words and meanings.

This was from the first part of a thesis I wrote for my Master's degree. As I have said before this was a very, very long exploration from several angles - teacher, parent, citizen, wife and mother. This piece is about white privilege and learning to "see" that I had benefited in my culture simply from being white. I thought it was a good day to re-publish this piece, in honor of my journey beginning again.

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:

SUEB0B said...

When I moved out of my former town, someone asked me why and I said "I didn't feel right living with too many white people," and they said "Um, hon, you're white, in case you hadn't noticed." Yeah, I had noticed. I had also noticed the code that my neighbors used to hide racist thoughts and ideology. And how the code disappeared pretty much after 2 or 3 drinks and how ugly it got.

Bobita said...

"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."

This truth has never been so eloquently described.

Bubblewench said...

Wow. Blown away. Fantastic writing.

EUC said...

Am big admirer of your work. Would love to ask you if you find it different in Canada... My white privilege bubble was burst a long time ago (I had a biracial friend growing up in a small, all white town) but living in Windsor and dating a guy from Wyandotte, MI really shocked me. Being at a party where everyone was white just about made my ears leap from my head. I guess it was weird to me growing up in a country that (at least overtly and as policy) values multiculturalism and where I was raised racism (overt and covert) wasn't tolerated.

Kim said...

I too have experienced this bias you speak of. My husband is white, but is European. I hear MANY complaints about "foreigners" that "talk funny" and how they should go home. I kindly remind them that our grand- or great-grand parents "talked funny" and then we should all "go home". Bias comes from fear of not fitting in; from seeming different. It isn't human nature to celebrate our differences. It is human nature to war over them. And, unfortunately, all societies struggle with this problem.

Nice column...

Lisa said...

What a facinating post.

I have a cousin who's married to a black man. Years ago, she remarked that as they'd walk down the streets, they'd get these disapproving looks from people. I felt bad for them. They are in love. They have a wonderful relationship. Why are they being judged so harshly.

Another cousin met a black man in college. She told me, "He's handsome, sweet, smart. He treats me better than any other man I've ever met." I asked her what the problem was. SHe said, "He's black. There's NO WAY my parents would accept our relationship." I felt sad for her. SHe was obviously in love with the man. But broke it off due to her family.

Anonymous said...

Brilliant post. It has definitely shed some light on many of the questions I was curiously wondering about over at Mocha's blog.

Anonymous said...

I'm a huge fan of Halloween. That said, I don't think that Halloween costumes belong at school. Our elementary school "disguised" the Halloween Parade by referring to it as a Costume Parade in order to smooth the ruffled feathers of the fundamentalist Christians. I still thought costumes were dumb idea.

Beth said...

An eloquent post, Dawn. Insightful, informative and convicting.

Anonymous said...

I was raised by a father who was and is to this day virulently racist. I never wanted to be like him but I don't think I've done enough to separate myself from his beliefs.
I'll admit that while I have often thought about my priveledge as a white person, I haven't spent much time doing anything about it.
I've been thinking about it a lot more lately in trying to find ways to raise Myles, who will enjoy the ultimate priveledge of white malehood, to be not only aware, but engaged in finding solutions.

Her Bad Mother said...

I love this post, lady. Could we cross-post it at BlogRhet? We just had a series of posts on race and identity - and I think that this would really add to the discussion.

Dinosaur Mom said...

Ooh, totally want to debate about the anti-bias curriculum and where it would fit in a world where the white people weren't crazy. I hope to blog on this soon.

Keeping It Real said...

I love this post. I also left a comment at BlogRhet. As the aunt of three adorable bi-racial boys, I salute you.

Anonymous said...

I thought I left a comment, but I guess it didn't post. I'm so glad you posted this.

"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."

This happens all the time and is shocking because it presumes that all white people are racist and because more people are in fact racist than we like to believe.

luba said...

Your post resonates with me and many of my experiences as a white woman also in a relationship with a black man. Now as a new mother, I'm interested to see how my understandings of racial identity (my own and my daughter's) continue to develop as my little girl grows up.

Anonymous said...

I'm a black man and I can relate. While 18, I was in a youthful fling with a 21-year-old Italian girl (we were counselors at a summer camp) who later told me her parents went apeshit when they learned she was having a thing with me. I took it real personally. Her people don't even know me. I'm pursing a college degree. I come from a good home.

None of that mattered. To them, I'm simply a n----r.

I want to ask you about your mother's reaction. Did you or your man try to reason with her, perhaps after giving her a few days to cool off? What was your initial response to her vile language, as you described it?

I've wondered what kind of person would cut off all ties with their children over something as seemingly as trivial as the PHYSICAL APPEARANCE of an intended spouse. It sounds to me like your mother lacked any concern for your happiness, it was all about HER feelings.

And I can give you an idea of what she's thinking. "It's bad enough my daughter is not only marrying a n----r, but she's marrying into a whole family of 'em, and I'm gonna have to interact with them. I don't want anything to do with a family of n----rs."

Your marrying an African American man would have forced your mother and other family members to move outside their comfort levels, and they weren't having it. Instead of subjecting herself to close examination, your mother found it easier to disown you, her own flesh and blood.

All that having been said, I'm now 48 and married 21 years to a wonderful African American woman.

However, if I were in a different circumstance where I were considering marrying a white woman whose family objected, I'd also seriously consider ending the relationship.

Why? Because I'm raised to believe that family is important and I wouldn't to be the impediment standing between a woman and her family. And from my own somewhat selfish standpoint, why would I want to enter into a marriage where my in-laws are going to hate me for no good reason other than my appearance?

As Sting so eloquently put it, "If you love someone, set them free."


Anonymous said...

Found this post quite by accident but since I did, I want to comment. I have quite a different opinion than the rest of you. Simply put, I think you are full of it.
People like you continue to amaze me. You seem to be able to seperate people of color but you do not seem to be able to do that with your own race. And you are a part of the white race, like it or not. But there are apparently parts of the white race that you and other "holier than thou" types know nothing about!
I am white. I have had absolutely no say so over any schools, legal institutions, even social settings within my life. You see, I come from what would be known as "poor white trash" stock and have had to bust my ass all the way to get anything at all. I have had other whites look down upon both myself and my family for my entire life. But because I am white, you want to lump me and others like me into some category that you claim to be above. Am I on track so far? I think so.
I think you are one of the worst types of people. You talk about your mother like she's garbage. No matter what she is, this is the woman who bore you, who nurtured you when you were small and helpless. But that was sooo easy to forget in your "holier than thou" state, now wasn't it?
I'm sure you've heard the terms "angry black man" & "angry black woman" and I'm sure you've pounced all over that in the past right? There should be a term in the white race too. "Angry white person for absolutely no reason" should be that term. It should be applied to people like you. You fit that bill.
So tell me- what do you think of reverse discrimination? What do you think of black racists? You do realize that those types of people are out there or do you?

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