Invisibility = White

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Originally published 2/2006. This was part of my Master's thesis on Anti-Bias Curriculum. However, it was also a declaration of myself as a Social Justice Ally. 



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 presevered. 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.

1 Baleful Regards:

Rosemary Nickerson said...

WOW! well written, insightful, relevant and personal. Thought-provoking. Well done.

 
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