What does it mean to be white?

(Updated version of a 2019 post)

Race has been a topic worthy of consideration for as far back as I can remember, beginning with my being spanked first and lectured afterwards by my mother when, as a very small Boomer, I came home and used the “N” word like a Klansman. From the age of one until I entered college, I attended a church in a changing city neighborhood that decided in the Sixties to minister to poor people of color rather than move to the suburbs. In 1963, I accompanied my mother to the Civil Rights March in Washington where, at fourteen, I was inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and during the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties, I taught disadvantaged kids in one of the most segregated counties in America: New Castle County, Delaware. As Principal, I restructured a Delaware high school that had left its African-American students behind and ended my working career in Pennsylvania where, on behalf of PA’s Department of Public Instruction, I supported the development of improvement plans of schools across the commonwealth that had been identified as failing, a large proportion of which had also left their African-American students behind. And today, news reports and opinion pieces dealing with racism are everyday occurrences.

Before I proceed further, you will note that the photo I have provided reveals that I am as white as white can be. My hair is white, my eyes are blue, my skin is pink except for when I’ve had a second glass of red wine or when I discover I have written something really stupid in my blog—then my skin flushes red; further, my ethnic background is “suburban,” and I have been known to say “holy cow” and the like on occasion.

Subpecies: Homo sapiens americanus-albus

Imagine my surprise when, during a session of Courageous Conversations about Race, I found myself totally at a loss to answer this question:

What does it mean to be White?

For six months, I asked this question of white friends and colleagues, all of whom were as flummoxed as was I in trying to answer it, and then one morning, I had a flash of insight where many such flashes often occur—in the shower—and there the answer was as plain as day:

What it means to be white is that a white person never, ever, has to think about what it means to be white.

That, my friend, is the benefit of White Social Dominance in America. More specifically, social dominance allows whites (as does any population that represents the dominant culture in a society) to enjoy the luxury of ignorance, which allows a significant portion of us to remain grossly unaware of the cultural misalignments between white culture and the cultures of the “other.” Whites in America also enjoy the legacy of privilege, like school success, which is made easier for those who are members of the dominant group, and whites share an assumption of rightness that allows them to unconsciously assume that certain problems like poverty are inherently inevitable for the “other” and could not possibly be a result of the structure and functioning of essential components of society—education, economics, government, and religion to name four—all of which have been built and are controlled by the dominant culture.

In addition to my personal revelation about what it means to be white in America, participation in Courageous Conversations awakened me to the reality that people of color have little difficulty answering the question: What does it mean to be (e.g.) African-American or Latinx-American or Pakastani-American in America? The answers are readily available to Americans of color because nearly every day unsought circumstances require the comparison of who each knows him/herself to be with the deleterious attitudes and distorted imagery that comprises the omnipresent societal narrative promulgated by white ignorance, privilege, and assumed rightness.

In a future post, I am likely to explore how we white, advantaged Boomers have allowed the luxury of ignorance, the legacy of privilege, and the assumption of rightness to impact the education of poor children of color, the most damaging manifestations of which may be, to my way of thinking, school choice, charter schools, and vouchers. These may serve some students well, but they exacerbate the concentration of poverty and failure in urban schools while creating enclaves of elitism for the privileged.

(Note: the luxury of ignorance, the legacy of privilege, and the assumption of rightness exhibited by dominant cultures have been identified from research into systems of privilege and penalty (e.g. criminal justice), minimal group paradigms, social dominance theory, and social positionality. Educators interested in culturally sensitive teaching and in learning more about Social Dominance would be well served to obtain Gary Howard’s book, We Can’t Teach What We Don’t Know, which provided me with some of the information presented in this post.)

Dear Reader: your “follow” will be most appreciated (click “Menu” in this post) as will forwarding this post’s link to a friend who you think might enjoy the blog. Thanks! Jeff

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