Monday, December 20, 2010

Stereotypes 101

This fall I've had the opportunity to talk about race among whites of all ages.  Not surprisingly, I found that some very old, very tired racial stereotypes are still alive.  So, in the midst of my holiday preparations and post-semester novel reading/movie watching activity, I thought I'd take a minute to comment on some very basic  stuff.

We all know the definition of the word, but, just for the record, my handy-dandy Apple dictionary defines stereotype as "a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing."   I, personally, fit a number of stereotypes about Italian Americans -- I enjoy conversation around a good meal, for instance.  If someone were to say this about me I shouldn't be offended, because it's true.  On the other hand, if someone were to say that as an Italian American I probably have relatives who are involved in organized crime, well, then I'd have a right to be offended, yes?  The first is okay, because it's a "positive" stereotype, while the second is offensive, because it's a "negative" stereotype.  So, when a white person tells me that "African Americans are good at sports," that may be a stereotype, but it's also true ("Just look at the NBA!" a person once exclaimed as proof), and besides, it's meant as a compliment, so what's the problem?  

The first problem, of course, is that stereotypes deny people something that most of us value very much for ourselves, and that's individuality.  (If you don't believe me, just mention the history of white racism among a group of whites -- chances are you'll hear protests along the lines of, "Some whites may be racist, but not me! Don't group us all together -- I'm an individual!)  It doesn't matter if the stereotypical comments are well intended -- as social justice activist Paul Gorski notes, the impact of our words and attitudes matter more than the intent behind them.* 

The second problem with perpetuating so-called "positive" stereotypes is that there is often an unspoken continuation of the idea being expressed -- i.e., it's lucky that African Americans are good at sports, because they're not so good at other things.  

As I said, this is all very basic stuff.  Yet, basic or not, the stereotypes persist. I hear them because they're out there, and they're damaging to all of us.  So, my wish for us during this holiday season is health, happiness, and maybe a little self-reflection mixed in with our holiday cheer.


Sunday, November 28, 2010

"I'm Nothing"

Growing up in New York, I always knew I was Italian.  (This was before the days of hyphenation – I became “Italian-American” later.)  I’d never been to Italy, knew nothing of Italian history, and didn’t speak the language, but if I ever doubted my heritage all I had to do was walk down one flight of stairs to my grandparents’ house.  At any given moment they could be found arguing in Italian, drinking homemade red wine in the middle of the day, or baking the most delicious Italian biscuits.  (I never did get the real name of those biscuits.  It sounded to me like they were calling them, in their heavy Barese accents, “pitch-la-thea,” but I knew that couldn’t be right. I never came across biscuits like those anywhere but in my grandmother’s kitchen.)  So I always had a strong ethnic identification, as did everyone else I knew.  People were “something” – Italian, Irish, Jewish, Greek, whatever.  To this day, when my 89-year-old mother describes people, she always includes their ethnicity in her description.  “My friend Anna drove me,” she’ll say.  “She’s a wonderful person.  Polish.  Never had any children.” 

I didn’t realize it then, but my identification with my Italian heritage, my ethnic identity, provided me with a sense of belonging. Researchers confirm this, arguing that shared ethnicity (comprised of “national origin, language, religion, diet, styles of dress, modes of communication, and other cultural markers”*) is an important aspect of youth identity. Once I left New York, though, I was surprised to find that not everyone felt connected with an ethnic identity; if I told a new friend that I was Italian, more often than not he or she would reply, “Oh.  I’m nothing.”  Over the years I’ve heard this from students, too.  “Sometimes I feel jealous of my Puerto Rican friends,” a student might write.  “I wish I were something, too.” 

It seems this “ethnic longing” is a common experience among whites in the U.S. who have been here for several generations.  Last weekend I attended a conference session titled, “Is This the End of Culture?” This title intrigued me.  I know that culture evolves, but how can it end, I wondered.  During the session I learned about white college students who claim German ethnicity through (of all things) participating in brewery tours.  Others claimed strong Irish ancestry only to find during a trip to Ireland that they are, in fact, American.

So what’s the point, and what does this have to do with race?  Here’s the thing – if ethnicity means shared “national origin, language, religion, diet, styles of dress, modes of communication, and other cultural markers,” then we all have an ethnicity.  How could we not?  We’re all influenced by our surroundings, whether we know it or not.  This is important, because the next step for whites who think they have no ethnicity is this – “I’m just normal.  I’m regular.”  And if I’m normal and regular, then people who aren’t like me are somehow abnormal and irregular.  So lack of ethnic identification among white Americans feeds into subliminal feelings of white dominance, in a way, because it helps maintain the perception of white as the default (or regular) race for those white Americans.  

So what do I do with all this?  I’m not sure yet, but I think it’s important for all of us to figure out who we are as a first step in figuring out how we relate to other people.  We’re all “something,” and figuring out what that something is can help us to appreciate all the other somethings around us.

From Nakkula, Michael J. and Eric Toshalis. Understanding Youth: Adolescent Development
for Educators, p. 155.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Muslims Make Him Nervous

By popular demand (okay, only one person asked, but I gotta start somewhere), here's my take on the Juan Williams situation of a few weeks ago.  Williams, longtime NPR analyst, admitted to Bill O'Reilly that he gets nervous when he boards a plane with people in Muslim dress.  Here's the quote, if you haven't heard it already: "But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous."

When I first heard of the exchange, I thought that maybe Williams' words were taken out of context, as was the case in the Shirley Sherrod incident.  Perhaps Williams was admitting to these feelings in a moment of self-reflection, recognizing that he, like many of us, slips into prejudiced and stereotypical thinking, but actively resists this kind of narrow-mindedness.  After reading the entire transcript, though, I think it's much more complicated than that.  Williams' implication that people who identify themselves as Muslims through their dress are immediately suspect is troubling, of course, because it implies that if people don't want to be seen as terrorists they shouldn't dress like terrorists, and makes no attempt to separate radical Islamic terrorists from the general Muslim population.  These words, taken alone, seem to support the notion that all Muslims are terrorists.  (His statement actually reminded me of a comment someone made recently about a man we passed on the street who was wearing a turban.  "That makes me nervous," the person said.)  So, based on this one quote, it did appear that Williams was agreeing with O'Reilly's incendiary assertion that "Muslims killed us" on 9/11.

However, if you read the entire transcript*, you will find that Williams does recognize the danger and unfairness of stereotypes, and speaks against this kind of thinking several times during the exchange.  For example, he says, "Wait a second though, wait, hold on, because if you said Timothy McVeigh, the Atlanta bomber, these people who are protesting against homosexuality at military funerals, very obnoxious, you don’t say first and foremost, we got a problem with Christians. That’s crazy."

So, are Williams' words troubling?  Yes, in a way.  If people in Muslim clothing make us "nervous," we need to think more deeply about these feelings. But were these words taken out of context?  Yes, I think so, especially when you consider how hard it is to get a word in edgewise in a venue like The O'Reilly Factor.  Should he have been fired?  I'll leave that to the folks who know much more about news media employee policy than I do.  But it sure feels a lot like censorship to me.

*You can read the transcript here:

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Adventures in The R Word

Some of you may know that I've been writing fiction for the past several years.  One of my manuscripts, The R Word, is about to be published by my friend, Debbie Capeci, who's started a small independent house called Morning Joy Media.  Over the years that I've been working on The R Word, I've been fortunate enough to receive critique from several different sources.  Here are some of the major concerns people have shared with me:

"The main character, Rachel, seems too sheltered to be a modern teenager."
"There should be sex in the novel.  All teenagers have sex."
"The black characters don't seem black enough."
"It's not racist enough.  Someone should use the N-word."

But this next one has been the most curious to me:

"It's too racist.  No one behaves that way any more.  Surely the election of President Obama shows that we're past all this."

You'll have to read the novel to decide for yourself what you think (and I hope you will!), but the idea that racism is a thing of the past is a hard one to argue against.  True, we've come a long way in this country since the days of The Civil Rights Movement.  However, I believe that both individual and structural racism still exist.  Just the other day a friend who is black told me how the local police were watching their house because there were a lot of family members coming in and out, due to an illness in the family.  They'd been alerted by a "concerned" neighbor. This happened just last month, not 40 years ago.  And I think the film maker Davis Guggenheim does a pretty good job of pointing out structural inequities that still exist, caused by the legacy of racism, in his new documentary, "Waiting for 'Superman.'" The film is an indictment of our American educational system and isn't specifically about race.  But it makes the racial inequities of the public school system  pretty hard to ignore.  Catch it if you can and let me know what you think.

More on The R Word later.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Why Can't We Just be Colorblind?

Wouldn't that solve all our problems concerning race? Isn't that what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. meant when he dreamed of a nation where his children would "not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character"?

An interesting study from Northwestern University made the news this week. Here's the link --

The researchers found that 8 - 11 year old kids who were primed to be colorblind (told that we shouldn't focus on race) through a multimedia storybook were less likely to recognize obvious racial discrimination in a subsequent story than kids who were told that "racial differences make us special." In other words, trying to be colorblind makes it harder to recognize real discrimination when it occurs. This is not new news to people who study race; field researchers have found that the same happens in schools who adopt a colorblind philosophy among their student and adult populations.

The folks at Northwestern note that although the colorblind approach is well intended (coming from a desire to promote equality), it can actually have the opposite effect. I agree that most people who argue for colorblindness do have good intentions -- in my experience, when teachers say "I'm colorblind" they mean they try their best to be fair and unprejudiced. However, I have heard the word used in another way, too. "Why should those scholarships go to minority students? That's racist! Aren't we supposed to be colorblind?!" This argument strikes me as ironic -- ah, now, after centuries of oppression, we want to be colorblind. Seems a bit self-serving to me.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

But it's funny!

Last Sunday, after a busy weekend, I sat down to watch my latest Netflix morsel, a movie that I used to love and haven't seen for years -- Love at First Bite, with George Hamilton as Count Dracula. I wondered how it would hold up now that vampires are so in vogue. (Hamilton's Dracula was Edward almost 30 years before Twilight!) And it was funny, really funny, especially the scenes with Richard Benjamin, who totally stole the movie.

But this isn't a movie review blog, so I'll get to the point. As I was laughing, I was also squirming. The depictions of African Americans and Latinos in the movie were so stereotypically demeaning that I wondered how I'd never noticed them before. I won't go into detail here, but you can watch the movie if you want to see for yourself. Like I said, it was funny. And I know, I'm not the movie police. But it just didn't feel so good to laugh at those scenes any more.

Tatum says there are three states of being in terms of our relationship to racism. We're either actively racist, passively racist, or anti-racist. Most people I know are not actively racist. But being passively racist, that's another story. The passive racist doesn't use the N-word, doesn't act in any overtly racist ways, but doesn't say anything against racism, either. Laughing at those scenes in Love at First Bite, filmed in 1979, made me feel passively racist, and I didn't like the feeling very much.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

So What is Racism?

One of the things I love about the fall semester is that I get to teach Multicultural Education to a group of brilliant seniors (that's in case any of them are reading this). We're discussing some interesting questions -- what is racism? Why are whites the only ones accused of being racist -- can't other people be racist, too?

Quoting David Wellman, Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum, president of Spelman College, defines racism as "a system of advantage based on race."* This definition positions racism as systemic, institutional, and structural, like the practice of redlining I mentioned in my last blog. It follows, according to Tatum, that while anyone can be prejudiced, only whites benefit from the racially based system of advantage that our country was founded on. So, by that definition, only whites can be racist.

Hard to swallow for us white folks, isn't it? Maybe Tatum's definition is too narrow; maybe she's splitting hairs. We all know that when we use the word "racist" we're talking about people AND systems. It does make you think, though, doesn't it?

*For more on this, check out Why are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria, by Beverly Daniel Tatum.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

I work hard for my money!

All this talk about white privilege might have some thinking, "Sheesh. I'm white, and I was not born with a silver spoon in my mouth. I've worked hard for everything I have!" I'd have to say, yes, of course, hard work is important, and I'm all for it. But I'd also like to point out that, if we're white, we probably don't have to look too far beneath the surface to see how white privilege forms the foundation of the lives we built with hard work.

I'll use myself as an example. My grandparents came from Italy, struggled through the Depression, and, through hard work, scraped together enough money to buy a house. Although there was some prejudice towards Italians in those days, they made it into the white club pretty early on, and my grandparents were allowed access to a middle-class, white neighborhood. (This is important, because as my grandparents were buying their house, people of color were being systematically kept out of white neighborhoods through the government-approved practice of redlining.)

Enter, my parents. My father never graduated from high school, and worked at a printing company his whole life, earning very little. My mother stayed home with the kids (there were five of us) until we were all in school, and then worked as a caregiver for children and the elderly. Although they worked hard for their money, they would never have been able to afford our middle-class neighborhood if not for the fact that we lived upstairs from my grandparents in a two-family house, paying very little rent. (The same scenario holds true for my husband's parents.) When my grandparents died, my parents received a small inheritance that they used to pay off my father's gambling debt (interesting to wonder what might have happened to him, and to us, had that money not been there) and as a down payment on their own home, which they bought for $21,000 and sold twenty-five years later for $220,000. So, because my grandparents benefited from their whiteness long before I was born, I grew up in a safe neighborhood, received a good education at the good schools in that neighborhood, and had a financial safety net in my parents if needed.

So I've worked hard for my money, yes. But without my realizing it, my whiteness was working, too.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

White Privilege, Part II

Any conversation about white privilege has to start with Peggy McIntosh's essay, "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack." McIntosh says it so well -- she describes white privilege as "an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks." She lists the everyday benefits of being white -- the big things and the little things. Read it for yourself at

I know I had never thought of any of this before I read this essay for the first time, and that's the thing about white privilege. It's invisible to those of us who benefit from it. I didn't have to think about race because, well, I'm white. I don't really have a race. I'm just regular, which means that, for me, everyone else is irregular. I never thought those words consciously, of course – it’s just an unstated (invisible) way of looking at the world.

Here’s an example. Last year there were two scary incidents at my son’s school involving possible “stranger danger.” Here’s how they were described on the school website (I’ve removed names of streets and school district):

Incident 1: A Hispanic man driving a silver two door Honda or Nissan approached a group of students requesting they get in his car. They wisely refused, however even after the refusal the vehicle followed them for some time. A police report has been filed.

Incident 2: While a group of students were throwing a shot put at the track, a red vehicle stopped in the turning lane and began taking pictures of them. A police report has been filed.

What do you notice? The person in incident 1 was clearly described as Hispanic. Incident 2? Apparently the car was taking the pictures. I happen to know that the man in the car was white, because my son was one of the kids throwing shot put who reported it, and he clearly stated that the guy was white. Yet that didn’t make it into the report, because in this mostly white school district, whiteness is assumed. Obviously, there’s a lot more to this topic than this, but it’s a small example of how one aspect of white privilege operates.

Maybe you’re thinking, hey, I’m not privileged! I’ve worked hard for everything I have! More on that in next week’s blog.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

What is White Privilege, Anyway?

(If you're like me you don't read long blogs. For the point, skip to fourth paragraph below.)

On July 22, Senator James Webb (Democrat) published an opinion column in The Wall Street Journal titled, "Diversity and the Myth of White Privilege." In essence, Senator Webb seems to be saying that yes, slavery was bad, and that the civil rights movement and affirmative action were at one time necessary. But that's all over now and anyway, recent immigrants didn't suffer at the hands of the American government like African American slaves did, and so they should not benefit from governmental diversity policies that take the focus off African Americans (divide and conquer strategy here?) and ultimately hurt whites (especially from the South). Whew!

Far more adroit bloggers than I have commented on Senator Webb's article. Read it for yourself if you want at

Some of Senator Webb's statistics are a little old (1974), and his comparisons of groups are questionable. But here's what jumped out at me -- what is white privilege, anyway? Even if I agreed with Senator Webb's assertions (which I don't), I could point out that white privilege involves more than employment and education stats. What about all the little, immeasurable benefits that I receive every day simply because I'm white?

Here's an example. I went apartment-hunting with my daughter last week. We saw two apartments -- both in houses in residential, white neighborhoods. Both landlords were friendly and anxious to have us sign on the dotted line. Both shared the same basic sentiment -- "We want the right person in here. We want someone we can trust. We don't want any riffraff" (actual word used). Apparently, my daughter was the right person; one landlord even called her later to lower the rent. What made us so right? They knew nothing about us -- not income, not employment, not education. They did not ask for references. They certainly have not seen how my daughter keeps her room. But they did know one thing for sure. We're white, and evidently that's enough. We all know that racial discrimination in housing is illegal. I also know that, as usual, our whiteness worked in our favor last week. That's white privilege.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Sherrod, One More Time

If you’ve been listening, watching, or reading the news at all this week you’re probably tired of hearing about the Shirley Sherrod fiasco by now. (In case you haven’t been watching, here’s what happened – an exposé style blogger, Andrew Breitbart, posted a brief video clip of an African American USDA official named Shirley Sherrod saying that she did not fully assist a farmer in need because he was white. Big hoopla, Ms. Sherrod denounced by NAACP and White House, forced to resign. Turns out the clip was taken out of context – the incident was decades ago, and Ms. Sherrod had recognized her own prejudice and helped the farmer to save his farm. More big hoopla, lots of apologies, Ms. Sherrod offered new job.)

This story has more layers than the onion I’m about to add to my potato salad (I really am making potato salad today). Why was the video posted? Why were leaders, both white and African American, so quick to speak and act? Why do charges of “reverse racism” rise to the top so quickly? Research shows that many whites feel racially victimized by affirmative action policies, among other things, and stories like this confirm and validate these feelings. If I’m honest, I’ll admit that I’ve sensed that little, “Ah-ha, you see!” at stories of whites being treated unfairly – maybe some of you have sensed it, too. In terms of the African American leadership who jumped on the story, I imagine they felt much like my mother when JFK ran for office – although Catholic, she didn’t vote for him because she feared a Catholic President, in avoiding favoritism, would ultimately hurt Catholics.

But I’d like to suggest we see the Sherrod story as a metaphor for how many of us view policies related to race. We saw a brief clip and passed judgment (that’s not fair! she’s racist!) without knowing what came before or after. We see a college scholarship that whites are not eligible for and pass judgment (that’s racist!) without knowing the context – the decades, the centuries of racism that excluded all but whites from institutions of higher education. We hear of a firefighters’ exam that was thrown out by the city of New Haven because African Americans failed, and shout, racist! without knowing of the history of discrimination in that city. Yes, fairness is important. But judgment without context can never be fair.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Was Michael Jackson Still Black?

Strange question, right? But it made perfect sense to the thirteen-year-old who asked it: if race is determined by phenotype (especially, in his mind, skin color), was Michael Jackson, whose skin was as light as many white people’s, still black? My first reaction was to brush the question aside with a quick response, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized what a very good question it was.

We know through recent studies of the human genome that the genetic variation among people of any given race is greater than that of people between races -- in other words, I may be more genetically different from a white person than I am from an African American or Asian person. Some may say that this is proof positive that race doesn’t matter – in fact, biologically speaking, there’s no such thing as race. No need for further talk, and please, shut down the blog! Still, my answer to the question was, of course, yes -- regardless of skin tone, Michael Jackson was still black. Why? Because while it’s true that race isn’t biologically significant, it certainly has been and still is socially significant. What’s more, the social significance of race in America was created and maintained by whites with one clear purpose – to maintain the place of power in society.

So Michael Jackson was still black. Race still matters. And we still need to talk.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

You can run, but you can't hide

Madeleine L'Engle writes, "If you are an artist, regardless of your religion, everything you do is your witness. You cannot hide what you are." I've been working on a children's fiction project this summer -- a modern-day reworking of a familiar rags-to-riches theme. My main character is a young boy named Ryan, who is biracial. I needed to create a situation that leaves Ryan somewhat destitute (like Sara Crewe in A Little Princess). When I completed my first draft, I asked an African American friend to read it. She pointed out what I already knew, but couldn't quite bring myself to admit -- in my story I'd recreated several stereotypes about African American males. Of course, I was horrified.

My point? As L'Engle said, I cannot hide what I am. I'm white. No matter how hard I try, those prejudices and stereotypes that come with my whiteness emerge, and all I can do is to ask for help when I need it. If I were colorblind, though, I wouldn't know enough to ask.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

What I Didn't Say

Facebook friends might remember a post of mine from about a year ago describing an ethical dilemma of sorts. On my way into the supermarket one early Saturday morning, a thin, strung-out looking woman approached me. She flashed a veteran’s I.D., explaining that she needed some money for gas in order to get to the V.A. hospital several miles away. Her hands and voice shook as she spoke. Should I give her some cash? I wondered. I come from NYC, where cynicism is a way of life. (Note – I was raised by a woman whose favorite summer saying was “Mr. Softee is a crook.”) Somewhere I’d heard never to give strangers money because they would probably use it to buy alcohol or drugs. Still, I wanted to be a good Samaritan – what if she were telling the truth? So, reluctantly, I pulled out a twenty (the only bill I had) and gave it to the woman, who thanked me profusely and drove away. My facebook post asked, should I or shouldn’t I have given her the cash?

Did you assume that the woman in the story was white? Since I didn’t mention her race, you probably did (a topic for a future blog), and if so, you were correct. What I didn’t have the courage to post at the time, but what I still wonder is this – would I have given her the money if she hadn’t been white? Would I have even engaged in conversation with her, or would I have waved her away and kept walking?

Author Lee Anne Bell notes that, “though mediated by class, gender, age, sexual orientation and other factors, whiteness accrues benefits.”* Although she seemed troubled in other ways, the woman that approached me possessed one unearned benefit – her whiteness, which made her feel safer to me. So, the question remains, would I have helped her if she hadn’t been white? I’m not sure, but it’s worth thinking about.

*Storytelling for Social Justice, p. 30.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Who's Poor?

This week I attended a conference for teacher educators. Discussion centered on faulty assumptions our college students sometimes make about children and families in their field placements. One professor shared a student's misconception that since the kids in her field placement were poor, the parents wouldn't care or be involved. Another well-meaning colleague explained how she handles this situation -- she shows the class a picture of her own children, taken when she and her husband were graduate students. "Are these children poor?" she asks. Since the kids in the picture are clean and well dressed (and probably because they're white, but that was left unsaid), the students say "No." This colleague then goes on to explain that since she and her husband were graduate students at the time and living on very limited funds, these children were, in fact, poor. Therefore, she cautions, be careful what assumptions you make -- appearances are deceiving.

But were those kids really poor? What does it mean to be poor? This family's economic status was low, no doubt, but their poverty was temporary, by choice, and limited to dollars in the bank. They were rich in social and cultural capital, which allowed them to benefit from higher education and pursue satisfying careers. Their white, middle-class background provided options that they took for granted. Of course, they worked hard and should be congratulated for their achievements. But poor? I don't think so. We need to be careful of our assumptions.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Talking About Race

Maybe some of you caught the CNN article arguing that President Obama needed to display a measured, calm response to the BP-Gulf crisis in order to avoid scaring whites with the “angry black man” stereotype. Many readers were offended and even disgusted by this argument, while others found it valid. One sentiment was strong – why do we have to keep talking about race?

Why is it that some of us don’t like to talk about race? Here are some possible reasons, based on research and my own experience in teaching a class in Multicultural Education for several years:

1. We have a black President now, which proves we’re a post-racial society.

2. Talking about race just makes things worse. We should move on.

3. Only racists think about race. The rest of us are colorblind.

4. People are individuals and should be judged thusly.

5. “Minorities” have it better than whites now.

Whatever the reason, it’s clear that the young people I know (students of color and whites alike) are not talking about race. They’re not talking about why some of them went to affluent schools and others received substandard educations that did not prepare them for college. They’re not talking about how some of them never got to know a person of color until they came to the grand metropolis of Phoenixville, PA. They’re not talking about how the only time they’ve ever heard race mentioned in their churches was when someone sang the immortal words, “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight…” (and that’s a topic for another post).

Sadly, not talking about an issue doesn’t make it go away.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The R Word

Sociologist Michael O. Emerson poses an interesting question: what’s the emotionally charged racial slur for white people? Is there an N-word equivalent for whites? There is such a word, Emerson concludes, but it’s not what you might think. It’s not “honky,” or “cracker.” It’s the R word, and in this case, R is for Racist. This is the word that makes middle class, open-minded, tolerance-preaching, politically correct whites like me cringe. “A student called me racist,” I once heard a white teacher say, “and it felt like someone kicked me in the stomach.” Why such a strong reaction? Because this woman cared about racism. She considered herself to be a fair, non-prejudiced person – colorblind, even. Calling her a racist, putting her in the same category as the ignorant Archie Bunkers of this world (or worse), was devastating because it challenged her opinion of herself as someone who has risen above the racism of past generations. And, thankfully, racism is a thing of the past.

Or is it? Archie Bunker may be long gone, but many (myself included) believe that we are far from being a “trans-racial” society. Everything changes, though, and racism has changed, too. This blog is about that change. It’s about racism in the forms it takes today, forms that can’t be understood by whites until we begin to think about what it means to be white. So this blog is about whiteness and white privilege, and about how, as scholar Michelle Fine says, “white rises to the top through seemingly neutral policies and practices.”

Why this blog? None of these ideas are new. People have been writing about whiteness and white privilege for decades now. However, in parts of my world (the world of a teacher educator in a small, mostly white, evangelical college) race in general and whiteness in particular are not exactly everyday topics of conversation. In fact, in this part of my world, the word “race” is hardly used, as if it is in some way distasteful – “ethnicity” seems to be the euphemism of choice. This blog is my attempt, for better or worse, to have an open, honest discussion about race among people who might not normally do so – my friends, peers, students, and anyone else interested. It’s an opportunity to talk about race and whiteness without fear of being called “the R word,” because calling names never helped anyone.


Michael O. Emerson, The Persistent Problem, Christian Reflection: Racism, Baylor University, 2010, p. 11-18.

Michelle Fine, Witnessing Whiteness, Off White: Readings on Race, Power, and Society, 1997, p. 57-65.