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.