Thursday, May 26, 2011

There's them that's us, and there's them that's got culture

Last weekend I got to attend a conference hosted by my very own Childhood Studies department at Rutgers University in Camden, NJ, where I'm a PhD student.  There were lots of great presentations, but one paper I heard especially sparked my interest.  I'll tell you about it in a minute, but first, this little caveat. On the second day of the conference I woke up with pain and blurred vision in my right eye.  My first response, as usual, was to go online and diagnose myself.  Here were the options:  brain tumor, stroke, or acute glaucoma.  Every site I went to said the following:  "This is a medical emergency.  Seek medical attention immediately."  Thankfully, I was able to get an appointment with my eye doctor right away, and it turned out to be nothing serious (just a treatable virus).  Here's the interesting part -- not wanting to miss the conference, I asked if I could still drive to Camden.  After all, my left eye was fine!  The doctor didn't blink an eye (sorry) about my driving at high speeds on a major highway with less than perfect vision.  Instead she said, "Ooh, Camden.  You don't want to get lost there." Concerns of race and social class win out over general health and safety every time!

Anyway, I made it to Camden just fine and attended a session where a woman presented a study she'd done as part of her master's thesis.  She'd analyzed children's books in preschool classrooms, looking at various views of childhood as depicted through characters in these books.  To do this she'd created categories, such as body size, gender, class, age, sexuality, and ability, and counted how many characters she found that fit into each category.  Her last category was culture.  If you've been reading this blog for awhile, perhaps you see where I'm going with this.  Culture as a category?  Curious. What is culture?  According to the dictionary, it is "the attitudes and behavior characteristic of a particular social group." Since we're all part of a "particular social group," or of many particular social groups, we all experience the cultures of those groups.  We are all products of those cultures that in a variety of ways work together to make us who we are. So I asked the presenter what she meant by culture. (When I told my son about this a few days later he wondered if I'd stood up and shouted, "Are you SERIOUS?" and thrown a chair.  Gotta admire the direct approach.)  Did she mean things like race, ethnicity, language? And why had she grouped them all together?  Of course, that's exactly what the presenter meant.  She explained that she'd grouped any characters that weren't white under the heading of culture.  Further, she said that she'd done this because "the master's had to get done really fast."  People in the audience chuckled at this -- those darn master's degrees!  Gotta get 'em over with!  No time to think about race or ethnicity!  Just lump it together under culture -- that's good enough when you're in a hurry! Oh, and did I mention that the presenter was white?  Didn't have to, did I?

I know, I'm being facetious.  Nothing against this presenter, but I could not help but notice how her grouping of characters in children's books so perfectly reflected a common disposition among whites -- we're white, we're just regular.  Culture, and by extension race, is something other people have.  I know I've posted about this before, but it just keeps jumping out at me.  

Dyer* notes that traditionally, the study of race has implied the study of races other than white (p. 9).  The tendency of whites to see themselves as raceless allows them to believe that “other people are raced, we are just people” (p. 10).  This, Dyer believes, keeps whites in the position of power, because while others can only speak for their particular race, whites believe that they represent the interests of all human-kind.  Dyer suggests that as long as whites continue to see themselves as “normal,” white power will continue to reproduce itself (p. 12).  This is important, because whites won't see how our race and culture interacts with others (both historically and in the present) if we don't think we have a race and culture. 

Amazingly, all of these reflections, and this wonderful conference, took place in Camden.  Who would ever have thunk it.

*Dyer, R. (2005). “The Matter of Whiteness.” In P. S. Rothenberg, White privilege: Essential readings on the other side of racism, NY: Worth Publishers.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

So What?

A while back I explained to a grad school professor that I wanted to study white privilege.  He seemed genuinely puzzled, responding, "So you're white, you're privileged.  So what?"  In fairness to him, I think he was trying to get me to think more deeply about my research idea -- what will you do with this study of white privilege? is maybe what he meant to ask.  But at the time it felt like he was saying, "Big deal. You're white. So what? There's nothing to study here.  Think of something more important."  As I progressed in my research, looking at how whiteness expresses and reproduces itself, this same prof told me on several occasions that he felt I was "too close to it" to study whiteness objectively.  I have to admit this one confused me, especially since the person who made the comment is also white.  I'm too close to whiteness, but he's not?  Am I more white than he is?  And doesn't my being white make me the perfect "insider" to study whiteness?  Anyway, I ignored the comment and began to study the area of race, with special attention to what it means to be white in America.  Hence, this blog.

A year or so later I was presenting a session to a group of young people on the topic of (you guessed it) white privilege.  They were not impressed.  One young woman eerily echoed my grad prof's words, "So whites are privileged.  So what?  Are they supposed to wear a sign on their foreheads that says 'I'M PRIVILEGED'?"

The so what? question is a good one, but I think it often masks a different sentiment that goes like this: "I'm white, I'm privileged, okay, you've made your point. But I was born this way, I didn't ask for it.  So stop making me feel guilty!"

It's easy to feel guilty when studying the history of race in America if you're white.  Conquest, slavery, lynchings, Jim Crow, housing and job discrimination...there's lots in our past to feel guilty about. In a present sense, we might feel guilty if we've been exposed to a racist comment or joke made by another white person, but failed to speak out against it.  A good friend shared this experience: she was walking her very large (but very sweet) dog around a track when she was joined by a high school class of African American female students, led by a white male teacher.  Supposedly as a joke, the teacher said to one of his students, "Watch out.  This dog doesn't like black people."  My friend was shocked.  She did the first thing she thought of, which was to smile at the student and reassure her that the dog is friendly and she was in no danger.  Later, she regretted her response.  Why hadn't she corrected the teacher?  Why hadn't she thought quickly enough to say, "Wow, I'm surprised a high school teacher would say something so blatantly racist!"  She felt guilty and complicit.

Authors Nile & Straton* explain that guilt is a common response for whites who begin to think about their position of social privilege and power. They explain that, while it may common and even natural, guilt is not really helpful, because it becomes an "emotional trap that keeps many European Americans stuck in a lack of both understanding and compassion for people of color" (2).  They suggest we "set aside" (which is not the same as deny) feeling of guilt, and instead admit the realities of historical racism, acknowledge the ways that racism currently functions, and do something about it.  In other words, become an ally in big or small ways to groups who have been marginalized historically.

What does an ally do?  The origin of the word is to bind together.  An ally binds herself to a friend, partner, affiliate, or group, and there, right there, is the so what of white privilege.  So what?  So this -- I'll speak up when I hear racism on an individual level.  I'll vote when I perceive racism on an institutional level.  I'll write a letter, a paper, a blog, a novel, a poem, a song, a dissertation.  I'll stop complaining about "reverse discrimination" when I don't get a scholarship that's meant for a "minority" student, or if I lose some other opportunity to an equally qualified person of color, recognizing that such events are not racist, they are attempts to equal the playing field in a country with a very long history of inequality.  I'll interrupt racism at the dinner table, the office, the lacrosse field, the nail salon, the track, the classroom.  Because, as Nile & Straton point out, "It is time, very simply, to get out of ourselves and get into the world" (6).

*Nile, Lauren N. and Jack C. Straton. "Beyond Guilt: How to Deal with Societal Racism." Multicultural Education, 10 (4), Summer 2003.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The R Word is here!

I'm happy to announce that my young adult novel, The R Word, is now available in print and Kindle editions. I wrote The R Word because I wanted to explore contemporary attitudes about race in a supposedly "post racial" culture. The novel is aimed at youth 12 and above, or at adults like me who love young adult fiction. While, of course, my primary goal was to tell a good story, The R Word is also intended for classroom use, where I hope it will stimulate discussion about present-day racial inequity on a structural level. I hope you'll check it out.

A recent blog entry from Eastern University's Urban Studies Department reiterates much of what I've been trying to say through this blog, and through The R Word.  Whitney Monn, the author of the post, shows through economic statistics that racism is far from over.  She says, "...racism still exists.  I believe it has just grown sneakier, hiding from the public eye in economic practices and policies."  You can read the entire post at  

I like Whitney's use of the word, "sneakier."  Racism used to be blatant.  It used to look like signs at a water fountain or separate entrances for people of color.  It used to sound like Archie Bunker.  But that was a long time ago.  Now it looks like a public school system that is largely segregated and unequally funded.  It sounds like the argument about "reverse discrimination."  It sounds logical and fair.  It argues that we should be colorblind, which means we should forget the past and move on.  Sounds good, but the problem is that in forgetting the past we absolve ourselves from doing anything about the present.  Sneaky.