Sunday, November 11, 2012

Whiteness as Property

One of my kids said something to me a while back that left me, for once, at a loss for words.  I can't remember what, exactly, we were talking about.  Maybe it was my book, The R Word, or maybe it was my dissertation research on what suburban high school students think and say about race as they read "multicultural literature" in class.  It doesn't matter.

Here's what my offspring said: "Mom, I'm not trying to be racist, but I'm glad I was born white." When I asked why, there was no clear answer, other than, "I just am." Previously, my kids have said things like, "I'm glad we're Italian," but that was usually related to food. This was something different. How could I respond?  After all, we want our kids to feel good about who they are. Self-esteem is important, we all know that. We should all feel happy with who we are. I mumbled something so ineffectual that I can't even recall what it was, and let it go at that.

Although I failed to fully explore this comment, I didn't stop wondering what was beneath it. This was not about self-esteem. In retrospect, I think this young, white person was sensing something that critical race theorists have been writing about for decades, and that is the value of whiteness.  From the inception of our nation, whiteness has been an important form of property. Bell points out that the framers of the constitution understood the tension between property rights and individual rights, and allowed slavery to continue based on the idea that African American slaves were property and therefore not eligible to receive basic human rights. Ladson-Billings and Tate explain that from the beginning, our society has linked human rights with property rights.  They argue that even today, in a society that values each person's individual civil rights, the reality is that social benefits still go to property owners. One example of this is education; the children of property owners still go to better schools and receive the intellectual property of a better education.

Even whites who are not affluent gain something from their whiteness. First, because working class and poor neighborhoods are often racially segregated, working class and poor whites often have access to higher quality housing and better schools than people of color of the same income level.  They may not own a house, but they do own the property of their whiteness which, whether they know it or not, continues to work for them.  Second -- and this is something hard to admit, but if I'm honest I have to consider that this is what was beneath my child's comment – whites of all economic backgrounds have always owned the property of racial superiority. Bell explains that as far back as the 1660s, working class whites did not oppose slavery, even though they owned no slaves.  The existence of slavery may not have benefited them directly, but it did provide them with something of value -- they could tell themselves that no matter how difficult their lives were, at least they weren't black.  So, even though they owned no property, their whiteness functioned as a type of social and emotional property for them.

I don't know where this leaves me as a parent.  I'm glad my child felt the freedom to be honest. I wish I had had the presence of mind to unpack those words, "I'm glad I was born white" more thoughtfully at the time, but of course it's never too late for honest conversations about race with our children and with each other.


Bell, D. (2000). Property rights in whiteness: Their legal legacy, their economic costs. In R. Delgado & J. Stefancic (Eds.), Critical race theory: The cutting edge (71-79).  Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Lanson-Billings, G. & Tate, W.F. (1995). Toward a critical race theory of education. Teachers College Record, 97(1), 47-68. 

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