It’s Not Only White People Who Need to Learn about Race

I started to write a post about how much I still have to learn about race in the United States and quickly realized that I could not tackle that in under 700 words, nor would I like to try. For me as an African-American woman there are all kinds of assumptions out there about what I should know about race and racism. There is less talk about what I may need to learn.

That said, some recent readings have opened my eyes to the ways in which race plays such a significant role in American society still, even though much of the rhetoric around racial socialization (color-blind, post-racial) would have us believe otherwise.  My encounter with each new text revealed layers of my own misconceptions, false beliefs and fuzzy comprehension.

The first read proved to be a conceptual game-changer:

Reproducing Racism: How Everyday Choices Lock in White Advantage, by Daria Roithmayr, NYU Press 2014. This book blew me away with its sobriety and clarity in describing how current racial disparities in American society may be locked in even if all forms of discrimination were to cease today. Roithmayr’s case is well argued and draws on current research in law, sociology and economics. She writes in the introduction:

Where conventional models focus on intentional discrimination, the lock-in model focuses on self-reinforcing structural processes like social networks and family wealth distribution. The lock-in model emphasizes both the unfairness of early anticompetitive conduct and the need for significant government “antitrust” intervention to dismantle white monopoly on advantage.

Reading this book felt like an odd form of cleansing. At last I understood much more about the world I grew up in and how my family’s history is reflected in her descriptions of the early consolidation of white advantage. Roithmayr explains not just how white advantage became the norm in such areas as political participation, housing, education, and employment, but also how it perpetuates itself even when steps are taken to break the cycle. This text is essential reading for anyone who struggles to understand white privilege and every form of racial gap we can identify in current American society.

Shortly after completing the Lock-In book, this link to Black Women in the United States, 2014,  arrived in my inbox.  The report was published by the Black Women’s Roundtable of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation. Just reading the executive summary, I got chills while recognizing how many significant  struggles remain, particularly in the areas of health care and economic advancement.  And these disparities despite remarkable increases in educational attainment.  Although there are points to celebrate, I was struck by how much ground must still be covered by black women in the US.

Finally, I ran across an article on the National Association of Independent Schools’ website: What White Children Need to Know about Race. At this juncture I had to recognize that in spite of my efforts to make sense of my own racial experiences through targeted reading, reflection and substantial dialogue, I still have much to learn about facilitating and initiating dialogue regarding race with my students, colleagues and even within my family.  This article by Ali Michael and Elenora Bartoli details the reasons why white families are likely to avoid talking explicitly about race with their children, the implications this tends to have for white children’s understanding of race and racism and then outlines specific steps that schools can take to actively support the development of positive racial identities. What I appreciated so much about this article was the authors’ capacity to show what can be done without shaming the reader for not knowing. They conclude with this:  “If we want a racially just world, we need racially aware schools.”

Here’s my lesson: it’s not just white people who need to learn about the dynamics and realities of race in America. It’s me, too. These readings alert me to the fact  that each of us has the opportunity to change and influence racial dynamics for the better, now and in the future. And before I can make a difference, I have to understand difference in many more ways than one. The buck starts here.

And I’m about to go read Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations.”