White Girl of Color?

 

By Lila, Age 17

 

Ninety-eight teenagers sat together in a room, some in chairs, most stationed on the floor — all uncomfortable in the way teenagers usually are. Huddled together in our socially mandated “friend groups,” we were feeling our insecurities: Is the way I’m sitting right now weird? Am I too close to him? Should I have sat with that person instead of these people? Take all of that into consideration, add the fact that someone was in trouble, and we had reached a whole new level of awkward. One of our peers had made some racially charged comments online that were beyond offensive, and as a progressive school it was in our nature to make it an issue of the environment rather than an issue of that person’s behavior.

“Here’s the plan,” explained our class advisor, a soft-spoken biracial woman with the seemingly uncharacteristic ability to command her audience of awkward sophomores. “We’re going to break you up into four groups to discuss. I’m going to ask you to go with the group that you identify with. And if you’re having trouble deciding, maybe you can think about how other people might perceive you.” The four groups, she informed us, were as follows: females of color, white females, males of color, and white males. As cliché as it sounds, I think my heart stopped.

My dad is white. He grew up with the privilege of the color of his skin, but otherwise he was not what you’d picture when you think of privilege with a capital “P.” His father was a public school custodian of Italian descent, and his mother was a Scottish/Irish hairdresser. When he was seven years old, his parents divorced, and for the rest of his precollege education he lived in a predominantly black neighborhood with his mom and his sister.

I remember being a little girl and asking him what he was like as a boy. What was his house like? What was his town like? What was his school like? What were his friends like?

“We were all just poor. Poor people of different races, but we were all on the same footing,” he’d reflect. He was not saying that he was “color-blind.” He knew that he was a different color than those in his majority racial-minority community. He was pointing out that they were all on the same plane economically, woven into a common experience that rendered racial differences insignificant.

My mom is biracial. Her mother is white and her father is black. My grandmother has been a travel agent, a visual artist, an unpublished poet, and a gallery owner. My grandfather has been a published author, a police commissioner, a teacher, the conductor of an orchestra, and a television broadcaster. Growing up, my mom was aware that she was not the same as the majority of her peers; she attended an independent school where the popular group comprised solely blond-haired, blue-eyed white girls.

Driving in the car one spring day, looking out the window at the mountains beyond the crowded freeway, I asked, “What was your experience like with race when you were younger?” My mom’s immediate reaction was to share a story. Flashback to the mid 1970s. She was only a few years old and she sat in a chair in the children’s section of the local library, leafing through a picture book. Another little girl with dark brown skin ran up to her, and demanded, “I’m black! What color are you?” Looking down at her exposed forearm, my mom confidently responded, “Orange.”

“That other little girl ran off, probably to tell her mom how she had just met a stupid girl who didn’t know how to answer what color she was,” my mother said.

The truth of the matter is that my mom, as a child, did not have the vocabulary for discussing race because her parents never really talked about it. She knew that she had a set of fair-skinned grandparents whom she visited for almost every holiday, grandparents who were the color of the grandparents of most of her school friends. She was aware that she had another part of her family with brown skin and lots of aunts and uncles whom she’d see on Thanksgiving and sometimes on Easter, but not much more. Beyond that, however, there was little acknowledgment, let alone discussion, of race, racial differences, and racial identity.

I, on the other hand, feel as though I’ve been engulfed in that conversation for as long as I can remember. Five-year-old me wore socks pulled up and folded over inside of Velcro sneakers and had ringlets (reddish? brownish? blondish?) of hair that would someday become, paradoxically, both the one physical feature of mine that I could tolerate and a source of my identity crisis. My progressive Quaker elementary/middle school took pride in its diversity, and celebrated it by hosting various affinity groups. My parents, having specifically chosen the school for its attention to cultivation of identity, encouraged me to attend one.

“Lila! Later this week you can go to something called Black Kids Group! You and all of the other kids who identify as black are invited to go sit together in a new classroom and eat lunch together!” This may sound like relatively complex language to use with a kindergartener, but my mom, then a diversity director at the high school, wouldn’t have put it into baby talk for me. This was something that mattered to her. And because it mattered to her, it mattered to me. So I went.

My friends Jamia and Aaliyah were the other black girls in my class. I followed them down the hallway with its tiled floor of muted primary colors, scuffed with the markings of children playing “Jump over the red squares! That’s lava!” Once we reached the classroom, I timidly placed my purple lunchbox on the plastic folding table in front of me, and lifted myself onto the chair, making sure that Jamia and Aaliyah, my lifelines, remained in my sight. A teacher probably started talking to us; we probably started eating lunch. Other kids from other classes arrived. All of that is a blur. But that haze is contrasted by the razor-sharp clarity of the memory that followed.

“Why are you here?” asked Ariel, a boy from the other kindergarten class. He was asking out of curiosity; we were five years old. It made sense. Why was a girl with light skin and blue eyes in black kids group? But what his question instilled in me was not curiosity. It tied my stomach in knots. That was when I first knew that I didn’t fit. After that, I stopped going to Black Kids Group. I assumed I wasn’t wanted there.

A few weeks later, Aaliyah grabbed my hand. “Are you coming to Black Kids Group today? I heard there’s gonna be cheesy popcorn!”

The food was not enough of a draw. I somehow explained to her that I couldn’t do it or I didn’t want to do it  — or some other weak excuse that I’d probably offer today were I faced with the same situation. Nevertheless, I remember a sudden shimmery feeling in that moment. I had been accepted. Maybe I could be wanted in the community from which I felt alienated, the community that I so desperately wanted to be a part of.

I tried affinity groups and diversity workshops a few times after that. Unshockingly, though, I never felt right when I was there. But the thing is, I felt equally uncomfortable, maybe even more so, in white environments. My experience never matches up with that of those in either group. I am neither white nor black. I am biracial. The shade of my skin, my hair’s coloring and its lack of tight curls — they’ve prevented me from experiencing racial profiling. I’ve never been followed by a police car for Driving While Black. But my mom has. And my grandfather has. And I still feel a fist to my gut when someone says something anti-black in my presence. Like a chameleon I can blend into the whiteness, but it doesn’t feel right. Yet it would also be inaccurate to call myself black. I know nobody would buy it, and I know that I can’t ethically claim the experience of a black person, given that I’m not buried under microaggressions from day to day.

So when my tenth-grade self was asked to decide whether I was a white girl or a girl of color, my throat tightened. Neither label seemed to fit. I didn’t feel justified in that moment to assert myself as a person of color, because I knew that I wasn’t experiencing the racial issues in our school’s environment in the same way that the rest of those girls were. But I refused to go sit with the white girls. I didn’t need their learned sympathy when I was brimming with genuine empathy.

In that moment, I did not have an answer, so I went to neither group. While I wish I could say I boldly protested the binary presented to me and pointed out the inconsiderate nature of making each student select a single racial and gender identity, I instead hid in the bathroom for the duration of the period.

I may have hidden from making that decision, but I do not intend on hiding from my racial identity. I’ve always found comfort in the in-between. I come from a middle-class family; we are neither rich nor poor. I have lived in both Boston and Los Angeles, and I adore each; I am neither an easterner nor a westerner. And in the same way, I take pride in being neither black nor white. My desire is to embrace my identity in its entirety. And while that may sometimes require me to step out of my desired fly-on-the-wall position to explain my background, so be it. I do not mind, because there is a profound beauty in not having to choose.

Still, I wish adults in school would have greater awareness of the racial spectrum — that many of us fall somewhere between the race categories. We're neither white nor black, neither Asian nor white, neither Latino nor black. Our experiences come with their own set of challenges and perspectives. But mostly, we want to be acknowledged and honored for who we are and what we have to offer the world.

 

To our teaching colleagues: We are looking for student perspectives and voices related to racial identity in school. If you know of students who have written on the topic or are interested in writing, please send a note to jenna@teachingwhilewhite.org.

 

Helping Whites Develop Anti-Racist Identities: Overcoming Their Resistance to Fighting Racism

From Multicultural Education, Winter 2006

A Student’s Perspective — Nick

What Is White?

It is probably not surprising to anybody that as a White student entering the world of high school, the first club I joined had nothing to do with diversity or social justice. My school wasn’t facilitating discussions about White racial identity development or White privilege; indeed, they weren’t even trying to relate to White students that they have a large role to play in diversity work. Actually, I had to participate in a club called Diversity Connections for two years before I heard the words White privilege.

For many years, I was one of four White students in Diversity Connections because the view, according to other White students, was that “we don’t belong in diversity work.” This has begun to change in recent years; however, to many this still remains true. I typically hear the excuse that the diversity groups aren’t effectively inviting all people to be involved or that people don’t have enough time twice a month to attend meetings or participate in dialogues; yet, I have come to believe that this isn’t really the case.

Instead, White students who feel that the diversity programs are exclusive or too time consuming are simply ignorant to the fact that racism affects them, albeit in different ways, just as it affects people of color. A common misconception of White students is that diversity clubs are simply a forum for students of color to sit and complain about the wrongs that have recently been committed against them. This is utterly untrue.

As my junior year began, I was exposed to Peggy McIntosh’s (1988) work, and like many I was shaken. I was as shaken about the notion of White privilege as I was about the fact that I had been involved in diversity work for two years and I hadn’t ever discussed this. I felt as though I had been wasting my time by ignoring such an important issue. From this point, I was aided in my racial identity development by my literature teacher and diversity director, Dr. Elizabeth Denevi.

I spent my entire Junior year reading Beverly Daniel Tatum, Paul Kivel, Tim Wise, Donna Jackson Nakazawa, and others to help me understand racial identity development and the social construction of privilege. As the first semester of junior year came to a close, I attended the National Association of Independent Schools’ Student Diversity Leadership Conference, and I experienced a large White affinity group. I was shocked that almost every student present was oblivious to the idea of White privilege and White identity development.

I had only been involved in discussions around these topics for slightly over two months, and already I felt as though I was in a different universe from these students. Upon my return from the conference, Elizabeth and I decided that we needed to make White identity development and the topics of White privilege and the cost of racism to Whites a point of discussion. After all, we were working in a mostly White school community. We did this by creating a White affinity group modeled after Tim Wise’s group called AWARE (Association for White Anti-Racist Education) for White students interested in becoming actively anti-racist.

The Backlash: Addressing Resistance

Needless to say, this group wasn’t received without a few snide comments. My school is by no means a normal high school.  It is a very small, very progressive, and very proud for having been the first racially integrated school in Washington D.C. However, like any other high school, it is hard to do work around the topic of race and appease everyone. While the administration and principal were very supportive in our attempts to get White students involved in pro-actively anti-racist work, not all of the students were so enthusiastic. Many White students, afraid of the types of discussions we would be having, asked me why I was starting a White supremacy group or why I was trying to have dialogues about being a White ally to people of color and other White people exploring their racial identities. In the midst of a dialogue about privilege and empowering others who aren’t always in a position to take a powerful role, a student remarked that he already had all of his required hours of community service.

Although these types of comments can be demoralizing, they are only comments made out of insecurities about the issues we are discussing. These types of comments are not nearly as difficult to deal with as the comments that we are experiencing from students who have shown a short-term level of dedication to understanding how privilege/racism works. Comments such as, “I am sick of having the same discussion. I want to do something, but I don’t know what to do. What tangible things I can do in my day-to-day life to affect change? I can’t go into a store and ask a clerk to follow me around instead of a person of color,” and “Well, I can’t just say I’m going to give up my privilege and have it disappear,” are infinitely more frustrating because they show relatively little growth as a result of any of our discussions.

These excuses are manifestations of White privilege coming straight from the mouths of those who think that they are committed to dismantling the social construct of privilege. Again, these students solely see the work they are doing as work for other people and only want to be involved in the work as long as they can see that other people are benefiting from their efforts. They have turned work about themselves into something disturbingly paternalistic. The labors are being made for all the wrong reasons and because of this, we are unable to progress.

It is easy to secure the dedication of the type of student who participates up to a point; however, at times it seems impossible to get White students to take an introspective look at themselves. Until we can view the work of developing our own anti-racist racial identities and the work we do to help other Whites develop their own anti-racist racial identities as a success, we will continue to fall into a cycle of privilege and oppression that continues to plague the history of White Americans.

The Role of White Affinity Groups: Combating Roadblocks

So, what exactly is AWARE and how does it help us deal with these remarks? AWARE is both a student and staff White affinity group that is dedicated to developing positive anti-racist racial identities. The group also explores such questions as, what is White privilege in America and what is the cost of racism to Whites in America? This experience is designed to help more White students challenge the social construction of privilege and become proactively anti-racist members of society.

We do this through reading, journal writings, and dinners that provide the time for extended dialogues. The other important aspect of the group is that while AWARE is focused on White privilege and White identity development, AWARE doesn’t solely work with White students. We engage in cross-cultural dialogues with other affinity groups, such as the Young Men of Color and the Young Woman of Color.

Now that we have a forum to engage students in emotionally intricate dialogue, how do we combat the “roadblocks” discussed above? Although hearing the very people who are “committed” to doing anti-racist work say, “What can I do?” is infinitely frustrating, it is important not to let other people’s setbacks impede one’s own progress. These hindrances need to be dealt with in two ways.

First, it is necessary to be an ally to people who are feeling lost and show them that they have simply scratched the surface of a truly complex subject. The process will at times seem arduous; however, no matter how much one thinks one knows, there is always more to learn, and there are always ways to participate in activities that will keep allies from feeling as though there is “nothing to do.”

In order to facilitate this in a school setting, students who are lacking the ability to push forward on their own can be given a leadership position or responsibility for the group. Make them facilitate a discussion or pick the next group reading. This forces them to take a critical look at the material and concepts laid before them so that they will be compelled toward self-reflection.

Second, while individual work is key, another concept that AWARE has begun to develop is the idea of building a positive anti-racist group identity. What does this mean exactly? This simply means that we aren’t just focusing on defining our own anti-racist racial identities, but we are also focused on presenting the group as an entity committed to fighting racism. This not only allows us to look to the group for support on an individual level, but it also allows us to avoid having to deal with “roadblocks” in the form of unnecessary and untrue comments speculating that White people talking to each other about being White is a racist action.

A large component to being able to accomplish this is gaining support from both students and faculty of color. If one can garner this support, and it shouldn’t be too difficult because most people of color are thrilled to see White people committed to anti-racist work, it mitigates the barriers. In addition, White students who want to get involved in anti-racist work, yet are unsure of themselves, will become strikingly more comfortable if they see that there is widespread support. One way our AWARE group is creating a larger identity is by sponsoring our own White privilege conference for area students.

Finally, once a moderate-sized group is developed, it is important to meet regularly if for no other reason than to make sure that everybody is still committed. The school year can get hectic, and people can fade in and out of activities. However, it is imperative that students are not allowed to ever feel too comfortable in a passive role. Because White people don’t always see the need to do this work on a daily basis (another manifestation of White privilege), it is important to keep students leaning into discomfort and challenging their own thoughts and actions.

Ultimately, putting together a group of White students to explore their racial identity development and anti-racism is an arduous task. There are so many missed opportunities and places to stall that often it can seem like a waste of time. This is by no means a simple task; it takes time, dedication, and patience, but this shouldn’t be surprising. After all, dismantling a system of racism/White privilege isn’t exactly an easy endeavor.

 

Works cited:

McIntosh, P. (1988). White privilege and male privilege: A personal account of coming to see correspondences through work in women’s studies. Wellesley, MA: Center for Research on Women.