Learning about white culture to unlearn it as the default

Driving through Oxford County, Maine, over the weekend, my daughters and I were talking about how fascinating and puzzling it is for us to imagine being a family whose idea of fun would be hanging out in an RV in the parking lot of the Oxford Plains Speedway and going to the races. We talk quite a bit about racism and whiteness, as well as socioeconomic differences and similarities among people here in Maine. I got to thinking about the question: What exactly is white culture? I have my own ideas, but surely scholars have studied this, right? (They have.)

I have some ideas about what I think “white culture” means, but that’s informed by my own background. What are the qualities that make whiteness, the culture? Maybe something about being restrained and tight in communications? I don’t actually know. I’m curious. I want to know more. What is white culture? What do I think about this essay describing white culture? What are the traits that make someone “seem white,” and how are our children taught those qualities in school and in life?

And that’s when I realized what I’d like for young children to learn today. I’d like there to be lessons about white culture and whiteness. I’d like for us (especially white people) to examine how we learn how to be white; what are whiteness’ expectations for social and economic success? As Ijeoma Oluo wrote in “White People: I Don’t Want You To Understand Me Better, I Want You To Understand Yourselves,” “Your survival has never depended on your knowledge of white culture. In fact, it’s required your ignorance.” She’s not the only voice of knowledge sharing this concept—we white people need to understand whiteness, how we learn it and perpetuate it and expect it wherever we go. (Again, my curiosity runs away with me here…those of us white people from financially comfortable backgrounds probably expect everyone to be like us even more than white people who come from poverty; how is that taught? How can we unlearn it?)

I’ve been imagining what it might be like if young children learned about whiteness: that it is one culture out of many. Perhaps then it wouldn’t be assumed that the default is whiteness. Children could go through their schooling with a critical eye. I’m confident they would catch many of the ways whiteness seeps into every facet of their lives if they were taught early about the ways we’re steeped in the expectations of whiteness. The teachers and children could still continue with their studies, but they’d bring with them an awareness that most lessons are taught with an assumption that whiteness is the default. They could take apart everything they learn as they go.

And, because there are few spaces that are 100-percent white, I’d want these lessons to be shared with the understanding that almost everyone in the United States learns how to be white—to survive, most people of color must learn to code switch—but to be sure to bring in Black and brown racial justice experts to guide the lessons, making sure Black- and brown-bodied children aren’t harmed by the study of whiteness.

It turns out (remember, Google is always our friend!) there are tools to help teachers as they are teaching while white, including a “build a learning plan” tool. Even in just a few Google searches I can see that the study of white culture is definitely already a thing (here’s one example); I just haven’t studied it myself, yet.

So, alongside the valuable lessons children in many schools are learning about “different cultures” (e.g. music from Indonesia, cultural studies of South American countries, fundraising for Puerto Rico, attending performances of theater groups like Maine Inside Out, etc.), students might learn about white culture as just one of the many “different” cultures. And, instead of those “other” cultures seeming to be exceptions to the whiteness-rule, the children could know that whiteness as default is a lie kept in place by power-hungry, greedy, selfish people who don’t know how to share. (Children recognize how not-sharing is problematic!)

Perhaps if generations of children learn about whiteness and white culture, we might have a better chance at dismantling white supremacy. As I’ve mentioned before, a white friend of mine pointed out that white supremacy wants to keep us apart. Understanding whiteness can shed light into those spaces we’ve been tricked into ignoring. Let’s walk together in the light.

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If you are a witness to injustice, will you intervene?

Preparing to write this piece, I started with the suggestion that I address current events, such as the wrongful arrest of two men in a Starbucks for the crime of sitting in a Starbucks. Of course, identifying an event for discussion where people of color are treated like garbage in public doesn’t require digging. Here’s an example, here’s another example, and here’s another one. So many of us want to end this violence; so many want to make a difference. What can we do?

That people of color have been treated as second-class citizens, as criminals, and as less than human has been true since Europeans took over the land where the United States exists today. People of color know the truth; they live it every day. White people facing the truth comes in waves. We all know something about the Civil Rights Movement of the ‘60s. We know about Rosa Parks refusing to move to the back of the bus (not all of us know about Claudette Colvin, now only 78 years old, who took action before Rosa Parks). But even in this age of phones recording video and social media sharing the stories, many people consider each of the stories of violence against people of color as isolated incidents. They aren’t. They are a part of a system of oppression many call “whiteness.”

So, the first step for many of us in changing our system of racism is to recognize it is a system. It isn’t just some bad apples. It isn’t isolated incidents with incident-specific explanations. The mistreatment of people of color—and all people who don’t fit whiteness’ defined default—is, as they say, not a “bug” in the design. It’s a feature. It is part of what makes our systems work. It helps to recognize each of these incidents as parts of a larger system when we consider what we might do to work for change.

We want to believe if we saw Rosa Parks (or Claudette Colvin) being told to move to the back of the bus we would’ve stood up and told the racists to leave her alone. But, moving from being a bystander to someone who intervenes when you are a witness to injustice requires preparation. It requires education and practice.

Understanding and correcting our own implicit biases honestly and deeply is an essential step in being of service if you are a witness to injustice. If at any level of your being you think “they must’ve done something wrong if they are being treated badly” because of how someone presents themselves, you will be less likely to get involved. How do you understand and rid yourself of implicit bias? There are many, many resources available online (some to connect you to offline resources). Here are a few: 4 Things We Can Do to Minimize Implicit Bias; Four Tools for Interrupting Implicit Bias; or, How to Fight Your Own Implicit Biases.

Learn about the “bystander effect.” Know that being in a larger group of people will make it less comfortable to get involved if you are a witness. There are tools online and in your community to learn how to overcome this and other obstacles. Googling “bystander intervention” is a good start. Hollaback! offers webinars and their website has excellent, practical resources.

Talking to my friends from marginalized backgrounds confirms what I’ve learned online: one of the most important steps to actively and visibly take a stand against harassment or mistreatment of others in public settings is to make contact with the person who is the target. Follow their lead. Do they want your involvement? Perhaps your involvement might make things worse for them. But making contact, human to human, can make a difference.

Find opportunities to practice intervening. Again, Google and other search engines are our friends. Local nonprofit organizations certainly offer trainings that can help. It’s been my experience that until we risk saying something stupid and actually say something, we will remain silent—and ineffectual. We can’t let our fear of making mistakes prevent us from trying to affect change in ourselves or the wider world. We will make mistakes. But if you see someone being treated badly, don’t be the person who tries to ignore it. If you do not let the person being mistreated know you are on their side, you will be on the side of the perpetrator.

If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Want more BGIM? Consider booking me to speak with your group or organization.

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White supremacy wants us to be alone

[Just as a reminder that I’m a white person writing mostly to white people about working through and dismantling our racism toward people of color, particularly Black people, see my first BGIM post here for some background – Heather Denkmire]

“White supremacy wants to keep us apart,” said my white friend when I told her I was grateful to find another white person to talk to about racism on a deep and systems/structural level.

What is white supremacy? This is how I define it, based on reading about it a lot: White supremacy is patriarchy combined with unchecked capitalism that requires cheap or free labor, using the social construct of race.

When my friend said “white supremacy wants to keep us apart,” she was reminding me that if we white people begin the process of shedding our denial—somehow most of us didn’t realize things were so bad for people of color in our country until Ferguson happened and/or Trump arrived—and do our own individual work on our personal biases, we will begin to see that racism isn’t about personal discomforts, it’s about a system of oppression designed to keep some down and out so others can stay on top. And, for me, once I saw that the institutions of our country depend on my denial—my passive participation in the system—I couldn’t unring the bell.

The bell rang (I am a part of a racist system and I want to change the system) but I still continued on as our white supremacist structures want me to. I did what I could as an individual. By myself. I learned a lot, and I talked to a lot of people, but I was doing it as a personal journey, not as a part of a larger movement.

I’m committed to sharing the need for the personal journey for white people with white people. I do think facing our own ugliness as I described in my last piece here is a part of that process. But I’m even more convinced that we need to do even the individual work together.

The Society of Friends (“the Quakers”) has an imperfect but sometimes awe-inspiring history of social justice work, but one of the biggest things that’s come out of my involvement with them that is near and dear to my heart is the idea that while we as individual white people definitely have problems when it comes to racism, prejudice, implicit bias, white privilege, etc., most of that comes from our being a part of this wider system that’s set up on purpose so we will be that way. So, once we recognize we are a part of a system that wants us to keep people of color as “others,” no matter what we wish were true, the lies begin revealing themselves at every turn. We are not actually alone in our imperfections or in our desire to actively participate in meaningful change.

But what is meaningful change? What comes to mind first for most white people is what we can do as individuals. And that is important. Meaningful change means keeping anti-racism work at the forefront in all areas of your life. Be willing to be the “difficult” person who is “always bringing up racism” in your children’s classrooms, your workplace, your volunteer work, your spiritual communities. Keep your eyes open and say something if you notice that everyone involved in any activity seems to be white. Read and learn and practice knowing about implicit biases and catch yourself, your friends, your family, when they happen.

Join together with other white people who are doing individual work on racism so you have spaces to process the complicated emotions we feel as we learn about ourselves and our complicity in white supremacy. (Please note: if you are in a group of people that includes people of color, never talk about your feelings about racism unless the goal of the gathering is explicitly stated as a place and time to process your white feelings. We have a lot of feelings and they are valid and important, but we should never blindside people of color, asking them to do the emotional work of supporting us as we process them.)

And then, while you are doing this individual work, bring your knowledge of white supremacy to all of your activist work. All social and environmental justice is anti-racism work if it is done well. There’s public policy and systems level changes you may already care deeply about; do anti-racism work in those circles. Some issues that come to mind into which you could pour your anti-racism awareness: universal healthcare, a livable minimum wage, paid family leave, legally required flex time, renewable energy, clean water, free education, housing for homeless people, buyback programs for guns, legalizing drugs, legalizing sex work, supporting unions, electing district attorneys who want to end mass incarceration.

Ending white supremacy means changing our greed-driving patriarchal capitalist economy to a system based on caring. TheLeap.org has an excellent manifesto outlining possibilities; it is based in Canada, but it’s a great example of offering solutions that can be turned into actions.

Other ideas for systemic change we white people could support that might seem pie in the sky but that, with good work, could become reality: baby bonds; guaranteed (government) employment; reparations for slavery; guaranteed minimum income.

The point is that we white people need to talk to each other about racism. We need to work together to shed some of the garbage that bogs us down personally, as individuals. And, most essential, we need to move as quickly as possible to working together in collective actions with other white people and people of color on the causes that will ultimately change our systems.

If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Want more BGIM? Consider booking me to speak with your group or organization.

Photo by Timon Studler on Unsplash