A surprise to white people

This article mentions that research indicates babies as young as 6 months notice racial differences.  But why wouldn’t they?  This article definitely comes from a white, colorblind point of view:

For decades, it was assumed that children see race only when society points it out to them.

Actually, I’ve never assumed that children see race only when society points it out to them. And I’d hazard a guess that many other people of color don’t make this assumption. Nor do I believe in the “Diverse Environment Theory” (and I’d assume many people of color don’t either):

The other deeply held assumption modern parents have is what Ashley and I have come to call the Diverse Environment Theory. If you raise a child with a fair amount of exposure to people of other races and cultures, the environment becomes the message. Because both of us attended integrated schools in the 1970s—Ashley in San Diego and, in my case, Seattle—we had always accepted this theory’s tenets: diversity breeds tolerance, and talking about race was, in and of itself, a diffuse kind of racism.

The article notes early on that differences in talking about race are influenced by race:

What parents say depends heavily on their own race: a 2007 study in the Journal of Marriage and Family found that out of 17,000 families with kindergartners, nonwhite parents are about three times more likely to discuss race than white parents; 75 percent of the latter never, or almost never, talk about race.

Yet throughout the point of view is from the white majority. The assumption is that “everybody” is white:

We might imagine we’re creating color-blind environments for children, but differences in skin color or hair or weight are like differences in gender—they’re plainly visible.

Water is also wet, by the way.

When I was doing research with children, I discovered early on about the norming of whiteness. Give a child a survey that asks for racial identification, and little African American kids know that they are “Black or African American.” Similarly, Latino kids and Asian kids know their classification.

White kids? They don’t understand the question. We had an inordinate number of white children who self-identified as “Native American”–because they knew they were “American.” What they did not know was that they are white.

The white writer mentions this about his own child, who is white:

He had not been taught the names for races—he had not heard the term “black” and he called us “people with pinkish-whitish skin.” He named every kid in his schoolroom with brown skin, which was about half his class.

My son’s eagerness was revealing. It was obvious this was something he’d been wondering about for a while. He was relieved to have been finally given the key. Skin color was a sign of ancestral roots.

Over the next year, we started to overhear one of his white friends talking about the color of their skin. They still didn’t know what to call their skin, so they used the phrase “skin like ours.”

“Pinkish-whitish” is among one of the many names white people use to describe themselves. Or they use other terms: I’m more of a pinky-beige. I’m beige. I’m light tan.

What they typically do not say is that they are white. White people often experience deep discomfort with being identified as white. I suspect in part it’s because they do not like to be stripped of their individuality and relegated to a racial class. And perhaps it’s difficult to identify with whiteness when our discussion about whiteness is often about negative attributes–white privilege and white racism.

So whiteness is rarely discussed in white households. And the lack of discussion is used to further enforce the idea that race has no meaning, that we’re all alike under the skin, that we live in a meritocracy and that we don’t see color.

Except “we” does not include people of color. Not even for well-meaning white people who believe in the “Diverse Environment Theory.” When white people talk about “exposure” to people of color, they are talking about seeing us, rather than interacting with us. Like with Thailand’s “long-necked women,” we are something to look at. You come into our communities but you don’t know our names.

“Exposure” by itself is meaningless in race relations.  And “tolerance” should not be the ultimate goal in a community.  “Tolerance,” like the word “acceptance,” assumes that somebody is tolerating. And you know who they’re tolerating, don’t you?  (Yes, thank you, massa white man!  So nice of you to tolerate me in your community!)

I moved a while back because I was tired of living in a majority-white community.  And I wonder at times about the ways in which I ignored racism.  Because it is clear to me now that living in a community where a large number of people look like me is beneficial.

Simultaneously I try to unlearn the internalized racism that years in my old neighborhood wrought.

And I believe the “Diverse Environment Theory” belief is a marker of my own internalized racism.  Because the one thing I did forget was that even if there are a large number of people like you in a community, that doesn’t mean the white people will like you.  In fact, I think it’s easier to be one of a small number of people of color in a community.   One or two is not too scary.  But gather up enough of us and we have our own grocery stores and places of business, we speak foreign languages among ourselves, we use up your resources and you just barely tolerate us.

But we can’t talk about racism, because when we do we’re silenced by the majority outcry.  We don’t see race.  We are colorblind.  We treat everybody as equals here.  And you are the one who is creating the racism by talking about it!

But I am a person of color and this is my community.  And I see race.  And I am not colorblind.  I would like to believe that everybody is equal, but when you silence my voice I know different.

12 thoughts on “A surprise to white people

  1. I need to move out of where I live, too. I ended up here years ago and I hate it. All my life, I’ve alternated btw cities with large brown/black/asian communities and mostly-white communities and there is NO comparison to where I want to be. The vibe, the eyes, the culture, please….I hope this is the last mostly-white town I live in. And I hope I’m gone soon.

    Great post.

  2. Ditto – great post.

    You’ve really hit the nail on the head as to why I cringe on the inside when people tell me “they don’t see race, they see people.” Its so generalizing, condescending and convenient an explanation – an excuse really not to understand white priviledge.

    I should just hand people this on an index card when people say stuff like that to me :-)

  3. I hate it when people talk about “exposing” their children to diversity, as if we are somehow a virus their kinds need to build up an immunity against.

  4. Could it be that people look for diversity in educational settings, say, because it’s a reality… as opposed to watered down suburbs? I don’t know, just wondering.

  5. I saw this study earlier this week, and it jumped out at me 75% of white parents never talk to their kids about race. I know my parents definitely raised me with the “color blind” mentality. It was ingrained in me. It took me a long time to learn it was actually just an easy out for white folks, so we don’t have to face our place in a system that’s been constructed for us. I definitely had to consciously and purposefully UNLEARN being colorblind.

    Not talking to your kids, or selling that colorblind myth, that’s privilege right there! I never knew that, growing up. Amazing we were so unaware, looking back. I was even highly resistant to that idea when friends of color tried to tell me later, when my kids were little. (Looking back, I don’t know how or why they kept trying with me. If I were them, I’d have left my ass.) But guess what, they were right – I no longer have the privilege of not talking to my kids about it — if I don’t make my son aware that this is a racially constructed system, what happens when he gets pulled over for driving while Black? What happens if I don’t prepare him, and he doesn’t know how to act, what to do, what his rights are? What if he doesn’t understand what’s actually HAPPENING, and tries to handle it as his white friends would?

    My dad was a cop. I never understood that there were things I didn’t HAVE to be prepared for, or even know about. Looking back, it’s like we were living in a protected snowglobe within the real world. We weren’t really colorblind, but we sure were blind, to reality.

    Anyway, this article, as you said, was for sure written from a white colorblind viewpoint, a white-as-norm viewpoint, even while trying to address the same. *sigh*

  6. What!?!

    Babies can distinguish race!

    Does this mean all those “I-don’t-see-race, We-are-all-just-the-same, Kumbaya, America-is-Post-Racial” people were peddling political Kool Aid?

    Say it isn’t so! ;-)

  7. I disagree on growing up in diverse communities. I believe it made a positive difference for me.

    It did leave me finding diversity to be normal. Personally I don’t get what everyone means by “colorblind” but I do understand mutual respect. I would say we had some of that.

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again and I don’t really care if it sounds like this “colorblind” silliness but we need to get away from this idea that American = white. There has to be a WE that includes us all. That is the WE that I find myself naturally attracted to. I lived in a mostly white neighborhood some years back and I didn’t like it. Being white, shouldn’t I have found it comforting?

  8. ..”So whiteness is rarely discussed in white households.
    What parents say depends heavily on their own race: a 2007 study in the Journal of Marriage and Family found that out of 17,000 families with kindergartners, nonwhite parents are about three times more likely to discuss race than white parents; 75 percent of the latter never, or almost never, talk about race…..”


    Parents of other ancestry would not feel the need to discuss skin color if there was no longer discrimination based on such.

    Sad but true.

    I understand exactly what the original poster is saying in regards to trying to undue their own internalized racism.

    I recently realized myself that I have been harmed to the degree of putting down anything A.American as I have been exposed to so much negativity toward the A.American community from PROPAGANDA by the media, just AUTOMATIC rejection in white neighborhoods of anything not “white” in way of thinking.

    As a kid of color growing up in a predominately ‘white’ town-I did not realize the extent to which I was personally internalizing racism myself. I am now embarrassed and struggling to undue such conditioning, which is actually causing great personal distress in my life.

    Everyone at my workplace is white and I now have started getting headaches nearly everyday and am ACUTELY UNCOMFORTABLE waiting for someone to make a slur or comment that is thoughtlessly racist, even when they do not think it is, or see it as such.

    This is VERY VERY true and very uncomfortable.

    That is why many blacks “self-segregate”. They understand that even if they are a doctor or a lawyer, they are still going to have to endure these painful experiences at work- kind of takes the joy out of “putting in a good day’s work” don’t you think.

    Whites do get to “rest on their laurels” so to speak more than ANY other ‘race’. ( I put that in quotations because we are all supposed to be 1 race- the HUMAN one, but anyway, let’s keep it real).
    From the time white children come out of the womb they are encouraged to be successful and the entire system is designed for them to do so. No wonder it is not as difficult for them to EXCEL.

    Everywhere they go people people in authority look like them for the most part, WHY would they ever feel “UNSURE” of themselves.

    With not many positive media reflections, without many positive Role Models in positions of “Power” the AA community is undermined self-confidence wise-for one thing-

    I can’t keep rambling because it is late & I am exhausted. But I do want to say, I denied racism at one time too- said it doesn’t exist- but my eyes opened recently.

    I only hope this realization does not put me under with worry and strain.

  9. I feel sick and tired of pretending black & white are seen as equal- THEY ARE NOT SEEN THAT WAY_ SORRY>
    Where I live it is terrible to see all the poor black families. The white kids all have these chipper llives when I don;t even feel like having kids anymore because I realize that no matter what, my kid will more than likely have to play “2nd best” all the time – THAT is about enough.
    Man, look at FOX News- really ugly state of affairs.

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