How we learn

Last weekend I attended a school performance of little kids. I tried really hard to enjoy it.


Except I couldn’t help noticing that almost all of the featured children were white. And one blonde white girl who was given a solo was one of the worst singers I’ve ever heard. It reminded me of that old joke about how we’ll know we have achieved equality when we’re allowed to be mediocre.

The show was nominally about multiculturalism. Isn’t it grand? Although as Restructure! has pointed out, multiculturalism is not the same as anti-racism. In fact, the white conception of “multiculturalism” often promotes and furthers racism by denying its existence. 

But here the kids of color were used as a backdrop for the people of importance.  Who are white.  And who are learning their own importance, which is reinforced on a regular and systemic basis.  (So why does the “Compton Cookout” cause us any surprise?  This is how we have trained the younger generation.)  It’s both overt and covert.

I’m sure if you talked about the omission of kids of color to whoever was in charge of the production, they’d insist that there are equal opportunities for everybody.  And maybe even that they’ve encouraged the kids of color to participate, but that none of them want to.   That there are cultural differences and that those kids just don’t want to be in the spotlight.

And no matter how carefully or tactfully you raised this discussion, you might meet with one of two potential responses:  Being brushed off, because we are a multicultural institution!  It’s one of our core values! Or shock and horror or anger, because we are not racist!

I’m guessing that the white audience members did not notice any sort of omission. But I’m guessing the folks of color might have. Or maybe they’re used to the complexion of their environment.

What if all the featured kids were kids of color?  What then?  I believe that white people would notice.  In fact, I’m sure of it. Because despite assertions of colorblindness, white people are hypervigilant about color.  They might allow a little color here and there so that they can point out their good-hearted, well-intentioned liberalness.  As if they personally are responsible for our successes.  But get a room full of color and watch the reaction.

I was thinking about this recently when a professor friend was talking about the university’s attempt to diversify its faculty.  And I thought about how white faculty members, even the “progressive” ones, would probably never attempt to make all of the hires people of color.*  If there are five openings, maybe one would be targeted towards people of color.  But never five.

Five would be too threatening, even if there were no other faculty members of color.  Five would be too many.  One is enough to show you care.

So we learn that we are fine in limited doses.  And we put ourselves forward in limited doses as well.  We learn not to rock the boat.  We learn not to make white people uncomfortable.  We don’t put forth radical strategies.  Hey, if we’re trying to diversify the faculty, why don’t we set the goal to hire five professors of color?**

And we learn distorted views of ourselves.  We learn that we couldn’t be that smart, that talented, that capable.  We learn that we have a view distorted by race.  We learn that our feelings and experiences mean nothing.  We learn that we ought to be grateful that white people gave us a chance.

The local newspaper featured an article on the kids’ show.  Photographs of three white boys.  Interviews and quotes from white children.  This is how we learn.


*Yeah, yeah, I know that white people are diverse too.

** Yeah, yeah, I know people are going to argue that they just can’t find the qualified applicants.

10 thoughts on “How we learn

  1. “White people are hypervigilant about color”

    Absolutely. Why can’t we (white people) put that attention to work monitoring our own racism? Most teachers are white, middle class females. It is our moral and professional obligation to identify our own prejudices and privilege at every opportunity and to fight built-in racism in the schools where we teach.

    The whole “every one had a chance…but for some reason only the white students signed up” excuse makes me want to spit. That’s how you end up with high schools where 40% of the students are non-white, but that group also accounts for 90% of the students in “remedial/basic” courses and only 5% (if that) of the AP courses.* If some kids seem to be uncomfortable “in the spotlight” it’s the grown-ups’ job to find out why and @&^#-ing make the school more comfortable for them. Easier said than done, sure, but so far even saying it seems too radical for some people.

    *Those numbers aren’t based on an official demographic study, just my observations at a school where I used to work.

  2. Yeah, yeah, I know people are going to argue that they just can’t find the qualified applicants.

    I am so sick of that bullshit. It’s built on the underlying assumption that the most qualified applicants are going to be white, and I’m sick of people who think that dressing it up in “qualifications” somehow makes them seem less racist. A month ago, I got in a lengthy, drawn-out argument with someone in the comments of a YouTube video about the racism of affirmative action.

    Can somebody point me towards these legions of qualified white people who are being passed over for people of color in job after job? I mean, really! I hear so much about them, there must be enough to fill a NYC phone book with! ::rolls eyes::

    …sorry, you hit one of my big buttons.

    I am happy to say of a performance at my daughter’s school recently that there were a lot of kids of color with speaking and solo-dancing parts… but less happy to say that almost none of them were girls. ::sigh:: I don’t know what the hell. I tried bringing it up with one of the teachers, but she just made sort of a “right, that’s nice” noise and kept walking. Ugh.

  3. “And who are learning their own importance, which is reinforced on a regular and systemic basis.”

    Today at the grocery store, a very young white boy was pulling a wagon of groceries, and generally getting in the way of all the other shoppers. Isn’t that just so cute. His mom was actively allowing him to make mistakes and get in the way, teaching him to take up lots of space and to throw tantrums when he doesn’t get as much as he’s used to. And other white people are expected to take part in it too, thus the apology of ‘oh, but isn’t he adorable,’ to me. Cuz you know, it’s just so cute when grown white men and women throw tantrums too. Bet she doesn’t even pretend to apologize to people of colour.

  4. resistance,

    I don’t quite recall how I wound up on this blog, but I’ve read through several of the posts. Sadly, most of what I’ve read is pure hypocrisy.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but couldn’t racism be defined as applying a stereotype to all members of a given race and proceeding to generalize about them based on these stereotypes?

    You claim to oppose this kind of treatment and purport yourself as “anti-racist,” yet you repeatedly make observations about “white people.”

    In this article alone, you state:

    “. . .almost all of the featured children were white.”

    “. . .one blonde white girl. . .”

    “[People] Who are white.”

    “I’m guessing that the white audience members did not notice any sort of omission.”

    “I believe that white people would notice. In fact, I’m sure of it.”

    “. . .white faculty members, even the “progressive” ones. . .”

    Where do you get off? If a white individual were to publicly make a single remark of a lesser severity regarding “black people,” he or she would be permanently marked as a racist. Pseudo-activists, such as yourself (not “black people” as a group), would express outrage and demand apologies until whatever career said individual might have had is all but destroyed.

    Yet you speak of “white people” as though the entire white population wants nothing more than to see your movement fall. This notion is incorrect and ridiculous. On behalf of the majority of “white people” who are not racists, I demand an apology.


  5. Chris is a comedian.
    He also helped me review my Racism 101. I noticed possible applications of statements # 3, 7, 8, 13 and 14.
    Did I miss some?

  6. The entire rhetoric of multiculturalism collapsed some time ago, maybe a decade or more. It was absorbed by advertisers and conservatives. We need a whole new way of speaking about diversity.

  7. I want to second that LOL!

    What I think is that the whole idea behind teaching multiculturalism is for the benefit of white people, white children, to give them “exposure”, so to speak.
    I notice where I live that a few private schools offer “minority” scholarships, but these scholarships aren’t really available for the benefit of children of color, they are twofold, makes the school “look’ good, and gives the white students more “exposure”.

  8. LOL Chris! Sounds like Chris is making some assumptions about your ethnicity, Resistance: “Pseudo-activists, such as yourself (not “black people” as a group)…” And Chris is demanding an apology. Priceless! QED.

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