In the spring of 2016 antiracist educator Tim Wise succinctly explained that one particular presidential candidate’s meteoric rise to the top of the polls was simply the latest in a centuries-long trend: “When we look around and we see today, in our politics, a rich white man telling working-class white people that their problem is brown people,” Tim Wise begins, “we need to understand the historical pedigree of that.” (The entire 3 minute, 13 second sound bite can be found on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pufqZHMG9Oc.)
Wise goes on to inform his live audience that during early colonization, African slaves and indentured servants and slaves and indentured servants of European descent were in solidarity with one another because both were the property of elite landowners. In fact, such solidarity led to African and European-descent slaves and indentured servants often taking part in numerous armed uprisings. In order to put an end to this, landowners divided those of European descent from those of African descent by creating the concept of ‘whiteness’ some time in the 17th century (The term ‘white’ to refer to those with so-called white skin simply did not exist prior to this time). What this entailed was giving white-skinned indentured servants power over black slaves by creating a race-based hierarchy, which resulted in the solidifying of the power of these same landowners over both groups. As Wise explains, the invention of whiteness “…created this mentality that said, ‘You’re now a member of the white race; you’re on our team; you’re wearing our uniform. Now, you’re at the end of the bench; you may not get in the game, but you’re on our team.'”
The creation of whiteness resulted in the deputization of poor whites as members of slave patrols to police black slaves to suppress any potential rebellions. Rich landowners “didn’t really give them any land or any real power, except the power to control people of color, which is why folks of color say — and they are right in saying — that modern policing traces to the system of slave patrols in slavery.” Wise continued, “Even though you might not have much, at least you’re not black. At least you’re not indigenous. At least you’re not Mexican. At least you’re not Chinese, working on the railroads to build the transcontinental economy. You may not have much, but you at least have, as W.E.B. DuBois said, the ‘psychological wage of whiteness.’”
Wise then skipped ahead to the Civil War, during which time white landowners convinced poor whites in the South to fight for the cause of slavery in the war. “Why would you do that?,” Wise asked. “Why would I go fight for your property? Well because you told me that if I don’t, these slaves are gonna take my job! No, fool, they got your job, that’s the point! If you gotta charge a dollar a day, and you can make them work for free because you own ’em, guess who got the gig, Jack? Not you!”
Wise also aptly demonstrated how racism undermined the class struggle in the early days of the industrial revolution, when white union bosses discouraged black membership, even though it would have strengthened their bargaining position. “When you go out on strike, they can’t replace your happy a** with the brown folk that you didn’t want next to you in the first place. Because when they do replace you with them, then you will blame them, not the elites. See how that works? It’s a trick. And it has worked for hundreds of years. It is working on some folk right now, and it is our job to resist that with every fiber of our being.”
Considered another of the authoritative voices on white privilege, Dr. Francis E. Kendall highlights just some of the manifestations emanating from such a belief system in her 2002 article ‘Understanding White Privilege’ (http://www.cpt.org/files/Undoing%20Racism%20-%20Understanding%20White%20Privilege%20-%20Kendall.pdf):
- White people’s believing that their destiny was to “own” the land on which we all currently live, even though that required forcibly removing the native people who had lived here for centuries.
- The breaking apart of African families during slavery, sending mothers one place, fathers another, and babies and children yet another.
- Choosing to withhold from African Americans the ability to read so that they could not reproduce any of their culture or function well enough in our literate society to change their status.
- The removing of American Indian children from their homes, taking them as far as possible from anything they knew, and punishing them if they tried to speak in their own languages.
- The passing of laws that were created to maintain the legal separation and inequality of whites and African Americans (Plessy v. Ferguson).
- The making of “politically expedient” decisions by many (if not most) white suffragists to align themselves with white Southern men, reassuring them that by giving the vote to women (read “white women” since at that time about 90% of the African American women lived in the South and were not by law, able to hold property and thus vote) the continuation of white supremacy was insured.
- The manipulation of immigration laws so that people of color, particularly Chinese and Mexican as well as European Jews, were less free to immigrate to the U.S. than Western and Eastern Europeans.
- The removing of American citizens of Japanese ancestry from their homes and taking their land and their businesses during World War II.
Tim Wise adds to this list in his 2013 documentary ‘White Like Me,’ which bears the same title as his 2007 seminal text, by pointing out just who really benefited from the array of social programs that pulled this country out of the Great Depression, which ultimately helped create the U.S. middle class. One example was job insurance, which provided cash to people to give them a leg up as they looked for work. However, not everyone could apply for job insurance. Those deemed ineligible included agricultural workers and domestic service workers in private homes, two types of jobs that were overwhelming held by African Americans (over 80% of all African Americans worked in those professions).
The same story held for housing assistance and the GI Bill. For essentially the first time in U.S. history, working-class families were able to own their own home because of loans provided by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). However, between 1934 and 1962, 98% of FHA loan recipients were white. And while the GI Bill provided returning veterans with low-cost mortgages, loans to start a business, cash payments for tuition and living expenses, what it didn’t do was protect qualified African American veterans from the kinds of legal discrimination rampant before the Civil Rights Movement. As a result, then, the GI Bill disproportionately benefited white veterans.
Despite the fact that the clear majority of those who benefit from government assistance has always been white, beginning in the 1960s the media began to create the false perception that welfare and other government assistance programs were an African American phenomenon. Prior to that decade, media portrayals of poor white people were overwhelmingly sympathetic in nature. As a result, public support for programs helping the poor was overwhelming sympathetic. However, starting in that decade, the media’s portrayal regarding the benefiting by African Americans of government assistance has not had the same sympathetic tone. Tim Wise alludes to this negative portrayal in his documentary when he says, “If a program like the GI Bill ended up disproportionately benefiting people of color, you know what we would call that? Welfare, a handout, a gravy train.”
Many have argued that affirmative action, in particular when it is applied during acceptance into this nation’s universities, has corrected these ills to the point where everyone is now playing on a level playing field, so to speak. And there are even those who claim that white people are actually discriminated against more now than people of color. In fact, as Wise points out in his documentary, when researchers from Tufts and Harvard Universities recently asked white people if racism against whites was worse than racism against people of color, most of them said “yes,” that the gains of people of color were coming at a direct cost to whites. Such a claim, though, is refuted by the fact that for every person of color who benefits from affirmative action in college, there are two white students who received preferential treatment because of their parents’ alumni status or other family connections. What is more, a mere .25% (1/4 of 1%) of all the scholarship money in this country is specifically earmarked for students of color. So, 99.75% of all the scholarship money in this country money white students can compete for, and the vast majority of that money will go to white students.
In terms of what can be done in schools to push back against white privilege, let’s start in the classroom. There, students should learn the aforementioned facts put forth by Mr. Wise and Dr. Kendall, along with the information presented in the first two blog posts on white privilege (in addition to any of the numerous other statistical evidence indicating the existence of the phenomenon), as they do their own investigations regarding both this country’s historical and contemporary racism against people of color and the benefits that white people have received because of it. But I strongly recommend that students not be fed such evidence as a way to teach them about racism and white privilege; that would be indoctrination. Instead, teachers could simply ask their students to investigate, for example, the origin of ‘white’ to describe people of European descent; how FHA loans and GI Bill benefits were distributed demographically and why that was the case; or any of the myriad of facts that clearly indicates the presence of a white supremacist ideology that has existed in what would become the United States of America ever since Europeans first set foot in the so-called “New World.” In addition to uncovering this, the potential exists for the students to discover both the numerous cumulative negative economic, material, social, and psychological effects that such an ideology has had on people of color, along with the cumulative positive benefits in these same areas that have been provided for those deemed ‘white.’
A specific mini-investigation that I encouraged my middle and high school teachers to use was to have their own students go shopping together in pairs, with each pair made up of one white student and one student of color. After visiting various stores, they then would compare their treatment by store clerks and share this information with the class. Inevitably, students report that they experienced biased differential treatment. Dr. Christine Sleeter, another of this country’s most esteemed antiracist educators, describes what typically follows with this exercise when the students in the class attempt to interpret what happened. “Students of color aren’t surprised by the differing treatment, but the white students tend to be surprised. And some will say, ‘Well, that was just that store clerk, who was having a bad day.’ If the white students are allowed to think of the differing treatment only in terms of one particular instance, they can still minimize and individualize the phenomenon…If eight of 10 students report incidents of racism, it becomes much harder to say that racism doesn’t happen today.” [The entire interview with Dr. Sleeter from which this excerpt was taken can be found in Ch. 4 of Rethinking Multicultural Education: Teaching for Racial and Cultural Justice (2014)]. In addition, when such mini-investigations are combined with the students’ newfound knowledge regarding any of the array of statistics regarding racism and white privilege, it becomes increasingly difficult to claim that such incidents of racism are simply episodic and not institutional.
Although Dr. Sleeter does not address a next potential step in such a mini-investigation, I would have my teachers ask their own students to decide for themselves whether or not they should shop at the particular locations in which their students experienced biased differential treatment, in addition to thinking about what other action (if any) they feel that they should take. The key is to have students think critically for themselves about these decisions by simply presenting such questions after the mini-investigations have been completed. Again, as was mentioned above, the last thing any teacher should do is to indoctrinate students with her/his own beliefs by TELLING them “how things are” and what students should do about it. However, I do think it important that when students recognize for themselves the existence of white privilege or any other injustice in their schools, local communities, or at a more macro-level, that they be instilled with a sense of civic responsibility to take action to combat it. Let me next provide you with a couple of examples of student-driven activities that include what Dr. Enid Lee, one of North America’s most respected voices in the field of multicultural education, calls the “the social change stage,” which she deems is the necessary final stage for any education to be considered truly multicultural.
A kindergarten teacher wrote to Louise Derman-Sparks, one of the creators of the Anti-Bias Curriculum (1989), about one activity in which all of her students decided to take an active role. One day the teacher and her class were walking in their local park whereupon they came across a wall that contained racial slurs directed towards people of color. The teacher read the words to her students, and as a group they discussed how hurtful they are. She then asked the students what they could to about what they had found, and each of them decided to paint over the words, which they did the very next day. While this is a good example of students learning and doing something about racism, I think the activism piece of this particular project could have been more powerful in nature had the teacher asked her students what ELSE they could have done to combat this form of racism. As anyone who has taught children knows, these students likely would have had no problem coming up with a seemingly endless list of follow-up actions. Potential examples include the writing of letters to the parks department in which students asked the department to more closely monitor this type of offensive graffiti in park spaces (If students are too young to write, they could dictate their collective letter to the teacher). Another option would be the performance of skits for other classes wherein, along with educating their audiences as to the negative origins of particular racist slurs, the performers would demonstrate the harmful effects that these words/phrases have on both the recipients of such language and its users.
Another example of instilling a sense of activism in young students took place in a second grade classroom, comprised solely of African American students (21 in total). After dividing the entire class into groups of three, the teacher asked each to identify something about the school’s surrounding neighborhood that “bothered” that group and why so. He then had each group present to the others the issue that the group had identified, why it bothered them, and then ask their peers for advice concerning what they could do about it. One particular group of girls explained that the neighborhood’s lone toy store did not sell any baby dolls that “looked like” them. All of the dolls had white skin, blonde hair, and blue eyes, which bothered these students because they wanted to play with dolls that physically resembled them. After soliciting advice as to what they could do about this situation, another group of students suggested that the girls talk to the store owner, telling him both how they felt and that he could actually probably sell more dolls if they looked like the children of the neighborhood. The girls did just that, and within six weeks, the only dolls sold at that store were those who possessed the same physical features of their future owners. Although all of the dolls were female, it is important to point out that they contained the variety of skin tones, hair texture, and eye color that could be seen among the population of African American children who lived in the area.
While I could provide several other examples of how teachers can combat white privilege with such activist projects, I think that I’ve shown that the possibilities for such activities are seemingly endless. And because children begin to recognize and even make decisions regarding race before they start formal schooling, it is never too early to develop in them both an appreciation and respect for those of all skin colors. This leads me to my final point in this particular blog post, which addresses the most common question that teacher trainers hear while conducting workshops on white privilege, i.e., How does one provide students with an anti-racist education without making white children feel guilty or threatened?
It’s important to acknowledge that a sense of guilt likely will occur, in particular with older students who will be learning so much more about the specifics of racism against people of color and its flipside, white privilege, than their younger peers. However, this will diminish as they recognize that there have ALWAYS been white people who have fought against racism. In fact, through their own investigations they will encounter seemingly countless allies who have fought alongside people of color for racial justice from the day that the first European settlers arrived here. White children can then proudly identify with such individuals and follow in their footsteps by doing the same themselves now. A second point in response to the above question is that it is in the interest of white students to experience seeing how our society has and continues to treat white people differently than it has people of color. “Otherwise,” as Dr. Enid Lee points out, “they will constantly have an incomplete picture of the human family.” Dr. Lee continues this line of thought by saying, “The other thing is, if we don’t make it clear that some people benefit from racism, then we are being dishonest. What we have to do is talk about how young people can use that from which they benefit to change the order of things so that more people will benefit…We don’t need to be caught up in the guilt of our benefit, but should use our privilege to help change things.”