What Kind of White Person Are You?

I’m thinking about Malcolm X today.

Remember his famous response to the white guy in the car? The guy who leaned out his car window, grinning, and asked “do you mind shaking hands with a white man?”

Malcolm X responded “I don’t mind shaking hands with human beings. Are you one?”

Now, I’m not one to quibble with Malcolm X. But before white folk can answer that question there’s another one we have to answer first.

That is, “What Kind of White Person Am I?”

And here’s how my train of thought went . . .

 1. I just watched this report by Anderson Cooper on children’s perception of race.

Much of it’s depressing. So before you watch it, please take a breath and repeat the following mantra after me “Despair is not an option.” [Repeat 3x.] (A lot of times true accounts of how deep and thick racism continues to be lead to despair instead of to constructive, informed attempts to envision different ways of thinking, acting and being. I get it. Despair’s so much easier. But, we need to inoculate ourselves with such mantras because frankly, white folks, despair’s a luxury we don’t get to indulge.)

 2. Racism doesn’t mostly get transmitted because white parents do or say racist things. Racism gets transmitted through the everyday—the ways we just live our lives, taking our kids along for the ride.

Think about how kids “learn” gender. Many parents don’t say “girls do (or can only do) ‘x’” and “boys do ‘y’.” But, ask almost any five year-old and they’ll tell you all about boy/girl differences.

Parents transmit gender when one of them always does the dishes (and the other almost never does) and the other always mows the lawn. No words have to be spoken.  And my point isn’t that this is necessarily bad or wrong. (In my own family, my kids believe that mamas “do” hair braiding and only mommies know how to build things. This is the same phenomenon.)

My point is we need to recognize that it’s in this everydayness that such teachings happen.

If our day-to-day behaviors happen to coincide with what kids see in infinite other places in society? Shazam. “Traditional” notions of gender are born. (Women do dishes and cry, men mow lawns and are strong.)

If we happen to live contrary to what our kids see everywhere else? Well, they may not suddenly have a radically different sense of what gender can or doesn’t have to mean in their lives. (My four year-old will tell you with certitude: “boys have short hair, girls have long hair.” (What?!?))

But, we might find ourselves in amazing conversations with them about the ways we can all choose to live into or live against gender. And, in those conversations another world becomes possible. (My four year-old also, when asked about boys and short hair and her parents, has concluded (again with certitude) that her two moms are “boy-girls.” It didn’t matter that neither of us identify this way. I love this because it gives a glimpse of how daily living shows up in terms of what kids come to think about the way the world “is.”)

The key in Cooper’s report isn’t the unseen parent who says “No Black friends, white son!”

The key is in the response of the white child (about 5:40ish) when asked why he thinks his parents wouldn’t approve of him having Black friends. It’s as obvious to him as it is to my own kids that “boy-girls” do exist.

His answer: [paraphrase] “no one my mom or dad knows are black or brown.”

He’s drawn his own conclusion from what he sees them doing with race.

(This comes at a time when much is, appropriately, being made about the finding that 40% of white people have no friends of color.)

There are other transmissions this report exposes: kids totally pick up on implicit bias; colorblindness is a terrible teaching, and more. The results of these transmissions? Seventy-percent of white kids have a negative perspective of interracial interactions (in comparison to only 38% of African American children.)

No one had to say a word. All whites had to was not say anything, while doing and living our oh-so-‘normal’ white day-to-day.

 3. One response to this is a serious reckoning with the question “What kind of white person am I?”

 Sometimes when white people lament the racial teachings our children receive because of day-to-day living in white-dominated environments, we find ourselves asking the infamous question: “How can I make more Black/Latino/Asian friends?”

I understand this impulse, especially to the extent it is a response to some of the implications of Anderson’s report. But it isn’t the right one. (In fact, this question has a long and laden history of leading to more racism and the display of more white ignorance rather than less. So, please let’s avoid this like the plague.)

But if the question isn’t “why don’t I” or “how can I” make more friends of color.  The question might be (as Tanner Colby put it), “what kind of white person might a person of color actually want to be friends with?”

That’s not an question that avoids all risks either. Individual people color don’t have one “take” on it and it can land us in some of the same (white) quagmires that the “how do I get more friends of color” question does. But, it’s a fruitful question anyway.

It’s especially fruitful if we ponder it with as much humility as we can muster (and then muster a little bit more) and an admission of how very much we just don’t know because of what a number our social structures have done on us. Then, if we combine that humility with a belief (for which there is evidence) that with enough exertion and intention we can come-to-know, well….shazam. Maybe, just maybe another world might become possible.

 4. Here’s some sub-questions to take stock of that question.

-Am I the white person that risks “ruining a good party” when something goes down (subtly or not so much) instead of leaving it to that solo person or few people of color in the room to do it?

-Am I the white person that shows up when law enforcement profile youth of color in my community?

-Am I the white person who reads up on U.S. racial history enough that historical “facts” transform into a deep knowing about what race is, does and feels like? A knowing that enables awareness, authenticity, and subtlety in engagements across racial lines (even if the structures we live in continually are at work to make such engagements more vexed)?

-Am I the white person who attends the meeting the NAACP holds to protest the school board’s decision to hold school on MLK day in order to make up for snow days instead of leaving fellow parents of color to be the only ones who do? (I’m pretty sure they had other things to do that night, too.)

-Am I the white person who has read (and re-read) what people of color have said about white people and their experiences with white people in a spirit of assuming I have something to learn from that?

-Am I the white person who puts myself (and kids) in environments where I’m not in the majority (but does so, as the Rev. Anna Olson puts, with grace and having done enough self-education that I don’t make of myself a burden to folks of color)?

-Am I the white person who gets it that how I think about race and what my intentions toward people of color have almost nothing to do with how “non-racist” I am? Who understands that I am what I do?

What kind of white person am I?

Meanwhile, besides the fact  I’m living whatever it is (which matters on its own accord), my kids are  watching all of this. And, if they are taking in the same messages they’re already getting elsewhere, then guess what? My kids are the white kids in Anderson’s report.

But, if they are taking in messages that counter and confuse society’s messages? Well, then there’s some hope. There’s hope for, at least, some amazing conversations to unfold. There’s hope  that during them my kids see that another world is possible and that they can help make it so.

So pick one of those questions I  listed up there, or pick five. Or think up others that make more sense to you. And then diligently work until you can answer “yes.”

When you do you might find your day-to-day  starts to look a little different.

And I know that that “yes” is the only way we can  begin to hope that were we the one in that car,  we could have looked back at Malcolm X, hand extended still, and cautiously said “yes.”

“Why yes, as it turns out, I am a human being after all.”

5 Responses to “What Kind of White Person Are You?”
  1. Nancy McCullough says:

    I really like this, but I wish some of your questions under #4 were clearer/more simple.

    What do you mean “something goes down” for example?

    Many of them seem convoluted.


    • Hey thanks for the feedback….by “something goes down” I was sort of using shorthand to make reference to anything that might include: a racist joke, a racist comment, a “well-intentioned” by offensive way of talking about race, an awkward moment where race tension suddenly enters and no one is quite sure what to do (or some of the other kinds of things I talk about in “Got Strategy?” I can see why that’s confusing.

      The other questions are emphasizing, reading, reading reading up as an act of sustained self-education on race generally in the U.S. and whiteness as a phenomenon specifically. OR, whether or not and how we physically show up for justice struggles that are constantly playing out in our communities.

      I hope that helps, and again thanks for the feedback on my convolusion!!


  2. Rosemary says:

    Thank you.

  3. Jon McAlister says:

    Thanks again, Jen.

    I compare this to he observation that men who love any women/girls (as fathers, brothers, boyfriends, spouses, sons, friends, etc.) should feel some obligation to be actively anti-sexist. Otherwise, claims of “love” fall flat. “I love you but I’m too busy to do anything about the fact that you’re threatened by rape.” “I love you but I don’thave time to do anything about your lack of professional or political opportunities.” More honest (for some): “I love you by I love my privilege more.”

  4. Reblogged this on Big Topics Blog and commented:
    Jennifer Harvey is in the middle of an excellent series on white people (like Jennifer and I). She walks straight into the middle of the big topic of racism without flinching, with huge compassion and with powerful ideas for change.

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