Failing White Kids
There’s long been a prevailing sentiment among white people of my generation, expressed in some version of the following: “Our race problem is mostly a matter of time. Racism will whither as the older white U.S.-Americans die off.”
Other versions of a similar sentiment show up when folks tout the demographic changes poised to dramatically alter the racial composition of this nation (true) as evidence that racism cannot last (false). Or, when we talk about the current generation of white kids experiencing more diversity than any generation prior (true) with pride (unwarranted) because this indicates a more racially enlightened future generation of whites (not necessarily).
Unspoken in each of these claims is the assumption that on its own the path we’re currently on plus the passing of time equals a transformed nation. This calculus is deeply flawed.
I work with college students everyday. The level of delusion required to believe that today’s white youth are poised to help us ring in a different racial future was clear to me well before the Oklahoma Sooner frat bus fiasco and the murderous rampage in Charleston. Both events revealed dimensions of what’s actually going on with white young people.
Before going any further, let me say explicitly that young people amaze and inspire me endlessly. This piece is not about their failings.
This piece is about the ways we who nurture them, parent them, teach them, or pastor them are failing. With very few exceptions, the times I’m inspired by what white youth know or, better yet, what they do in terms of racial understanding or antiracist commitments are times I learn they’ve arrived at particular postures and commitments despite what their parents and teachers have taught them. It’s almost never because of it.
None of the ways we are failing need to lead to extremes like Oklahoma or Charleston to be devastating. All of the silences, uncertainties, fears, ambivalences, apathies and other behaviors/actions/non-actions we white adults manifest in the face of racism (which, all signs suggest, are many) pass right on to the next generation. And mantras like “we’re all the same underneath our skin,” or “we need to embrace all kinds of differences” haven’t scratched the surface of what’s needed to nurture a generation prepared to help create and participate in a nation so transformed that anti-black hatred and violence can find no sanctuary and thus be vanquished to oblivion.
So what do we do?
Many things are required of us. A critical one is to better understand what is actually going on with and for white youth as a result of what we (my generation-ish) have taught and modeled.
In the mid-1990s Mary Bucholtz spent hours in conversation with students at a racially diverse high school in northern California. During her interviews, she asked each student a seemingly straightforward question. She asked them “for the record” to identify themselves according to their age, sex/gender, grade and race/ethnicity.
One of her persistent experiences blew my mind.
Almost every white student could not or would not answer Bucholtz’s question in a straightforward way. On everything else they did fine. But when it came to race/ethnicity, their responses ranged from the ironic (exemplified by a student who said, “I’m the whiteness of the white boys” in a fake British accent; responses Buchold characterizes as mock-celebrations of “affiliation with whiteness”), to those “feigning ignorance” (respondents qualifying “I’m white” with phrases like “I guess,” or “I don’t know” or odd elaborations like “From, uh, outward signs”).
Of the many young people interviewed only the white ones had difficulty with this question.
So why does this happen? And why does it matter?
The “why” is not explained merely through pointing out our ill-conceived “colorblind” teachings. Bucholtz’s interviewees don’t claim to not see color and they actually do know they’re white.
What’s going on has do to with something these youth are experiencing about the reality of “being white.”
That something has to do with how problematic “white” is in a racially supremacist society. It’s such a problem that white youth—just like adults—experience distress when faced with the relatively simple task of naming white identity as part of who they are. This distress may actually be worse among those who have self-proclaimed desires for or aspirational beliefs about equality and fairness.
Related, I suspect, is a fear—likely subconscious—that if one names one’s white identity without demonstrating a reluctance about that identity one risks being perceived as somehow endorsing racism. In other words, white racial identity and white supremacy are so bound up with each other in the U.S. that these young people get silly, snarky or tongue-tied because–forced to own “white”–they are trying desperately to create a gap between these two things. (Further evidence that some youth experience the affiliation between white identity and white supremacy as frighteningly close is provided in other responses: when interviewees whisper—“I’m white”—so softly Bucholtz can barely hear them, or when they say “I’m white” but then seem to literally be unable to stop talking, qualifying or making flippant comments about their identity.)
The overly close association between white people and “racial hegemony,” is also a part of Bucholtz’s diagnosis. But another is the palpable sense in the multiracial context where her interviews take place that white people are associated with “cultural blandness and lack of coolness.”
And here is where all of these pieces to come together for me.
Unaddressed and residual feelings of being either “uncool” or reducible to hegemony or both (!) lead to deep-seated resentment. This resentment is a result of white youth, despite being immersed in diverse contexts or in diversity discourses, lacking access to a “meaningful ‘ethnoracial’ identity.”
And here’s the kicker.
Whites don’t turn that resentment on the people, history and systems that have made (and continue to make) white racial identity a virtual extension of white supremacy; which happen to be the same processes that have blanched away any “culture” that might have otherwise meaningfully and desirably adhered to “white.”
In other words, they don’t turn that resentment en masse to my generation or generations of whites prior who have failed them in so many ways.
They turn their resentment on people of color.
They do so both in the abstract and in their treatment of actual, real flesh and blood people. They do so consciously and without even realizing they’re doing it.
Sometimes it looks like hatred. Sometimes it looks like appropriation, or romanticization. Sometimes it looks like resistance or refusal to cross racial lines and choosing, instead, to simply hang out, always, with other white folks (consciously or not).
However it shows up, it doesn’t bode well for the future. And that’s the “so what” of this strange but persistent phenomenon of white youth who can’t just say “I’m white.”
So, again, what do we do?
Understanding what’s going on is huge a first step. We need to keep dwelling here for a good bit.
From there we need strategies that enable us to directly and specifically engage white young people on their actual racial identity and the kinds of experiences it raises for them.
For example, it’s obviously critical we talk about race with younger kids all the time and at very young ages; and not just about the race of other people who happen to not be white. We need to completely eschew all the residual versions of “colorblind” speak that make it impossible for us to help white kids develop an early language for their own racial identity.
Modeling meaningful, clear and empowered antiracist responses to racism in our own lives is also, obviously, non-negotiable. And, after doing so, we must learn to talk about what we have (or haven’t) done with the children and youth in our lives in specific and clear ways. Naming our own racial location in the process is also important.
Those of us who have or work with teens need to practice actually naming the “white” conundrum itself. I’m convinced white youth who’ve experienced any level of racial diversity or been steeped in discourses about valuing diversity already know how vexed “white racial identity” is. And too few have been invited to name and wrestle in an honest way with the complex dimensions of that experience, let alone been supported in a process of understanding why they experience what they do.
Simply creating space for a conversation about this can be powerful. And it’s essential if and when we are doing parental and/or educational work about “valuing difference.” If we don’t talk about this conundrum in our diversity work, all of what white youth actually experience about their own location in diverse contexts and discourses (from feelings of being “uncool” to being marked as innately racist) goes underground.
It won’t stay underground. It will show back up in very ugly ways.
Explicit conversations about “being white” are essential. We cannot leave white youth on their own to come up with their own ways to ameliorate and explain the strange and vexing experience of being so obviously part of the oppressor class while being taught (at least pro forma) to value difference. It’s not only not fair. It’s also very dangerous.
When the focus is diversity explicitly we need to not only talk and teach about amazing men and women of color. We need to be ready and able to identify white people who were and are “race traitors;” folks who acted and are continuing to act with courage and resilience in the face of white supremacy, in solidarity with communities of color.
We need to be prepared to help youth think about how these white folks came to be that way. And we need to be explicit about the racial identity of such white people—not just describing them as “people committed to justice.”
This particular commendation may seem dicey. I hope it’s obvious that the point is not to overstate the role of white people in antiracism. It’s certainly not to re-center work appropriately focused on people of color back on white people.
The point of all of this is, however, that we simply must give white youth ways to envision living and acting that successfully generates the gap between white supremacy and white identity that they are looking for when they manifest such tension about “being white.” And we must give them venues to talk about and figure out why finding and creating that gap can be so difficult–and how hard it feels when you don’t–in this diverse nation we all live in.
If we don’t, the strategies and responses to their own “white” identity seen in Bucholtz’s work will continue to run amok. And let me be clear: the interviews were just the tip of the iceberg. Racial tensions and antiblack hostility were alive and well at that high school, despite the fact teachers and administrators daily worked hard to teach “diversity.”
At the end of the day, there’s much we don’t know yet about how to do this because—quite simply—we haven’t done it yet.
So at the end of the day, we must. The stakes are high.
At the end of the day this is not about failing white kids.
The true reality is that by failing white kids, we’re failing all kids.