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.

12 Responses to “Failing White Kids”
  1. asletteland says:

    Thanks for all of the reminders of my own struggles with identifying with “white”. While rumor has it that an indigenous person maybe back in the ancestry somewhere, it’s not lost on me that so many wanted to “be Indian” when it become cool to be. But here’s some really off the wall food for thought. All of us carry African DNA. All of us except Black people (I’m not sure on a few, like aboriginals in Australia, New Zealand, etc., I think not) carry DNA from either a Denisovan hominid or a Neandertal hominid. At least that is what the genome project says. If true, then Black people are the “purest” form of human walking the planet. The rest of us are to some degree also a little or a lot “hominid”. So, how did this additional genetic material get introduced? Did hominids actually look a lot like “homey’s”, i.e., despite being portrayed as pretty hairy which no one can really prove, but since the rest of us have at least a bit more hair than most Blacks, I suppose there is merit. And looking like “homey” did they flirt and seduce or was there an element of violence on either side? It’s difficult to answer these questions, yet science has brought them up. Without the ability to answer, we are left with a conundrum. The simple answer is, as the Dali Lama would say, anger is senseless. It doesn’t change anything. If the fault lies with some misguided Black human millions of years ago seducing a hominid on a lonely night somewhere in who knows where, do we practice forgiveness, as Jesus would ask us to? Or do we just feel sorry for ourselves because not only are we, as white people, possessors of the Neandertal genes but evidently because of same we are in so many ways hard pressed to “be cool”, have naturally sun resistant skin (although with all the pollution nowadays, even Black people get skin cancer) or such well developed physical strength as so many people of color. Our ethnic identity is profoundly linked to the most extreme forms violence that have ever been unleashed on the Earth. Worse than that there is no getting around it, is the fact that exploitation, that often ever so subtle form of violence, is a virtual addiction for white culture. We can’t even stop using oil, despite the fact that it is killing us and our place on this planet. So, while I agree that steering youth towards role models exemplified by those “committed to justice” and aligned and affiliated with the anti-racism of people of color, I suspect allowing room for the deepest fears to be expressed in the “clearing the air” phase may be of value. Sometimes I think it’s better just to steer away and move on. Sometimes I think what you don’t address up front will come up and bite you from behind when you least expect or are ready for it.

  2. Jon Knapp McAlister says:

    I have been in the receiving end of the “what ethnicity are you” exercise in college. Aside from what the scholar observed about the awkwardness that whites feel in that situation (present in myself and others there), we also struggled when several whites talked about having strong Norweigian or German or Scottish or whatever heritage in their family, while most of us just had a vague Euro-American ancestry (I am Scottish, Norwegian, Irish, and German at least) and our families never tried to connect to that. On top of that, I think that my class and geographical background (middle to upper middle growing up in a suburb of Boise, ID) made me culturally very different from, say, a white cattle rancher from Oklahoma (I’m a vegetarian). Then again, maybe it is one of the benefits of white privilege that I don’t have to feel solidarity with other whites.

  3. hippiwomyn68 says:

    Great piece, Jen, thanks. I agree that it’s foolish – and dangerous – to assume racism will die off on its own. Events clearly refute that. The results of that study are a real wake up call! But I have concerns about your proposal, if I understand it properly, that we help white students develop pride in their white identity. The main reason for my caution here is that race is a social construct. Ta-henisi Coates demonstrates this so well in his new book, Between the World and Me, by borrowing from James Baldwin in referring to white people as “people who think they are white.” Solidifying young people’s belief in whiteness seems to be going the wrong direction.

    I’m a 47 year old white woman, and I don’t have a problem naming that, but it’s not because I feel a strong sense of identification with the cultures of my heritage (German and Swiss). I’m not really sure what the reason is, but if I had to name one thing, I’d suspect it’s my strong orientation toward celebrating differences. I feel comfortable with my own and other races, because I just see it as another difference that exists but doesn’t define me (like blue eyes or brown hair). In addition, perhaps this is strengthened by my knowledge that race is not the biological fact (as described by asletteland above) that it was once thought to be. What I use to evaluate myself is how do I live; what are my values; how do they treat myself, my environment, those I love and those I don’t know personally; what is the content of my character…and the same for others. I definitely don’t believe “we are all the same,” because I believe cultural differences are something that exist and can be celebrated, learned about and experienced as savory parts of the wonderful stew of human interaction.

    I am definitely in agreement with your overarching recommendation, however, that we need to be paying attention to this shame about identifying as white. We should be exploring it further and developing appropriate strategies to help this generation deal with it. I agree that it is causing and will continue to cause only deeper division between “those who think they are white” and others we share this journey with. Thanks for the thought-provoking exploration of this topic!

    • Thanks for your thoughtful response and for the chance then for me to clarify that I am NOT suggesting that we work to help white young people develop pride in their white identity. What I think we need to be helping them do is to see that white identity (as they experience in relative to diversity conversations) need not be destiny (need not, as it has been constructed to this point; I’m totally on board with Coates and identity as construction)….that they can “change” the meaning of whiteness by learning to take action against racism….as opposed to evading the reality of where they are racially/socially located by ignoring it, denying it, pretending it’s not there OR (the scarier version) embracing white supremacist versions of it. They DO need a way to experience an empowered anti-racist embodiment in a world where even constructs are real and powerful. But the nature of a construct is that it can be differently constructed and that is precisely where, I think, my generation has failed them. By not modeling that enough, talking about it usefully, and ignoring the many confusing feelings white youth do have as a result of being located in a dominant/violent position while being increasingly taught discourses of valuing ‘difference.’

  4. Susan says:

    I’ve been following your blog for a while, and need to thank you- you’ve helped me open discussions with my own pre-school/elementary aged children that would have never been able to otherwise. We white people are just not taught/have no experience in meaningful ways to discuss race.

    I am a bit uncomfortable though with your term “race traitor”. If I understand correctly, you are using that to identify white people who put themselves out there to fight for racial equality. The word “traitor” has a negative connotation. Those people are out there doing the right thing, therefore, I would argue the need for a positive term. I hear the word “traitor” and there’s a disconnect; to me, those who are acting out in hate would better fit that label. “Ally” has been used to identify straight-people standing up for equal rights for those identifying as GLBT, but I feel it is equally appropriate here. Or perhaps I have misunderstood, or you have other ideas!

    Please keep doing what you’re doing. You are bang on and opening a discussion that needs to be had. I live in France now, and very similar issues are being dealt with over here with the Muslim community. The root causes are different, of course, but the end result is the same. So, without realizing it, you’re hitting on an issue that goes beyond the US borders.

  5. pusdcitizens says:

    not sure i can buy this. studies show racial identity is largely a response to racism and predjudice. from that perspective, you dont need a racial identity in a culture that is ‘made for you’. i expect that is the reason those kids had trouble making such an identification.
    and ‘the path we’re currently on’ is not an integrated one yet. we cant say something doesnt work that we havent even tried.

    • I’d love to check out the studies to which you are referring. The studies I’ve read show that even if one is the “non-targeted” side of racism and prejudice (because these folks DO experience and swim in racism; we all do) racial identity develops. So, nothing I’ve read concludes only children of color have a racial identity. (Referencing Robert Carter, Janet Helms, Beverly Daniel Tatum). This study I was working here, too, WAS in an integrated environment. Anecdotally, I was in integrated schools K-12 (during the era of bussing) and saw utterly similar realities among white students and in myself. So, again, I’m not dismissing your critique. But I would love to see the studies you’re drawing on so I can complexify my analysis as needed. Thanks!

      • pusdcitizens says:

        Yes, I used the word ‘largely’ intentionally. My sense is that it can exist for most people, just to quite different extents and playing different roles depending on race. Obviously, the question of whether it exists and whether there is a ‘need’ for it are also two very different things. One admitted problem with this issue is that measuring occurrence may be a proxy for measuring need, and if groups are disproportionately rejecting their own race as an identity, then that might result in misleading conclusions about need. However, anecdotally, I still think they are related, and research appears to suggest the same.
        Anyway, I think you raised some very interesting points, even if I dont agree with it all. 🙂
        One thing I do think worth thinking more about is how exactly an increased white racial identity can reduce racism. In an ideal world, I think your point about using it to ‘generate a gap between white supremacy and white identity’ would be the way. The problem is we live in a society where many dont believe racism even exists anymore. To the extent it still does (and it seems you’d agree it does), it seems clear any such gap could thus only be a false one, likely in the process simply reinforcing the current system as one ‘newly-aligned’ with white identity (while others continue to view that same system as the same ol’ oppressive and racist, or a white supremacy one).
        IMHO, the beginning of movement past the discrimination we currently have is a recognition of how our current society does what it does. Since it’s historically been built around whites, I’d even argue that this would necessitate a grappling with some sense of white identity (though I’m not sure whether it would be in a positive or negative way–on one hand, lack of white identity may be a cause for discounting the racial identity of non-whites; on the other hand, lack of white identity may actually be an inhibitor to what might otherwise be worse discrimination (I’m not convinced white on color violence comes out of resentment for lack of racial identity, for example)).
        Of course, all of these things are much easier to talk about in theoretical terms. When you start challenging existential paradigms, people tend to embrace cognitive dissonance and then everything goes haywire. 🙂
        Re. your research question. A lot of the research is in journals that are not that easy to find online (tho being a teacher maybe you have more access), but there are two I found online that should be a good start. Both are somewhat meta-surveys of the research and directions, and both have a lot of good references. But one also focuses on the idea of centrality and how that differs by demographic. Interestingly, that one also references Helms.,+2007.pdf

        sorry for the novel.. 🙂

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