Skip to Content

raceAhead: What Does It Mean To Be White?

A hand holding a pair of balloons that look like eyes against a white wallA hand holding a pair of balloons that look like eyes against a white wall
Someone invented whiteness. Refined over centuries, it's a caste system that exists around us all.pchyburrs—Getty Images/RooM RF

I recently had a conversation with a middle-school classroom teacher, a twenty-plus year veteran who has been given another difficult task to perform in an era of budget cuts: Help fix the school’s discipline stats.

Like many predominantly white schools, their data show that black students are being punished at higher rates than white ones are. To help the teachers figure things out, they’ve been forced to take some well-intentioned, but poorly managed bias-mitigation training that has served only to insult them while failing to address their concerns.

I could get a book out of the conversation we had, but suffice it say: The teachers are pissed.

This is a version of a story that all inclusion professionals in every sector have heard before—a problem presents, a solution is provided, it goes off the rails, and a costly “hodgepodge of one-off efforts” are actually making things worse.

Frank Dobbin, a professor of sociology at Harvard, co-conducted research showing that most bias mitigation efforts are doomed from the start. “It always seemed crazy to me that people thought that you could put people in two hours of diversity training and change their behavior,” he tells raceAhead. “And when you talk to people after they get out of diversity training, often they’re angry and feel like they’re being treated like bigots. It just never seemed to me that that was a likely way to change the world.”

To be clear, I was able to offer no magic salve to this very angry teacher. But we did talk about something that they had not considered before. Maybe it would help to think less about how black students are overrepresented in the stats, and think more about how the white ones are being let off the hook for the same behaviors?

Put another way, what does it mean to you to be white? Just a thought.

Sociologist Robin DiAngelo has cornered the market on white people’s discomfort with talking about race. (Here’s a terrific review of her latest book, White Fragility.) Part of the problem, she says, is an inability to truly grasp the vastness of the racist systems in which we all operate. DiAngelo, who is white, also reserves her most pointed observations to the white liberals who exempt themselves from criticism and struggle to understand how they exist within racist systems. “I believe that white progressives cause the most daily damage to people of color,” she says. It’s not just the unexamined complicity. “To the degree that white progressives think we have arrived, we will put our energy into making sure that others see us as having arrived.”

The work lies elsewhere.

For starters, someone absolutely invented the idea of whiteness (and I mean that literally), and it’s impossible to understand the world we live in now if we don’t understand how whiteness came to be.

For that, I’d point you to a deceptively mellow podcast from Scene On Radio, the Peabody-nominated joint from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. Seeing White is their fourteen-part series on how the concept of race came to be, and how the intentional construction of whiteness contributes to a complex caste system that is all around us, all the time. Refined over centuries, it is often invisible to the naked eye. But it doesn’t have to be.

While the reported pieces are exceptional, some of the episodes are simple conversations between the white host, John Biewen, and his black friend and colleague, the journalist, professor, and artist Chenjerai Kumanyika.

Biewen has been in public radio on the race beat for a long time, and his expertise shows. But he also shows admirable vulnerability as he checks his own assumptions about race, history, and his life. As a conversation partner, Kumanyika provides a perspective that’s informed, unwavering and generous. They make you want to be their friend, too.

But listening to them is a reminder that while it’s hard to talk about race, it’s not impossible. In fact, sometimes it really can make things better.

On Point

The many misconceptions about coming out at workThis piece from HBR outlines seven, but the main one is clear: Not everyone who is “out” at work is out to everybody. The research, which surveys professionals in Australia, finds that the number of people who keep their identity hidden from some people is more dramatic there (68%), but research suggests some 46% of workers in the U.S. are only partially out at work. Here’s another myth worth considering: LGBTQ+ people don’t always have control of when and to whom they share their identities. From the research: “Some individuals are outed against their will, while others are forced to come out because of workplace policies.” HBR

Salesforce co-CEO says every chief executive needs to be an activist
Speaking to The Australian Financial Review while on a visit to Melbourne, Salesforce co-CEO Keith Block sought to encourage business leaders grappling with how to weigh in on pressing issues like climate change and civil rights to get moving. “There’s an accountability wave coming here. For a long time CEOs have only been accountable to their shareholders, and maybe their employees, but now they will be fully accountable to their stakeholders,” he said. While the Force was strong with Block, the Sales were as well: The company is investing heavily in the Asia Pacific region and has been growing its business about 30% annually there, with related gains in headcount and infrastructure investment.
Australian Financial Review

Lyft partners with Voto Latino to get out the vote in Kansas
The famed Dodge City, which turns out to be in Kansas, recently closed its only polling place. The move inconvenienced its 27,000, mostly Democratic and Latinx voters, many of whom struggled to get to the polls even when it was close to home The new polling place, just outside of the city limits, is difficult to get to under ideal circumstances, but for anyone with a job or unreliable transportation, getting there will probably be tough. Enter Lyft, who is partnering with the activist organization Voto Latino to drive people to the polls for the mid-terms. They announced the alliance with a tweet:  “#DodgeCity#Kansas, is a Latinx -majority city that has had its ONLY polling location moved outside of city limits w/out access by public transportation.”
Fortune

South Carolina is lobbying for provisions that would prevent Jewish parents from adopting
And, the Trump Administration is considering it. The request is from faith-based foster care agencies in the state who are looking for reasons to deny Jewish parents access to foster children in their network. The argument is a familiar one: The Religious Freedom Restoration Act should not force a Protestant group to work with Jews because it violates their faith. If the exemption is granted, would allow agencies like Miracle Hill Ministries to continue to receive federal funds while recruiting “Christian foster families” and discriminating against Jews plus everyone else including Muslims, atheists, Catholics, and you see where this is going.
The Intercept

 

The Woke Leader

Even classical sculpture is racist
You know those majestic Greek and Roman figures that grace the halls of many a high-tone museum? Cold white marble, thousand yard stare? Turns out they were originally painted, with costumes in often exuberant, even campy colors, and with pigments that reflected their varied skin tones. While the practice of scrubbing these artifacts of any traces of color has gone on for ages, it’s one that is being revisited now. For one thing, it calls into question the nobility of the era. (One aggrieved art historian said a color-corrected statue of Emperor Augustus looked “like a cross-dresser trying to hail a taxi.”) But for another, it was the adoption of the ancient aesthetic by white supremacy group Identity Evropa, that caused her to challenge the way institutions presented the sculpture. Her essays, describing the way the art was originally presented, has earned her racist hate mail.
New Yorker

Maybe To Kill a Mockingbird isn’t the best way to talk about racism
Lots of people quietly take issue with the book and its unwavering place in the pantheon of classic literature. Andray Domise, a Toronto-based freelance writer, outlines a not unfamiliar discussion in academic circles. Is TKAM really the best way to introduce race and racism to white schoolchildren? For some teachers involved in the debate, the desire by some parents to replace it with other novels for the purpose of discussing race is tantamount to censorship. “To be clear, To Kill a Mockingbird is a well-written book,” he says. “As a teaching narrative on the reality of race, however, it is helplessly facile and ill-suited.”
The Globe and Mail

Bhutan is not so happy anymore
Spoiler alert: It’s hard not to read this story and die a little inside. The tiny nation of Bhutan has long been known for its commitment to “Gross National Happiness,” which seeks to balance economic growth with other benchmarks of success. But the former monarchy, now a decade into a democratic system, is now besieged by political candidates slinging insults and making wild promises. “In terms of peace and quiet and harmony, the old system was much better,” said resident Chencho Dorji, 68. “We feel sad with all of these social divisions,” said Dorji Penjore, who heads the Center for Bhutan and Gross National Happiness Studies, a thinktank that I’d love to visit.
Washington Post

Quote

Fair skin, of course, is a type of skin — some people have fairer skin than others — but by itself that doesn’t mean anything. Thinking of yourself as white means that you accept and embrace a society that attaches social meaning to fair skin. Without the advantages of whiteness in this society, fair skin would have no more significance than big ears or left-handedness — it would mean nothing. Part of the problem is whiteness is considered to be the norm… The majority of the human race lives a life of misery and pain — especially people without money. To be white is to some degree [to] be exempted from that. So it’s not the norm. It’s the exception.
Noel Ignatiev