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What It Means To Be White

Back by popular demand, but mostly thanks to an influx of new readers filling my inbox with some pressing questions, I’m re-running part of a column from last year about what it means to be white. It’s an overlooked part of the “how to have a difficult conversation about race,” dilemma. For one thing, it hits a new note for most white conversation partners: White people tend to think of themselves as people, not as having a race. They certainly don’t think of themselves as “oppressors.” I hope you’ll find the resources below helpful. – E McG.

I had a conversation with a middle-school classroom teacher recently, a twenty-plus year veteran who had 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, the data showed that black students are being punished at higher rates than white ones are. They had to turn this around.

To help the teachers figure things out, they’d 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. The big takeaway: You’re punishing the black kids unfairly.

“They’re calling us racist,” the teacher told me, among many other pointed things.

Frank Dobbin, a professor of sociology at Harvard, co-conducted research that seems to show that most diversity efforts are similarly doomed.

“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.”

I was able to offer no breakthrough moment to this very angry teacher, but we did talk about something that they had not considered before. Why not start by thinking less about how black students are badly behaved, and think more about how the white ones are being let off the hook for the exact same behaviors?

Why is one transgression the sign of normal growing pains in one kid, and evidence of a future thug in the another?

Reframing how whiteness is perceived rather than how blackness needs to be policed can sometimes be helpful. It can, however, make white people uncomfortable for different reasons.

Sociologist Robin DiAngelo has cornered the market on white people’s discomfort with talking about themselves as white. (Here’s a terrific review of her 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, reserves her most pointed observations for the white liberals who exempt themselves from criticism and reject the idea that they need to understand how they exist within racist systems.

“I believe that ‘white progressives’ cause the most daily damage to people of color.” It’s not just the unexamined complicity, she says. “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.”

Regardless of ideology, being perceived to be racist is a very, very upsetting thing for most people. That’s why taking a step back can help. And I do mean all the way back.

Someone absolutely invented the idea of whiteness, 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 a fourteen-part series on how the concept of race came to be, and how the social construct of whiteness informs a complex caste system that is all around us, all the time. (Hint: It’s linked to colonialism, capitalism, and a desperate attempt to justify enslaving other people.) Refined over centuries, it is now often invisible to the naked, white eye.

While the reported pieces are exceptional, some of the episodes are simple conversations between the white host, John Biewen, and his black friend, 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. Kumanyika provides a perspective that’s unwavering, honest, and generous.

Together they model a simple truth: That it’s possible to acknowledge that you’ve missed something important about how the world works – or how you operate within it – without losing face, friends, or your own future. You just have to put in the time.

On Point

Elizabeth Warren proposes a new fund to help black and Latinx studentsDemocratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren’s buzzy new student loan forgiveness plan is getting a lot of public debate for its hefty price tag – $1.25 trillion over a decade. But she includes provisions specifically designed to help black and Latinx students, including a $50 billion fund aimed to close gaps in per-student spending at Historically Black Colleges and Universities and similar institutions. It would help: Students of color are disproportionately burdened by education-related debt. Other proposals include a requirement that publicly funded schools file a report outlining barriers facing low income and students of color and a rule preventing public colleges from considering citizenship or criminal history in admissions. Bloomberg

Understanding McKinsey’s presence in Puerto Rico
Puerto Rico’s problems seem only to have grown in the last few years, a combination of natural and human-caused disasters that have put the island deeply in debt and political turmoil. Enter global management consultancy McKinsey & Company. “I mean, it’s basically a management crisis,” senior partner Bertil Chappuis says. McKinsey now has an outsized presence on the island, and consultants been directing budget cuts and making other management decisions. But concerns of conflicts, like the millions that the firm reportedly invested in Puerto Rican bonds through their internal hedge fund, have observers worried that the billion dollar arrangement will mean more trouble for the island. Andrew Rice of New York Magazine worked with Luis Valentin Ortiz of the Puerto Rican focused publication Centro de Periodismo Investigativo for this story. You can read the Spanish-language version here.
New York Magazine

A Silicon Valley experiment to redesign education is getting mixed reviews
Summit Learning is an online “personalized learning” platform developed by Facebook engineers and funded by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, and his pediatrician wife, Priscilla Chan. Its goal was to provide an affordable way to offer quality education for students in underfunded schools, but not all families in the pilot programs have been happy. The system, which is free, requires kids to learn mostly on their own, tethered to laptops for their quizzes and lessons. Kids are complaining of health-related issues, alienation and stress. “We’re allowing the computers to teach and the kids all looked like zombies,” said one Kansas parent.
New York Times

Herman Cain removes his name for Federal Reserve board position
The former Godfather Pizza CEO and failed presidential candidate was reportedly surprised when President Trump had put his name forward, but as it turned out, Cain did not appear to have the votes to be confirmed. Yesterday, Trump tweeted that “My friend Herman Cain, a truly wonderful man, has asked me not to nominate him for a seat on the Federal Reserve Board. I will respect his wishes.” Experts cited a lack of experience. “There were so many things about (Cain) that were red flags,” including his lack of understanding of monetary policy, said economist Diane Swonk. While Cain has served on the board of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City he didn’t participate in any interest rate decisions.
Associated Press


On Background

Retirement age workers now twice as likely to be in the workforce
Yes, it’s about money. For the first time in 57 years, the participation rate in the labor force for people over 65 has cracked the 20 percent mark, reports Bloomberg’s Suzanne Wooley. And, the biggest spike is in college-educated older workers. Some 53 percent of current employees over 65 have an undergraduate degree. In 1985, that number was only 25 percent. It’s a problem within a problem, says one expert. “These are the more educated, wealthier individuals in better health who are continuing to work, but it’s probably their less-educated, working-class counterparts who need to work the most.”

On speaking up for others and finding yourself
“In this day and age, everyone has a voice, even if they don’t know it.” So begins this sometimes painful-to-watch TEDx talk by Rashad Nimr, a half-Palestinian, all-gay high school graduate, who has been living with a profound stutter since he was four. At the time the video was filmed, Nimr had been a busy advocate for LGBTQIA teens in his home state of Connecticut, and a volunteer in refugee camps in the Middle East on summer visits. “Possibly because of my own struggle for voice, I have taken a liking to spoken word poetry,” he says. While the magic of watching his stutter temporarily disappear is extraordinary, what he says is even more so. “What am I supposed to do with identities that don’t mix?” he asks.

The racist history of Portland, Oregon, the whitest city in America
Portland is more widely known more for its progressive ideas and Nike than its strange, violent past. But from it’s very founding as a racist utopia – Oregon was the only state to explicitly bar black people after it was founded – Portland has attempted to maintain overtly racist policies in employment, housing, lending and education. The result is a disgraceful mix of racial tension and inequity that white people would rather not talk about.
The Atlantic



The fear of triggering white fears often distorts black political behavior. We find ourselves swallowing our rage whole and refusing to speak difficult truths in order to maintain the illusion of civility. Like Sartre’s waiter whose movements “are little too precise,” there is something about our “calm” that doesn’t seem quite right. In that moment, we exhibit bad faith.
—Eddie Glaude