“Well, I’m Glad I’m White.”

For MLK day last week, we watched this simple, kid-friendly Brainpop Jr. video about Dr. Martin Luther King. After it finished, I briefly synopsized it to make sure the kids, especially the younger ones, had a good sense for why we celebrate his birthday. There was a short, weighty pause while everyone let that chunk of history sink in. And then this innocent 4-year-old cherub that I teach took a deep breath and said, “Well . . . I’m glad I’m white.”

It’s rare that one of the kids leaves me speechless.
The older kids, ages 6, 7, and 11, immediately jumped all over the wee preschooler with all sorts of “It doesn’t matter what color your skin is” reprimands. I calmed them down and we discussed it a bit more. But it really got me thinking. 
This 4-year-old is being raised in a Baha’i family, where race unity is not only accepted, but is an actively taught belief. Her mother, who is half Iraqi, was raised in West Africa. They have friends of all different races and cultures. From every standpoint, this kid is surrounded by messages of equality.
And it’s not as though her response was inappropriate for her age. Not having a real clear sense of time and history, it’s understandable that she would simply see that the people who looked like her in the story were not the ones being mistreated, and feel some relief in the idea that she’d have been on the safer end of things if she lived back then.
But it underscored for me the importance of proactive education in overcoming our country’s racial history. Because really, this “I’m glad I’m white” notion probably lives deep inside most of us white folk, whether we are conscious of it or not. 
What if this little cherub didn’t have the upbringing and education to check that automatic response? How easy would it be, even subconsciously, for “I’m glad I’m white” to gradually morph into “It’s better that I’m white” and eventually to “I’m better because I’m white” if there wasn’t a strong message to counter that? 
And I wonder if a black child watching the same video, or learning about that same chunk of history, might have the opposite gut response. I’m sure there’s some pride there in seeing someone like Dr. King doing such courageous and world-changing work. But at the same time, they’re seeing that 1) people that look like them were seen as dirty and inferior, and 2) people that stood up for change, though they had support, were doubly mistreated and eventually shot and killed. I always think of civil rights movement education as inspiring. But maybe there’s another layer to it that I have – in my white ignorance, perhaps – never considered. If a white child thinks “I’m glad I’m white,” could a black child think, “It sucks that I’m black?”
I watched a video interview of Dr. Joy Degruy, author of “Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome,” where she explained very clearly how much our country’s racial history still affects blacks today. African Americans in general have had to fight not only the white status quo, but their own slavery-era ancestral habits in order to climb toward equality. 
For example, let’s take education. If you were a child of a slave, and you were caught knowing how to read, you’d be beaten. Or your family would be beaten. Or separated. Or worse. Education had horrible consequences for blacks for a very long time in this country. So parents taught their kids to act dumb in order to keep them safe. The dumber you talked, the safer you were. Those were truths – not assumptions, not ignorant habits, but truths – that got passed down for generations. Fear is a powerful and insidious oppressor.
We’ve come a long way, I think, but we still have so much vital work to do in this area. The civil rights movement really wasn’t that long ago. One generation from me. Two generations from these kids I teach. There’s a lot of subconscious junk that is still quite fresh in the larger scheme of things. Maybe it’s not enough to teach kids that skin color doesn’t matter. Maybe we need to dig deeper than that, uncomfortable as it might be.
The Baha’i teachings call racial equality between blacks and whites America’s most challenging issue. And the suggestions for what needs to be done to solve it really boils down to doing our own work, both internally and externally:

(Note: This was written in 1938, so try not to let the term “Negroes” bristle you too much – it was the appropriate term at the time.)

“Let the white make a supreme effort in their resolve to contribute their share to the solution of this problem, to abandon once and for all their usually inherent and at times subconscious sense of superiority, to correct their tendency towards revealing a patronizing attitude towards the members of the other race, to persuade them through their intimate, spontaneous and informal association with them of the genuineness of their friendship and the sincerity of their intentions, and to master their impatience of any lack of responsiveness on the part of a people who have received, for so long a period, such grievous and slow-healing wounds. Let the Negroes, through a corresponding effort on their part, show by every means in their power the warmth of their response, their readiness to forget the past, and their ability to wipe out every trace of suspicion that may still linger in their hearts and minds. Let neither think that the solution of so vast a problem is a matter that exclusively concerns the other. Let neither think that such a problem can either easily or immediately be resolved.” – Shoghi Effendi 

So much work to do.

I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of my thoughts on this matter, but life calls. Feel free to share your thoughts. These are important conversations to have.

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Annie writes about life, motherhood, world issues, beautiful places, and anything else that tickles her brain. On good days, she enjoys juggling life with her husband and homeschooling her children. On bad days, she binges on chocolate chips and dreams of traveling the world alone.

Comments 11

  1. When I was in university in Canada in the early seventies, I went to a lecture by Dick Gregory, who was a Black comedian and activist. We were all of us in that audience white, as that was how things stood in a university in Western Canada at that time. Gregory spoke candidly of his sense of personal inferiority when he was growing up. He had been profoundly sensitive about the thickness of his lips, for example, and when he was a teenager he would try to fold his lips against his teeth to make them seem thinner. It was pretty powerful stuff, especially since we were all young, and I’ll bet that most of us were sensitive about our perceived imperfections of feature. I know I was.

    Gregory’s larger point was that he knew that white people thought of him as ugly and he thought he was ugly too. That’s one of those things that race theorists just don’t discuss. I also remember James Baldwin describing himself as ugly. What I’m getting at here is that there are all kinds things that Black people feel about themselves that white people just can’t understand, and that no one can comfortably acknowledge.

  2. Having read this I believed it was extremely informative.

    I appreciate you finding the time and energy to put this article together.
    I once again find myself personally spending a lot of time both reading and leaving comments.
    But so what, it was still worthwhile!

  3. Even though blacks make up only 12% of the population, they make up 43% of the prison population.

    To say that “we are all the same” or that “skin color doesn’t matter” is to not understand these figures.

    People of all races need to figure out why 63% of Black men have been incarcerated at some point while only 1 in 23 people in the general population have.

    Skin color DOES matter. There is a growing celebration of the “thug” in our culture where we as a people celebrate the ratchet or the hustler doing their thing, while not noticing or clowning on the young folks staying in school and trying to better themselves.

    I think it is up to us as a people to change the perception of what it means to be black in America. We need to change from a worldview of “we are the victims” to “we are hard workers.” The focus of our collective identity needs to change much as it did in the Harlem Rennesance.

  4. A mom I know wrote her response to this post on her own blog, and I invite you to check it out: http://unschoolingchic.wordpress.com/2012/01/24/a-different-perspective/

    I’m so glad people are offering their thoughts and perspectives. I thought it would be nice to continue the discussion here in the comments, so that those of you who’d like to chime in may do so. I don’t have the time or the brain function to formulate a coherent response right now (it’s way past my bedtime), but I’ll toss out my thoughts and questions as soon as I can.

    1. I’ve had a chance to read through the post above and I have a few thoughts.

      First, thank you for sharing your perspective. I’m trying hard to see where you’re coming from and determine whether it’s actually in conflict with what I wrote. Perhaps we need some clarification.

      I wasn’t actually aware that it was a mainstream meme that black kids might feel bad about their racial identity when learning about the civil rights movement. That was a new notion to me. Especially because most of the focus is on inspiring figures, such as Rosa Parks, Dr. King, etc., I’ve never thought of it as anything other than inspiring. But I see what I think you might be saying, in that even those famous figures can be problematic if that’s all a kid is seeing, because their roles were to help blacks gain equal rights, which again shines a light on the fact that blacks were seen as dirty and inferior. Harriet Tubman, too, right? As opposed to, say, George Washington Carver or other inspiring black figures whose accomplishments and fame are not related directly to civil rights or slave freedom. Am I in the ballpark?

      So here’s my question, though. As a white person and as a teacher, I feel like it would be dishonoring African Americans in general to not acknowledge, in a purposeful way, the history of slavery and segregation and how that history has affected where we are in race relations today. It would be nice to be able to focus primarily on stories of black families or individuals who aren’t related to that history, but are we really there yet? Because as far as I can tell, most famous black figures in history have had to overcome significant, if not enormous challenges, in order to accomplish whatever it is they accomplished, solely because of their skin color and all of the prejudices and societal limitations that went along with it – which all goes back to slavery. Wouldn’t it be dishonoring their stories to not acknowledge those race-specific struggles?

      I can see how this can be a vicious circle. I certainly don’t think that any kid should look at their ancestral history and feel inferior or superior. My student’s response wasn’t about superiority, although it could turn into that if unchecked. And my epiphany that a black kid might feel the opposite way wasn’t about inferiority, either, although that could also turn into that if unchecked. I think part of checking those things is having these kinds of conversations.

      Crap, I’ve got to go to bed. Feel free to ask me if any of this didn’t make sense.

  5. Straight from the heart. This needs to be discussed in every home. Beautiful. And not only relevant for the racial implications, but for anyone who is different. As a former obese person, I can easily see how this can translate to how we treat fat people as well and the mixed messages our children get everyday concerning this issue.
    Thanks for continuing the discussion. =)

  6. This is a very provocative post. My kids have commented, “Mamma, do you notice that most of the homeless people in town look like me?” Once they started serving at our local shelter, though, they found the opposite to be true: most of the residents are white. Still, to them, the homeless they noticed were the black ones.

    Quite by accident, our study of the oppression of Jewish people had a slight balancing effect on my kids. I hadn’t entered that area of study with that in mind, but it was not lost on them that the Holocaust was perpetrated on white people.

    Nonetheless, this remains a struggle for us. After a long period of my son complaining each time he had to do schoolwork, we had a very difficult talk about what many in the country expect of black men and how, unfair as it is, he will have to work harder to rise above that. It was a very painful discussion that left us both in tears, made all the more complicated by me being a white mother to my black son. I wrote about it here: http://www.lakeschooling.com/2012/01/i-still-have-dream.html.

    Thanks for a beautifully written post on this subject. I will watch those videos.

    1. Good point about the Holocaust, LM. I wonder if it wouldn’t be better to teach kids about all of these systematic oppressions all at once, to sort of lessen the personal associations kids might feel with their own ethnicity. Then again, how depressing would that be? “Hey kids, let’s learn about slavery, the Holocaust, the Trail of Tears, the Crusades, and Rwanda all at once – doesn’t that sound like fun?”

      In light of your conversation with your son, I think you really would appreciate that video interview with Dr. Degruy. There’s a story she tells in it of her son stepping off of a curb momentarily and getting into a debacle with the police over it that is really eye-opening. She talks about being the mother of black sons and what she had to prepare them for. And your circumstances are totally more – or at least differently – complex being a white mother of a black child. I’d love to hear your thoughts after you get a chance to watch it.

  7. Zoiks! I don’t know how the Negzoe thing happened. I copied and pasted that directly, and it was correct in the original. Weird. All fixed now.

    Thanks for your thoughts, Lisa. Interesting to hear about that feeling of inferiority. I would never have thought of myself as having any sense of superiority, since my conscious heart is so very far from that idea. But people of “my race” were the ones with the power. I have automatic privileges and immunities, some of which I am aware of and many that I’m sure I’m not aware of. While I may not feel “superior” as a white person, my experience in the world – how the world sees me and treats me, consciously or unconsciously – points toward that idea. I remember looking at a poster of the presidents in an education store one time and being struck by how WHITE (and male, of course) it was. It would never have dawned on me as a kid how that poster affected my life. But it does. Whether I associate myself with it or not, my skin color and all of the history and power that goes along with it is what many people register at first glance when they look at me. Yes, so much work to do. I suppose recognizing that is at least a step in the right direction.

  8. Great post and very right on. I agree, there is still so much to do. I only have a moment to respond, but will say that as a person that isn’t white there is always a feeling, no matter how hard you try to push it away, of inferiority. Likely because of all the things you just mentioned. It’s just this deep seeded “thing” that we all have to overcome or change or both. It is always crazy to me to think that the civil rights movement wasn’t that long ago. Crazy and scary.

    PS – What’s a “Negzoe”? 😉

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