This week I share an excerpt from my forthcoming book, Disrupting Whiteness: Talking with White People About Racism. In this segment I am contending that before white people can talk with others about racism, they need to be able to identify and articulate the development of their own awareness and consciousness around issues of race and racism. In other words, we can’t invite other people to explore their own experiences with issues of race, before we know our own story. For those who would like to preorder the book, you may do so at Arch Street Press at this link.
When we deny the story, it defines us. When we own the story, we can write a brave new ending.
Starting with Ourselves
If we who are white want to resist, undo and overcome the impact of racism in American society, we must start with ourselves. For that reason whites must begin by probing and understanding their own experiences with regard to race. For many years I have taught college classes and led workshops on racism. In those settings I often begin by asking people to reflect on what I call their “race story.” I ask them to reflect on a few basic questions. The point of these questions is to encourage people to think about their socialization around issues of race and then to ask themselves how those experiences shaped and influenced them. Anyone who has spent any time in the United States, whether they were born here or immigrated, has been influenced by dynamics of race. However, many white people in this country don’t think of themselves in racial terms. While they think of other groups of people as having a race, many whites have not been socialized to think of themselves as having a race. In fact for many whites, it’s only when they encounter BIPOC that they begin to think of themselves in terms of being white.
The questions listed below invite one to reflect on what it means to be a racialized person and how that impacts one’s interactions and relationships with others. If a person is going to engage white people in a discussion about how racism has shaped and impacted them, that person needs to know his or her own race story.
The questions are as follows.
- How would you describe your race? This question assumes in our society every person has been racialized and either has been categorized racially by others and/or has chosen to identify oneself racially in a particular way. For many white people this may not be a question they have seriously considered.
- When did you first become aware of race as something to be concerned about? This question invites one to reflect when the topic of race was introduced to them. It may have been something seen on the news, something they encountered outside the home, or something discussed by one’s parents or other significant adults. Important with this question is the feeling tone or underlying message associated with one’s awareness. In many white homes the topic of race itself was considered taboo, something not talked about at all or only in code. In other cases race may have been a common topic, only in overt derogatory ways.
- When did you first become aware of your race? Sometimes the answer to this question is the same as the answer to the previous question. However, for many people, especially white people, one becomes aware of others’ race before their own. For some, becoming aware that one has a race is a shocking and disturbing reality, especially if they have been socialized not to talk about it.
- When did you first become aware of racism? For many white people, racism is something that happens to a distant other. In other cases someone might have grown up in an environment where racist attitudes, actions and words were commonly spoken, but they did not realize what they had grown up with was overtly racist. I once had an adult student who insisted that racism was not part of her upbringing. Then she remembered her grandfather coming home and taking off his white hood and robe. Until that point, she had no idea of the racist environment in which she had been raised.
- When was the first time you witnessed or experienced racism? This question gets at when racism became personal, when it was no longer an idea, but something one had seen or heard or experienced. When one experiences racism in a personal way, it becomes more real. Many whites will only have indirectly seen or heard something they understood as racist.
- What, if any, messages do you remember being given about race and/or racism by your parents, teachers and other significant adults in your childhood? This question allows one to reflect on the subtle and not-so-subtle messages significant others gave them about race and racism growing up.
- If you know something of your family history, when were your ancestors first considered white on the North American continent? What were they considered as before they were considered white? What was lost when they became white? With the increase in tracing one’s family history, these questions invite one to consider what it means to be called “white.” Many immigrants, such as Jews, Irish and East Europeans, upon arrival were discriminated against, but over time gained the power and privilege of whiteness through assimilation. The ability to assimilate was never fully available to many darker-skinned people groups.
- What are some critical incidents in your life where the reality of racism became clear to you and showed you something about yourself and the world around you which you had not realized before? This focus on critical incidents seeks to identify incidents, relationships and other situations that made a person aware of their own attitudes and emotions regarding race and caused them either to withdraw and become defensive, or caused them to change their behavior, worldview and attitudes about BIPOC. These incidents can often be disturbing and it may not be until much later in life that people realize the full impact racism had on their lives.
From these questions, one can begin to construct their “race story.” The questions are meant to be evocative, opening one up to consider the ways they have been shaped by the people and events in their lives. In my classes and workshops as people reflect on and answer these questions, I then gently probe in order to understand more fully the context of their experiences, what were they feeling, what changed for them and how did it affect them going forward. I also ask them to think about what else may have been going on at the time that may have contributed to their experiences.
Once whites understand their race story, it becomes a foundation and a resource for talking about racism with other whites. Being able to acknowledge that one has had uncomfortable feelings or thoughts in conversations about racism allows a person to find common ground with another person with the same struggle. From that point one can then share how they worked through the experience in a way that was more racially constructive.
 I am indebted to Lisa Sharon Harper for this question. Lisa Sharon Harper. “The Little White Lie That Has Divided Our Country, “ interview by Alex Gee. Black Like Me, Episode 21. http://blacklikeme.libsyn.com/lisa-sharon-harper-the-little-white-lie-that-has-divided-our-country; To understand the assimilation process, see Noel Ignatiev. How the Irish Became White. (New York Routledge, 1995).