Learning whiteness

The blog, Stuff White People Do, which is celebrating its one-year anniversary, has re-posted a very interesting article about learned whiteness–the beliefs and values that blogger Macon D (who is white) says are consciously and unconsciously taught to white people, beginning in childhood.

First, Macon D quotes Lilliam Smith, who in 1949 published a searing memoir about growing up in the South:

I began to understand, slowly at first but more clearly as the years passed, that the warped, distorted frame we have put around every Negro child from birth is around every white child also. Each is on a different side of the frame but each is pinioned there. And I knew that what cruelly shapes and cripples the personality of one is as cruelly shaping and crippling the personality of the other.

Then the writer offers some examples of the “frames” that are often put around white children:

1. You are different from other children. Even though your initial impressions in pre-school, at the park, or on the playground behind your apartment building tell you that other kids are just kids like you, some of them are not just like you.

2. You go to a school populated mostly by other white kids. If you don’t attend such a school, you’re an unusual white kid. There’s nothing wrong with going to a school that’s mostly white—it’s normal.

3. You are not to ask why you’re surrounded mostly by other white kids, nor why your neighborhood or town is so very white. You are also not to ask how things got that way. Adults do not have answers to these questions, and they quickly change the subject if you ask them.

4. You are an individual who is responsible for your own actions and accomplishments; your own racial membership is not a factor in your life. Nobody tells you that your race has anything to do with who and what you are, nor with what you achieve (nevertheless, as you might learn later in life, it does). The rules for white conduct are not explicitly stated as such, and you instead learn what you supposedly are as a white person by learning what other people supposedly are. The characteristics displayed by figures who are presented to you as “black,” “Indian,” “Mexican,” and so on, help to define what you are by defining what you are not.

Read more…

Readers, what do you think? Do you agree with this assessment? And if you are the white parent of a white child, how will you avoid placing Smith’s “warped and distorted frame” around your children?

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About Tami

Tami Winfrey Harris writes about race, feminism, politics and pop culture at the blog What Tami Said. Her work has also appeared online at The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ms. Magazine blog, Newsweek, Change.org, Huffington Post and Racialicious. She is a graduate of the Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism. She is mom to two awesome stepkids and spends her spare time researching her family history and cultivating a righteous 'fro.
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