Sunday, August 24, 2008

Whiteness 101

I had an experience this week that was unexpected and, frankly, a little weird.

You know by now, I assume, that I teach sociology at a University and one of my courses this semester (which began this last Wednesday) is a course on Racial and Ethnic Relations. So far, so good, right? I mean, this is what I do, after all. And after twenty years of doing it, I know better by now than to ever think I'm not going to be thrown a curve every once in a while, especially when I've just changed schools. Besides, I'm a pro and I love what I do and periodic shake-ups keep us young (they tell me).

Anyway, my usual way to start my course in Race is to talk about how, according to scientists, "the socially-constructed, political notion of 'race'" is not biological. Then, I ask everyone to put themselves into a big circle in skin tone order (that's right). It isn't easy. They want to be compliant, but it's a request that immediately -- and even considerably -- raises the tension level in the room.

I keep up a stream of patter about the topic to keep us moving forward, bringing in "hair texture" as the next consideration.

"Do we place someone with darker skin and straighter hair BEFORE or AFTER someone with lighter skin and curlier hair?" I ask casually, as if we discuss such things in public all the time.

I don't actually expect them to answer. Nor do they.

Finally, I pull out some one dollar bills and bless each of the darkest five or six with one to keep, explaining that they're getting the money for having the darkest skin. The rest of the students, by now openly vulnerable, look disappointed.

"What's the matter?" I ask, pretending not to understand. "You don't like it when somebody is rewarded for an accident of birth over which they had no control? People that look like me receive far more benefits far more often than this."

Suffice it to say that it's a pretty effective exercise and a very dramatic way to begin the course, make my initial points, and get everybody outside their comfort zone where they will stay for pretty much the remainder of the semester.

The rest of the course is based largely on a process of showing very intense videos and requiring everyone to write out their reactions, which they turn in to me. Then, I pick and choose among them, reading aloud to the group sentences and paragraphs from different reactions (without identifying the writers other than by ethnicity). This gives the African-Americans, Asians, and Latin@s an opportunity to say exactly how they feel without having to worry about being personally attacked. It also gives the students who look like me an opportunity to hear it straight for once, in a setting where I can comment on and further contexualize what they are hearing. The White students can write exactly how they feel, as well, of course, but hearing it read back to them out loud and also contextualized helps them to reconsider their White Supremacist thinking.

So imagine my surprise and consternation Thursday when I walked into the classroom and saw 41 students, almost every one of which was European-American. I cringe to think of it yet.

I had no idea what to do. I had brought my dollar bills and the other things I needed for my usual opening volley. I was excited, though edgy about teaching race for the first time in Louisiana. But I was ready. And now, here I was, flying by the seat of my pants without a shred of warning and no do-overs. Whew!

We all lived through it, more or less, I suppose. I mean, some of the students had already had me for other classes and knew what to expect. In fact, some of them had taken this course expressly to see what I'd do in there. But even they couldn't make me more comfortable and help me through the glitch. I was dumb-struck. And, of course, when I'm nervous and free-falling and talking about race, things can get hairy for the listeners. (I'm smiling here, but I do know -- and I'm sure you can imagine -- I can get rough.)

Later, I went to a couple of former students, young people of color I trust, and asked them what they thought the lack of color among the students in that course is about. Talking with them, I came to realize that students of color in Louisiana have enough to deal with racially without volunteering to sit in a room twice a week listening to racist White folks defend their belief system. They couldn't possibly have imagined what I had in mind. So I got unintentionally hung out to dry.

To make matters worse, my department chair pointed out that while sociology majors at my institution are not required to take Racial and Ethnic Relations, criminal justice majors ARE. So, what I was looking at the other day was primarily a room full of southern European-American law enforcement professionals of the future. Oh, my.

(It didn't occur to me until this moment that the last three public universities I taught for all required that every undergraduate take at least two "multicultural" courses to graduate. Which gives me a really good idea...)

In the meantime, I'm going to have to draft a whole new game plan for this course in this semester. It'll look something like Whiteness 101, I guess.


macon d said...

Sounds like a great way to start a semester! I think the Mirrors movie is great too. Could you list the other "intense" videos that you'll be showing? Good luck with your pale tribe!

changeseeker said...

Hey, Macon D. Nice to see you still around. I've been sticking pretty close to home the past couple of weeks (preparing for the semester). The videos change from time to time and have something to do with what's available. If googling doesn't help you with locating these, just ask and I'll give you more information besides the title.

The videos I'm using this semester:
"The Angry Eye" (with Jane Elliott)
"Race: the Power of an Illusion -- Part 2"
"Ethnic Notions" (Berkeley)
"The Fire This Time" (on Los Angeles)
"The Spirit of a Culture: Cane River Creoles"
"Americano as Apple Pie"
"The Children's March" (SPLC)
"Passin' It On" (on Dhoruba bin Wahad)
" Extremists on the Internet" (SPLC)
"The Shadow of Hate" (SPLC)
"Baton Rouge's Troubled Waters"
"A Girl Like Me"
"A Question of Color" (Berkeley)
"Not in Our Town"
"The Color of Fear"

changeseeker said...

Sunday night about 9:00 p.m., a former student of mine left an anonymous message that used my real name. In the spirit of the blogger anonymity and internet identity I have maintained for the past three years, I decided ultimately to delete the comment, reposting it here without my name appearing. Anonymous wrote:

"Lest anyone get the wrong idea about her post, I would like to say that, as a former student of [this teacher], I do not consider her a racist. She is just 'leveling the playing field'
of a couple of hundred years' worth of discrimination, but, as I said, I don't think this makes her a racist.

"Thanks, [Changeseeker], for showing us that the WHITE MAN should be held accountable for the sins of his ancestors, even if it was generations ago. Their white skin color MAKES them responsible."

My response to this commentator is:

It moves me greatly, Anonymous, that I impressed you so much you have kept up with my blog and want to defend me to others. Your respectful support will help me to keep my courage up. For that, I thank you.

I would add, however, that I'm not as concerned with holding European-Americans responsible for what their ancestors did -- grievous as it was -- as I am with our society's continued support of White Supremacy and Privilege in the present.

Sorrow said...

I have a question, I think just one.
I came over here via another blog...
Have you ever lived outside the US?
guess I have two...
Have you ever been discriminated , or told that because of the color of your skin, you would have to "suck it up"?
just wondering...

changeseeker said...

Greetings, Sorrow. Thanks for dropping by. I'm not sure I understand your question(s). I've been outside the U.S., but I wouldn't say I've "lived" outside the U.S. Have I ever been discriminated against because of the color of my skin? Not so that it harmed me or the ones I love, not so that it cost me income (but I really don't know what you're getting at, so I'm not sure how to answer). Have I ever been told to "suck it up" because of the color of my skin? Not so far. At least as far as I can tell. Maybe if you could help me understand what you're saying, I could give you a more sensible response. Sorry.

Anonymous said...

I would also like to affirm that changeseeker is probably one of the most passionate instructors I've ever had the privileged of learning from.

I never got to take race and ethnic relations with you but I really wish I did! It was a huge disappointment when I didn't get to have you for delinquency...but that's neither here nor there. I'm trying to watch the videos but youtube is lagging.

Good luck this semester! I start tomorrow "Race & Immigration" then Theory and Stats to round out the week.

changeseeker said...

Wow! It's old home week apparently. I'm liking all this warm and fuzzy stuff.

Hey, Ohnezu. Thanks for dropping by the night before you step into your next chapter. I'm honored. Also, I think your link is the first one of those I've ever gotten. I got a little rush. Cool. :^) Enjoy grad school. Tough as it was, I did.

Rent Party said...

Is there something wrong with YouTube? It says the videos are no longer available. It also says this about other, unrelated videos, so I am not sure any of this is true.

changeseeker said...

Rent Party! :^) How's it goin'? I expect you're able to see the videos by now, but I know the problem you're having because I've had it myself from time to time, even with videos I embed. Then it rights itself somehow. The first couple of times it happened, I actually deleted the clip from my favorites before it dawned on me that it wasn't a permanent condition. I think there's just so many folks on the internet now that there are more or less constant glitches of one kind or another. Just one more frustration in a world that seems to be FULL of them, huh?

macon d said...

Wow, that's a lot of videos! Thanks much for the list, lots to check out there.

itsme said...


Sorrow said...

I was just checking on your ground. I am often wrong on where people come from out here in the WWW, and so I just wanted to see.
I was pointed here from some where else, after i left a comment.
I think that blanket statements about things are often in error. And I try not to read to much into what people say. I could not access your video's that you posted...
hence my simple questions.
I think it is a noble endeavor to want to change the way people look at people not like themselves. I often feel that our perceptions about the world around us are not only drawn from our experiences, but from the culture that we have to abide in.
not sure where I am going with all this. but I will be returning...
thank you.

changeseeker said...

Macon D.: It's my pleasure.

Sorrow: Not only do I think our culture affects our perceptions more than our experiences do, but I think our culture often determines our experiences, as well. That's why I call 'race' a "socially-constructed, political notion." Culture is the tool used to socially construct stuff.

Ed: Glad I could give you a few laughs. I might know you'd find it all funny. And how's the bald eagle's nest?

brohammas said...

In response to Sorrow's question of whether you had ever been told to "suck it up" because of your race... mostly because I have told white people to do that quite often.

I'm curious if in some odd way I know you and inspired the question???

I tell it to white people who's thin skin gets scratched every time they hear a black person complain. There is a growing number of white people feeling increasingly stifled by political correctness, and a perception that they (whites) are being unfairly blamed for everything.

I tell them to suck it up, don't take every jab at whites as personal. Just because you don't think yourself a racist oppressor, doesn't mean other whites are not.

If we are to make any progress at all, an open and honest dialogue must be opened. There is some true resentment built up on both sides and I say that history dictates that whites as a whole have a responsibility to at the very least, when in these discussions, to “suck it up” and listen.

changeseeker said...

brohammas: Hear! Hear!!

Anonymous said...

"The White students can write exactly how they feel, as well, of course, but hearing it read back to them out loud and also contextualized helps them to reconsider their White Supremacist thinking."

Just curious, but this read weird, and I took it to imply that all white people possess a supremacist point of view when it comes to race. I know this must not be what you meant, but if it is would you mind explaining that line of reasoning to me?

changeseeker said...

Actually, Anonymous 9:18, that's an excellent observation. I should certainly have written, "to reconsider their thinking, should it be White Supermacist in nature," huh? The fact is not only is it not always White Supremacist in nature, but sometimes it's wonderfully high in its consciousness, which I delight in reading aloud to demonstrate that not everybody who looks like me is constantly racist. I do have to say, as I often repeat on this blog, that I believe all people who look like me (including me) have to struggle continuously against the invitation to be and think in a racist fashion, but sometimes we escape. Thanks for pointing that out.

Unknown said...

To be quite honest: Why do we have to apologize for something other people did years ago? Is it the white mans fault your ancestors didn't die with honor to oppose slavery? They had a choice, everyone has a chance to fight for their beliefs. Were they not intelligent enough to recognize picking cotton all day would probably suck? Who's to say, but this cotton sweater feels nice.

The white people don't owe the "minorities" anything, and we don't expect anything from you. I'm so very pleased you read a book that expressed slavery being bad, and you're angry because of it. I mean, we're all sick of your demands for reparations. I'm sure one my ancestors was a slave during the extensive period of time humans have existed; but we grow up. I think the lot of you need to go back to Kindergarten and learn a thing or two.

The short and nice of it is this - we (our European brethren) decided to have a look over here, and we kicked the shit out of whomever opposed us. Is it their fault they were superior? Not really, blame your ancestors for not fighting hard enough for what they believe in.

Yes, I am white, and I enjoy the many advantages I get like a discount on a college education, tax breaks, free chances and scholarships solely dedicated to ethnic origin. Oh wait, that's not us at all.

changeseeker said...

I really have no idea how you came to find my blog, Paul, or why you bothered to read it once you found it. You obviously didn't read it very well or you would've realized that I'm not an African-American. I look just like you.

I'm pretty busy just now preparing for a visit with my daughter for Christmas, but I want to at least touch base with a few of your statements.

First of all, you apparently don't know that if hundreds of thousands of Black men hadn't fought with the Union forces, the North would have lost the war. You also don't appear to know that people held in bondage were tortured and murdered routinely as a way of keeping them "in their places," while law enforcement and the law in general in this country forbade them to move. If they left their "masters," they were arrested for stealing their "masters" property (themselves). You also apparently don't know that, despite this array of force against them, they escaped, murdered their "masters," burned down barns, and started rebellions -- none of which worked because people like you were willing to go to any lengths necessary to keep them from being treated as equals. You seem unaware that the "superiority" you claim the Europeans brought with them from the old country was demonstrated by their filthiness and disease (they rarely bathed), their tendency to rape women (Columbus and his good ole boys liked 'em around ten-years-old), and their vicious brutality (think shattering Native American baby's heads against tree trunks or torturing Black men to death at picnics in the town square in the afternoon with thousands of people present and participating -- including children -- all because the victim had tried to register to vote).

The more I think about it, the more I realize there is much you don't know. But I guess that's how White folks have maintained their position in the world for so long. The ones in power are often brually violent and poorly informed -- a scarry combination indeed.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing this. One of the biggest dilemmas I face is, how can someone change negative cultural influence? Messages that don't give us that warm fuzzy feeling or that affirmative feeling fall dead in the ether. What you are sharing, though, I believe works.

changeseeker said...

I certainly hope so, Anonymous 3:20.

Liz Opp said...

Hi there... I just showed the video Mirrors of Privilege to a group of predominantly White Quakers with whom I worship and I hope it's moved them (us) to a new place when reflecting on White privilege and racism.

I was writing up a summary of my experience to post on a semi-private blog that a few of us White Quakers are using to share our experiences with one another, and I went searching for a link to the video... which is how I found you, your blog, and this post.

I was surprised to see that you posted Shakti Butler's entire video on your blog, rather than post a link to her website, in order to give your readers exposure to her, to her website, and to her other work directly.

I'm practicing asking questions that make me uncomfortable when it comes to topics of privilege and race, and since you seem to take some care in responding to comments that may be "well intentioned" but miss the mark, I thought I'd risk raising my own question.

Would you consider linking to Shakti Butler's website in the future? (maybe you have and I haven't looked at the rest of your blog to see it) Or maybe you two know each other, given your shared concern and field of study, and have agreed on how to refer to/link to each other's work...?

I hope to be a return visitor to your blog and learn more about myself and about how to be a better ally...

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

changeseeker said...

Liz Opp: Please forgive my lateness with this reply and appropriate action in response to your comment. You are absolutely correct. If you look back at the post today, you'll find that I have -- finally (for goodness' sake) -- linked to Butler's information and her film website. Thanks again for reminding me that the worker is worthy of her hire. I welcome your future input, Liz, either as a commentator to a post or directly to my email address at changeseeker(at)

Anonymous said...

Interesting blog, I am a black male american and feel that what you are doing is awesome.

Yet I don't believe that racism will ever go anywhere. It's passed along like a disease and too many people ignore or don't even recognize that there is "white privilege"

I guess I'm jaded by default and come to accept my reality as never changing. This way I'm always prepared for the worst.

I really appreciate when people recognize or at least try to see that racism is alive and well, keep doing what you do and hopefully I'm wrong about my reality never changing.

changeseeker said...

Thank you for your encouragement, Anonymous 11:46. It keeps me going, believe me. Something else that keeps me going, though, is what you write about feeling things aren't ever going to change. The fact is that nothing has "always been" any particular way and nothing will ever stay the same forever. We didn't even have the concept of "race" until four or five hundred years ago. We used to identify people by where they came from. Europeans created the concept of "race" to exploit people of color, which turns out to have been a veeeeery effective and lucrative ploy. But the Turkish ruled much of Europe for seven hundred years and then one day, they didn't any more. Turkey still exists. The human race went right on, but Turkey's position changed. Rome was an Empire for a few hundred years and then it wasn't any more. Rome still exists, but not as an Empire.

We don't realize social change is occurring because we're not taught to notice; we're taught to accept and expect the status quo to continue. Actually, social change is constant. The issue is that things can get worse instead of better. "Progress" in positive ways is not inevitable. If we don't strive to make things better, it won't happen. Even if we do strive to make things better, we may not succeed, but without the effort, we're doomed.

In 1927, a sociologist named Lyford Edwards wrote a book entitled The Natural History of Revolution. It's not about race, but it is about social change. You might find what he says interesting.

TransformingEd said...

I stumbled upon your block while looking for the video "Mirrors of Privilege," which was recently stolen from me....and now I know it's available online. Yay! But, I just have to say that I'm inspired. I am also white, and also a teacher. I teach undergrad child development. Part of our curriculum is talking about the socialization of children, which includes the effects of racism (and other isms), among other things. I have been using this video, especially in classes with more white students than typical. I have also found this video a good way for students of color to get an idea what it's like to be the one with privilege, and the process of the realization and understanding of said privilege.

I'm excited to try the activity you wrote about. Perhaps I'll try it next week! And I'll definitely be watching your blog. Thanks!!

changeseeker said...

Thanks so much for your comment, Ed. I'm delighted you find Why Am I Not Surprised? helpful. And I'm beyond delighted that you are among those preparing students for a future in the field of teaching.

Last week, a student in my Racial & Ethnic Relations course reacted to a video I showed by saying that she's a social science education major and that, despite the fact that she's a senior, there is much in the course she's taking with me that she has never been exposed to before. It was certainly disheartening (though not surprising) to hear. Your comment suggests that there are others more fortunate. Good! Welcome back anytime.

Unknown said...

I'm white, female, of German descent, and my ancestors came to the US in 1894 (according to the Ellis Island manifesto which lists my great-grandfather and great-grandmother) from Hungary. I lived in a suburb of Detroit and also lived in Washington, DC, when I was a teenager. I was tormented nearly EVERY day in high school for being white. I was called some of the most hideous names, I was threatened almost every day, I was pushed, shoved, slapped, almost stabbed, all by various black kids in my school. This was in a high school that was pretty much evenly divided. I didn't have black friends then because, quite frankly, they scared the crap out of me because I thought they all were violent. This wasn't at a school that was considered even remotely a "bad school." When I lived in DC, I lived in a predominantely Jewish neighborhood (I was a nanny for a Jewish wanna talk about privilege and racism??). I got mugged on the subway by a black guy, twice. I stopped riding the subway. I took the kids to the park where I was told by a black nanny that I was a white cracker bitch (who also nannied for a Jewish family). So, you see, there is racism on BOTH sides of the fence. And yes, I realize that "not all blacks are white haters," but they sure do pull out the race card pretty darn quickly when it's convenient. Also, don't patronize me with the typical response that you're sorry those things happened to me, etc. I've heard it enough. I've learned to suck it up and move on. Teach ALL kids to BEHAVE properly, that YOUR life is only as good as YOU make it, and nobody owes you a damn thing in life, unless YOU work for it. By teaching this class, you're only promoting more and more hatred, you're doing nothing but keeping it alive and kicking. How about you teach a class on respect, morals, and manners? I, personally, am disgusted at the public behavior I see coming from ALL skin colors these days, foul-mouthed, rude, disrespectful, snotty, cocky. My oldest son is 17 and a senior. He has a great group of friends, they're all nerds, and they are some of the best-behaved kids. I love having them hanging out at our house, and I don't worry about a thing when he goes out with them. They are polite, kind, not trouble makers, they follow their parents' rules, they follow our house rules. These kids are a diamond in the rough. And half of them are black. Do you get it now? It's not the skin color, it's the behavior that makes them desirable, hirable, and promotable.

changeseeker said...

Well, you certainly have it all figured out, Diane V. I wonder why in the world you would bother to waste the time it takes to read what I've written when it obviously upsets you so much. Maybe you should just write your own blog...? It's free.