How Can I Have a Positive Racial Identity? I'm White!



Thank you, everybody, and thank you for having me here. This is such an honor to be a part of this powerful, amazing event, and community.

I’m going to talk today about whiteness, and, sometimes, that’s not usually the first thing I say to people when I meet them: “I wanna talk about whiteness.” It can be kind of an awkward beginning. Whiteness is something we often don’t talk about in our society explicitly, and especially for white people, it can tend to be this concept that is unnamed or invisible. And so, it can be awkward to talk about it. But I talk about whiteness as part of my work. I talk about it for two reasons.

One is that for a long time, I would show up to conversations on race and racism and I would listen, intently, and I would nod, sympathetically, to the stories of people of color and I felt like, “I actually don’t have anything to offer here, except to listen,” because I didn’t think that I had a racial story. I didn’t see how racism impacts me. The second reason that I want to talk about whiteness is that I am in the field of education, and in education, when we say we’re gonna talk about race and education, we end up scrutinizing the outcomes of children and families of color, and we don’t talk about the fact that 85% of the teachers in our country are white. Most of our administrators in the country are white. Most of our teacher educators, like me, are white. Most of our policy makers are white. Most of our curriculum writers and textbook writers are white. So if we want to talk about race and education, and we’re not talking about whiteness, then we don’t have the whole picture.

So I didn’t always talk like this. I grew up in a community called Mount Lebanon that was 99.8% white. It was a town, a suburb of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and in my family and in my community, we didn’t talk about race. We were raised to be colorblind. And my parents are pretty phenomenal people. They have said that I can say anything that I want about our family, about the way they raised me, if it means it’s going to help people learn; which is a very powerful permission they’ve given me. And my parents did wonderful things for us. We, each of the kids in my family, studied abroad. We learned different languages. We also had foreign exchange students live with us throughout the years. We talked about multiculturalism, and we were taught to value the content of a person’s character, not the color of their skin.

And we never talked about that one difference: which is racial. We never talked about racism. Emphasizing a colorblind ideology meant we couldn’t talk about racism. And if you had asked me, “Ali, did you grow up in a segregated community?” I would have said, “No! We had twenty families of color, and they lived among us, and we were all friends. It wasn’t segregated.” But what I couldn’t see at that time was that I couldn’t zoom out and see that I lived in a community that was almost a hundred percent white, and we lived ten miles from The Hill in Pittsburgh where all of August Wilson’s plays take place, that was almost a hundred percent Black. And we didn’t mix! We didn’t talk to each other, we didn’t play each other in sports, we didn’t drink from the same proverbial water fountain. And so, we were segregated, but I couldn’t see that.

So I went to college with this colorblind lens, this sense that race really doesn’t matter, that my whiteness has never impacted my life. And I was required to take a course on diversity. And I’m a big fan of diversity requirements because I would not have taken this course if it hadn’t been required.  Not because I didn’t think it was important, not because I wasn’t interested, but because I didn’t feel like I belonged there. It was the first time I ever had a Black professor. It was the first time I ever had Black classmates. It was African American literature, and I spent the whole first part of the semester being totally intimidated by the content. I had to say words that I had never said out loud before, like, White, and Black, and, racism and I could feel my tongue swelling in my mouth. I would trip, and bumble, and stumble.

I had this professor who was, he would do things, like he would tell a racist joke and then half the class would laugh, and then he’d say, “That was a racist joke! You don’t laugh at racist jokes! You have to think before you laugh!” And so I would sit there thinking, like, really, every time he said anything I would think, “Am I supposed to laugh now? Am I not supposed to laugh? How does not laughing look?” I honestly spent much of the day in class thinking like, “Do I look more racist if I cross my legs this way, or if I cross my legs this way?!” And it was all this very self-focused analysis, trying to figure out, “How do I show up here?! I have no practice being in this conversation.”

That semester, we read fourteen novels by African American authors, and by the end of the semester, I had learned two really important things that have stayed with me for my life.

One is that racism has impacted every day of this country since the first colonist stepped foot on the shores of the United States, which was not then the United States. We call them colonists, because that word is linked to the word colonizer. Racism is a huge part of our history. And Whiteness is not incidental to who I am as a White person. It’s not just a peripheral piece. Whiteness is integral to who I am and who my ancestors were. Racism has impacted my life every day of my life, and since before I was born. My ancestors are part of that history of colonization. My ancestors who immigrated here were allowed to immigrate, in part because of their whiteness. My ancestors were able to get jobs, were able to join unions, were able to bust unions, because of their Whiteness. They were counted in the founding document of our country, the Constitution, my ancestors were counted as whole people. Black people were counted as three-fifths of a person. That’s part of the founding document of our country-- that not every person would be whole in this country. That Whiteness has impacted my life.

My community, my segregated community, that I thought was integrated: White communities-- all-White communities-- don’t happen by accident. But I didn’t know about the legislation, and the policy, and the banking strategies, and mortgage-lending practices, and individual violence that went into preserving the Whiteness of all-White communities. That likely happened before I was even born, but that impacted the fact that I went to a school that was considered safe, that was considered a Blue Ribbon School, and from which I could go to college. And my parents could pay for my college because of the housing market that we were able to buy into, because of our Whiteness. Whiteness was integral to my life.

The second lesson that I learned in African American literature is that I can get better at talking about race. At the beginning of that semester, I was so bad at talking about race, and by the end of that semester, I was still so bad at talking about race, but I was better than I had been and I could see the way that practice made it possible for me to get better; that this is a skills-based competency, and that I can grow. And so I went on to take every class I could with that professor. I became an Africana studies minor. I studied abroad in South Africa, and when I was in South Africa I met a Black feminist, South African activist, named Gertrude Nonzwakazi Sgwentu, and she asked me to write her life story. So after college, I spent two years working with her, recording the stories of her life, and how racialized policy had impacted her as a Black child growing up in Apartheid South Africa. And through that relationship, and through that project, I started to get angry. I was so angry about racism, and I was uncomfortable, and ashamed of being White. I was sad, and I felt guilt. And then I decided, “What I’m gonna do is I’m going to show up to the table of racial conversations, and I’m gonna feel guilty. That’s what I’m going to do for racial justice. I’m gonna feel guilty! And, whenever possible, I’m going to make all the other White people feel guilty, and that’s what I’m gonna do!

And what I found was that I would see people on the street who’d been in my classes, or who I’d had conversations with, and they’d kinda duck into stores at the last minute so they didn’t have to see me coming. And there was a moment where I just thought, “This has not been a victory for racial justice. The way that I’m doing this is not working. I’m going to recalibrate.”

And about that time, I read a book by Black psychologist Janet Helms, who writes about the importance of a positive racial identity, and she says White people need to get a positive racial identity. And I remember thinking, “What is a positive racial identity?! How can I have a positive racial identity?! I’m White!”

You know, just feeling good about being White because you’re White? That sounds like some White supremacist stuff. And Janet Helms writes: yes, a positive racial identity for White people is not about just feeling good about being White because you’re White. That’s some White supremacist stuff. A positive racial identity is not about feeling good about being White. It’s also not about feeling bad about being White. It’s about understanding what it means to be White in the context of a heavily racialized society that has, historically--and still today-- distributes resources and opportunities inequitably, favoring White people against People of Color.

Understanding what it means to live in a society that teaches People of Color internalized oppression, and teaches White people internalized superiority. And dealing with that sense of internalized superiority so that I can show up and be, and live, in healthy multi-racial community with People of Color in which we work against racism and other oppressions knowing that all oppressions are connected. That’s what having a positive racial identity is for a White person.

A negative racial identity is what I had when I was growing up. A negative racial identity is not about feeling bad for being White, it’s about having no consciousness that being White has impacted your life. It’s about attempting to be colorblind, and not seeing how racism operates. A negative racial identity is necessarily a delusional identity because there are so many racial myths and stereotypes that circulate in our society. If you don’t have the lens that’s able to see, “That’s a myth,” “That’s a lie,” “That’s a stereotype,” you believe them, and it clouds your lens, and so you’re unable to see the world clearly.

So, I became very interested in figuring out at one point: how do you talk to White kids about race? I was pregnant with my first child, and part of my work involved standing on stages and talking about how badly my parents had taught me about race, and, that’s very easy to say, “Well look at what my parents got wrong.” What am I supposed to teach my daughter?

I had this experience in Target when she was a baby, and we’re just going through the aisles, and she has white, white hair, and blue eyes, and people were always stopping me to say, “Oh, she looks like such a doll baby!” And one day I just snapped. She was about eight months old, and I said, “You know what? The reason my baby looks like a doll baby is because we live in a White supremacist society in which all the doll babies have blonde hair and blue eyes! If we could live in a society in which we could honor and acknowledge the multiplicity and diversity of skin colors, and hair textures, and the beauty of humanity, then maybe my baby wouldn’t look so much like a doll baby, and maybe she would just look like a regular old baby.” You know? I know. Okay, so, it makes a good story, but the woman just looked at me--and I looked at her, and I remember thinking, “This, too, has not been a victory for racial justice.”

So with a research team that I had worked with throughout grad school involving Howard Stevenson, and Keisha Bentley-Edwards, and Eleonora Bartoli, we started looking into how White families talk to their kids about race. And, the amazing thing is that--what we found is that--most of the families we interviewed, and the teens that we interviewed talked to their children about race the same way that my parents did. They don’t teach them anything about Whiteness. Whiteness is incidental to who they are. It doesn’t matter. Racism is bad, but racism is also a violent, individual action on the part of a self-declared racist, like somebody from the KKK. There’s no talk of the systems, and the history of racism that was in place before any of the children that we were interviewing were born. People are learning that they should be colorblind; that they shouldn’t talk about race; that talking about race is racist. But one of the things that I’ve been learning is that when we don’t talk about race, what we do is we make it possible for the status quo to exist how it is.

You can’t rectify any of these historical wrongs if we’re not able to talk about it. So I continue to search for answers for how I talk to White people about race, and how I talk to my children about race.

A couple years ago, my daughter, who, she was five, two years ago, she decided she wanted to dye her hair purple. And I’m thinking, “This sounds good to me.” So I was talking to my friend Gertrude, from South Africa, on the phone. We talk every couple of weeks, and I said, “So Tina wants to dye her hair purple.” And Gertrude said, “Oh, interesting! What do you think?” And I said, “I think it seems good. I think it seems like a healthy detachment from her blondeness.” And Gertrude said, “What did you say?” And I should have known that I was in trouble the minute she asked me to repeat myself. I should have known! But I thought it was a bad connection, so I’m like (louder), “I think it’s a healthy detachment from her blondeness!” And Gertrude’s like, “Yeah. I thought that’s what you said.”

And she said, “Listen to me, Ali. Your daughter was made by her creator, blonde-haired, blue-eyes, light skin, pink cheeks. That is her vessel. How is she supposed to repair the world if she’s broken? If she’s detached from any part of who she is? How is she supposed to love people if she’s not fully loved? How’s she’s supposed to show up and help other people become whole if she doesn’t feel whole herself?”

And I know that she’s right. And her words guide me in the work that I do. When I think about talking to my children, when I think about talking with teachers, and in communities, what is the point of talking about race and racism? The point is to see the way that racism has fractured us as a country, as a community, as individuals, and to work to repair and heal those fractures in multi-racial solidarity--in community. To build a world in which race truly doesn’t matter, but not because we refuse to see it. Not because we were colorblind. Not because we turned away. But because we looked at that historical legacy, and we stared it right in the eye, and we examined what it did to us, and then we worked together in community to fix it.

And I think that--THAT could be a victory for racial justice. Thank you.