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My Children and the Limits of White Privilege

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Nursing Clio is honored to have Danielle J. Swiontek as our guest author today. Danielle is an Assistant Professor of History at Santa Barbara City College. She received her Ph.D. in History from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her dissertation, entitled “With Ballots and Pocketbooks: Women, Labor, and Reform in Progressive California” examines California women’s campaign for, and subsequent use of, the vote in the 1910s and 1920s.

The community in which I live held a march in memory of Trayvon Martin two weeks ago. It seemed so dated, in a way. In this 24-hour news cycle that we live in, it feels like forever ago since Trayvon Martin was shot and killed on February 26, 2012. It seems like ages since the jury found George Zimmerman not guilty of his death this past July. Yet the killing of Trayvon Martin continues to haunt me, as it probably does the people who joined the march. The news cycle has moved on, but the issues that Trayvon Martin’s death brought to the forefront have not. When I first heard about Trayvon Martin’s death, it made me fear for my son. That fear has not gone away in the last two months. It will probably never go away.

In a very specific, concrete way, I worry that my almost three-year-old boy will someday be shot by an overly zealous neighborhood watcher, by a police officer, or by someone who simply feels threatened by him, because of his size and the color of his skin. This is not a fear I would have if my son were white. I know this in my bones.

When President Obama offered his thoughts on Trayvon Martin and the experience of race in the U.S, I was not surprised by the experiences that others have found so striking. He talked about how he had been followed in department stores, how people locked their car doors when he walked down the street, how women were visibly nervous when he got on the elevator with them.

I am a middle-class white woman, but I believe I have some understanding of what those experiences feel like. I come to this conversation about race from a position of racial and class privilege.  I was raised in a white, middle-class neighborhood by parents who lived out an archetypical American narrative of rising from working-class roots to a comfortable upper-middle class downloadlife.  Although my best friend was Japanese American, I grew up in a white ethnic neighborhood, where people cared whether you were of Polish, Italian, or German heritage. I was raised Roman Catholic, sent to conservative Catholic schools. Inadvertently, those conservative Catholic schools turned me into a feminist. At the age of eight, I sat in Mass enraged as my male classmates screwed up the service, ringing the bells at the wrong time and overfilling the incense ball, knowing that I could do a better job. But the Church did not allow me to take on those roles, because I was a girl. I worked hard and succeeded in school. After college, I worked in public relations in corporate America, where I ran into clear gender barriers. I watched as younger, less skilled men were assigned Fortune 500 clients and earned praise and bonuses, while I slogged along with underfunded start-ups and small manufacturers. Though I had experienced sexism, I had no direct experience with racism. When I exchanged corporate life for graduate school, I came to better understand ideas about race and its history in this country.

I did have one moment in college, when I took a class on Black American playwrights and I was the only white student in the room. In that moment, I understood what it was like to be marked by color and to be physically unlike anyone else in the room. But this experience could only offer me a glimpse of what it’s like to be marked by color everyday of your life. Moreover, it came in the context of a wonderful and welcoming class. I’ve come increasingly closer to understanding the experience of race and racism since I became a mother. I am still that same middle-class white girl, but over 8 years ago my husband and I adopted a mixed-race baby girl. Almost 3 years ago, we adopted an African-American baby boy. We are a mixed-raced family, and that has pushed me out of my comfortable, analytical space of an academic into the messy, painful arena of race in American culture.

My children are, in many ways, protected by our white privilege. My husband and I are both white and well-educated. We both have Ph.D. degrees, which puts us outside the mainstream of American society. Our education means that we are well-equipped to navigate legal and educational systems. We know how to lobby; we know how to complain and get results. We live in a mostly liberal community on the California coast. The university is the major employer in town. We are better able to protect our children and offer them access to education and other opportunities than the average American, black or white.

privilege-or-prejudice-e1371451373205

And yet our white privilege only extends so far. These are some things I’ve learned about race and racism in this country, through my children:

Race is, in truth, socially constructed. 

When my daughter was three, I explained to her that she was African American and her mommy and daddy were white. I had just finished reading an account of an African-American girl raised by white adoptive parents who had been shocked to find out she was black on her first day of kindergarten. I did not want that to be my daughter.

I thought the conversation with Ella was going well. I talked about where our ancestors came from, we compared our skin colors, we named our African-American friends. Ella nodded her head in understanding and then began pointing to things in the living room. “The TV,” she exclaimed, “is African American!” The television was black, as was the African-American microwave and the African-American chair.

flesh

The entire concept of race and the importance that we as a society attach to skin color made no sense to her, because it makes no sense. Race is made up. All the things we assume about “athletic” African Americans or “good at math and science” Asians is entirely made up. Nevertheless, skin color matters in our society.

Most people are not racist towards babies. 

Everyone thought my daughter and my son were beautiful babies. People ooohed and aaahed over both kids, just as they do over white babies. No one ever said anything to me about them that seemed to be even remotely racist. At the same time, when I was out by myself with my children, there was a noticeable disparity in how people reacted to my family. Most white people automatically assumed that my kids were adopted. This assumption often led to awkward questions such as, “Where did you get them?” By contrast, most African Americans assumed that I was their biological mother.

I’m still puzzling out these assumptions, but I do think they reveal that it remains almost inconceivable for some whites to imagine that a middle-class white woman like me might have a relationship with an African-American man.

A lot of people still have problems with interracial sex. 

Once, upon the invitation of a neighbor, we visited a conservative church in town, and my then-3-year-old daughter attended Sunday School. My husband had dropped her off, and, at some point, a new teacher had taken over the class. When I went to pick her up, the new teacher said, somewhat accusingly, “You’re Ella’s mom?” The disapproval hung in the air, almost palpable.

By having a black daughter, I had become in the teacher’s eyes someone who had transgressed racial boundaries. The implication that I had sex with a black man, made me somehow contaminated. This disapproval seemed to have extended to my child, who complained, in an inarticulate 3-year-old way, that she “didn’t like” the Sunday school, that the teachers “were mean.”

There were many states where the marriage of Barack Obama’s parents would have been illegal at the time of his birth in 1961. Anti-miscegenation laws existed in colonial Virginia as early as 1691, as English settlers tried to reserve white women for themselves. These cultural taboos were not simply eradicated when the Supreme Court declared these laws unconstitutional in Loving v. Virginia in 1967.

Mildred and Richard Loving

Mildred and Richard Loving

The fear of racial contamination still exists, even among self-described liberal whites in a liberal white community. 

When she was three, I took my daughter swimming at the athletic club where I swim regularly. We entered the children’s pool. It was looking a little murky at 3 pm on a hot summer’s day, and I tried not to think about how much pee was in the pool.  When we got in, one of the other moms in the water was clearly perturbed. She stared at us and moved away. I ignored her and hoped that one of the many families that we knew there would turn up soon.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy daughter proceeded to do somersaults in the pool, swallowed a lot of water, and spit up some of it. The woman freaked. She started screaming at me, made everyone else get out of the pool, ushered all the other kids into the hot tub (where they sat and glared at us). Then, the weekend management closed the pool, despite the fact that the public health department only requires that pools be closed for fecal contamination.

The only person who defended me was a physician dad who said, “You just caught someone on a bad day.” I thought, “No, I caught someone on a racist day.” Two days later, a little blonde boy pooped in the pool, and no one screamed at him or his mom.

This incident was traumatic for me. Racism hurts. It doesn’t simply limit your opportunities or affect where you live or go to school. It is emotionally devastating. It is humiliating. My daughter was young enough not to notice what had happened. But, for about a year, I was anxious every time I took her swimming at that particular pool. I was always relieved when we saw someone we knew, because we could create a circle of white privilege that might protect my daughter.

The humiliation I felt was much more painful than the righteous, feminist anger my 8-year-old self felt at not being allowed to be an altar server. Here, as an adult, I had to endure a walk of shame from the pool to the locker room, with all disapproving eyes upon us. I felt ashamed of and stigmatized by what was a totally normal kid-pool incident. I was angry at myself for feeling ashamed. I was angry, too, at the racist, freaked-out woman. My inexperience with racism, the limits of my own understanding as a middle-class white woman, meant that I had no response to her. The incident just turned me into an inarticulate, humiliated, ashamed mess.

You can’t identify racists on sight.

Whenever incidents like this happen, I’m always knocked sideways. It always surprises me. I move in liberal, educated circles, and I assume the best of the other people in my circles. I imagine them to be tolerant and aware of their white privilege and the pitfalls of race. My husband teaches at a major research university. I teach at one of the top community colleges in the nation.

The woman who screamed at me at the pool no doubt had a college degree and was almost certainly middle class.  She probably did not — and does not — consider herself racist.  But her discomfort at sharing a pool with a 3-year-old black girl suggests a  lingering, unconscious prejudice.  The idea that “education” can eliminate racism is naive.  It can help.  Knowing the history of slavery, race, and civil rights helps people understand the larger context. But knowing the history is not enough. These prejudices are not simply deep-seated in individual psyches; they are deep-seated in our culture. Overcoming racism requires that white people know black people. This seems simplistic. But racial segregation, which in this country often stems from economic  stratification and from the tendency of culturally similar people to live together, allows racial stereotypes to persist.

For many white people, African Americans remain mysterious beings. This lack of knowledge can have innocent and amusing consequences. Complete strangers walk up to us and ask questions like “Can black people suntan?” (Yes.) “Can I touch your hair?” (No.) My daughter gets asked this question often. For a while she thought “I like your hair” was a way of greeting people you didn’t know.

Ella's beautiful hair Photo courtesy of Hyun Yu

Ella’s beautiful hair
Photo courtesy of Hyun Yu

My children use very different hair and skin care products than I do. But these seemingly innocuous differences have real life consequences. We have to use five different conditioners and styling products on my daughter’s hair. And her hair, her beautiful, black hair, might be part of the reason a white woman would freak out when Ella got into the swimming pool.

Kids are better at the race thing than adults. 

Kids notice race and color. They are curious about it and speak about it directly. When my daughter was in preschool, she came home one day insisting that she was from India. One of her teachers was from India; she and Suki had the same color skin; ergo, Ella was from India. Just a few weeks ago, a 2nd-grader asked me how I could be Ella’s mom because I wasn’t brown. Occasionally, this frankness results in odd explanations of difference.  For example, my daughter’s classmates sometimes insist that her hair is curly because she has lice. How else to explain hair that is so different from their own?  Especially in the midst of a 3-year-long lice epidemic in the public school system?

The goal of a colorblind society is the wrong goal, in my view. Instead, we need to acknowledge difference, discuss it, value it.  The franker we are about race, the more likely we can blunt, if not overcome, the consequences of racism. Pretending race doesn’t exist — or shouldn’t be noticed — just allows prejudice to carry on. It makes “white” normative. We can’t have a “postracial society” — an inclusive society, enriched by difference — if my daughter with her curly hair and brown skin is still the “other.”

Most of these anecdotes have been about my daughter. My son is mostly too young to have these experiences yet. I have also become better at navigating race and finessing situations to avoid these incidents. And, yet, my son was kicked out of a preschool for bonking two little white girls on the head with a toy, which was his 20-month-old way of displaying affection. He had been at the preschool for only 2 months. Apparently, the girls’ grandparents insisted that either Finley go or they would go. The first I learned of all this was when I picked him up one afternoon and the preschool director told me he couldn’t come back. There was no effort to try to work with him on his behavior. Just a rushed apology and a sticky note with the name and number of a preschool that might take him.

modernidadesThis is why the killing of Trayvon Martin continues to haunt me. My son is big — almost 43 inches tall and over 50 pounds and he’s not yet three. Based on the various height predictors online, he will probably be close to 6′ 6″. He’s built like a linebacker. In 20 years’ time, he might be welcomed and celebrated on a football field on Thanksgiving Day, but, on a street corner, he might also be perceived as a threat. I have various worries for my daughter, but I don’t worry that she might someday be shot and killed for walking down the street. I do worry about that for my son–for my beautiful, big, funny, smart, active, athletic, truck-obsessed boy. And what the killing of Trayvon Martin and my fears for my son tell me is that I think we need to discuss race and racism frankly, openly, and honestly. And I think we need to have these conversations in our families, in our communities, and in our classrooms.  We owe it to Trayvon Martin and his family.  We owe it to the children in our communities. We owe it to my son.

17 Comments Post a comment
  1. Mike D #

    Terrific piece, Danielle. My immediate thought was that it should receive more exposure, but then I realized that the degrees of separation in FB would resolve that. Thanks for a thought-provoking treatise. Best, Mike.

    August 28, 2013
  2. Danielle- The Trayvon case verdict came out when we were in South Africa, studying, specifically, racism and white privilege. None of my students had ever heard of this concept before taking my intercultural communication class, and they all became very disappointed that this term isn’t part of the language of white Americans. I applaud you for bringing it to the forefront in this piece.
    Your article struck a cord with me given Cleo’s bus ride home from school yesterday, during which a neighbor and supposed friend shouted to the entire bus that she was brown and has funny hair. While most kids are well-meaning in their observations, this announcement was meant to be an insult. This boy, only 6 years old, will one day be an adult and carry his racism into adult contexts, which makes me sadly aware of the challenges my children will face as adults even as our society progresses. We are far from where we need to be on this issue.

    August 28, 2013
  3. I wish everyone in America could read this.

    August 28, 2013
  4. M.G. #

    Don’t get so overwrought about this. The best thing you can do it just keep showing up. I grew up with mexican neighbors. My mom thought they were dirty and loud. And, they were loud. But, I went to school with their kids. I knew they were just people. Their parents were uneducated, working class people who liked to drink and have parties on Friday — like a lot of white, black, asian, etc. folk. My mom eventually came around as she met more and more mexican friends. I guess the thing is people will always make assumptions, some are totally justified. A white married couple with a black child = adoption (what else could it be?); a white woman with a black child = black father (it is the most logical assumption). Assumptions aren’t racism. The overreaction at the pool; yeah, that was racist, at least in part.

    I know what it is like to be afraid for your kids. I have a disabled child. There is lots of discrimination against him. Maybe no one will try to shoot him or be afraid of him, but they will ignore him and call him a retard. It sucks, but I feel like if I keep showing up, I will change some minds.

    August 28, 2013
    • Assumptions are rooted in bias, and bias, while not necessarily racism, can be damaging if you’re not aware you have them. It isn’t the most helpful to start your comment with “Don’t get so overwrought about this.” I’m sure you’re well meaning, but generally it smacks of condescension.

      September 4, 2013
  5. Both my foster-daughters are black, in the eyes of Americans. In fact, the 8-year-old (formally fostered, as a quasi-kin placement) is from a Kikuyu refugee family and the 19-year-old (informally fostered, as she has no home and no one to pay her way through college) is a Liberian who was brought up in a Cote d’Ivoire refugee camp before emigrating.

    Both have had to work their way through the assumption that they are African American, with a set of cultural knowledge and foodways already installed at home. They have had to work through the pointed questions of African American schoolfriends about why they are to be seen with white adults.

    African American adults, encountered during shopping expeditions, are far less bothered and tend to talk about such things as the problem of shopping for acceptable clothes, given the state of youth culture. It’s hard to know, but I suspect that those whom I meet casually, in shops or in trains and buses, or on the street, quickly identify as me as not an American.

    However, what is particularly striking is that the adult African kin and acquaintances of the two girls are initially suspicious, until they realize that I am not an American. I do know the difference between Mombasa and Nairobi, or between the Luo and the Kikuyu, and why the latter were unimpressed with the election of Obama. I am no expert, but I have some knowledge of the historical and cultural differences within and between the various countries of West or East Africa, just as a matter of general knowledge. Both they and the African American friends of the elder girl quickly relax and often say after a short while, “Oh, you’re not white!” This perception is lost on white Americans, unaware of their own constant expression of whiteness. They are extremely puzzled if they hear it said, just as the not-blackness of the Africans is lost on almost all Americans.

    As American scholars have often noted, to the bewilderment of outsiders, “whiteness” in America is a very specific and elaborate cultural construct, conferring the full rights of acceptance as non-hyphenated Americans to which successive European immigrant groups have aspired.

    The persistent and interlocking privileges of whiteness in housing, healthcare, education and employment are barely recognized by white Americans but the cultural attributes of whiteness and the lacunae of personal knowledge, which continue to bolster these privileges, are largely invisible to them. Especially to Northerners, and even to liberal academics of the sort who surround the writer of this article.

    White Americans so often decry African Americans for failing to abandon their blackness. This operates as a means of refusing to look at the cultural and socio-economic roots of difference. I have no expectation that white Americans will abandon their whiteness any time soon.

    August 28, 2013
  6. David Pagel #

    I am so sorry for these experiences…but each one makes you a stronger mom. A mom your kids may down the road.
    You in your own way will help to change things…thank you for that.

    August 28, 2013
    • David Pagel #

      “need”

      August 28, 2013
  7. CMW #

    In fear of sounding lame, I wish more non-African Americans went through life with your perspective on the reality of life – even if it does not directly involve them. Because in the end, it does. We end up in this struggle for simple freedom and equality. Since the death of Trayvon Martin, my heart aches at the thought of how to raise a young black boy in this society. My husband has his stories that would make you want to march at any rally in support of diversity and racial harmony. Then he also has shared with me the fact that he has to always stay on his toes. For example, if he’s driving home late at night and the car in front of him happens to be taking the same route, he will take a detour. He doesn’t want to be accused of following someone and harassing them, etc. One time he waited at his car (with a friend) for the ATM to become available. A young white lady saw them at the corner of her eye, turned around and ran across the street. She left her ATM in the machine and everything. My husband was a college student and wondering what the big deal was. It was broad daylight. Lastly, I experienced it for myself. We were taking a romantic rendezvous to Walmart (LOL) at about midnight. We parked next to a car and he got out to walk around and open the door for me. The woman in the car next to us JUMPED in her seat and quickly locked her door. Ok, it was night but my husband’s response, “Oh, I’m used to that! We could be on an elevator and a woman will clutch her purse and never make eye contact or say hello – even after I say hello.” With all that said, your posting reminds me that there is hope in this world. There are people out there not down – at all – with the ridiculousness we see in government, on tv, and in the local mom and pop truck stops. I choose to focus on the later without forgetting there is much to be done. BUt your posting makes me breathe a sigh of relief. Having moved to the south from CA has been a huge culture shock. Some days I want to run to the hills. I love that there are people who are willing to listen, learn, reflect, and act even when issues may “seem” to be illogical or unimportant. I think the hugest factor for many is dealing with “being uncomfortable”. My response, so what. Get over that discomfort. Too many have died and many more are being limited in life because of those who chose not to say anything and pretend the reality isn’t just that – real.

    August 28, 2013
  8. Ahnan #

    I can appreciate the author’s efforts to better understand the pain of racism on behalf of her children…but her experiences barely scratch the surface of what those of us who live it every day deal with. I hope her children are exposed to adult persons of color who can help them with what she cannot.

    August 29, 2013
  9. This is a beautiful and poignant piece. But your early claim about Asians as proficient in math and African-Americans as athletic underscores your late claim that kids are better at race than adults.

    I was a Ph.D. student in English at UCSB (ABD forever now) and of course , race is in part a social construct. There is a sex/gender distinction and the motivation for this in the realm of gender obtains in theories about race as well. Maybe because you went , as I did, to the whitest UC campus (8 quarters I taught and one African-American girl–btw, NONE OF my black friends use that, they just say “black”) you’re unaware of UCLAs South Campus and the ethnic breakdown where math and science are taught. There has for years been a raging battle about quotas in the UC system and Tiger Mom by Amy Chua is just one book which discusses the Asian emphasis on education, particularly the hard sciences.

    The problem is: people less smart and articulate than you on the left want to sanitize speech and promote PC to quite pernicious ends.

    I find the pool story hard to believe in this hippie dippy, Woo Woo left wing place we both live (I live in LA and Manhattan part-time).

    And the idea that a white woman wouldn’t marry a black man? Yeah, if you live in a red State with rednecks. A friend of mine married a man , 6/5, and their son is biracial. I don’t think that’s strange and neither, apparently, do the people around her in New Jersey.

    I liked the piece but it’s hard to believe that this is the predominant response to your children in SB.

    Denying that some ethnic groups excel in particular fields is precisely the kind of “walking on eggshells” you deplore at the end of the piece. And I would note, finally, my closest Asian friend now (Korean and Japanese) is far better at “race” than most white people. White people pussyfoot , afraid of offending, and are generally the most awkward.

    August 30, 2013
    • SEB #

      Ms. Ordin… Apparently because you find these experiences hard to believe they didn’t happen? Just because you have a friend who married someone black you can speak for everyone’s experience? You sound like that person I knew growing up who justified their racist comment by saying ‘some of my best friends are black.’ Guess what, liberals can be racist, too. So can educated people (you seem to be a pretty good example of that.) Some black people prefer to be called African American. Saying that Asians are better at math is not the same as acknowledging that math and science are emphasized in their culture. One implies that there is some inborn component and is therefore…racist. I am mixed race and while mixed children are nowhere near as uncommon as they once were, we are uncommon enough where we are questioned by people, even complete strangers about our heritage. Apparently it’s still a curiosity. By the way, I have experienced overt racism on multiple occasions during my life; the first time when I was 7 years old. The last time was when I was 25 and these took place in your so called hippie dippy woo hoo place. I grew up in the L.A. area. Other times it has been more subtle and covert. The author is correct when she states that sometimes people aren’t aware of how offensive they are behaving. People are not always aware of their prejudices. I don’t think the author is suggesting anyone walk on eggshells, become more PC or try not offend anyone. It seems like she is suggesting the opposite. Being PC means ignoring differences. She seems to suggest that we embrace and acknowledge differences. Just acknowledge that you are white, you are treated differently from others and you may treat non-whites differently. Once you accept that (instead of denying it as you seem to be doing) then things will change for the better for everyone.

      September 3, 2013
      • Hear hear!

        September 4, 2013
  10. I have a good friend in the Midwest. His son attends prep school near New York City, where the mother lives. I saw a very handsome African-American man and went through the typical black/African-American linguistic conundrum. As my friend said: “Who cares what you say after ‘handsome’–handsome jerk, handsome creep… PC has been very bad for English (literary studies) and while political science is of course a different discipline, the domination of literary studies by race/class/gender issues has been a net loss for the field and marginalized close reading and consideration of form/formal features. This is bad.

    August 30, 2013
  11. 30sProfessional #

    I like this article and am glad you wrote it. I’m wondering if you’ve ever considered moving your family to an area that is more diverse? I’m biracial and have lived in many different areas growing up, and know that being in a mixed family living in a homogeneous community can get oppressive and traumatic at times. I hope your community in general is accepting of you, but if not it might be time to move. No matter what, it gets stressful being the “only” one of anything (even if the people around you are nice) especially if you are a kid growing up, since adolescence has enough issues of it’s own. Some non-White kids who are adopted into White families and then raised in 99% White communities can have problems from the experience (often times drug problems, loneliness and severe depression). I don’t say this to scare you in any way, just an observation. Being the only Black kid in your school is one thing, but then you are the only one in your family too? That can be extremely isolating. So even if you don’t move, you may want to make a point to join activity groups that are racially and socioeconomically diverse and expose your kids to them. That might bring much needed support and normalcy for your family. There, no one would get out of the pool because of your daughter and her adorable hair!

    August 30, 2013

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