Race (for White People): Week 1

In honor of Black History Month, I’m going to share my favorite thought-provoking articles, videos and learnings about race each week. If we’re going to fix the massive racial disparities in this country — in health, education, incarceration, income, basically in EVERYTHING — white people need to explore how being white shaped their experience and get more comfortable talking about race. My non-white friends are welcome too (and I’d love your perspectives when you feel like sharing), but I recognize that you all have been talking about race and how it shapes your experience from a young age; my goal is to help us white folks catch up. If you’re one of those people who like those Whole30 or crossfit challenges, think of this as a 29-day cleanse/challenge for your mind and heart. 

DAY 1: Why it matters

To start, here is Mellody Hobson’s TedTalk “Color Blind or Color Brave” about why talking about race is so important.

DAY 2: Explaining disparities

As a rational person, there are really only two ways to explain gaps between white and black or Latino/a outcomes:

1. Whites are inherently smarter, healthier, and all-around better than other races. (That’s the definition of white supremacy right there, folks.)

2. There’s something deeply biased within our society’s systems and structures that causes these outcomes. 

This Adam Ruins Everything video was one of my early favorites illustrating the deep tentacles of history leading to current outcomes: the history behind the racial wealth gap. But similar videos and articles explain the history behind pretty much every disparity you can think of: education outcomes, incarceration rates, pain treatment variations, etc. Google and learn, although use caution; the field is full of DIY alt-right rants too.

DAY 3: Unconscious bias

Society has been filling my mind with racist, sexist and other -ist stereotypes and stories for 47 years: who played the good guy in the movies when I was growing up? who played the bad guy? who was smart and who was dumb? who needed to be rescued and by whom? All that programming shaped my gut reactions to people and situations. This doesn’t make me a bad person; it makes me a product of my society. So my job is to notice the gut reaction and pause long enough to think, “Is that what I really think or am I just repeating the trash I’ve been programmed with?” This set of NYT videos called “Peanut Butter, Jelly and Racism” gives a super-clear explanation of how unconscious bias works and how to counteract it.


DAY 4: The danger of a single story

One of the best/weirdest things about being white is that your story — generally speaking — is the story everyone learns. White history is just “history.” Most mainstream stories are told through the white charater’s lens (hello, The Green Book). Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TedTalk explains the danger of that “single story.”

DAY 5: Yes, there’s a ‘white culture’

Another bizarre part of being white is that you often don’t even notice you are white because everything around you reflects your whiteness back as the norm. Your ancestors’ history, your cultural lodestones (think A-ha’s Take On Me and all John Hughes movies), your experiences, your table manner expectations: these are presented as what is “normal” or “right” or shared by everyone. It was embarrassing to realize how much of what I think of as “American culture” is actually “white culture” and not shared by my friends and neighbors who aren’t white. I had to actually learn that “white culture” exists <face palm>. 

DAY 6: Being white

This Robin DiAngelo talk covers so much about the experience of being white: from how we learn about race to why it’s so hard for white people to talk about race. But the part that took my breath away and broke my heart is the part where she talks about how, if she continued on the path her loving parents set out for her — ‘good’ school, ‘good’ neighborhood, ‘good’ job — she could spend her whole life without any meaningful relationships with people of color. And no one ever communicated to her that this would be a loss. 

DAY 7: What’s wrong with “I don’t see race”?

Some of us have been taught (explicitly or through experience) that acknowledging race is dangerous and that moving through the world like race doesn’t exist is the best, most un-racist solution. Leigh Morrison from The Winters Group reminds us that “to claim that we don’t ‘see’ or consider people’s identities is to refuse to acknowledge and celebrate people’s whole selves.” Put another way: “If you don’t see my race, you don’t see me.” I’m cautious about using gender as a comparison to race, but it helped me to reflect on how I’d feel if someone said, “I don’t see gender”: suddenly, they erased a core part of my life and experience and couldn’t possibly understand who I am.


That’s your first week’s “assignment”! See you next Saturday when I tackle white privilege, white fragility and how reverse racism isn’t a thing. (Yay? So excited?)

Thanks to the Chicago Sun-Times for the cover image.

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