Schooling Autobiography

Paper Length: 4-5 pages (not including Reference page)
All of us come to this course with experiences in schools (elementary, middle, high school and colleges in the United States or abroad, as well as home schooling experiences, just to name a few). These experiences influence the way we think about schooling. For example, they shape our knowledge about how the school day goes and what content is covered, our ideas about how teachers and students should interact with one another, and whether schooling is a positive or negative experience. As we begin this course, it is important to make ourselves aware of our own ideas about schooling based on these experiences, as well as to learn about the experiences of other people who might have similar and/or different experiences. This assignment is designed to provide an opportunity for you to 
1) understand your own schooling experience in a way you might not have before 
2) reflect on this experience and 
3) learn about the experiences of others.
We will also use this assignment to explore how the experiences we have had in school are shaped by our social location – our location in the social structure that is shaped by race, ethnicity, immigrant status, first language, geographic residence (urban, suburban, rural, and region of the country), religion, SES, gender, sexual orientation, etc. 
Below I outline the steps you will need to take in completing this assignment.While the final product is a 4-5 page paper that can be thought of as your schooling autobiography, there are two other steps that precede this final product that are critical to crafting this paper: research and reflection
In order to understand your own schooling experience more fully it will be helpful to you to gather information on your neighborhood and school as well as that of other neighborhoods and schools.
( Unfortunately, I was not able to look up my high school online to gather information about it since I am an international female student and my high school is back in Oman “the country”. I will try to provide you with the info that I can get to write this part)
My high school located within the neighborhood I lived in. It is a middle class neighborhood.
Due to the religious and conservative culture in Oman, It was a females school only “both students and teachers”. Students have to wear uniform with strict roles when it comes to it. Teachers can wear what they want as long as it is not jeans or shorts “ they have to dress modestly”. 
Other schools in the neighborhood is almost the exact same exept for boys school “ which I have no idea about what is going on there”
Number of teachers and students, then compute the ratio
Number of students in each grade
Racial and ethnic makeup of the school 
( I will provide you with the numbers as soon as I get them)
( I will provide you with the numbers as soon as I get them)
(almost all of the students “including myself” were Omanis “the dominant ethnic group/ citizens” except for a couple of students. One of them was from Syria and the other one was from Nigeria. The Nigerian student transferred after one semester because she could not blend in due to language and culture barrier. On the other hand, the Syrian student did not face the same difficulties, since she came from a similar culture and spoken the same language)
(as for teachers, the majority of them were Omanis too, except for few of them who teach sport, art, sport subjects) 
There are several ways I want you to reflect.When I ask you to reflect, I want you to think. turning these issues over in your mind.This reflecting takes time so you want to complete this part of the assignment well before you sit down to write.
Class Discussions thus far

Think about the discussions we have had in class and the readings you have completed (I will attach all of the readings and powerpoints) Has this changed your perspective on your own schooling?
(Yes because we did not have much race and race diversity in school. We had people with darker skin, but they were not treated in a racist way. You may lookup the culture back in Oman and add any info that you can find to help you in the section)
Your Research

Think about the research you have done on the census data and your school (First section)u.What did you learn?What did you learn about your neighborhood or school? What did you learn about your neighborhood or school in relation to others?

School Experience
Think about your schooling experience.Reflect back on your schooling experience and consider it in light of what you have learned.What do you notice now about where you grew up and attended high school?Are there particular experiences or patterns of behavior that seem striking to you now?Were there aspects of your schooling experience that were particularly noteworthy?

Please write a 4-5 page reflection on your own experiences in school.It must be typed double-space with 1-inch margins and address the following components (at least one page per each section): 
Describe      Your School
Paint a vivid (yet brief) description so that the reader can see the school through your eyes. At the minimum, describe at least three features of the school (e.g., the buildings and their environment, the ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds of the students, the kinds of classes you were able to take) and anything that may relate to the focus of this course (school violence, segregation, and dropout). Put effort into thinking about things that have been not apparent to you until now. Some other points to consider:
What are some of your most significant memories of school? 
What type of schools did you attend? (Public )
What can you remember about your learning environment, teachers, classmates and curricula? 
What was the tone inside the building? Did you feel safe? Welcomed? 
What was the neighborhood surrounding your school like? The community? Were there prominent businesses in or positive/negative attributes of the community? Did the community affect the school? If so, how?
What other emotions do you attribute to your school experiences? Was school a positive or negative experience? Why?

(It was safe, but not really welcoming. It was just for classes. They did not really care for making it feels homie)

(It was middle class neighborhood. Mostly houses with a couple restaurants and shops. It was quiet. Did not affect the school)
Write About Your Schooling Experience
Describe aspects of your schooling experience that support the insights you describe (as noted in #3 below). Some things you might think about include:
Were there tracks in your school? How were people in each of the tracks perceived or stereotyped? 
Which types of classes did you take and in which tracks were those classes? 
How did your social status compare and contrast with the other students in your classes? How did they compare with students who were not in your classes? 

How did people self-segregate at your school? 

Describe the social locations of the following: Who rode the bus and who drove? Who hung out together during the day? Who hung out together after hours? Who were the leaders in your student body?
What was the race and ethnicity of individuals who served in the roles of administration, faculty, school counselor, and staff (security guards, janitors, food service workers, office secretaries), and the PTA. 
Describe      Insights/Learnings
This is the reflection piece—considering what we have read and discussed in class, describe what you think is significant about your school—what was most significant about your experience? Communicate to the reader how your view of your schooling has been changed by this assignment. This is not meant to be a laundry list of every insight you have had or small point you have learned.Rather select two to three significant insights to focus on and describe how the readings or the research has influenced your thinking about your own schooling.
Finally, address this question: Are you here today in spite of your education or because of your education? Why?

A successful paper will use concrete examples from your own schooling experience and the readings, class discussion or research to illustrate and support your points. Please remember to cite your readings in text as well as a separate Reference Page.

Schooling Autobiography Rubric – SIL Spring 2019

Excellent 4


Satisfactory 2



Unsatisfactory 0

Research about school and neighborhood
Description of school (Part 1)
School Experience (Part 2)

Critical Reflection (Part 3)
Organization and Quality of writing   (includes citations)
our location in the social structure that is shaped by race, ethnicity, immigrant status, first language, geographic residence (urban, suburban, rural, and region of the country), religion, SES, gender, sexual orientation, etc.

You have to use Tatum,”Why are all the Black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?” (attached). I will attach summaries for each chapter in the book if that helps.Table of Contents
Also by Beverly Daniel Tatum, Ph.D.
Title Page
Part I – A Definition of Terms
Chapter 1 – Defining Racism
Racism: A System of Advantage Based on Race
Racism: For Whites Only?
The Cost of Racism
A Word About Language
Chapter 2 – The Complexity of Identity
Who Am I? Multiple Identities
Domination and Subordination
Part II – Understanding Blackness in a White Context
Chapter 3 – The Early Years
Preschool Conversations
Blackness, Whiteness, and Painful History
A Question of Color
“It’s That Stuff Again”: Developing a Critical Consciousness
Chapter 4 – Identity Development in Adolescence
Understanding Racial Identity Development
Coping with Encounters: Developing an Oppositional Identity
Oppositional Identity Development and Academic Achievement
The Search for Alternative Images
Not at the Table
An Alternative to the Cafeteria Table
Chapter 5 – Racial Identity in Adulthood
Not for College Students Only
Cycles of Racial Identity Development
The Corporate Cafeteria
Part III – Understanding Whiteness in a White Context
Chapter 6 – The Development of White Identity
Abandoning Racism
“But I’m an Individual!”
Defining a Positive White Identity
The Search for White Allies and the Restoration of Hope
Chapter 7 – White Identity and Affirmative Action
What Is Affirmative Action?
Aversive Racism and Affirmative Action
“Not a Prejudiced Bone in Their Bodies”: A Case Example
Keeping Our Eyes on the Prize: Goal-Oriented Affirmative Action
White Disadvantage Revisited
Part IV – Beyond Black and White
Chapter 8 – Critical Issues in Latino, American Indian, and Asian Pacific …
What Do We Mean When We Say “Latino”?
All in the Family: Familism in Latino Communities
“Who Are You if You Don’t Speak Spanish?” Language and Identity Among Latinos
What Do We Mean When We Say “Indian” ?
Surviving the Losses
“I” Is for Invisible: Contemporary Images of American Indians in the Curriculum
What Do We Mean When We Say “Asian”?
Beyond the Myth of the Model Minority
Finding a Voice
Racial Formation and Racial Identity
Chapter 9 – Identity Development in Multiracial Families
The One-Drop Rule: Racial Categorization in the United States
“But Don’t the Children Suffer?”
The Preschool Years
Entry into School
Adolescence: Making Choices
The College and Adult Years
Identity in Adoptive Families Considered
Part V – Breaking the Silence
Chapter 10 – Embracing a Cross-Racial Dialogue
The Paralysis of Fear
The Psychological Cost of Silence
Finding Courage for Social Change
Continuing the Conversation
Appendix – Getting Started Resources for the Next Step
Reader Discussion Guide
Copyright Page
Also by Beverly Daniel Tatum, Ph.D.
Assimilation Blues: Black Families in a White Community
To my students, who will have the courage to go where no one else will go and do what no one else
will do . . .
For my sons, who will surely know in their hearts how good and pleasant it is when brothers live
together in unity . . .
When I dare to be powerful—to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am
Introduction to the Paperback Edition (1999)
Beverly Daniel Tatum
Writing a book is a little like putting a note in a bottle and casting it out to sea. You have no idea
where or when it will land, who will receive it, or what impact it will have.You simply send it out
with the hope that someone will read its message—and that you might one day receive a reply. I am
tremendously grateful that my message reached shore and that so many of my readers have in fact sent
messages back to me, via letters, e-mail, and often in person at conferences and workshops. They tell
me how useful my book has been in helping them talk to their children, their friends, and their
colleagues about the difficult topic of racism. It seems that “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting
Together in the Cafeteria?”—with that provocative question as its title—has served as an entry point,
a conversation starter even for those who ordinarily avoid such conversations. And that indeed was
an important goal.
I put my message in this bottle not only to respond to commonly asked questions about race and
racism but, more important, to help others move beyond fear, beyond anger, beyond denial to a new
understanding of what racism is, how it impacts all of us, and ultimately what we can do about it. I
wanted to en-courage—literally, to offer courage—to every reader to break the silence about racism
more often, and to offer hope that it is worth the effort to do so. I am blessed that so many readers
have taken the time to let me know that they have found both courage and hope in these pages.
When I cast my message on the water, I did not know that my action would coincide with President
Clinton’s call for a national conversation about race or that it would connect me to others whose
courage and hope would both humble and inspire me. I never imagined that my message would wash
up on the shores of the White House. I was surprised and thrilled when I came home from an
afternoon of running errands one November day in 1997 and was greeted by my husband with
uncharacteristic agitation. He told me that a member of the President’s staff had called twice that
afternoon looking for me. The caller offered an invitation to participate along with two other authors
and a gathering of students and community leaders in President Clinton’s first Town Hall meeting on
race in Akron, Ohio. That December 3 event was personally very exciting and symbolically very
important. As I looked out at the thousands of people gathered in the auditorium, and imagined the
millions of people watching the televised event, I thought of my students back at Mount Holyoke
College and the need they express for models of antiracist action and leadership. Though there are
those who criticized the President’s Initiative as “idle talk,” I knew it offered hope for my students to
see a powerful white man using his power to try to interrupt the cycle of racism.While acts of bigotry
like the murders of James Byrd in Texas or of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming are usually well
publicized and easy to spot, efforts to oppose bigotry and discrimination often go without notice in the
media. In Akron, the power of the Presidency was making visible the work of community activists
and concerned citizens participating in the forum who, in their daily lives, were trying to counteract
racism. I was delighted to be a part of that process.
Just a few months earlier, in September 1997, I had been invited to participate in a conference
commemorating the 40th anniversary of the desegregation of Central High School in Little
Rock,Arkansas, a landmark event in civil rights history. This conference, one of the first involving the
advisory panel of the President’s Initiative on Race, allowed me not only to meet those distinguished
panelists but also to hear firsthand the experiences of the “Little Rock Nine.” These African
American men and women made tremendous personal sacrifices in their youth to create change in
their community and I was awed by their courage. I had the opportunity to stand in front of the
imposing structure that is Central High School, imagining how frightened those teenagers must have
been as they walked through jeering crowds into hostile hallways. Across the street from the school, a
new museum commemorating the struggle to desegregate Central High opened on the weekend I was
in Little Rock. I was deeply moved when I walked through the exhibit behind an elderly white man,
who paused at the museum exit and openly sobbed with what I imagined was both grief and shame
about what racism had done to those students and his community.The power of his emotions and of
mine reminded me again of how the legacy of racism has damaged all of us and why we all must work
to dismantle it.
I tried to explain this point to a radio interviewer I met while traveling on a book tour. A white man
in his 50s, he spoke despairingly of the fact that race relations had changed so little in his lifetime. He
commented that although there had been progress during the Civil Rights era, since then it seemed that
we lost momentum. He noted that segregation still persists, economic inequality has worsened, and
racial violence continues to make national headlines.All these statements are true, and the temptation
to despair is strong.Yet despair is an act of resignation I am not willing to make, and I urged him not
to as well. In response, he pointed to his own racially mixed community as an example. Here was a
place, he said, where people of color and white people lived together as neighbors, and yet there was
little meaningful interaction across racial lines; no dialogue was taking place. He lamented,“We just
don’t have the leaders we used to have, we don’t have the leaders we need.” I paused, and then
asked,“Well, if you are interested in dialogue, have you invited anyone to your house to talk about
these issues? You are a person who has a sphere of influence. How are you using it to make things
different?”As Gandhi once said, we need to “be the change we want to see happen.”We are the
leaders we have been waiting for.
I began this Introduction with an image of a person standing on the water’s edge. I would like to
end it with a different image. Several months ago I made a donation to the annual fund of City Year, a
national service organization that gives young people the opportunity to spend a year doing service
projects in cities across the United States—a kind of urban Peace Corps. As a token of appreciation, I
received a mug with a story printed on its side. It read:
A young girl was walking along a beach. To her amazement, she came upon thousands of
starfish. Washed ashore by a storm, they were dying in the hot sun. The girl began to toss
starfish back into the sea, one by one. After a while, a man approached her. “Little girl,” he
asked, “why are you doing this? There are thousands of starfish on the beach. You cannot
possibly hope to make a difference!” The girl was discouraged, and dropped the starfish in
her hand. But a moment later, she bent down, picked up the starfish again, and tossed it as far
as she could into the sea. She turned back to the man. Smiling brightly, she said, “I made a
difference to that one!” Inspired, he joined her. A crowd had gathered, and soon others joined
in. Before long, there were hundreds of people tossing starfish back into the sea and calling
out, “I made a difference to that one!” After a while, their calls subsided. The girl looked up.
To her amazement, she saw no starfish on the beach. Each one had been tossed back into the
As this story so beautifully illustrates, each of us has the power to make a difference, and collectively
we can create a more just and peaceful society.We can lead by our own example and begin to erase
the effects of racism in our communities if that is what we choose to do. I am grateful to hear that so
many of my readers are making that choice.
To the new readers of the paperback edition, I hope you too will find in these pages the information
and the inspiration you need to join the effort.
A Psychologist’s Perspective
As a clinical psychologist with a research interest in Black children’s racial identity development, I
began teaching about racism many years ago when I was asked by the chair of the Black studies
department of the large public university where I was a lecturer to teach a course called “Group
Exploration of Racism.” None of my colleagues, all of whom had been trained in the traditional
lecture style of college teaching, wanted to teach the course, which emphasized group interaction and
self-revelation. But as a clinical psychologist trained to facilitate emotionally difficult group
discussions, I was intrigued by the experiential emphasis implied by the course title, and I took on the
Aided by a folder full of handouts and course descriptions left behind by the previous instructor, a
copy of White Awareness: Handbook for Anti-Racism Training,1 and my own clinical skills as a
group facilitator, I constructed a course that seemed to meet the goals outlined in the course catalog.
Designed “to provide students with an understanding of the psychological causes and emotional
reality of racism as it appears in everyday life,” the course incorporated the use of lectures, readings,
simulation exercises, group research projects, and extensive class discussion to help students explore
the psychological impact of racism on both Whites and people of color.
Though my first efforts were tentative, the results were powerful. The students in my class, most of
whom were White, repeatedly described the course in their evaluations as one of the most valuable
educational experiences of their college careers. I was convinced that helping students understand the
ways in which racism operates in their own lives and what they could do about it was a true calling
that I should accept. The freedom to institute the course in the curriculum of the psychology
departments in which I would eventually teach became a personal condition of employment. Since
1980, I have taught this course, now called “The Psychology of Racism,” to hundreds of students at
three different institutions—a large public university, a small coeducational state college, and an elite
private college for women.2 I have also developed a similar course especially for elementary and
secondary school teachers and administrators that hundreds of educators have now taken.3 These
experiences, along with the countless parent education workshops I have led and my ongoing research
about the experiences of Black adolescents in predominantly White settings, have taught me a lot
about the significance of racial identity in the lives of children as well as adults. In fact, my
deepening understanding of racial identity development theory has greatly informed my thinking about
how best to teach these courses and lead these workshops.
After about ten years of teaching, I decided to share some of what I had learned in an article,
“Talking About Race, Learning About Racism: An Application of Racial Identity Development
Theory in the Classroom.”4 Published in the Spring 1992 edition of the Harvard Educational Review,
the article has been read widely by my academic colleagues in the field of education, many of whom
tell me that reading about the theoretical framework of racial identity development triggered an “aha”
moment for them. Suddenly the racial dynamics in their classrooms and within their own campus
communities made sense in a way that they hadn’t before. Those who were parents of adolescents of
color suddenly had a new lens with which to see the sometimes sudden shifts in their children’s
behavior both at home and at school. Cross-racial interactions with colleagues took on new meaning.
Just as it had for me, an understanding of racial identity development gave them new ways of thinking
about old problems and offered them new strategies for facilitating productive dialogue about racial
What concerns me is how little most people outside my particular specialty know about racial
identity development. Even those who have studied child psychology are often uninformed about the
role of racial or ethnic identity in young people’s development. Perhaps given the historical emphasis
on the experiences of White, middle-class children in psychological research, this fact should not be
surprising. Most introductory psychology or developmental psychology textbooks include very little
mention, if any, of racial or ethnic identity development. Because racial identity is not seen as salient
for White adolescents, it is usually not included in the texts.
One consequence of this omission that should concern all of us is that educators all across the
country, most of whom are White, are teaching in racially mixed classrooms, daily observing identity
development in process, and are without an important interpretive framework to help them understand
what is happening in their interactions with students, or even in their cross-racial interactions with
colleagues. Although educators are hungry for this information, too often it has not been made
accessible to them, instead confined to scholarly journals and academic volumes.
And if my colleagues in education know little about racial identity development theory, the general
public knows even less. Yet whenever I talk about this concept in workshops and public lectures, the
response is always the same: “This is so helpful. Now I have a better understanding of those
interactions, now I see why talking about racism is so hard, now I know what I can do to make it
Kurt Lewin, a famous social psychologist, once said, “There is nothing so practical as a good
theory.” A theoretical framework that helps us make sense of what we observe in our daily lives is a
very valuable resource. What I hope to provide with this book is a helpful understanding of racial
identity development from the perspective of a psychologist who has been applying the theory in her
teaching, research, and clinical and consulting practice for almost twenty years.
It is a perspective we need now more than ever. Daily news reports tell us of the rising racial
tensions in the United States. As our nation becomes more diverse, we need to be able to
communicate across racial and ethnic lines, but we seem increasingly less able to do so. New tools
are needed. While the insights of sociologists, economists, political scientists, historians, and other
social commentators have much to offer, a psychological understanding of cross-racial interactions
has been noticeably absent from the public discourse. In the absence of such an understanding, many
questions important to our daily lives go unanswered.
I am often asked by parents and educators to address questions about children’s understanding of
race, racial identity in adolescence, and how to combat racism in daily life.White parents and
teachers, in particular, often ask me questions about how to talk to children and other adults about
racial issues. They struggle with embarrassment about the topic, the social awkwardness that can
result if the “wrong” words are used, the discomfort that comes from breaking a social taboo, the
painful possibility of being perceived as racist. Parents of color, too, have questions. They are
sometimes unsure about how to talk to their own children about racism, torn between wanting to
protect them from the pain of racial realities and wanting to prepare them effectively to cope with a
potentially hostile world.
Adults, both White and of color, often hesitate to speak to children about racism for fear they will
create problems where perhaps none exist, afraid that they will make “colorblind” children
unnecessarily color-conscious. A psychological perspective—informed by developmental
psychology in general, racial identity development theory in particular, and the insights of social
psychological research—allows me to respond to these questions and others in ways that I hope will
add useful clarity to the daily discourse about race.
My audiences often tell me that what they appreciate about my articles and my public presentations
is that I make the idea of talking about race and racism less intimidating. I help them to see the
importance of dialogue about this issue, and give them the confidence they need to break the silence
about race at home, at work, among their friends, and with their children.
I decided to write this book when I received a letter from a school principal in New Jersey. He had
heard me speak at a conference the summer before, and wrote to say that I had given the best
explanation he had ever heard of why, in racially mixed schools all over the country, Black kids were
still sitting together in school cafeterias. He invited me to come to his school and give the same
explanation to his staff. The letter came at a particularly busy time in the school year. My desk was
covered with student papers to read, there were project deadlines to meet, and I had just returned
from a series of speaking engagements with a bad case of laryngitis. I was exhausted, and the idea of
traveling to yet another school to give yet another talk on adolescent racial identity development was
painful even to contemplate at that time.Yet the request represented a genuine need for information. I
thought of the hundreds of times I had been asked the question, “Why are all the Black kids sitting
together in the cafeteria?” The tone of voice implied what usually remained unsaid, “And what can
we do to solve this problem?” It became apparent to me that it was time to address this question in
print, and to bring an understanding of racial identity development to a wider audience.
As the idea for the book percolated in my head, other frequently asked questions came to mind.
How do you talk to children about such a painful historical event as slavery? When do children start
to notice racial differences? How should I respond to racial jokes? Isn’t racism a thing of the past? I
thought about the many public conversations I have had with educators, parents, and students, and the
private conversations I have had with family and friends. It seemed to me that there was value in
making some of these conversations available to others, as I do in my public presentations, as a way
of both sharing information and modeling a process of engagement, a way of talking about the legacy
of racism in our lives.
At the center of these conversations is an understanding of racial identity, the meaning each of us
has constructed or is constructing about what it means to be a White person or a person of color in a
race-conscious society. Present also is an understanding of racism. It is because we live in a racist
society that racial identity has as much meaning as it does.We cannot talk meaningfully about racial
identity without also talking about racism.
All of the conversations in this book are drawn from my own life experience and in the context of
my own teaching about racism and racial identity, as well as from my research on Black children and
families in predominantly White settings. Because I am a Black woman, these conversations are often
framed in the context of Black-White relations. However, one of the lessons I have learned in the
years that I have been teaching about racism is that racism is a live issue for other groups of color as
well. My Latino, Asian, American Indian, and biracial students have taught me that they have a
developing sense of racial/ethnic identity, too, and that all of us need to see our experiences reflected
back to us. In that spirit, I have included discussions of the identity development of Latino, Asian, and
American Indian adolescents, as well as of the experiences of young people growing up in multiracial
In envisioning this book, it was not my intention to write for an academic audience. Instead I
wanted to talk to the many parents, educators, and community leaders who would come to one of my
presentations on “Talking to Children About Race” or “Interrupting the Cycle of Oppression” or
“Understanding Racial Identity Development” if it were held at their children’s school or in their
town, and to respond to the kinds of questions I often hear these concerned adults ask. I wanted to
make this psychological perspective as jargon-free as possible while still maintaining the integrity of
the ideas.To the extent that readers find ideas they can use in their daily conversations with
colleagues, friends, and family, I have been successful.
James Baldwin wrote, “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed
until it is faced.”Talking about racism is an essential part of facing racism and changing it. But it is
not the only part. I am painfully aware that people of color have been talking about racism for a long
time. Many people of color are tired of talking, frustrated that talk has not lead to enough constructive
action or meaningful social change. But in my own work, I have seen the effectiveness of talking
about racism and teaching others to do the same. I have seen the impact on individual students who
years later have written to me about the changes they are making in their workplaces. I have seen the
impact on educators I have worked with who are now transforming their curricula and interacting
with students of color in ways that facilitate rather than hinder those children’s academic success. I
have witnessed the parents who begin to use their own spheres of influence within the community to
address racism and other forms of oppression in their own environments. I remain hopeful. It is with
this spirit of optimism that I invite my readers to join with me in these conversations about race.
Part I
A Definition of Terms
Defining Racism
“Can we talk?”
Early in my teaching career, a White student I knew asked me what I would be teaching the following
semester. I mentioned that I would be teaching a course on racism. She replied, with some surprise in
her voice,“Oh, is there still racism?” I assured her that indeed there was and suggested that she sign
up for my course. Fifteen years later, after exhaustive media coverage of events such as the Rodney
King beating, the Charles Stuart and Susan Smith cases, the O. J. Simpson trial, the appeal to racial
prejudices in electoral politics, and the bitter debates about affirmative action and welfare reform, it
seems hard to imagine that anyone would still be unaware of the reality of racism in our society. But
in fact, in almost every audience I address, there is someone who will suggest that racism is a thing of
the past. There is always someone who hasn’t noticed the stereotypical images of people of color in
the media, who hasn’t observed the housing discrimination in their community, who hasn’t read the
newspaper articles about documented racial bias in lending practices among well-known banks, who
isn’t aware of the racial tracking pattern at the local school, who hasn’t seen the reports of rising
incidents of racially motivated hate crimes in America—in short, someone who hasn’t been paying
attention to issues of race. But if you are paying attention, the legacy of racism is not hard to see, and
we are all affected by it.
The impact of racism begins early. Even in our preschool years, we are exposed to misinformation
about people different from ourselves. Many of us grew up in neighborhoods where we had limited
opportunities to interact with people different from our own families. When I ask my college students,
“How many of you grew up in neighborhoods where most of the people were from the same racial
group as your own?” almost every hand goes up. There is still a great deal of social segregation in
our communities. Consequently, most of the early information we receive about “others”—people
racially, religiously, or socioeconomically different from ourselves—does not come as the result of
firsthand experience.The secondhand information we do receive has often been distorted, shaped by
cultural stereotypes, and left incomplete.
Some examples will highlight this process. Several years ago one of my students conducted a
research project investigating preschoolers’ conceptions of Native Americans.1 Using children at a
local day care center as her participants, she asked these three- and four-year-olds to draw a picture
of a Native American. Most children were stumped by her request. They didn’t know what a Native
American was. But when she rephrased the question and asked them to draw a picture of an Indian,
they readily complied. Almost every picture included one central feature: feathers. In fact, many of
them also included a weapon—a knife or tomahawk—and depicted the person in violent or
aggressive terms.Though this group of children, almost all of whom were White, did not live near a
large Native American population and probably had had little if any personal interaction with
American Indians, they all had internalized an image of what Indians were like. How did they know?
Cartoon images, in particular the Disney movie Peter Pan, were cited by the children as their
number-one source of information. At the age of three, these children already had a set of stereotypes
in place.Though I would not describe three-year-olds as prejudiced, the stereotypes to which they
have been exposed become the foundation for the adult prejudices so many of us have.
Sometimes the assumptions we make about others come not from what we have been told or what
we have seen on television or in books, but rather from what we have not been told. The distortion of
historical information about people of color leads young people (and older people, too) to make
assumptions that may go unchallenged for a long time. Consider this conversation between two White
students following a discussion about the cultural transmission of racism:
“Yeah, I just found out that Cleopatra was actually a Black woman.”
The first student went on to explain her newly learned information. The second student exclaimed
in disbelief, “That can’t be true. Cleopatra was beautiful!”
What had this young woman learned about who in our society is considered beautiful and who is
not? Had she conjured up images of Elizabeth Taylor when she thought of Cleopatra? The new
information her classmate had shared and her own deeply ingrained assumptions about who is
beautiful and who is not were too incongruous to allow her to assimilate the information at that
Omitted information can have similar effects. For example, another young woman, preparing to be
a high school English teacher, expressed her dismay that she had never learned about any Black
authors in any of her English courses. How was she to teach about them to her future students when
she hadn’t learned about them herself? A White male student in the class responded to this discussion
with frustration in his response journal, writing “It’s not my fault that Blacks don’t write books.” Had
one of his elementary, high school, or college teachers ever told him that there were no Black
writers? Probably not. Yet because he had never been exposed to Black authors, he had drawn his
own conclusion that there were none.
Stereotypes, omissions, and distortions all contribute to the development of prejudice. Prejudice is
a preconceived judgment or opinion, usually based on limited information. I assume that we all have
prejudices, not because we want them, but simply because we are so continually exposed to
misinformation about others.Though I have often heard students or workshop participants describe
someone as not having “a prejudiced bone in his body,” I usually suggest that they look again.
Prejudice is one of the inescapable consequences of living in a racist society. Cultural racism—the
cultural images and messages that affirm the assumed superiority of Whites and the assumed
inferiority of people of color—is like smog in the air. Sometimes it is so thick it is visible, other
times it is less apparent, but always, day in and day out, we are breathing it in. None of us would
introduce ourselves as “smog-breathers” (and most of us don’t want to be described as prejudiced),
but if we live in a smoggy place, how can we avoid breathing the air? If we live in an environment in
which we are bombarded with stereotypical images in the media, are frequently exposed to the ethnic
jokes of friends and family members, and are rarely informed of the accomplishments of oppressed
groups, we will develop the negative categorizations of those groups that form the basis of prejudice.
People of color as well as Whites develop these categorizations. Even a member of the stereotyped
group may internalize the stereotypical categories about his or her own group to some degree. In fact,
this process happens so frequently that it has a name, internalized oppression. Some of the
consequences of believing the distorted messages about one’s own group will be discussed in
subsequent chapters.
Certainly some people are more prejudiced than others, actively embracing and perpetuating
negative and hateful images of those who are different from themselves. When we claim to be free of
prejudice, perhaps what we are really saying is that we are not hatemongers. But none of us is
completely innocent. Prejudice is an integral part of our socialization, and it is not our fault. Just as
the preschoolers my student interviewed are not to blame for the negative messages they internalized,
we are not at fault for the stereotypes, distortions, and omissions that shaped our thinking as we grew
To say that it is not our fault does not relieve us of responsibility, however. We may not have
polluted the air, but we need to take responsibility, along with others, for cleaning it up. Each of us
needs to look at our own behavior. Am I perpetuating and reinforcing the negative messages so
pervasive in our culture, or am I seeking to challenge them? If I have not been exposed to positive
images of marginalized groups, am I seeking them out, expanding my own knowledge base for myself
and my children? Am I acknowledging and examining my own prejudices, my own rigid
categorizations of others, thereby minimizing the adverse impact they might have on my interactions
with those I have categorized? Unless we engage in these and other conscious acts of reflection and
reeducation, we easily repeat the process with our children.We teach what we were taught. The
unexamined prejudices of the parents are passed on to the children. It is not our fault, but it is our
responsibility to interrupt this cycle.
Racism: A System of Advantage Based on Race
Many people use the terms prejudice and racism interchangeably. I do not, and I think it is important
to make a distinction. In his book Portraits of White Racism, David Wellman argues convincingly
that limiting our understanding of racism to prejudice does not offer a sufficient explanation for the
persistence of racism. He defines racism as a “system of advantage based on race.”2 In illustrating
this definition, he provides example after example of how Whites defend their racial advantage—
access to better schools, housing, jobs—even when they do not embrace overtly prejudicial thinking.
Racism cannot be fully explained as an expression of prejudice alone.
This definition of racism is useful because it allows us to see that racism, like other forms of
oppression, is not only a personal ideology based on racial prejudice, but a system involving cultural
messages and institutional policies and practices as well as the beliefs and actions of individuals. In
the context of the United States, this system clearly operates to the advantage of Whites and to the
disadvantage of people of color. Another related definition of racism, commonly used by antiracist
educators and consultants, is “prejudice plus power.” Racial prejudice when combined with social
power—access to social, cultural, and economic resources and decision-making—leads to the
institutionalization of racist policies and practices. While I think this definition also captures the idea
that racism is more than individual beliefs and attitudes, I prefer Wellman’s definition because the
idea of systematic advantage and disadvantage is critical to an understanding of how racism operates
in American society.
In addition, I find that many of my White students and workshop participants do not feel powerful.
Defining racism as prejudice plus power has little personal relevance. For some, their response to
this definition is the following: “I’m not really prejudiced, and I have no power, so racism has
nothing to do with me.” However, most White people, if they are really being honest with themselves,
can see that there are advantages to being White in the United States. Despite the current rhetoric
about affirmative action and “reverse racism,” every social indicator, from salary to life expectancy,
reveals the advantages of being White.3
The systematic advantages of being White are often referred to as White privilege. In a now wellknown article, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” Peggy McIntosh, a White
feminist scholar, identified a long list of societal privileges that she received simply because she was
White.4 She did not ask for them, and it is important to note that she hadn’t always noticed that she
was receiving them. They included major and minor advantages. Of course she enjoyed greater
access to jobs and housing. But she also was able to shop in department stores without being
followed by suspicious sales-people and could always find appropriate hair care products and
makeup in any drugstore. She could send her child to school confident that the teacher would not
discriminate against him on the basis of race. She could also be late for meetings, and talk with her
mouth full, fairly confident that these behaviors would not be attributed to the fact that she was White.
She could express an opinion in a meeting or in print and not have it labeled the “White” viewpoint.
In other words, she was more often than not viewed as an individual, rather than as a member of a
racial group.
This article rings true for most White readers, many of whom may have never considered the
benefits of being White. It’s one thing to have enough awareness of racism to describe the ways that
people of color are disadvantaged by it. But this new understanding of racism is more elusive. In very
concrete terms, it means that if a person of color is the victim of housing discrimination, the apartment
that would otherwise have been rented to that person of color is still available for a White
person.The White tenant is, knowingly or unknowingly, the beneficiary of racism, a system of
advantage based on race. The unsuspecting tenant is not to blame for the prior discrimination, but she
benefits from it anyway.
For many Whites, this new awareness of the benefits of a racist system elicits considerable pain,
often accompanied by feelings of anger and guilt. These uncomfortable emotions can hinder further
discussion. We all like to think that we deserve the good things we have received, and that others, too,
get what they deserve. Social psychologists call this tendency a “belief in a just world.”5 Racism
directly contradicts such notions of justice.
Understanding racism as a system of advantage based on race is antithetical to traditional notions
of an American meritocracy. For those who have internalized this myth, this definition generates
considerable discomfort. It is more comfortable simply to think of racism as a particular form of
prejudice. Notions of power or privilege do not have to be addressed when our understanding of
racism is constructed in that way.
The discomfort generated when a systemic definition of racism is introduced is usually quite
visible in the workshops I lead. Someone in the group is usually quick to point out that this is not the
definition you will find in most dictionaries. I reply, “Who wrote the dictionary?” I am not being
facetious with this response.Whose interests are served by a “prejudice only” definition of racism? It
is important to understand that the system of advantage is perpetuated when we do not acknowledge
its existence.
Racism: For Whites Only?
Frequently someone will say, “You keep talking about White people. People of color can be racist,
too.” I once asked a White teacher what it would mean to her if a student or parent of color accused
her of being racist. She said she would feel as though she had been punched in the stomach or called a
“low-life scum.” She is not alone in this feeling. The word racist holds a lot of emotional power. For
many White people, to be called racist is the ultimate insult. The idea that this term might only be
applied to Whites becomes highly problematic for after all, can’t people of color be “low-life scum”
Of course, people of any racial group can hold hateful attitudes and behave in racially
discriminatory and bigoted ways.We can all cite examples of horrible hate crimes which have been
perpetrated by people of color as well as Whites. Hateful behavior is hateful behavior no matter who
does it. But when I am asked, ”Can people of color be racist?” I reply, “The answer depends on your
definition of racism.” If one defines racism as racial prejudice, the answer is yes. People of color can
and do have racial prejudices. However, if one defines racism as a system of advantage based on
race, the answer is no. People of color are not racist because they do not systematically benefit from
racism. And equally important, there is no systematic cultural and institutional support or sanction for
the racial bigotry of people of color. In my view, reserving the term racist only for behaviors
committed by Whites in the context of a White-dominated society is a way of acknowledging the everpresent power differential afforded Whites by the culture and institutions that make up the system of
advantage and continue to reinforce notions of White superiority. (Using the same logic, I reserve the
word sexist for men.Though women can and do have gender-based prejudices, only men
systematically benefit from sexism.)
Despite my best efforts to explain my thinking on this point, there are some who will be troubled,
perhaps even incensed, by my response. To call the racially motivated acts of a person of color acts
of racial bigotry and to describe similar acts committed by Whites as racist will make no sense to
some people, including some people of color. To those, I will respectfully say, “We can agree to
disagree.” At moments like these, it is not agreement that is essential, but clarity. Even if you don’t
like the definition of racism I am using, hopefully you are now clear about what it is. If I also
understand how you are using the term, our conversation can continue—despite our disagreement.
Another provocative question I’m often asked is “Are you saying all Whites are racist?” When
asked this question, I again remember that White teacher’s response, and I am conscious that perhaps
the question I am really being asked is, “Are you saying all Whites are bad people?” The answer to
that question is of course not. However, all White people, intentionally or unintentionally, do benefit
from racism. A more relevant question is what are White people as individuals doing to interrupt
racism? For many White people, the image of a racist is a hood-wearing Klan member or a namecalling Archie Bunker figure. These images represent what might be called active racism, blatant,
intentional acts of racial bigotry and discrimination. Passive racism is more subtle and can be seen in
the collusion of laughing when a racist joke is told, of letting exclusionary hiring practices go
unchallenged, of accepting as appropriate the omissions of people of color from the curriculum, and
of avoiding difficult race-related issues. Because racism is so ingrained in the fabric of American
institutions, it is easily self-perpetuating.6 All that is required to maintain it is business as usual.
I sometimes visualize the ongoing cycle of racism as a moving walkway at the airport. Active
racist behavior is equivalent to walking fast on the conveyor belt.The person engaged in active racist
behavior has identified with the ideology of White supremacy and is moving with it. Passive racist
behavior is equivalent to standing still on the walkway. No overt effort is being made, but the
conveyor belt moves the bystanders along to the same destination as those who are actively walking.
Some of the bystanders may feel the motion of the conveyor belt, see the active racists ahead of them,
and choose to turn around, unwilling to go to the same destination as the White supremacists. But
unless they are walking actively in the opposite direction at a speed faster than the conveyor belt—
unless they are actively antiracist—they will find themselves carried along with the others.
So, not all Whites are actively racist. Many are passively racist. Some, though not enough, are
actively antiracist. The relevant question is not whether all Whites are racist, but how we can move
more White people from a position of active or passive racism to one of active antiracism? The task
of interrupting racism is obviously not the task of Whites alone. But the fact of White privilege means
that Whites have greater access to the societal institutions in need of transformation. To whom much is
given, much is required.
It is important to acknowledge that while all Whites benefit from racism, they do not all benefit
equally. Other factors, such as socioeconomic status, gender, age, religious affiliation, sexual
orientation, mental and physical ability, also play a role in our access to social influence and power.
A White woman on welfare is not privileged to the same extent as a wealthy White heterosexual man.
In her case, the systematic disadvantages of sexism and classism intersect with her White privilege,
but the privilege is still there.This point was brought home to me in a 1994 study conducted by a
Mount Holyoke graduate student, Phyllis Wentworth.7 Wentworth interviewed a group of female
college students, who were both older than their peers and were the first members of their families to
attend college, about the pathways that lead them to college. All of the women interviewed were
White, from working-class backgrounds, from families where women were expected to graduate from
high school and get married or get a job. Several had experienced abusive relationships and other
personal difficulties prior to coming to college.Yet their experiences were punctuated by “good luck”
stories of apartments obtained without a deposit, good jobs offered without experience or extensive
reference checks, and encouragement provided by willing mentors. While the women acknowledged
their good fortune, none of them discussed their Whiteness.They had not considered the possibility
that being White had worked in their favor and helped give them the benefit of the doubt at critical
junctures. This study clearly showed that even under difficult circumstances,White privilege was still
It is also true that not all people of color are equally targeted by racism.We all have multiple
identities that shape our experience. I can describe myself as a light-skinned, well-educated,
heterosexual, able-bodied, Christian African American woman raised in a middle-class suburb. As
an African American woman, I am systematically disadvantaged by race and by gender, but I
systematically receive benefits in the other categories, which then mediate my experience of racism
and sexism. When one is targeted by multiple isms—racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, ableism,
anti-Semitism, ageism—in whatever combination, the effect is intensified. The particular combination
of racism and classism in many communities of color is life-threatening. Nonetheless, when I, the
middle-class Black mother of two sons, read another story about a Black man’s unlucky encounter
with a White police officer’s deadly force, I am reminded that racism by itself can kill.
The Cost of Racism
Several years ago, a White male student in my psychology of racism course wrote in his journal at the
end of the semester that he had learned a lot about racism and now understood in a way he never had
before just how advantaged he was. He also commented that he didn’t think he would do anything to
try to change the situation. After all, the system was working in his favor. Fortunately, his response
was not typical. Most of my students leave my course with the desire (and an action plan) to interrupt
the cycle of racism. However, this young man’s response does raise an important question. Why
should Whites who are advantaged by racism want to end that system of advantage? What are the
costs of that system to them?
A Money magazine article called “Race and Money” chronicled the many ways the American
economy was hindered by institutional racism.8 Whether one looks at productivity lowered by racial
tensions in the workplace, or real estate equity lost through housing discrimination, or the tax revenue
lost in underemployed communities of color, or the high cost of warehousing human talent in prison,
the economic costs of racism are real and measurable.
As a psychologist, I often hear about the less easily measured costs. When I ask White men and
women how racism hurts them, they frequently talk about their fears of people of color, the social
incompetence they feel in racially mixed situations, the alienation they have experienced between
parents and children when a child marries into a family of color, and the interracial friendships they
had as children that were lost in adolescence or young adulthood without their ever understanding
why. White people are paying a significant price for the system of advantage. The cost is not as high
for Whites as it is for people of color, but a price is being paid.9 Wendell Berry, a White writer
raised in Kentucky, captures this psychic pain in the opening pages of his book, The Hidden Wound:
If white people have suffered less obviously from racism than black people, they have
nevertheless suffered greatly; the cost has been greater perhaps than we can yet know. If the
white man has inflicted the wound of racism upon black men, the cost has been that he would
receive the mirror image of that wound into himself. As the master, or as a member of the
dominant race, he has felt little compulsion to acknowledge it or speak of it; the more painful
it has grown the more deeply he has hidden it within himself. But the wound is there, and it is
a profound disorder, as great a damage in his mind as it is in his society.10
The dismantling of racism is in the best interests of everyone.
A Word About Language
Throughout this chapter I have used the term White to refer to Americans of European descent. In
another era, I might have used the term Caucasian. I have used the term people of color to refer to
those groups in America that are and have been historically targeted by racism. This includes people
of African descent, people of Asian descent, people of Latin American descent, and indigenous
peoples (sometimes referred to as Native Americans or American Indians).11 Many people refer to
these groups collectively as non-Whites. This term is particularly offensive because it defines groups
of people in terms of what they are not. (Do we call women “non-men?”) I also avoid using the term
minorities because it represents another kind of distortion of information which we need to correct.
So-called minorities represent the majority of the world’s population.While the term people of color
is inclusive, it is not perfect. As a workshop participant once said, White people have color, too.
Perhaps it would be more accurate to say “people of more color,” though I am not ready to make that
change. Perhaps fellow psychologist Linda James Myers is on the right track. She refers to two
groups of people, those of acknowledged African descent and those of unacknowledged African
descent, reminding us that we can all trace the roots of our common humanity to Africa.
I refer to people of acknowledged African descent as Black. I know that African American is also
a commonly used term, and I often refer to myself and other Black people born and raised in America
in that way. Perhaps because I am a child of the 1960s “Black and beautiful” era, I still prefer Black.
The term is more inclusive than African American, because there are Black people in the United
States who are not African American—Afro-Caribbeans, for example—yet are targeted by racism,
and are identified as Black.
When referring to other groups of color, I try to use the terms that the people themselves want to be
called. In some cases, there is no clear consensus. For example, some people of Latin American
ancestry prefer Latino, while others prefer Hispanic or, if of Mexican descent, Chicano.12 The terms
Latino and Hispanic are used interchangeably here. Similarly, there are regional variations in the use
of the terms Native American, American Indian, and Indian. American Indian and Native people are
now more widely used than Native American, and the language used here reflects that. People of
Asian descent include Pacific Islanders, and that is reflected in the terms Asian/Pacific Islanders and
Asian Pacific Americans. However, when quoting others I use whichever terms they use.
My dilemma about the language to use reflects the fact that race is a social construction.13 Despite
myths to the contrary, biologists tell us that the only meaningful racial categorization is that of
human.Van den Berghe defines race as “a group that is socially defined but on the basis of physical
criteria,” including skin color and facial features.14
Racial identity development, a central focus of this book, usually refers to the process of defining
for oneself the personal significance and social meaning of belonging to a particular racial group. The
terms racial identity and ethnic identity are often used synonymously, though a distinction can be
made between the two. An ethnic group is a socially defined group based on cultural criteria, such as
language, customs, and shared history. An individual might identify as a member of an ethnic group
(Irish or Italian, for example) but might not think of himself in racial terms (as White). On the other
hand, one may recognize the personal significance of racial group membership (identifying as Black,
for instance) but may not consider ethnic identity (such as West Indian) as particularly meaningful.
Both racial and ethnic categories are socially constructed, and social definitions of these
categories have changed over time. For example, in his book Ethnic Identity: The Transformation of
White America, Richard Alba points out that the high rates of intermarriage and the dissolution of
other social boundaries among European ethnic groups in the United States have reduced the
significance of ethnic identity for these groups. In their place, he argues, a new ethnic identity is
emerging, that of European American.15
Throughout this book, I refer primarily to racial identity. It is important, however, to acknowledge
that ethnic identity and racial identity sometimes intersect. For example, dark-skinned Puerto Ricans
may identify culturally as Puerto Rican and yet be categorized racially by others as Black on the basis
of physical appearance. In the case of either racial or ethnic identity, these identities remain most
salient to individuals of racial or ethnic groups that have been historically disadvantaged or
The language we use to categorize one another racially is imperfect. These categories are still
evolving as the current debate over Census classifications indicates.16 The original creation of racial
categories was in the service of oppression. Some may argue that to continue to use them is to
continue that oppression. I respect that argument. Yet it is difficult to talk about what is essentially a
flawed and problematic social construct without using language that is itself problematic.We have to
be able to talk about it in order to change it. So this is the language I choose.
The Complexity of Identity
“Who am I?”
The concept of identity is a complex one, shaped by individual characteristics, family dynamics,
historical factors, and social and political contexts. Who am I? The answer depends in large part on
who the world around me says I am. Who do my parents say I am? Who do my peers say I am? What
message is reflected back to me in the faces and voices of my teachers, my neighbors, store clerks?
What do I learn from the media about myself? How am I represented in the cultural images around
me? Or am I missing from the picture altogether? As social scientist Charles Cooley pointed out long
ago, other people are the mirror in which we see ourselves.1
This “looking glass self” is not a flat one-dimensional reflection, but multidimensional. Because
the focus of this book is racial identity in the United States, race is highlighted in these pages.Yet,
how one’s racial identity is experienced will be mediated by other dimensions of oneself: male or
female; young or old; wealthy, middle-class, or poor; gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or
heterosexual; able-bodied or with disabilities; Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, or
Abigail Stewart and Joseph Healy’s research on the impact of historical periods on personality
development raises the question, Who is my cohort group?2 Am I a child of the Depression, a
survivor of World War II, the Holocaust, the U.S. internment of Japanese Americans? A product of the
segregation of the 1940s and 1950s, or a beneficiary of the Civil Rights era? Did I serve in the
Vietnam War, or am I a refugee of it? Did I come of age during the conservatism of the Reagan years?
Did I ride the wave of the Women’s Movement? Was I born before or after Stonewall and the
emergence of gay activism? What historical events have shaped my thinking?
What has my social context been? Was I surrounded by people like myself, or was I part of a
minority in my community? Did I grow up speaking standard English at home or another language or
dialect? Did I live in a rural county, an urban neighborhood, a sprawling suburb, or on a reservation?
Who I am (or say I am) is a product of these and many other factors. Erik Erikson, the
psychoanalytic theorist who coined the term identity crisis, introduced the notion that the social,
cultural, and historical context is the ground in which individual identity is embedded.
Acknowledging the complexity of identity as a concept, Erikson writes,
We deal with a process “located” in the core of the individual and yet also in the core of his
communal culture. . . . In psychological terms, identity formation employs a process of
simultaneous reflection and observation, a process taking place on all levels of mental
functioning, by which the individual judges himself in the light of what he perceives to be the
way in which others judge him in comparison to themselves and to a typology significant to
them; while he judges their way of judging him in the light of how he perceives himself in
comparison to them and to types that have become relevant to him. This process is, luckily,
and necessarily, for the most part unconscious except where inner conditions and outer
circumstances combine to aggravate a painful, or elated, “identity-consciousness.”3
Triggered by the biological changes associated with puberty, the maturation of cognitive abilities,
and changing societal expectations, this process of simultaneous reflection and observation, the selfcreation of one’s identity, is commonly experienced in the United States and other Western societies
during the period of adolescence.4 Though the foundation of identity is laid in the experiences of
childhood, younger children lack the physical and cognitive development needed to reflect on the self
in this abstract way.The adolescent capacity for self-reflection (and resulting self-consciousness)
allows one to ask, “Who am I now?” “Who was I before?” “Who will I become?” The answers to
these questions will influence choices about who one’s romantic partners will be, what type of work
one will do, where one will live, and what belief system one will embrace. Choices made in
adolescence ripple throughout the lifespan.
Who Am I? Multiple Identities
Integrating one’s past, present, and future into a cohesive, unified sense of self is a complex task that
begins in adolescence and continues for a lifetime. The complexity of identity is made clear in a
collection of autobiographical essays about racial identity called Names We Call Home.5 The
multiracial, multiethnic group of contributors narrate life stories highlighting the intersections of
gender, class, religion, sexuality, race, and historical circumstance, and illustrating that “people’s
multiple identifications defy neat racial divisions and unidimensional political alliances.”6 My
students’ autobiographical narratives point to a similar complexity, but the less developed narratives
of the late adolescents that I teach highlight the fact that our awareness of the complexity of our own
identity develops over time. The salience of particular aspects of our identity varies at different
moments in our lives. The process of integrating the component parts of our self-definition is indeed a
lifelong journey.
Which parts of our identity capture our attention first? While there are surely idiosyncratic
responses to this question, a classroom exercise I regularly use with my psychology students reveals a
telling pattern. I ask my students to complete the sentence, “I am __________,” using as many
descriptors as they can think of in sixty seconds. All kinds of trait descriptions are used—friendly,
shy, assertive, intelligent, honest, and so on—but over the years I have noticed something else.
Students of color usually mention their racial or ethnic group: for instance, I am Black, Puerto Rican,
Korean American. White students who have grown up in strong ethnic enclaves occasionally mention
being Irish or Italian. But in general, White students rarely mention being White. When I use this
exercise in coeducational settings, I notice a similar pattern in terms of gender, religion, and sexuality.
Women usually mention being female, while men don’t usually mention their maleness. Jewish
students often say they are Jews, while mainline Protestants rarely mention their religious
identification. A student who is comfortable revealing it publicly may mention being gay, lesbian, or
bisexual. Though I know most of my students are heterosexual, it is very unusual for anyone to include
their heterosexuality on their list.
Common across these examples is that in the areas where a person is a member of the dominant or
advantaged social group, the category is usually not mentioned. That element of their identity is so
taken for granted by them that it goes without comment. It is taken for granted by them because it is
taken for granted by the dominant culture. In Eriksonian terms, their inner experience and outer
circumstance are in harmony with one another, and the image reflected by others is similar to the
image within. In the absence of dissonance, this dimension of identity escapes conscious attention.
The parts of our identity that do capture our attention are those that other people notice, and that
reflect back to us. The aspect of identity that is the target of others’ attention, and subsequently of our
own, often is that which sets us apart as exceptional or “other” in their eyes. In my life I have been
perceived as both. A precocious child who began to read at age three, I stood out among my peers
because of my reading ability. This “gifted” dimension of my identity was regularly commented upon
by teachers and classmates alike, and quickly became part of my self-definition. But I was also
distinguished by being the only Black student in the class, an “other,” a fact I grew increasingly aware
of as I got older.
While there may be countless ways one might be defined as exceptional, there are at least seven
categories of “otherness” commonly experienced in U.S. society. People are commonly defined as
other on the basis of race or ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, age,
and physical or mental ability. Each of these categories has a form of oppression associated with it:
racism, sexism, religious oppression/anti-Semitism,7 heterosexism, classism, ageism, and ableism,
respectively. In each case, there is a group considered dominant (systematically advantaged by the
society because of group membership) and a group considered subordinate or targeted (systematically
disadvantaged). When we think about our multiple identities, most of us will find that we are both
dominant and targeted at the same time. But it is the targeted identities that hold our attention and the
dominant identities that often go unexamined.
In her essay, “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference,” Audre Lorde captured
the tensions between dominant and targeted identities co-existing in one individual. This selfdescribed “forty-nine-year-old Black lesbian feminist socialist mother of two” wrote,
Somewhere, on the edge of consciousness, there is what I call a mythical norm, which each
one of us within our hearts knows “that is not me.” In america, this norm is usually defined as
white, thin, male, young, heterosexual, christian, and financially secure. It is with this mythical
norm that the trappings of power reside within society.Those of us who stand outside that
power often identify one way in which we are different, and we assume that to be the primary
cause of all oppression, forgetting other distortions around difference, some of which we
ourselves may be practicing.8
Even as I focus on race and racism in my own writing and teaching, it is helpful to remind myself
and my students of the other distortions around difference that I (and they) may be practicing. It is an
especially useful way of generating empathy for our mutual learning process. If I am impatient with a
White woman for not recognizing her White privilege, it may be useful for me to remember how much
of my life I spent oblivious to the fact of the daily advantages I receive simply because I am
heterosexual, or the ways in which I may take my class privilege for granted.
Domination and Subordination
It is also helpful to consider the commonality found in the experience of being dominant or
subordinate even when the sources of dominance or subordination are different. Jean Baker Miller,
author of Toward a New Psychology of Women, has identified some of these areas of commonality.9
Dominant groups, by definition, set the parameters within which the subordinates operate. The
dominant group holds the power and authority in society relative to the subordinates and determines
how that power and authority may be acceptably used. Whether it is reflected in determining who gets
the best jobs, whose history will be taught in school, or whose relationships will be validated by
society, the dominant group has the greatest influence in determining the structure of the society.
The relationship of the dominants to the subordinates is often one in which the targeted group is
labeled as defective or substandard in significant ways. For example, Blacks have historically been
characterized as less intelligent than Whites, and women have been viewed as less emotionally stable
than men.The dominant group assigns roles to the subordinates that reflect the latter’s devalued status,
reserving the most highly valued roles in the society for themselves. Subordinates are usually said to
be innately incapable of being able to perform the preferred roles. To the extent that the targeted
group internalizes the images that the dominant group reflects back to them, they may find it difficult
to believe in their own ability.
When a subordinate demonstrates positive qualities believed to be more characteristic of
dominants, the individual is defined by dominants as an anomaly. Consider this illustrative example:
Following a presentation I gave to some educators, a White man approached me and told me how
much he liked my ideas and how articulate I was. “You know,” he concluded, “if I had had my eyes
closed, I wouldn’t have known it was a Black woman speaking.” (I replied, “This is what a Black
woman sounds like.”)
The dominant group is seen as the norm for humanity. Jean Baker Miller also asserts that
inequitable social relations are seen as the model for “normal human relationships.” Consequently, it
remains perfectly acceptable in many circles to tell jokes that denigrate a particular group, to exclude
subordinates from one’s neighborhood or work setting, or to oppose initiatives which might change
the power balance.
Miller points out that dominant groups generally do not like to be reminded of the existence of
inequality. Because rationalizations have been created to justify the social arrangements, it is easy to
believe everything is as it should be. Dominants “can avoid awareness because their explanation of
the relationship becomes so well integrated in other terms; they can even believe that both they and
the subordinate group share the same interests and, to some extent, a common experience.”10
The truth is that the dominants do not really know what the experience of the subordinates is. In
contrast, the subordinates are very well informed about the dominants. Even when firsthand
experience is limited by social segregation, the number and variety of images of the dominant group
available through television, magazines, books, and newspapers provide subordinates with plenty of
information about the dominants.The dominant world view has saturated the culture for all to learn.
Even the Black or Latino child living in a segregated community can enter White homes of many kinds
daily via the media. However, dominant access to information about the subordinates is often limited
to stereotypical depictions of the “other.” For example, there are many images of heterosexual
relations on television, but very few images of gay or lesbian domestic partnerships beyond the
caricatures of comedy shows. There are many images of White men and women in all forms of media,
but relatively few portrayals of people of color.
Not only is there greater opportunity for the subordinates to learn about the dominants, there is also
greater need. Social psychologist Susan Fiske writes,“It is a simple principle: People pay attention to
those who control their outcomes. In an effort to predict and possibly influence what is going to
happen to them, people gather information about those with power.”11
In a situation of unequal power, a subordinate group has to focus on survival. It becomes very
important for the subordinates to become highly attuned to the dominants as a way of protecting
themselves from them. For example, women who have been battered by men often talk about the
heightened sensitivity they develop to their partners’ moods. Being able to anticipate and avoid the
men’s rage is important to survival.
Survival sometimes means not responding to oppressive behavior directly.To do so could result in
physical harm to oneself, even death. In his essay “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow,” Richard Wright
describes eloquently the various strategies he learned to use to avoid the violence of Whites who
would brutalize a Black person who did not “stay in his place.”12 Though it is tempting to think that
the need for such strategies disappeared with Jim Crow laws, their legacy lives on in the frequent and
sometimes fatal harassment Black men experience at the hands of White police officers.13
Because of the risks inherent in unequal relationships, the subordinates often develop covert ways
of resisting or undermining the power of the dominant group. As Miller points out, popular culture is
full of folk tales, jokes, and stories about how the subordinate—whether the woman, the peasant, or
the sharecropper—outwitted the “boss.”14 In his essay “I Won’t Learn from You,” Herbert Kohl
identifies one form of resistance,“not-learning,” demonstrated by targeted students who are too often
seen by their dominant teachers as “others.”
Not-learning tends to take place when someone has to deal with unavoidable challenges to her
or his personal and family loyalties, integrity, and identity. In such situations, there are forced
choices and no apparent middle ground.To agree to learn from a stranger who does not respect
your integrity causes a major loss of self. The only alternative is to not-learn and reject their
The use of either strategy, attending very closely to the dominants or not attending at all, is costly to
members of the targeted group. Not-learning may mean there are needed skills which are not
acquired. Attending closely to the dominant group may leave little time or energy to attend to one’s
self.Worse yet, the negative messages of the dominant group about the subordinates may be
internalized, leading to self-doubt or, in its extreme form, self-hate. There are many examples of
subordinates attempting to make themselves over in the image of the dominant group—Jewish people
who want to change the Semitic look of their noses, Asians who have cosmetic surgery to alter the
shape of their eyes, Blacks who seek to lighten their skin with bleaching creams, women who want to
smoke and drink “like a man.”Whether one succumbs to the devaluing pressures of the dominant
culture or successfully resists them, the fact is that dealing with oppressive systems from the
underside, regardless of the strategy, is physically and psychologically taxing.
Breaking beyond the structural and psychological limitations imposed on one’s group is possible,
but not easily achieved. To the extent that members of targeted groups do push societal limits—
achieving unexpected success, protesting injustice, being “uppity”—by their actions they call the
whole system into question. Miller writes, they “expose the inequality, and throw into question the
basis for its existence. And they will make the inherent conflict an open conflict.They will then have
to bear the burden and take the risks that go with being defined as ‘troublemakers.’”16
The history of subordinate groups is filled with so-called troublemakers, yet their names are often
unknown. Preserving the record of those subordinates and their dominant allies who have challenged
the status quo is usually of little interest to the dominant culture, but it is of great interest to
subordinates who search for an empowering reflection in the societal mirror.
Many of us are both dominant and subordinate. Clearly racism and racial identity are at the center
of discussion in this book, but as Audre Lorde said, from her vantage point as a Black lesbian, “There
is no hierarchy of oppression.”The thread and threat of violence runs through all of the isms. There is
a need to acknowledge each other’s pain, even as we attend to our own.
For those readers who are in the dominant racial category, it may sometimes be difficult to take in
what is being said by and about those who are targeted by racism.When the perspective of the
subordinate is shared directly, an image is reflected to members of the dominant group which is
disconcerting. To the extent that one can draw on one’s own experience of subordination—as a young
person, as a person with a disability, as someone who grew up poor, as a woman—it may be easier to
make meaning of another targeted group’s experience. For those readers who are targeted by racism
and are angered by the obliviousness of Whites sometimes described in these pages, it may be useful
to attend to your experience of dominance where you may find it—as a heterosexual, as an ablebodied person, as a Christian, as a man—and consider what systems of privilege you may be
overlooking. The task of resisting our own oppression does not relieve us of the responsibility of
acknowledging our complicity in the oppression of others.
Our ongoing examination of who we are in our full humanity, embracing all of our identities,
creates the possibility of building alliances that may ultimately free us all. It is with that vision in
mind that I move forward with an examination of racial identity in the chapters to follow. My goal is
not to flatten the multidimensional self-reflection we see of ourselves, but to focus on a dimension
often neglected and discounted in the public discourse on race.
Part II
Understanding Blackness in a White Context
The Early Years
“Is my skin brown because I drink chocolate milk?”
Think of your earliest race-related memory. How old were you? When I ask adults in my workshops
this question, they call out a range of ages: “Three,” “Five,” “Eight,” “Thirteen,” “Twenty.”
Sometimes they talk in small groups about what they remember. At first they hesitate to speak, but then
the stories come flooding forward, each person’s memory triggering another’s.
Some are stories of curiosity, as when a light-skinned child wonders why a dark-skinned person’s
palms are so much lighter than the backs of his hands. Some are stories of fear and avoidance,
communicated verbally or nonverbally by parents, as when one White woman describes her mother
nervously telling her to roll up the windows and lock the doors as they drove through a Black
community. Some are stories of active bigotry, transmitted casually from one generation to the next
through the use of racial slurs and ethnic jokes. Some are stories of confusing mixed messages, as
when a White man remembers the Black maid who was “just like family” but was not allowed to eat
from the family dishes or use the upstairs bathroom. Some are stories of terror, as when a Black
woman remembers being chased home from school by a German shepherd, deliberately set loose by
its White owner as she passed by. I will often ask audience members, “What do you remember?
Something someone said or did? A name-calling incident? An act of discrimination? The casual
observation of skin color differences? Were you the observer or the object of observation?”
In large groups, I hesitate to ask the participants to reveal their memories to a crowd of strangers,
but I ask instead what emotions are attached to the memories. The participants use such words as
anger, confusion, surprise, sadness, embarassment. Notice that this list does not include such words
as joy, excitement, delight. Too often the stories are painful ones. Then I ask, “Did you talk to anyone
about what happened? Did you tell anyone how you felt?” It is always surprising to me to see how
many people will say that they never discussed these clearly emotional experiences with anyone. Why
not? Had they already learned that race was not a topic to be discussed?
If they didn’t talk to anyone else about it, how did these three- or five- or eight- or thirteen-yearold children make sense of their experience? Has the confusion continued into adulthood? Are we as
adults prepared to help the children we care about make sense of their own race-related
Preschool Conversations
Like many African Americans, I have many race-related memories, beginning when I was quite small.
I remember being about three years old when I had an argument with an African American play-mate.
He said I was “black.” “No I’m not,” I said, “I’m tan.” I now see that we were both right. I am Black,
a person of African descent, but tan is surely a more accurate description of my light brown skin than
black is. As a three-year-old child who knew her colors, I was prepared to stand my ground. As an
adult looking back on this incident, I wonder if I had also begun to recognize, even at three, that in
some circles it was better to be tan than to be black. Had I already started internalizing racist
Questions and confusion about racial issues begin early. Though adults often talk about the
“colorblindness” of children, the fact is that children as young as three do notice physical differences
such as skin color, hair texture, and the shape of one’s facial features.1 Certainly preschoolers talk
about what they see, and often they do it in ways that make parents uncomfortable. How should we
respond when they do?
My own children have given me many opportunities to think about this question. For example, one
winter day, my youngest son, David, observed a White mother helping her brown-skinned biracial
daughter put on her boots in the hallway of his preschool.“Why don’t they match, Mommy?” he asked
loudly.Absentmindedly collecting his things, I didn’t quite understand what he was talking about—
mismatched socks, perhaps? When I asked, he explained indignantly,“You and I match. They don’t
match. Mommies and kids are supposed to match.”
David, like many three-year-olds (and perhaps some adults), had overgeneralized from his routine
observations of White parents with White children, and Black parents, like his own, with Black
children. As a psychologist, I recognized this preschool tendency to overgeneralize as a part of his
cognitive development, but as a mother standing with her child in the hallway, I was embarrassed,
afraid that his comment might have somehow injured the mother-daughter pair standing in the hallway
with us. I responded matter-of-factly, “David, they don’t have to match. Sometimes parents and kids
match, and sometimes they don’t.”
More often, my children and I have been on the receiving end of a preschooler’s questions.The first
conversation of this type I remember occurred when my oldest son, Jonathan, was enrolled in a day
care center where he was one of few children of color, and the only Black child in his class. One day,
as we drove home from the day care center, Jonathan said, “Eddie says my skin is brown because I
drink too much chocolate milk. Is that true?”a Eddie was a White three-year-old in Jonathan’s class
who, like David, had observed a physical difference and was now searching for an explanation.
“No,” I replied, “your skin is brown because you have something in your skin called melanin.
Melanin is very important because it helps protect your skin from the sun. Eddie has melanin in his
skin, too. Remember when Eddie went to Florida on vacation and came back showing everybody his
tan? It was the melanin in his skin that made it get darker. Everybody has melanin, you know. But
some people have more than others. At your school, you are the kid with the most!”
Jonathan seemed to understand the idea and smiled at the thought that he was the child with the
most of something. I talked more about how much I liked the color of his pecan-colored skin, how it
was a perfect blend of my light-brown skin and his father’s dark-brown complexion. I wanted to
affirm who Jonathan was, a handsome brown-skinned child. I wanted to counter the implication of
Eddie’s question—that there was perhaps something wrong with brown skin, the result of “too much”
chocolate milk.
This process of affirmation was not new. Since infancy I had talked about how much I liked his
smooth brown skin and those little curls whenever I bathed him or brushed his hair. I searched for
children’s books depicting brown-skinned children. When Jonathan was one year old, we gave him a
large brown rag doll, complete with curly black hair made of yarn, a Marcus Garvey T-shirt, and an
African name. Olayinka, or Olay for short, was his constant companion at home and at the day care
center during nap time. Especially because we have lived in predominantly White communities since
his birth, I felt it was important to make sure he saw himself reflected positively in as many ways as
possible. As many Black families do, I think we provided an important buffer against the negative
messages about Blackness offered by the larger society.2
But Jonathan continued to think about the color of his skin, and sometimes he would bring it up.
One Saturday morning I was cooking pancakes for breakfast, and Jonathan was at my side, eagerly
watching the pancakes cook on the griddle. When I flipped the pancakes over, he was excited to see
that the cream-colored batter had been transformed into a golden brown. Jonathan remarked, “I love
pancakes. They are brown, just like me.” On another occasion when we were cooking together, he
noticed that I had set some eggs out on the kitchen counter. Some of the eggs were brown, and some of
them were white. He commented on the fact that the eggs were not all the same color. “Yes,” I said,
“they do have different shells. But look at this!” I cracked open a brown egg and emptied its contents
into a bowl.Then I cracked open a white egg.“See, they are different on the outside, but the same on
the inside. People are the same way. They look different on the outside, but they are the same on the
Jonathan’s questions and comments, like David’s and Eddie’s, were not unusual for a child of his
age. Preschool children are very focused on outward appearances, and skin color is the racial feature
they are most likely to comment on.3 I felt good about my ability as a parent to respond to Jonathan’s
questions. (I was, after all, teaching courses on the psychology of racism and child development. I
was not caught completely off guard!) But I wondered about Jonathan’s classmates. What about
Eddie, the boy with the chocolate milk theory? Had anyone set him straight?
In fact, Eddie’s question, “Is your skin brown because you drink too much chocolate milk?”
represented a good attempt to make sense of a curious phenomenon that he was observing. All the
kids in the class had light skin except for Jonathan. Why was Jonathan’s skin different? It didn’t seem
to be dirt—Jonathan washed his hands before lunch like all the other children did, and there was no
change. He did often have chocolate milk in his lunch box—maybe that was it. Eddie’s reasoning was
first-rate for a three-year-old. The fact that he was asking about Jonathan’s skin, rather than
speculating about his own, reflected that he had already internalized “Whiteness” as the norm, which
it was in that school. His question did not reflect prejudice in an adult sense, but it did reveal
confusion. His theory was flawed, and he needed some help.
I decided to ask a staff member how she and the other preschool teachers were handling children’s
questions about racial differences. She smiled and said, “It really hasn’t come up.” I was amazed. I
knew it had come up; after all, Jonathan had reported the conversations to me. How was it that she
had not noticed?
Maybe it was easy not to notice. Maybe these conversations among three-year-olds had taken place
at the lunch table or in the sand box, away from the hearing of adults. I suspect, too, that there may
have been some selective inattention on the part of the staff. When children make comments to which
we don’t know how to respond, it may be easier simply not to hear what has just been said or to let it
slip from our consciousness and memory. Then we don’t have to respond, because it “hasn’t come
Many adults do not know how to respond when children make race-related observations. Imagine
this scenario. A White mother and preschool child are shopping in the grocery store. They pass a
Black woman and child, and the White child says loudly, “Mommy, look at that girl! Why is she so
dirty?” (Confusing dark skin with dirt is a common misconception among White preschool children.)
The White mother, embarassed by her child’s comment, responds quickly with a “Ssh!”
An appropriate response might have been: “Honey, that little girl is not dirty. Her skin is as clean
as yours. It’s just a different color. Just like we have different hair color, people have different skin
colors.” If the child still seemed interested, the explanation of melanin could be added.4 Perhaps
afraid of saying the wrong thing, however, many parents don’t offer an explanation.They stop at
“Ssh,” silencing the child but not responding to the question or the reasoning underlying it. Children
who have been silenced often enough learn not to talk about race publicly. Their questions don’t go
away, they just go unasked.
I see the legacy of this silencing in my psychology of racism classes. My students have learned that
there is a taboo against talking about race, especially in racially mixed settings, and creating enough
safety in the class to overcome that taboo is the first challenge for me as an instructor. But the
evidence of the internalized taboo is apparent long before children reach college.
When addressing parent groups, I often hear from White parents who tell me with pride that their
children are “colorblind.” Usually the parent offers as evidence a story of a friendship with a child of
color whose race or ethnicity has never been mentioned to the parent. For example, a father reported
that his eight-year-old daughter had been talking very enthusiastically about a friend she had made at
school. One day when he picked his daughter up from school, he asked her to point out her new
friend. Trying to point her out of a large group of children on the playground, his daughter elaborately
described what the child was wearing. She never said she was the only Black girl in the group. Her
father was pleased that she had not, a sign of her colorblindness. I wondered if, rather than a sign of
colorblindness, it was a sign that she had learned not to be so impolite as to mention someone’s race.
My White college students sometimes refer to someone as Black in hushed tones, sometimes
whispering the word as though it were a secret or a potentially scandalous identification. When I
detect this behavior, I like to point it out, saying it is not an insult to identify a Black person as Black.
Of course, sometimes one’s racial group membership is irrelevant to the conversation, and then there
is no need to mention it. But when it is relevant, as when pointing out the only Black girl in a crowd,
we should not be afraid to say so.
Blackness, Whiteness, and Painful History
Of course, when we talk to children about racial issues, or anything else, we have to keep in mind
each child’s developmental stage and cognitive ability to make sense of what we are saying.
Preschool children are quite literal in their use of language and concrete in their thinking. They talk
about physical differences and other commonly observed cultural differences such as language and
style of dress because they are tangible and easy to recognize. They may be confused by the symbolic
constructs that adults use.5
This point was brought home to me in another conversation with my son Jonathan. As a working
mother, I often found trips to the grocery store to be a good opportunity for “quality” time with my
then four-year-old. We would stroll the grocery aisles chatting, as he sat in the top part of the grocery
cart and I filled the bottom. On such an outing, Jonathan told me that someone at school had said he
was Black. “Am I Black?” he asked me. “Yes, you are,” I replied. “But my skin is brown,” he said. I
was instantly reminded of my own preschool “I’m not black, I’m tan” argument on this point. “Yes,” I
said, “your skin is brown, but Black is a term that people use to describe African Americans, just like
White is used to describe people who came from Europe. It is a little confusing,” I conceded,
“because Black people aren’t really the color black, but different shades of brown.” I mentioned
different members of our family and the different shades we represented, but I said that we were all
African Americans and in that sense could all be called Black.
Then I said, “It’s the same with White people. They come in lots of different shades—pink, beige,
even light brown. None of them are white like this piece of paper.” I held up the white note paper on
which my grocery list was written as proof. Jonathan nodded his agreement with my description of
Black people as really being varying shades of brown, but hesitated when I said that White people
were not really white in color. “Yes they are,” he said. I held up the paper again and said, “White
people don’t really look like this.” “Yes, they do,” he insisted. “Okay,” I said, remembering that
children learn from actual experiences. “Let’s go find one and see.” We were alone in the grocery
aisle, but sure enough, when we turned the corner, there was a White woman pushing her cart down
the aisle. I leaned over and whispered in Jonathan’s ear, “Now, see, she doesn’t look like this paper.”
Satisfied with this evidence, he conceded the point, and we moved on in our conversation. As I
discovered, we were just getting started.
Jonathan’s confusion about society’s “color” language was not surprising or unusual. At the same
time that preschoolers are identifying the colors in the crayon box, they are also beginning to figure
out racial categorizations. The color-coded language of social categories obviously does not match
the colors we use to label objects. People of Asian descent are not really “yellow” like lemons,
Native Americans don’t really look “red” like apples. I understood the problem and was prepared for
this kind of confusion.
What was of most concern to me at that moment was the tone of my son’s question. In his tone of
voice was the hint that maybe he was not comfortable being identified as Black, and I wondered what
messages he was taking in about being African American. I said that if he wanted to, he could tell his
classmate that he was African American. I said that he should feel very proud to have ancestors who
were from Africa. I was just beginning to talk about ancient African civilizations when he interrupted
me. “If Africa is so great, what are we doing here?” he asked.
I had not planned to have a conversation about slavery with my four-year-old in the grocery store
that day. But I didn’t see how I could answer his question otherwise. Slavery is a topic that makes
many of us uncomfortable.Yet the nature of Black-White race relations in the United States have been
forever shaped by slavery and its social, psychological, and economic legacies. It requires
discussion. But how does one talk to a four-year-old about this legacy of cruelty and injustice?
I began at the beginning. I knew his preschool had discussed the colonial days when Europeans
first came to these shores. I reminded him of this and said:
A long, long time ago, before there were grocery stores and roads and houses here, the
Europeans came. And they wanted to build roads and houses and grocery stores here, but it
was going to be a lot of work. They needed a lot of really good, strong, smart workers to cut
down trees, and build roads, and work on farms, and they didn’t have enough. So they went to
Africa to get the strongest, smartest workers they could find. Unfortunately they didn’t want to
pay them. So they kidnapped them and brought them here as slaves. They made them work and
didn’t pay them. And that was really unfair.
Even as I told this story I was aware of three things. (1) I didn’t want to frighten this four-year-old
who might worry that these things would happen to him (another characteristic of four-year old
thinking). (2) I wanted him to know that his African ancestors were not just passive victims, but had
found ways to resist their victimization. (3) I did not want him to think that all White people were
bad. It is possible to have White allies.
So I continued:
Now, this was a long, long time ago.You were never a slave. I was never a slave.
Grandmommy and Granddaddy were never slaves. This was a really long time ago, and the
Africans who were kidnapped did whatever they could to escape. But sometimes the
Europeans had guns and the Africans didn’t, so it was hard to get away. But some even
jumped off the boats into the ocean to try to escape. There were slave rebellions, and many of
the Africans were able to escape to freedom after they got here, and worked to help other
slaves get free. Now, even though some White people were kidnapping Africans and making
them work without pay, other White people thought that this was very unfair, which it was.
And those White people worked along with the Black people to bring an end to slavery. So
now it is against the law to have slaves.
Jonathan was paying very close attention to my story, and when I declared that slavery had ended a
long time ago, he asked,“Well, when they weren’t slaves anymore, why didn’t they go back to
Africa?” Thanks to the African American history classes I took in college, I knew enough to
say,“Well, some did. But others might not have been able to because they didn’t have enough money,
and besides that, by then they had families and friends who were living here and they might have
wanted to stay.”
“And this is a nice place, too,” he declared.
“Yes it is.”
Over the next few weeks, an occasional question would come up about my story, and I knew that
Jonathan was still digesting what I had said. Though I did not anticipate talking about slavery with my
four-year-old, I was glad in retrospect that it was I who had introduced him to the subject, because I
was able to put my own spin on this historical legacy, emphasizing both Black resistance to
victimization and White resistance to the role of victimizer.
Too often I hear from young African American students the embarrassment they have felt in school
when the topic of slavery is discussed, ironically one of the few ways that the Black experience is
included in their school curriculum. Uncomfortable with the portrayal of their group as helpless
victims—the rebellions and resistance offered by the enslaved Africans are rarely discussed—they
squirm uncomfortably as they feel the eyes of White children looking to see their reaction to this
In my professional development work with White teachers they sometimes remark how
uncomfortable they, too, are with this and other examples of the painful history of race relations in the
United States. As one elementary school teacher said,
It is hard to tell small children about slavery, hard to explain that Black young men were
lynched, and that police turned firehoses on children while other men bombed churches,
killing Black children at their prayers. This history is a terrible legacy for all of us. The other
day a teacher told me that she could not look into the faces of her students when she taught
about these things. It was too painful, and too embarrassing. . . . If we are all uncomfortable,
something is wrong in our approach.6
Something is wrong. While I think it is necessary to be honest about the racism of our past and
present, it is also necessary to empower children (and adults) with the vision that change is possible.
Concrete examples are critical. For young children these examples can sometimes be found in
children’s picture books. One of my favorites is Faith Ringgold’s Aunt Harriet’s Underground
Railroad in the Sky.7 Drawing on historical accounts of the Underground Railroad and the facts of
Harriet Tubman’s life, this story is told from the point of view of a young Black girl who travels back
in time and experiences both the chilling realities of slavery and the power of her own resistance and
eventual escape.
White people are present in the story both as enemies (slaveowners) and as allies

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