True confession: I did not recognize my Whiteness until I was well into my thirties.
I cringe to admit this, but it is true. When I was younger, I used words like “generic” or “mutt” to describe my culture. I hated assignments in school like creating family trees or researching the countries our ancestors were from because, in my not-yet-antiracist viewpoint, my family was from “all over” and not from any one place.
The truth? My family is from Europe. My ancestors were White. All White. I am White, my family is White, and our culture is White. Whiteness was invisible to me because the dominant culture was just “normal” to me for the first 30+ years of my life. It was time to decolonize my mind.
Getting in touch with my Whiteness has been a complex experience, filled with shame, confusion, anger, resentment, disappointment, pride, and joy. Getting to know how the dominant culture has utterly permeated my life from top to bottom, beginning to end, has been overwhelming and enlightening. To see the ubiquitousness of Whiteness is to know the access I have enjoyed my entire life, the privilege that was hidden, and the invisible struggle of people I love and care about who did not enjoy that access of privilege.
It is challenging to talk about Whiteness without centering it. I had to come to terms with this. Centering means to put your own feelings ahead of understanding the feelings of someone else. I had to center Whiteness first, in order to decenter it. I had to make it the most important part of the conversation in order to slowly decolonize my mind and determine how to move forward. I did not do this alone. I did it with a shelf full of books, a variety of high-quality films and experiences, friends of color, and professional coaching from my colleague and friend Edjacent designer Melissa Smith. I took cultural inventories, observed my life from a variety of lenses, and spoke up when called upon. I began the journey to build an antiracist business. This deeply personal journey is important and meaningful to me, but it is not enough.
I am determined my sons will know their Whiteness.
If you know my family, you know we always, always start with a book. We read March, the excellent graphic novel series by the late congressman and Civil Rights hero John Lewis. We read Stamped, the children’s version of Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi. After I read the adult version and was prepared to answer questions, we talked about what it means to be White, to have privilege, to honor our family culture, and also to own the responsibility of our privilege.
We started by noticing. For example, one of our favorite series is Virginia Mysteries, which follows Sam and Derek, two brothers who are about my sons’ ages. They solve mysteries at historical sites throughout Virginia, while learning about the past and the present. The story of Virginia history told from the perspective of a northern White narrator gave us lots to talk about. One memory in particular stands out.
Sam and Derek were visiting Mt. Vernon, the Virginia home of the first U.S. president, George Washington. A tour guide explains the complex history of the site, pointing out the slave quarters, then quickly moves on and brings up some architectural detail. We paused. I asked a simple question, “Guys, what did you notice?”
At first their answers were shallow, which is typical: “George Washington owned slaves,” they chorused. I asked a follow up question: “What did you notice about what the author chose to do here?” (One of my sons is a struggling writer. We find questions like this helpful to tune him in to the fact that someone wrote this book and made choices to shape the plot.) They were silent. I pointed out how the author described George Washington’s slaves but then quickly moved on to other parts of the tour. I asked, “What might it feel like to read this part of the book if you were not White?”
My younger son said, “Maybe it would feel not important that George Washington had slaves because they barely talked about it.” My older son said, “This makes me uncomfortable,” and then he turned away from me and the story.
I don’t know if my sons will remember these conversations when they get older. I do know they understood at that moment that they are White and some people are not. They know now that readers encounter stories from different points of view and that authors have a responsibility to know who will be reading their books and how the words might make them feel. Our conversation continued, of course, but the noticing mattered. It was simple and small and my sons’ developing brains began to notice in their own lives.
At that time, I was a little disappointed in the Virginia Mysteries series. I wondered if it was problematic to continue reading, encountering Virginia history for the first time from this dominant White lens. We continued on, however, and I’m happy to report that in 2020, author Steven K. Smith published the 9th book in the series, Pictures at the Protest, which features not only the story of massive resistance and desegregation of Southern schools, but also the boys’ encounter with the social justice movement that ultimately led to the removal of Robert E. Lee’s statue prominently featured in Richmond’s Monument Row.
While the story certainly centers Whiteness, Sam encounters some uncomfortable dissonance when he becomes friends with a Black boy and his family while investigating a Civil Rights-era mystery. He learns about the history of Civil Rights as if it was a time past, but modern times enter the picture at the rally, when he runs into people who assume Sam is there to “protect Virginia history.” The discussions Sam has with his dad at the end of the story had me tearing up. This time, we asked, “How is Sam feeling here? Why? Have you ever felt that way? What did you do about it?” and my sons’ answers were much deeper than before. For example, we had a long conversation about the word “shame,” what it feels like, and what we can learn from it. My sons had a clearer understanding about what it means to be an ally and a courageous bystander from the examples the experiences of the characters provided.
We notice, then we talk. Then we notice some more. It’s small, it’s simple, but it matters. And it is the first step toward decolonizing the minds of my young sons.
P.S. The mug featured at the top of this post comes from a campaign called #morethanamug by Edjacent designer and my cultural competence coach Melissa Smith. Learn more about this campaign and become part of a liberated community by visiting Melissa’s site, Authentically Grounded at https://www.authentically-grounded.com/community.
P.P.S. If you missed Part 1 of this blog series, please go to https://edjacent.org/raising-white-male-antiracists-part-one-biodiversity.