I used to consider myself as raceless. Not in the sense that I have no ethnic lineage-I know my family came from Germany- but rather in the terms that my race was not an identifier of me. I did not grow up celebrating any of my ancestry, but I obviously always knew I was white physically. I didn’t understand the social meaning of that though, or why I felt that way.
In Beverly Daniel Tatum’s book, “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” she discusses how some Whites have experienced similar thinking as I once did. She states:
“There is a lot of silence about race in White communities, and as a consequence Whites tend to think of racial identity as something that other people have, not something that is salient for them.”
This exact quote pinpoints why I’ve never considered my race. Part of not considering my own race has obviously made talking about race, other than in an academic setting, a very uncomfortable experience for me. I almost don’t feel entitled to discuss it because I feel like an intruder; it was like the idea of race isn’t for Whites because we have historically oppressed other races. I did not want my ascribed role to conflict with my avowed roles. In my head, I am somebody that would strive for equality. If I speak about it, I feel like I would be described as a yuppie or an undercover racist.
I never once had to think about how I fit into the world either. Tatum again states that Black adolescents ask themselves questions such as: “What does it mean to be a young Black person? How should I act? What should I do?” (Tatum, page 60) I believe the understanding I had as a White was that I would not be criticized for my behaviors based on race, so I did not have to define what it meant for me to be White. If it was not the focus of the outside world, I did not have to internalize it either much of the time.
In the community in which I grew up, race was the big elephant in the room. We all knew it wouldn’t be polite to speak about race. It was one of those hugely tabooed subjects. But coming from a town that was almost an exclusively White town, it was like a covert mission to keep the prejudice behavior hidden behind closed doors. I would hear murmurs and rumors whenever somebody who looked different entered the community; I didn’t hear anybody directly speaking about race with the new person in a respectful way though. Not even our educators could bring it up as a healthy conversation.
My background of coming from a town that never spoke about race makes me realize that it is a conversation I wish I could have had in high school. I do not know how many of my classmates made it out of that environment without extreme prejudices, and I feel lucky that college has allowed me to discuss it. I believe that the discussion of race should go beyond the walls of the college classrooms.
Most importantly, I believe children need to feel comfortable talking about it. Rather than hushing them when they ask questions, there should be an open dialogue about the issues.
As a nation in general, I agree with Mychal Denzel Smith’s article, “Why Conversations of Race Usually Fail” which criticizes the way America talks about race. He explains that this conversation is not one that should be opened and closed whenever an issue of race pops up in the media, but rather, should be a continual topic discussed, especially among the youth, until something changes.
He states, “Instead, the killing of Trayvon Martin has become another opportunity for some to deny the existence of racism and distort the history of race. And once again, we have a national conversation on race in which everyone talks past one another and nothing gets resolved.
I wish I could say that racism is something that I see going away in my lifetime, but I feel slightly pessimistic about it even looking at my history. Speaking about race is not something that should make me uncomfortable. With these articles, I am learning that it need not be. I can’t change that I used to feel awkward about it, but I can vow towards creating a more open environment for my children one day.
Tatum, Beverly Daniel. Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? New York: Basic Books, 1997