As school begins for the fall, we must connect our schools and teaching to the real lived experiences of students. This means that we must make race a topic of conversation and study. Some schools have begun to take this leap when they are facing students of color, but too many do not do so when their students are primarily white. In many spaces, with children and adults alike, we act as if race is something that we must discuss because people of color are in the room, but all of us are involved in and need to reflect on the dilemma of race. Kathleen Osta of the National Equity Project makes the case that white students, like students of color, need to examine race because it is connected to their development as young people. Citing a research report called Foundations for Young Adult Success, she writes, “Providing students with opportunities to reflect on complex topics impacting their lives supports healthy adolescent development by nurturing what researchers at the Chicago Consortium for School Research have identified as key factors for young adult success: agency, competencies, and integrated identity.” And the dilemma of race is one of the key complex topics affecting students’ lives. However, we adults cannot ask students to consider race if we have not done that work ourselves. In American society, people of color are forced to think about race all the time, most often in painful ways and for painful reasons, and so they gain at least some experience in this realm. As a white man, my own development during childhood was bereft of opportunities to discuss race, and I believe many other white people experienced the same missed chances. And yet, I want to become an accomplice — someone who stands alongside my friends, family members, and colleagues of color in the struggle for racial justice. To become true accomplices with people of color in this struggle, we white adults must engage in our own racial development — growing our own integrated identity, agency, and competencies in the realm of race.
When I was growing up, I did not understand myself in a racial context. I lived in a nearly all-white area of suburban Milwaukee and interacted primarily with people who looked like me. Because my teachers gazed out at their students and saw a room of white faces, they did not ask me and my classmates to read about, discuss, or think about race. At home, race came up as a topic occasionally with my parents, but it was not something we discussed often. As I moved into the world, I learned about all of the negative ways that white people had shaped and continue to shape the experiences of people of color — especially, of course, the creation and maintenance of slavery, repression, and discrimination — and I experienced shame as a result. I did not know how to make sense of the fact that all of these people who looked like me — even, most likely, my own ancestors — had done and believed these horrible things. So, I wondered, what did that mean for me as a white man who wanted to advocate for social justice? I did not know how to create for myself an integrated identity that brought together the negative things white people have done with the notion that some white people have worked for racial justice — and that both of these things could live inside me at the same time. The authors of the report Foundations for Young Adult Success describe integrated identity as “having a sense of internal consistency of who one is across time, across place, and across multiple social realms.” In many ways, to this day, I lack an integrated identity in which I can bring together my white identity with my desired identity as an accomplice of people of color. I feel like my accompliceship is in spite of, not because of, my white identity, and that my white identity at times contradicts my efforts to be an accomplice. But in order to truly be the accomplice I want to be, on a daily basis I must create and hold an identity that integrates these seeming contradictions within myself.
This integrated identity means little if I don’t have a sense of agency, defined in the Foundations report as “taking an active and intentional role in making choices and shaping and managing the course of one’s life rather than being at the mercy of external forces.” As a white man growing up in American society, I was encouraged to develop a strong sense of agency at school, at home, and then in my work. In general, agency is seen as a positive attribute to possess, especially for the white men who society views as leaders and creators. In a racial sense, however, I and other white people grow up encouraged to think of ourselves as powerless, completely without agency. We are taught to think of racism as a bad thing that evil white people do, not something within the realm of our daily lives. And if we are taught that racism is something that others do, and neither we nor anyone we know engages in racism, what are we to do about it? Instead, we must understand racism as built into our society, and racist actions as those that perpetuate that system. White fragility scholar Robin DiAngelo says, “When we understand racism as a system that we have been raised in and that its impact is inevitable, it’s really not a question of good or bad. It’s just, ‘I have it. I have been socialized into it.’ And so, ‘What am I going to do about it?’ is really the question.” And doing something about racism depends on us developing a sense of agency in this part of our lives. We must understand the racist system and society in which we live, we must understand how we are complicit in this society, we must understand that we do take racist actions (whether intentional or unintentional!) that perpetuate this racist system, and then we can take intentional actions that disrupt systemic racism and white supremacy — the system of advantage for white people that racism creates and perpetuates.
The final aspect of developing ourselves as accomplices, again taken from the research on Foundations for Young Adult Success, is our competencies, or “abilities that enable people to successfully perform roles, complete complex tasks, or achieve specific objectives.” As adults, we have many competencies, but as white adults, we often have not developed competencies to act in the racial realm. As we develop an integrated identity that brings together the concepts of whiteness and accompliceship, and as that identity strengthens our sense of racial agency, we can start to build those racial competencies. Some of these are:
- Recognizing racial microaggressions when we or those around us commit them.
- Speaking up about racial aggressions and microaggressions. Sometimes, this involves us speaking to someone we have harmed when we were the perpetrator of the harm. Sometimes, this involves us speaking to someone else who took an action that we believe caused harm — and sometimes this may involve speaking with that person in public as well as in private.
- Developing relationships in which race is recognized as a factor, and not allowing race to be ignored in individual relationships or group dynamics.
- Recognizing and speaking about the connections between race and American history and current society.
We can continue to develop these and many other competencies as we grow into ourselves as white accomplices.
Some white people might say, “Why do I need to invest all of this time and energy to build a racial identity, racial agency, and racial competencies? I’m a good white person — these issues of racism don’t really involve me.” And this is exactly why we white people need to do this work — we have been given a choice. This work of racial development has been forced on people of color throughout their lives, because they are viewed as “others”, as different. To build a just society, we white people must develop ourselves into people who can become partners with our friends, family members, and colleagues of color in the work of racial justice.
Kathleen Osta of the National Equity Project emphasizes the need for young white people to learn “about white allies and co-conspirators who have stood up for justice throughout history.” These stories are just as vital for us as white adults, because it is simple for us to be swayed by our society to believe that white supremacy and injustice are inevitable. We can easily believe that all white people in the early history of our country were racist, and things got better in fits and starts when the right people showed up to do something special. Maybe those right people were Abe Lincoln, who freed the slaves, or Martin Luther King, who showed us how to live together in peace. These vastly oversimplified stories lull us into thinking that we have no role in racial justice, and that it will just keep getting better whether we do something or not.
Examining history shows us that neither white supremacy nor its improvement are foregone conclusions. The lives of William Lloyd Garrison and other abolitionists demonstrate that wherever injustice exists, there are people willing to stand up against it. As soon as slavery began, there were white accomplices speaking and acting to end it, and they developed a movement that eventually culminated in the abolition of slavery. Studying their lives helps us see how they developed into the accomplices they became. As a young man, Garrison advocated for slaves to be freed and sent back to Africa, but he learned from other abolitionists, Black and white, about the injustice of forcing people to leave who knew no other country and who had built this country with their coerced labor. His opinion evolved, and he became a forceful advocate for abolition and equal rights for Black people in the United States. Garrison devoted his entire life to the abolition, risking both his livelihood and his life in the cause — publishing his abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, from 1831 to 1865, and speaking against slavery and discrimination in every venue where he could find an audience.
Garrison is just one example of a white man who acted as an accomplice to Black Americans in the struggle for freedom. There are many others, and we white people can learn from them all that neither white supremacy nor its improvement is inevitable. White supremacy was constructed brick by brick, moment by moment, and it will take the same intention to bring it down as it did to construct it. By learning from our white ancestors — biological and moral — we can see what it means to have an integrated identity as a white accomplice, we can develop belief in our agency to fight white supremacy, and we can build our competencies to destroy white supremacy as a system. Although many of us did not undergo this racial development in our childhood or adolescence, we can guide ourselves through this development now. This is the course we need to take to become true accomplices with people of color in the struggle for freedom, and this is how we prepare to educate the next generation in the struggle.
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