I grew up in the suburbs of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the white son of white parents — a teacher and an engineer. My parents, my sister, and I lived on a winding street near the top of a hill, close enough to Milwaukee for my dad to work there but far enough that there was a farm at the bottom of the hill. I was a shy child, but always found ways to make friends. I lived in a nearly all-white community and interacted primarily with people who looked like me. Because my elementary 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 occasionally, but it was not something we discussed often.
As I grew older, I went to a private high school in Milwaukee, then on to college. I worked on my shyness, trying to reach out to other people, and always finding people with whom I had something in common. Often, that thing was intellectualism. Often, it was a kind of seriousness leavened by silliness. Almost always, it was our whiteness. From the time I started to make friends as a toddler to my time in college, I had two friends of color — two Asian boys who worked on the newspaper with me in high school. Otherwise, every single friend I had was white. Truthfully, almost every kid I saw was white. This fact seemed utterly unremarkable, and in fact, no one remarked on it — not the kids, not the teachers, and not our parents. It took on, like so many facts, not just the air of truth, but the air of inevitability. This was not just the way it was, it was the way it was supposed to be, and the way it had to be.
It struck me recently how my imposed and chosen ignorance about race was like an extended childhood. As a white man, raised in a middle-class family, I could choose to remain in that state of ignorance, and I did. What researchers know about child development correlates very closely with my own racial development. The authors of the report Foundations for Young Adult Success tell us that in our early years, we encounter the world through a gradually developing self-concept, from concrete to abstract. In the course of normal development, children progress to a group-based identity by early adolescence, develop a set of individuated identities in later adolescence, and then weave their various individuated identities into an integrated identity in young adulthood. By the time of my biological young adulthood, there were many ways in which I had developed such an integrated identity. But in a racial sense, I was still stuck in middle childhood. Like most white people, I had a self-concept that held race as only incidentally consequential. Sure, I understood that more Black people than white people live in poverty, but I thought that we could handle this by addressing poverty without thinking about race. I thought I could do my part by making some donations, voting for Democrats, and then leaving the work to others while I lived my life surrounded by other white people.
But as I moved through the world, I sought to learn about how white people shaped and continue to shape the experiences of people of color — especially, of course, the creation and maintenance of slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, mass incarceration — and I felt shame. I did not know how to make sense of the fact that all of these people who looked like me had done and believed these horrible things. I began to understand the role my own race played, and developed what the researchers call a “group-based identity” in whiteness.
As a young adult, I became a teacher and fell into the common trap of wanting to save people of color without truly understanding the trauma that they have experienced and, more importantly, without understanding the wells of strength, resilience, and brilliance they have to draw from. I centered my own individual actions as the solution to racism, living into the “individuated identity” of my own racial development.
Later, I became a school principal and wondered what my white identity meant as I led the education of Black students in the Garfield Park neighborhood of Chicago. I saw how I sometimes perpetrated racial harm against our students and staff members of color and wondered how I could change. Even now as a leadership coach working with principals and teachers, in many ways I lack an “integrated identity” in which I can bring together my white identity with my desired identity as an accomplice to people of color.
Perhaps we white people will never fully succeed in this task of our racial development in the context of these racist United States. But the struggle to get there is meaningful. In order to truly be the accomplice I want to be, on a daily basis I must create and hold an identity that integrates the contradictions of whiteness and accompliceship. Racism thrives in the idea that there is a singular truth — I am either a white accomplice or I am a white racist. The truth is that I am both at all times. I must struggle to hold this paradox, to acknowledge that I will never be free of my racism, and that I can use my own racist thoughts as fuel for my antiracism. The struggle to hold this integrated identity is what can allow us white people to show up, however imperfectly, as the accomplices we want to be, as the accomplices we must be in order to transform our nation into what we need it to become — a society that values Black people, Black culture, and Black lives.
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