“How long have you been in this country?” he asked.
“All my life,” I replied, wincing. “I was born in the United States.”
With a strong Southern drawl, he remarked, “I was wondering because your English is excellent!”
Then, as I had many times before, I explained, “My grandfather came here from Japan in the 1880s. My family has been here, in America, for over a hundred years.”
He glanced at me in the mirror. Somehow I did not look “American” to him; my eyes and complexion looked foreign.
A History of Multicultural America
I began thinking about the question of self-esteem precisely because of the extreme levels of self-doubt I was witnessing in the black students I encountered at the Ivy League schools where I taught. Many of these students were coming from materially privileged homes where they were loved and cared for, yet education in an unenlightened predominantly white context had engendered in them a fear of not being worthy. Tatum identifies this as the "syndrome of not belonging," stating that "the pressures of trying to fit in, conform or communicate in the 'acceptable' form of the majority culture results in an anxiety that literally interferes with one's natural abilities and modes of expression." . . . It is this feeling of not belonging that leads many black folks to self-segregate.
Black People and Self-Esteem
I see a pattern running through the matrix of white privilege, a pattern of assumptions which were passed on to me as a white person. There was one main piece of cultural turf; it was my own turf, and I was among those who could control the turf. I could measure up to the cultural standards and take advantage of the many options I saw around me to make what the culture would call a success of my life. My skin color was an asset for any move I was educated to want to make. I could think of myself as “belonging” in major ways, and of making social systems work for me. I could freely disparage, fear, neglect, or be oblivious to anything outside of the dominant cultural forms. Being of the main culture, I could also criticize it fairly freely. My life was reflected back to me frequently enough so that I felt, with regard to my race, if not to my sex, like one of the real people.