By way of marking this blog's one-year anniversary, I'm reposting some early items this week. This post appeared here in May of last year.
In 1949, Lillian Smith published Killers of the Dream,* a memoir about growing up as a white Southerner during the early 20th century. Given the setting of her childhood, it’s no surprise that her memories include a lot of abusive acts against black people at the hands of white people.
What makes her memoir especially insightful, and far ahead of its time, is her understanding that race is an act, and that performing one’s appointed racial role means following a script. Also, by concentrating on her childhood with intensity and passion through a different act, that of writing, Smith came to see that the racial roles people are expected to follow distort the humanity of both white and non-white people:
I began to understand, slowly at first but more clearly as the years passed, that the warped, distorted frame we have put around every Negro child from birth is around every white child also. Each is on a different side of the frame but each is pinioned there. And I knew that what cruelly shapes and cripples the personality of one is as cruelly shaping and crippling the personality of the other.
I began to see that though we may, as we acquire new knowledge, live through new experiences, examine old memories, gain the strength to tear that frame from us, yet we are stunted and warped and in our lifetime cannot grow straight again any more than can a tree, put in a steel-like twisting frame when young, grow tall and straight when the frame is taken away at maturity.
Although Smith had recently published Strange Fruit, an extremely popular novel, her memoir generated little interest. One likely reason is that it says things about white people that they, as a group, were not ready to hear. Things that are still by and large true, but that white people as a group are probably still not ready to hear.
One of her most insightful points about white identity is a rather simple one, which still applies today:
White people aren’t born white. They’re raised to be white.
Times have changed since the days of American Apartheid, when Smith was writing. And yet, children born into white families still receive an array of directives regarding who they supposedly are in terms of race.
Racial lessons for children are less direct now, but they still learn that there are correct and incorrect forms of white behavior. As they mature, most of these children gradually gather what amounts to a list of rules and understandings for suitably white thoughts, feelings, and behavior.
Having undergone this racial training myself, and having since worked to perceive and understand it, I can see that the world around most budding white citizens continues to instill in them the following rules and understandings:
1. You are different from other children. Even though your initial impressions in pre-school, at the park, or on the playground behind your apartment building tell you that other kids are just kids like you, some of them are not just like you.
2. You go to a school populated mostly by other white kids. If you don’t attend such a school, you’re an unusual white kid. There’s nothing wrong with going to a school that’s mostly white—it’s normal.
3. You are not to ask why you’re surrounded mostly by other white kids, nor why your neighborhood or town is so very white. You are also not to ask how things got that way. Adults do not have answers to these questions, and they quickly change the subject if you ask them.
4. You are an individual who is responsible for your own actions and accomplishments; your own racial membership is not a factor in your life. Nobody tells you that your race has anything to do with who and what you are, nor with what you achieve (nevertheless, as you might learn later in life, it does). The rules for white conduct are not explicitly stated as such, and you instead learn what you supposedly are as a white person by learning what other people supposedly are. The characteristics displayed by figures who are presented to you as “black,” “Indian,” “Mexican,” and so on, help to define what you are by defining what you are not.
5. At the same time, your race does matter, and you should be proud of it. It was people like you who “revolted” against England and then “settled” the land, people like you who “built this country” into “a nation of immigrants.” And it’s people like you whose faces almost always occupy the various center stages placed in front of you, where lights shine on them as the makers of history, the captains of industry, the writers of books, the doctors of medicine, the inventors of inventions, the scientists of science, the psychologists of psychology, the movie stars of movies, the TV stars of TV shows. These are brilliant individuals, not “white people.” On the other hand, when a non-white person makes a rare appearance on these stages, he or she is carefully described as a black inventor, a Mexican labor organizer, a Japanese internment camp resident, a Chinese railroad builder, and so on.
6. The race of your parents does not matter. Never mind the fact that they’re both white, and that all or most of their friends and acquaintances are too. Do not wonder, nor ask, what their being white has to do with the ways they think, act, talk, or feel. They’re just individuals—“mom” and “dad.”
6. You will not venture into mostly non-white areas. If anyone explains why you should not do this, they will not explain that it’s because non-white people live there. Instead, they will explain in a caring way that such places are “dangerous.”
7. When you have feelings or thoughts about racial issues that counter what you’ve been told, you will keep them to yourself. As a result, you will feel things like shame and guilt for having such inappropriate, yet persistent, feelings. You will learn to split yourself inside, with one side that feels such things, and another side that has learned that you shouldn’t feel such things.
8. Because people like you are the normal, smart, safe, and celebrated people, you will feel that much more confident in yourself. You will also feel superior to other people. Later in life, if you have taken advantage of both your own abilties and the extra wind at your back that is your whiteness, and have thus attained a level of “success” in life, you will question the success of your non-white peers. One reason will be your learned sense of superiority towards them.
These rules and understandings about proper ways of acting white reach young citizens through many channels—teachers, parents, textbooks, movies, TV shows, music, friends, and so on. The white citizen’s internalization of these rules and standards results in ritualized, habitual, and more or less automatic responses to the world.
If white parents do not want to raise their children to perform such a racially appropriate role in life, they have to work hard at preventing such messages from landing inside them and taking root. And if white people who are raised this way want to overcome their white actor's training, they have to make a conscious, daily effort to deprogram themselves.
*I used to write book reviews here, including this one of Smith's underappreciated trailblazer, Killers of the Dream.