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Who are you?

July 28, 2011

If you have kids and they’re white, have you ever talked to them about what it means to be white or what it’s like to experience racism? I haven’t. But do people of color talk to their kids about race? Sure they do.

If you have kids and they’re able bodied, have you talked to them about what it’s like to be differently abled? Again, I haven’t. But do differently abled parents or parents of a child who is differently abled talk about their unique experiences and challenges? You bet.

I just returned from four days at the Social Justice Training Institute where one of the attendees made a comment that we should talk to our children about our privileged and subordinated identities. Why? Because being aware of our privileged and subordinated identities helps us better understand how they impact our lives. Only when members of society acknowledge their relative positions of power can we progress toward a society that is equitable, where all members are physically and psychologically safe and secure.

His comment stuck with me. I realized that I talk to my kids about sexual orientation and religion, two areas surrounding my main subordinated identities, but my other identities are largely off the radar. My hope is to help my boys feel comfortable with their own identities, some of which are fixed and others that will emerge later, and to feel comfortable with the identities of others whether they are shared or different.

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  1. I’m not really sure what dominant means? Majority? Worldwide? White is not the majority race in the world and in the U.S. in about 20 years it will simply be the largest minority. Most of the world isn’t Christian.
    Seems like some sort of a White-Christian-Male guilt trip. I do not view myself as these categories, they are just listed on my driver’s license and I don’t approach people in other categories any differently than I would people in my categories.

    • Good question. “Dominant” is not about a numerical majority, it’s about power and status. Even in South Africa where whites are a definite numerical minority, they still have “dominance.” Interesting comment, as well, that you don’t view yourself as white, Christian, or male. This is because the privileged identities are invisible, or unmarked. “Female” is the marked version of the default “male.” “Colored” is the marked version of the default “white.” And “non-Christian” is the marked version of the default “Christian,” at least in the U.S. The purpose isn’t to induce guilt, but simply to gain greater awareness.

      • Your particular list of which category is “privileged” does depend on what country you’re living in. Even “white” — I doubt you’d feel you were the privileged race as a white person living in Japan or China. Not to mention “U.S. citizen” — it’s not such a privileged status if you happen to be living as a foreign guest worker in another country. Just yesterday I received a political message in my mailbox addressed to “Dear Swiss person” [in German], detailing all of the problems caused by all the foreigners living in Switzerland. However, I think people in other countries can probably figure out on their own how to translate the list. 😉

        Good post — it’s a very important topic for people to be thinking about!

  2. I try to bring awareness to the accidental privilege my family possesses when the conversation leads that way. I try to remind my white, middle-class, American teenage daughters that they possess a wealth and a health never seen on this planet before, simply because they were lucky enough to have been born at this time and at this place. This nameless yet powerful gratitude is an important part of the ethical and moral identity of our family, because being aware of the privilege demands attention to those without it. I try to stress to my girls that they are no better than anyone else, and if they have luxuries of education and health and relative wealth, than more is required of them to be conscientious of those with less. As an atheist, the idea that some are blessed and others are not is repulsive to me, and in my parenting I try to gently instill this repulsion in my children.

    The hardest part is that their identities give them a lot of social status and I have to work hard at bringing their egos in check without destroying their confidence.

  3. Jonathan permalink

    Always good to be aware of certain groups that have an apparent advantage. On the other hand, I feel that certain inherent disadvantages unfortunately result in other social advantages that only exacerbate the problems of racism, sexism, and other bigotry. For instance, I remember in middle school getting in trouble for joking that a girl in my class stole something, and until others accused of being racist, the fact that she was black didn’t even enter my mind. That same year in another class, a Mexican boy called me a “stupid piece of white trash” on several occasions while the teacher pretended not to hear him.

    Another example might be the ever insightful Michael Moore’s book called “Stupid White Men.” From the dust jacket, all of this world’s problems are the fault of white men. If a white man steals, it’s because he’s white. If a black man steals, it’s because he’s underprivileged as a black man.

    As a final example, basing policies on many of the usual demographics is an attempt to equalize the advantage given (usually) to majorities. Since blacks on average are less educated and less well off, affirmative action allows blacks easier access to education and jobs than whites, even if some of those blacks were better off and better educated than some of the whites. Instead of basing it on skin color, it should be based on a combination of actual performance with consideration for socioeconomic status. To give a black man a hand up simply because he is black does him a disservice, essentially implying that he is less capable because of his skin color, and it does a disservice for the white man who gave his all and qualified above others simply because his ancestors came from Europe.

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