In this section, you'll find resources to expand your understanding and knowledge of the related interactivity: a summary of important concepts, an in-depth discussion of select topics, and Teaching Tips for educators.

Racism has had a profound effect on the individuals and institutions of this country. Today, we look back at pivotal events - the enslavement of Africans, the dispossession of Indian and Mexican lands, the exclusion of Asians from immigration and citizenship - as unfortunate chapters in American history. However, race and the legacy of discrimination continue to affect our lives - whether in our everyday interactions with others or in our life opportunities.

These personal perspectives on race reflect a broad spectrum of experiences. But what emerges repeatedly is the idea that white is normal and to "have a race" is to be nonwhite. The advantages of being white are invisible unless they are compared to a nonwhite person's disadvantages - to be white is to be unquestioned, accepted, and unburdened by a racial identity. Against the default category of whiteness, people of color struggle with the weight of their difference.

Rarely confronted with matters of race, many of the white people we interviewed argued race is no longer an issue. However, other interviewees acknowledged that white identity was really about enjoying an advantage over nonwhites in society. The question is what to do with this knowledge of their advantage - many expressed feelings of guilt, anger, and resentment at being blamed for the actions of their ancestors, or fear of losing their privileges. The fear of losing something in order to make racial inequalities disappear may be one of the biggest obstacles in addressing these problems. However, much of what we see as white "privileges" - adequate education, employment opportunities, housing - are really basic rights and entitlements that no one should give up but everyone should share.

Do you think about race?

How can it be that so many well-meaning white people have never thought about race when so few blacks pass a single day without being reminded of it? -Patricia Williams, Seeing a Color-Blind Future: The Paradox of Race

In interviews with white men and women of various socioeconomic classes in three different areas of the country, sociologist Nancy DiTomaso found that they rarely thought about race and never even thought of themselves as "white" unless the issue was brought to their attention. In contrast, minorities are confronted regularly with race. Legal scholar john a. powell sums up the difference: "The Blacks have race, Latinos have race, Asians have race. They're just white. They're just people. That's part of being white."

Feeling the extra weight of a racial identity doesn't necessarily mean experiencing direct racism every day. It can also be experienced in subtler forms - feeling underrepresented, misrepresented, or tolerating an innocent comment loaded with racial assumptions. Unburdened by daily reminders of one's difference - that is the weightlessness of being white. It is difficult to notice things when they do not happen to you or those around you.

Part of the problem lies in the lack of interaction between whites and other races. Psychologist Beverly Daniel Tatum points out that for many white people who live in predominantly white communities, there are no racial issues because there are no other races. Furthermore, all of their information about minorities may be coming from second-hand sources such as television, movies, an ethnic joke, or a casual comment made by a relative. Therefore the information is coming in "stereotyped packages."

Questioning these assumptions - however great or small - is critical to ridding ourselves of the social and personal constraints placed on us by racial stereotypes. At their least harmful, they are daily annoyances that build resentment and misunderstanding among racial groups; at their most harmful, they can damage someone's self-image and place limitations on his or her perceived potential.

Racism isn't just about you and me.

The thing that's really slick about whiteness is that most of the benefits can be obtained without ever doing anything personally…Whites are given the spoils of a racist system, even if they're not personally racist. -john a. powell, legal scholar

Racism is not just about personal slurs and animosity. While individual acts of racism take their toll on society, the greatest social and economic inequalities have risen from institutional structures that have given benefits and advantages to one race at the expense of others. So while we may be witnessing fewer acts of blatant racism and discrimination on an individual level, we are all still part of a system of advantage based on race.

The power of the individual has always been a prominent American value - we believe the things we have are a result of hard work, talent and determination. It is easy to miss the invisible hands that have helped us along the way. According to Dalton Conley, economists have estimate that 50-80% of one's lifetime wealth depends on opportunities created by past generations - gifts, informal loans, a good education, or job connections. What does this mean in an economy where the wealth accumulation of millions of white Americans was made possible by federal programs and policies that excluded nonwhites? What gets passed down in families that have been excluded from such benefits?

"If we could all put on blinders, then we wouldn't have any problems," one white interviewee expressed, echoing the sentiment of others that also wished for a colorblind society. They want to wipe the slate clean and stop paying attention to race. But will ignoring race give us an equal playing field when social and economic inequalities are so deeply entrenched in our institutions, and opportunities and resources have been divided along racial lines for generations?

According to George Lipsitz in The Possessive Investment in Whiteness, "In the U.S. economy, 86 percent of available jobs do not appear in the classified ads and personal connections prove the most important fact in securing employment." As long as business owners and managers are predominantly white and people continue to live in homogeneous communities, the job market will perpetuate existing inequalities along racial lines. Opponents to affirmative action believe that everyone should be judged on merit - yet current business practices essentially guarantee that "whites will be rewarded for their historical advantage in the labor market rather than for their individual abilities and efforts."

Conley describes this phenomenon as being "stuck with this paradoxical idea of a colorblind society in a society that is totally unequal by color." Even if all the resentment and misunderstandings among racial groups were to disappear, this would not be enough to remedy the imbalance of opportunities.

"We need to be uncomfortable with the present racial arrangement," john a. powell says. Disavowing personal prejudice is an important first step. But it must be followed by a recognition of the institutions and processes that have advantaged whites, and assuming collective responsibility in the solution.

Explore the Where Race Lives section of this site to see how race still affects people's life opportunities.

Multiculturality v. Equality: Teaching Diversity

Today, the multicultural differences that are inherent in American culture are seen as cause for celebration. Appreciation, respect, and awareness of cultural differences are undoubtedly valuable teachings. But does celebrating diversity also promote an equal society?

One of the most famous symbols of American culture is the melting pot. But as sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva points out, historically European ethnics were the only ones allowed to "melt into the pot." As different groups tried to find their place in American society, many found that that there was already a built-in social hierarchy.

Immigration and naturalization laws essentially defined who was welcome in this country and who was not. The 1790 Naturalization Act stated that only "free white persons shall be entitled to the rights of citizenship." So early on in the United States, American identity - and the privileges that came with it - was conflated with whiteness. The Irish, Jews and immigrants from southern Europe faced their own battles for acceptance - but eventually all gained the benefits of whiteness. The process was much harder for non-Europeans. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, Asians and other minority groups who were banned from the full benefits of American citizenship fought tirelessly for inclusion. The Chinese alone brought 170 cases to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Americans share more than a journey from different places of origin. They share the controversial history of a nation founded on principles of equality that also built a social and economic hierarchy based on race. As psychologist Bevery Tatum says: "We have to be clear that it's not just understanding that he eats beans and rice, and she eats egg rolls and this person celebrates Kwaanza. It is also about understanding the history of the way different groups have been treated in our society, and what we need to do to in terms of making sure that everybody has equal access."

Explore the Race Timeline section of this site to see how different groups have been treated throughout American history.

The Resources section of this Web site contains a wealth of information about issues related to race. There you'll find detailed information about books, organizations, film/videos, and other Web sites. For more about this topic, search under "white advantage," "housing," "segregation," "wealth," "immigration" or "colorblind."

  1. What is the difference between personal and institutional racism? Have students visit the following areas of the RACE Web site for more background materials: Ask the Experts' Society discussion, Race Timeline's "Different Rules for Whites" theme, and Where Race Lives.

  2. Ask your students to write a personal essay describing the first time they were made aware of race. Was it theirs or someone else's? What were the emotional connotations?

  3. Research your family history. How long has your family been in the United States? Who/when did the first members arrive? Did they face any obstacles or have any special advantages? How did race &/or ethnicity play a role?


    • Take a look at some of the most popular television shows and movies. What sort of races/ethnic groups are being represented? Examine roles that portray nonwhite characters. Are they positive or negative? Diverse or stereotypical? Minor or lead roles?
    • Take a look at representation of race in newspapers and television news media. When does race get mentioned and when doesn't it? How are various groups portrayed? Are minority viewpoints represented? Pay close attention to the language used.

  5. Examine a current event of the last decade that involved racial tension. Ask students the following: What communities are involved? What are the immediate factors that led up to the incident? What were the reasons for any pre-existing tension between the groups involved?

  6. Try this activity taken from the RACE discussion guide:

    Ask each person to read through this list and give themselves a point for each item that is true for them:

    • My parents and grandparents were able to purchase or rent housing in any neighborhood they could afford.
    • I can take a job with an employer who believes in affirmative action without having co-workers suspect that I got it because of my race.
    • I grew up in a house that was owned by my parents.
    • I can look in mainstream media and see wide, fair representation of people who look like me.
    • I live in a safe neighborhood with good schools.
    • I can go shopping most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
    • If my car breaks down on a deserted stretch of road, I can trust that the law enforcement officer who shows up will be helpful.
    • I don't have to worry about helping my parents out when they retire.
    • I never think twice about calling the police when trouble occurs.
    • Schools in my community teach about my race and heritage and present it in positive ways.
    • I can be pretty sure that if I go into a business and ask to speak to the "person in charge" that I will be facing a person of my race.

For additional examples of advantage, ask the group to brainstorm from their own experience or from the documentary series. The list above is based partly on "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack" by Peggy Macintosh, available in many places online.

After reviewing the list, ask people to notice who ends up with the most and fewest points. Do patterns emerge? Would people's answers have been different if they were a different race?

Conclude this activity by discussing legal scholar john powell's observation that in a racist system, privilege is often conveyed, not earned: "Most of the benefits can be obtained without ever doing anything personally. For whites, they are getting the spoils of a racist system, even if they are not personally racist." Talk about the difference between personal racism, where the beliefs and/or actions of an individual reflect prejudice or result in discrimination, and institutional racism, where people benefit or are disadvantaged without necessarily doing anything themselves. How might people address the institutional racism they identify during the activity?

For complete lesson plans, visit the FOR TEACHERS section of this Web site.

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