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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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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"
- 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.
- 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?
- 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?
- MEDIA LITERACY ACTIVITIES:
- 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
- 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
- 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?
- 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
- I never think twice about calling the police when trouble
- 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
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.