Posted by: ........ | May 3, 2008

Proud to be White?

Lisa McLelland was a 15-year-old at Freedom High School in Oakley,
California who yearned to belong to one of those campus clubs where students
gather to celebrate cultural pride and a sense of shared history, like the
Black Student Union, the Asian Club or Latinos Unidos. Lisa, whose ethnic
background includes Dutch, German, Irish, Italian, Latino and Native
American, didn’t quite fit in any of the existing clubs, so she decided to
start a “Caucasian Club” where she could explore what it means to be white.

Before her idea could get off the ground it exploded into a firestorm of
controversy that led to community outrage, worldwide media coverage, and
McClelland’s eventual exile to a less hostile campus.  Though Lisa had
insisted her club would be a forum where students could explore racial
dynamics and discuss how “whiteness” affects those who aren’t white (among
the activities planned for the group were film discussions, guest speakers,
and trips to museums), her critics were not convinced. In the weeks
preceding McLelland’s flight from Freedom High, she endured daily harassment
and threats of violence from those who didn’t believe her mission was to
create what she called a “positive organization dedicated to honoring
diversity.”

Local NAACP spokesperson Darnell Turner spoke strongly against the eager
sophomore, calling her proposed Caucasian Club racist in name, if not
intent:

“When we use the word ‘white’ or ‘Caucasian’ or whatever, it has
always been associated with racial bigotry. Using that term opens up old
wounds, and we don’t need to go there.”

It seems the adults involved either agreed with Turner’s assessment, or
were afraid to openly disagree—Lisa could not find a single Freedom staff
person willing to serve as an advisor to her proposed club, nor was she
offered support from any community organizations committed to racial unity.

One adult who did extend a helping hand to Lisa was a representative of the
Ku Kux Klan who contacted the teenager to applaud her efforts, and welcomed
her to join their group. Lisa promptly informed them, “I’m part Latino, half
of my friends are gay, and I don’t believe in your cause.”

Lisa and others of her generation, who missed the civil rights movement
and must rely on parents and teachers to inform them of America’s racist
history, are left asking the questions, “Why is the word ‘white’ so strongly
associated with bigotry?” and “What can we do to change that association?”

In 1933 Carter G. Woodson wrote in his book Miseducation of the Negro:

“When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about
his actions. You do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder.
He will find his ‘proper place’ and will stay in it.”

Those words aptly describe the miseducation white Americans receive
regarding their “proper place” in the fight for a racially just society. The
heroes in that fight are invariably depicted as non-white men and women like
Dr. King, Harriet Tubman, Mahatma Ghandi, Cesar Chavez and others who stand
(and will stand for generations to come) as admirable, emulatable models of
human rights warriors.

Mainstream American hero worship has included pitifully few white
anti-racists (try to list the names of five white individuals widely known
to have actively fought against racism), leaving young whites who wish to be
a part of the solution with few role models who look like them. Since
textbook authors have decided that white pride rests solely on the shoulders
of Christopher Columbus, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and the like,
without a club, conference or other extra-curricular venue, where will Lisa
and her generation go to learn of white men and women who risked their lives
and livelihood to fight against racial oppression and for human rights?

By omitting the antiracist efforts of individuals like Thomas Paine,
John and Jean Rankin, Carl Schurz, Jessie Ames, Viola Liuzzo
and thousands of other courageous white Americans, our history books
indirectly teach that white people do not (should not?) fight for the rights
of non-whites.

For far too long white supremacists have had exclusive use of the words
“proud to be white.” Know Good White People hopes Lisa and her white peers
will gather to study, reflect and discover a new paradigm for choosing their
heroes–so they can take their rightful place in the battle to undermine
white privilege and eradicate racism, and in doing so might discover a new,
unifying and healing definition of the term “white pride.”

 

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Responses

  1. I think that it is really sad that Lisa didn’t have any friends of color to support her. Maybe she should have called her club “multicultural club.”

  2. The problem with that, KadiBaby, is that Lisa really wanted to explore “whiteness.” A “multicultural club” by description is a forum in which to explore multi-cultural issues — which means over-studying whiteness would present a problem to members who expect the club to live up to its description. Perhaps Lisa would have gotten a different response with the name “Study of Whiteness Club,” or something to that effect.

  3. I wish Lisa and/or the school staff could connect with Y-STEP http://www.ystep.org/. Y-STEP does political education workshops and discussion groups with white teens to help them explore the issues Lisa wanted to get into.

    Its amazing how powerful the DON’T TALK ABOUT RACE message can be in white culture. I have definitely gotten the SHUT UP message in work settings when I tried to get the white folks on the “Multi-cultural Committee” to explore whiteness.

    Adults can’t usually even talk to each other about race-related issues, so it makes sense they would be afraid to talk to teens about it. When I think about doing it, I feel excited about the idea, but then I think Damn, what would I say? Would the kids think I’m full of shit?

    There it is, that piece of white conditioning that tells me we have to be right all the time, so I shouldn’t risk sounding like I don’t have my shit completely together. Then there’s the part of it that’s about not rocking the boat. I used to get in trouble for bringing up controversial stuff at my job, so I understand people’s fear of doing something that might jeopardize their job, community standing, relationships, etc.

    For me, though, it feels like if I’m not taking some risks, then things aren’t going to change. White people have got to be a part of ending racism, and from my perspective that starts with taking a good hard look at what it means to be white, the good and the bad, then loving ourselves with all our warts and flaws, and then taking some responsibility for changing ourselves and our world.

  4. Thank you so much for understanding what I wanted to.

  5. I’m a white student at a “liberal” school (UC Santa Cruz), but even in a supposedly open environment, race in terms of whiteness is either not talked about or talked about only in negative terms. I have a huge problem with this because while, yes, some of my fellow white folk were awful people, there are also many white people that I should have the right to be proud of, and not simply because I am white. Always portraying whites as negative or ignoring them is racist in itself in that it raises people of color to level that no white person can ever reach simply because whites, on the whole, are not seen as a people that create positive social situations or change.
    I am proud to be white, but I often have to follow that sentence with me being proud to be Irish. It is socially ok for white people to be proud of the country their ancestors hail from, but not of being European. (And, personally, I hate that people use “Caucasian” to describe white people because that term refers to a very specific people living around the Caucus mountains in Eastern Europe.) People that are Asian, Black, or Latino do not have to specify where they come from to be openly proud of their roots.
    It is really frustrating to me to not be able to be proud of who I am because there have been Whites in the past that dehumanized people from other races. Those people do not speak for our whole race and it is close-minded to think that they do represent everything White people have and will do.
    (Also, I think that having a site that focuses on racism not only in terms of the people that have been historically marginalized but interms of whiteness as well is great. I feel like exploring racism both from and towards whites is important in trying to eradicate racism, as is discussing racism between two non-white groups because it seems that people most often think of racism as something that only Whites inflict and all others have immunity from creating).


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