This spring in an education graduate course I co-teach, we required students to read about whiteness and the need for critical pedagogy. I teach my students about the need for critical discussions about race and racism with white students in white classrooms and white schools. Amanda Lewis, encourages an intense examination of whiteness for teachers and white students. She writes:
“It is crucial that Whites learn more not only about the reality of racial inequality, but also about their own role in its reproduction.”
In the responses to the assigned readings, though, one student (the only student of color in my class) wrote candidly that she is “….sick and tired of centering white people’s experiences, even for the benefit of my own liberation….I am more focused on the process of liberation for people of color, how we have internalized constructs of whiteness to the detriment of our own mental, emotional, economic, and political well-being. I’m more concerned with how people of color think through their own liberation and dismantling the barriers to dismantling white structured systems of power that we emulate and perpetuate, including those barriers that we construct ourselves as a result of internalized oppression and generational trauma.”
What follows is guest blogger Lisa M. Calderón’s entire essay. To say it is “powerful” (which it probably is for most white people including white, anti-racist educators) is an insult because it is not new or powerful or profound for those who live this reality every day. Instead, it is honest and gives a glimpse into the tired, wasted time spent on centering “whites” not only in our society, but even in the anti-racist movement. It is a reminder (especially for those of us who prepare and work with educators) of the need for differentiated and relevant anti-racist teacher preparation and professional development.
My journal on the whiteness essays begins with my fatigue about talking about whiteness. The critical pedagogy focusing on whiteness by necessity focuses on white people and what they need to change in order to make our society more equitable for people of color. Living my entire life as a woman of color in a culture of whiteness, I’m pretty sick and tired of centering white people’s experiences, even for the benefit of my own liberation. However, what is even more psychologically taxing is knowing that the examination of whiteness is still necessary due to the structural inequities that have been weaved into every social, political, economic, and educational institution since the inception of this artificially created country called the United States of America.
My scholarship focus on whiteness commenced during my years as a law student who could not get my head around why many of my professors omitted mentioning issues of race even when the cases involved discrimination and segregation. For example, in my property law class discussions of redlining, or restricting people of color home ownership to less desirable parts of cities focused on the use of restrictive covenants for homeowners associations. Even though we were all aware the cases we were studying involved Black families moving into White neighborhoods, the discussions were devoid of any basic race analysis. I felt that I had fallen through the rabbit hole and entered a parallel universe where race was a central issue in denying people the right to choose where they live, but that any references to race were essentially cleansed from the classroom to give us the appearance that we were all neutral arbiters – societies future lawyers. The psychological schism, the concept of twoness articulated by WEB DuBois, was in full force throughout my law school experience and about crushed any idealization I had had about becoming a lawyer.
However, one saving grace was that I was permitted to make the study of the legal aspects of whiteness the focus of my third year jurisprudence seminar. By examining the work of Black legal scholars Derek Bell and Cheryl Harris I was able to put the concept of whiteness into a legal conceptualization framework demonstrating that whiteness was not only a illegally created fiction, but was a property right where Whites could sue for damages if violated. For example, most people believe that the case of Plessy versus Ferguson, involving a 7/8 white and 1/8 Black man who was denied a seat on the White only railroad car, resulted in a Supreme Court decision making segregation or “separate but equal” the law of the land, which is true. However, what most people don’t know is that Plessy stood for something much more insidious: that whiteness is a property right that could be codified in the law and intended to permanently advantage White people.
If you read the actual ruling it is astonishing not only from the perspective of the Black NAACP lawyer who argued the case in 1896 before the all White male Supreme Court, that whiteness is the most valuable property in America since it is the golden key that unlocks the door of opportunity:
How much would it be worth to a young man entering upon the practice of law, to be regarded as a white man rather than a colored one? Six-sevenths of the population are white. Nineteen-twentieths of the property of the country is owned by white people. Ninety-nine hundredths of the business opportunities are in the control of white people. . . . Probably most white persons if given a choice, would prefer death to life in the United States as colored persons. Under these conditions, is it possible to conclude that the reputation of being white is not property? Indeed, is it not the most valuable sort of property, being the master-key that unlocks the golden door of opportunity? Albion Tourgee, Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). What was even more remarkable was at the Supreme Court agreed with him that whiteness is a property right which is valuable but that only White people could possess it:
If he be a white man and assigned to a colored coach, he may have his action for damages against the company for being deprived of his so called property. Upon the other hand, if he be a colored man and be so assigned, he has been deprived of no property, since he is not lawfully entitled to the reputation of being a white man. Plessy v. Ferguson (1896)
Further because of the “one drop rule” where one drop of Black blood theoretically made someone Black, Plessy could not be afforded the privilege of whiteness. Having this legal framework for whiteness was very important to me because it moved the conversation from the attitudes, values and beliefs that white people have about their inherent superiority over people of color through both implicit bias and explicit preferences, but moved whiteness into a legal structural framework. In other words, it moved the problem away from individuals and toward an examination of how our society has been structured from its inception through property law as the basis from which all other laws in the American justice system originate.
To that end, I’m no longer interested in whether individual white people change. They are not the focus of my life even when they try to be. I am focused on structural change that will have the most impact on dismantling oppressive institutions. I could care less if white people change. I am more focused on the process of liberation for people of color, how we have internalized constructs of whiteness to the detriment of our own mental, emotional, economic, and political well-being. I’m more concerned with how people of color think through their own liberation and dismantling the barriers to dismantling white structured systems of power that we emulate and perpetuate, including those barriers that we construct ourselves as a result of internalized oppression and generational trauma.
Ricky Lee Allen’s essay on whiteness and critical pedagogy covered a lot of the ground that I can relate to including being fixated on the notion of dismantling whiteness, Whites learning to be allies for people of color and their own humanity, how educational systems perpetuate systems of White supremacy, validating scientific knowledge over other forms of collective community knowledge, and applying a race based lens to critical pedagogy rather exclusively focused Marxist notions of class. However, the centrality of the essay, as well as the other required essays [and blogs], focused on White people’s process and conceptualization of whiteness. While I think this approach is necessary for mostly white educators and people of color who may have not been exposed to concepts of whiteness in a critical pedagogy framework, for me it is time wasted from considering how people of color need our own frameworks and our own scholarship to further the mental pathways and facilitate the structural shifts necessary to realize our own self-determination. It’s time taken away for developing new skills for ourselves and undoing internalized oppressive messages that we are in barded with every single day from the time we are born. We need to be freed from being constrained by the analysis of White antiracists or progressives who truly believe they are acting in her own best interests without realizing that the more time we spend hearing about what White people think about themselves affords us less time to focus on centralizing what, why and how we think about our histories, our current struggles and preparing our future liberation warriors.
As America returns to becoming a brown nation from an artificially constructed White one, we people of color must be prepared to manage and share power effectively because we are increasingly both the oppressed and the oppressor. In that context we need both Paulo Freire and WEB DuBois’ radical analysis, alongside women of color activists and scholars to create new liberatory frameworks for sharing power responsibly given how wounded and traumatized we have been by the imposition of European colonialism. We don’t need White people to love us and have compassion for us as much as we need to love ourselves. Once that self-love happens, really deeply and completely, and is regenerated across generations, there will no longer be a need to focus on whether White people stop acting out of their White privilege or not, because by then we will be free.
Lisa M. Calderón is the Director of the Community Reentry Project in Denver where she supervises six staff who work on behalf of formerly incarcerated persons for their successful transition back into the community. She is an adjunct faculty member for CU Denver’s Ethnic Studies department. She has taught in academia for over ten years in the areas of Women’s Studies, Sociology, and Criminal Justice. She holds a Master’s degree, law degree, and is currently working on her doctorate in education.
As a former legal director of a battered women’s program, Lisa is qualified as an expert witness on issues of domestic violence and victim advocacy, and her opinions have been profiled in the media. Lisa has over 20 years of facilitation experience in the areas of antiracism education, critical race theory, gender equity, and ethical communication.
As an active community member, Lisa is involved with several community-based initiatives to create more opportunities for low-income women, youth of color, and formerly incarcerated persons. She serves on the State Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Council, is the co-chair of Denver’s Racial and Gender Disparities Committee, and is the Co-Chair of the Colorado Latino Forum-Denver Chapter. She has obtained several awards for inspirational leadership.
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