My racist acculturation: growing up white in America

I wrote this post in the hope that my experience may strike a chord with other white people who are working to dismantle their own racist acculturation.

That it happened, goes without saying; how exactly it happened is what I’ve been trying to unpack for quite a while. Here, I’m going to relate two facets of my racist acculturation.

First of all, racist acculturation requires the development of a basic construct of ‘other’, since this concept is the support mechanism in the ‘us vs them’ mentality at the core of racism.

Growing up in an all white suburb, I had no first hand experience with Black friends or neighbors – or Black people in general – with the exception of seeing these folks from the car window on occasional trips into Philadelphia. Maybe it was on those trips to the city, on the way to my dad’s office in Olney on Saturday mornings, when I learned to believe Black people were them and not like us. Locking our car doors as we neared the city was always part of the trip, even though locking our car and house in the suburbs was never our practice. So the lesson I learned was that when you see Black people, lock your car doors just to be safe.

During the summer of 1964, when I was eight years old, I had asked my mom if my friend and I could sleep outside overnight in the backyard – as we had done countless times before – to escape the summer heat. Her refusal was very unusual. Unbeknownst to me, riots were taking place in North Philadelphia, and I soon discovered that my mother believed groups of Black people were going to come to the suburbs to harm us. Why she believed this, I have no idea. What I learned from that experience was that my mother was afraid of Black people coming after us, and by the age of eight, I feared what my mother feared. I became acculturated to fear Black people, not just where they lived, but their potential to ‘invade’ my white world. They were not to be understood as people who had been oppressed for generations, rather all Black people were lumped together into one big feared ‘other’.

I don’t recall my parents speaking about the hardships faced by Black people, as millions had migrated from the south – hoping to find a better life with greater occupational opportunity – to northern cities. I don’t know how much my parents knew about their oppression, backbreaking work, and generations of struggles, because my mom and dad never talked to me about Black people. It was as if they didn’t exist , until they did. At the time, my parents didn’t tell me about the origins of the riot, maybe because they thought I was too young to understand, yet they never spoke to me about it later, either.

That summer was a defining moment for the ‘us vs them’ construct in my childhood. How could my empathy and compassion grow towards others, when I had learned to center my understanding of the world only from a white point of view? I didn’t have the capacity to consider what life was like for those whom I had come to know as ‘other’. I had been acculturated to believe it was ‘just the way the world was’ to lump a whole group of people together as ‘other’ – people who I never took the time to understand, and who I had also learned to fear.

Racism also thrives in white people collectively believing that it’s very existence is separate from our own white centric behaviors and beliefs. The following memory falls into this category.

One Sunday morning, as my family and I were riding home from church, a Black man was walking along the road. My brother, who was five years old, shouted, ‘That man has a black face!’ I remember to this day that feeling of embarrassment, all because my brother had stated this fact – out loud. So I surmise that by the age of 12, I had learned not to mention someone’s brown skin, even in front of my own family. I had learned it was better to live my white experience through silence – all without any comprehension that my silence was the very behavior that supported my racist acculturation. My lack of vocabulary was a clear indication that I was acculturated to be ignorant in talking about racism. As a white person, I was the central figure in the racism problem, yet I had learned to keep my silence to keep me separate from it.

How could I possibly do my part to solve the problem of racism when I had no vocabulary or experience talking about it, couldn’t see past my white-centric viewpoint, and thought the problem had nothing to do with me?

It would be many years later when, through the help of many others, I would come to understand just how frequently racism discussions occurred in Black families. Black people have a robust vocabulary for racism discussions, and have always understood that racism is the white people’s problem. I imagine how they must shake their heads as they watch white families – just like mine – who believe themselves separate from racism, keeping a safe distance from the ‘other’, all the while clutching their collective purses of fear.

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