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I have a race?

January 15, 2010

It’s shocking to be in your 50s and realize for the first time that you have a race. Race, as I had learned well from my family, education, church, and government, was always about the other, not us. My job as a good white person was to learn about the “other” and help them to be as much like me as possible. Because I (and my unnamed white race) had the answers; the truth and the way. We were the standard against which everything else was measured. Of course, no one ever said this out loud, but it was in the air that I freely breathed everyday. That same air, I now understand, was choking others.

Beverly Tatum describes this smog in the air in “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?”:

Cultural racism . . . is like smog in the air. Sometimes it is so thick it is visible, other times it is less apparent, but always, day in and day out, we are breathing it in. None of us would introduce ourselves as “smog-breathers” (and most of us don’t want to be described as prejudiced), but if we live in a smoggy place, how can we avoid breathing the air?  If we live in an environment in which we are bombarded with stereotypical images in the media, are frequently exposed to the ethnic jokes of friends and family members, and are rarely informed of the accomplishments of oppressed groups, we will develop the negative categorizations of those groups that form the basis of prejudice. People of color as well as whites develop these categorizations.

Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?

I now understand my responsibility to  focus on cleaning up the air so that all may breathe freely. Cleaning up the air means understanding the pollution that is caused by systemic whiteness. It also means asking myself how I may, even unknowingly, contribute to that pollution on a daily basis.

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