Archive for the ‘racial identity’ Category


The following is based on Dr Beverly Tatum’s excellent book, “Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” (1997):

Growing up Native American or American Indian is not well understood, not like growing up black or white in America. There are 750 different Native peoples, like the Sioux, Hopi and Navajo, each one different from the next. But since the coming of the white man they share a common history, an experience that makes it useful to talk about them as a whole.

Most people who grow up in America who cannot pass for white go through these four stages:

  1. race does not matter
  2. experience of racism
  3. making sense of your race or ethnicity
  4. becoming proud of your race or ethnicity and moving forward with a secure sense of who you are

Blacks and Asian Americans go through these stages, though some do not make it all the way through. Same for Native Americans,  but with one huge, important difference: stage 3 is way harder.

Native Americans have come through a full-blown genocide that has not only wiped out their numbers but much of their cultures – their language, customs, history and understanding of the world. The very things you need for stage 3.

Blacks and Asians have rich. living cultures to fall back on – to understand who they are and where they come from. It allows them to build an identity, a sense of who they are that is independent of White America, which they will need to stand up to its racism, to not sink into despair, insecurity and self-hatred.

No such luck for most Native Americans: they just have bits and pieces left of their cultures from the war and disease of the 1800s and, even worse,  the forced assimilation of the early 1900s.

In the early 1900s Native children were taken from their families and sent far away to boarding schools. There the government cut them off from their families to turn them into white people, teaching them to feel shame for being Native – instead of pride like their families would have taught them while passing on their culture.

Native Americans gave up their culture to become White Americans. But because of how they looked most were never fully accepted as White Americans. Because White America is more than a culture – it is a race. The melting pot only works for white people.

So trying to make Native children into white people failed profoundly. Many turned to drink or crime or even to ending their lives. Many lived in poverty. Worse still, they had little they could pass on to their children in the way of a culture, leaving them defenceless in the face of a white racism that tells them they are no good.

For Native Americans to function well in an America that is still racist they need roots in their own culture so they can be proud of who they are – because they will certainly not get that from trying to be white.

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annualreport20The following is based on Dr Beverly Tatum’s excellent book, “Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” (1997):

Asian Americans are not all alike. Asians came to America from different countries at different times for different reasons. Some grew up in America, some grew up overseas. Some live in poverty, some do quite well, though not quite as well as many imagine – they still make less money than whites with the same education.

Despite all that they have certain common experiences of racism from living in America because they are seen as being alike. And that affects how those who were born in America grow up.

Overall it is like  growing up black, going through roughly the same stages:

  1. race does not matter
  2. experience of racism
  3. making sense of your race or ethnicity
  4. becoming proud of your race or ethnicity and moving forward with a secure sense of who you are

Unlike blacks, however, some Asian Americans can fool themselves into thinking of themselves as honorary whites, as raceless in a sense – like Tiger Woods, in fact, who is half Asian. So it might not be till their late 20s that they go through all these stages.

The danger of not coming to terms with being Asian in America is that it leads to self-hatred and insecurity. If you do not have your own image of being Asian, you will have the white image of what that means, stereotypes and all. That is bad: Whites, in the end, look down on Asians. They do not see them as fully human. That is what the racism is about.

Asians are affected by two main racist stereotypes:

  • model minority: Asians as quiet, hard-working, putting their families first and being good at math and science.
  • perpetual foreigner: Asians as not truly American even if they grew up in America. Because they “look Asian” they do not “seem American”.

Asian Americans often grow up in white neighbourhoods and become completely White American by culture – in how they talk and act and think – but still they are not fully accepted by whites because of how they look.

Some might wonder what is wrong with being a model minority. It is a good thing, right? No:

  1. Like any stereotype, it is extremely insulting: it refuses to see a person as an individual. If you work hard and get good grades, for example, it is “because you are Asian”.
  2. It gives whites an excuse not to take Asians seriously when they complain of racism.
  3. It is not even true: most Cambodian Americans, for example, never complete high school!
  4. It puts Asians at odds with blacks and Latinos when both should make common cause against white racism.

Asians are seen as these limited, cardboard beings. That comes across, for example, in the limited way they are shown in Hollywood and comic books. To become fully Asian American you have to overcome the white ideas of what that means.

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stickersThe following is based on Dr Beverly Tatum’s excellent book, “Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” (1997):

Most studies done on biracial or mixed-race children growing up in America have been done on those with a white and a black parent. There is no general agreement yet on the stages they go through, but Dr Tatum says it goes something like this:

  • ages 1 to 5: You become aware that your skin and hair is different than one of your parents. You want your same-sex parent to be like you. One girl said if she had a magic wand she would turn her mother brown like her. Your parents say you can be both black and white but it does not make sense.  You may get a good deal of unwanted attention. But worse than that is if you get cut off from the black side of your family and your white side bad mouths them. That, along with the racist messages coming from society, will make it hard for you to feel good about yourself down the road. It is not as bad the other way round because society will help you to feel good about your white side.
  • ages 6 to 12: By now your parents have stuck a label on you: black, white or biracial. You are starting to think of yourself that way too – and at the same time you are finding out how well that label works in practice. If you do not look like your label it is going to be rough. “Biracial” does not work in all towns and neighbourhoods. It depends. If you look white, then your friends are going to be in for a shock when they see your black parent. (It is less of a shock the other way round.)
  • ages 13 to 18: This is the hard part. You are going to be asked to choose sides. The tables at lunch become more divided by race. There is no biracial table. If you sit at a black table they might say you are “not black enough”. You will also have to hear their angry words about whites. You might share that anger if you have experienced racism too, but for you it will not be so straightforward. Yet at the white table you might hear racist remarks. Even if you look white, “passing” as white might not be as easy as you think if they know you are part black. You will run into the same trouble with dating – many white parents will see you as black no matter what. So if you are, say, a biracial girl growing up among whites, they might say you look beautiful and “exotic” but you are still dateless.
  • ages 19 to 25: You become more secure in yourself. You are less affected by what others think. You can freely accept both the white and black parts of yourself. It is much easier to think of yourself as “biracial” than it was in high school.

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millnerThe following is based on Dr Beverly Tatum’s excellent book, “Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” (1997):

According to Dr Beverly Tatum growing up black in America goes something like this for most:

  1. ages 1 to 5: you know you look different from whites, but you do not think of yourself as “black”. All the racist messages about blacks that American society provides come pouring into your defenceless little brain, completely unquestioned. This lays the groundwork for internalized racism: racism against yourself! You will be fighting against this stuff the rest of your life – either that or give into it.
  2. pre-encounter: you know you are black, at least from about age five if not earlier, but it does not matter that much. It is kind of like being Irish or a NASCAR fan. This is what many white people think being black is like. And what it would be like in a truly post-racial America.
  3. encounter: you experience racism in an unmistakable way. Repeatedly. Anger and confusion follow. Now being black becomes one of the most important things about you.
  4. immersion/emersion: you put yourself into a black world as much as possible. You see your black friends in a new light. You learn everything you can about being black. You read, you take courses maybe. You learn about the history of blacks in America, in Africa, unlearning the lies.
  5. internalization: what you learned in the last stage becomes a part of your identity, your sense of who you are. It helps to undo the internalized racism you unknowingly learned. It makes you feel more secure in yourself. You become less angry, more hopeful.
  6. internalization-commitment: Now you can move beyond yourself, make good friends from other races and want to help other blacks in some way.

After stage 6 you might fall into a period of racelessness where race is not all that important – you are back at stage 2 again! But sooner or later there will be another bad encounter with racism – maybe at work or through your children  – and you will move through the stages all over again, but this time at a higher level of understanding. It is like a spiral staircase, going round and round, up and up.

It is common for the first encounter stage to take place in middle school or high school and the first immersion stage at university (go to one with a good African American studies programme!). And then both again in mid-life.

You can get stuck at any stage. Some do not even make it through all six stages the first time.

You should hang onto the friends you made and the books you bought in one pass through the stages because you will need them again for the next pass!

There are tons of great books about growing up black – which will interest you when you are in the immersion stage. A few are listed below. The best of them is probably “The Autobiography of Malcolm X”, a book everyone in America should read.

Tomorrow: Growing up white!

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Sandra Laing (1955- ) was a black girl born to white Afrikaner parents in South Africa back in the days of white rule and apartheid, of keeping the races apart.

It seems that her white father was her true father: blood tests showed that his blood matched hers. Sandra also looked too much like her brother Adriaan, who was white.

Although Sandra’s great grandparents were all white, someone in her family tree must have been passing for white, probably several people on both sides. Their genes came together in her. Most white Afrikaners are only about 89% white by blood.

The trouble started when she went to school. The white children called her names, like “blackie” and “frizzhead”. They hit her. The school did nothing to stop them: it saw her as the cause of the trouble.

For four years parents and teachers of the school pushed to have her kicked out. Then on March 10th 1966 the police came and took her out of the school: the government said she was no longer white in the eyes of the law but coloured (mixed-race).

For two years her father fought to have her changed back to white, taking it all the way to the Supreme Court. He won. But it did little good: few white schools would take her. Nine said no. Only a Roman Catholic school far away said yes. By then she had fallen too far behind in her studies and never caught up.

Very few whites would befriend her. Nearly all her friends were black. She felt more comfortable with blacks than with whites.

At 14 she fell in love with a black man. Her father pulled a gun on him and told him never to come back and told her that if she married him, he will cut her off from the family.

At 15 she married him and ran off with him to Swaziland where she became his second wife. Her father made good on his threat.

LAING_3When she returned to South Africa she was forced by law to live in a black township, a place with no power or running water. Even worse, her children were not allowed to live with her: they were “black” and she was still “white”. She tried to get herself changed back to coloured so they could stay with her, but her father blocked it! It took her ten years to get them back.

Her father went to his grave never seeing her again. Even her two (white) brothers, who are still alive, will not see her. They blame her for their parents’ unhappiness: ever since she ran away they were never happy again. But she did get to see her mother in 2000 just before she died.

Her story was made into a documentary in the 1970s – which was not allowed to be shown in South Africa! It has also been made into a book, “When She Was White” by Judith Stone, and a British film, “Skin” (2009), starring Sophie Okonedo and Sam Neill.

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Should I read “Black, White & Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self” by Rebecca Walker? Rebecca Walker is the daughter of writer Alice Walker and a white, Jewish civil rights lawyer.

From the title it sounds like an interesting book.

I heard about the book from the Luscious Librarian:

I’ve been reading Rebecca Walker lately. I picked up Black White and Jewish, her bestselling memoir and fell in extreme like with her prose. She’s introspective and neurotic, enlightening and open about all of her experiences in life and I just drink it up. For someone who has led a relatively mundane life without travel or expensive education I live vicariously through the memoirs of passionate and interesting women.

On the other hand, mynameismyname says:

I read Walker’s memoir around the time it was first released. It’s meandering and often dull. It’s more about her personal exploits and her strained relationship with her famous mother than her personal struggles with race. I wouldn’t recommend it.

The Washington Post says it is “Compelling”, the San Francisco Chronicle calls it “Stunningly honest”. But then you know how they are.

If you have read it – or even tried to read it or thought of reading it – and have an opinion, I would love to hear it!

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