White Racial Socialization and The Role of Schools

Our previous posts on How to Talk to your White Kids About Racism, discussed how important, and how complicated, the topic of racism is for all of us, and looked at what that means as white parents talking to our white children. In this next post, we discuss white racial socialization and the ways in which racism is embedded into our culture.

Scholars differentiate between active and passive socialization, as well as proactive and reactive socialization. Active racial socialization occurs in contexts in which racial socialization is deemed essential for children’s ability to effectively navigate their world. Because many white families generally do not consider racial competencies among the skills their children will need when they grow up, they tend to socialize passively and reactively. This strategy leads to silence about race in many white households. Silence leaves unchallenged the many racial messages we receive from a number of socializing agents, which consistently place whites at the top of the racial hierarchy.

This is reinforced by behavior and by cultural values and/or “norms” that have become the fabric of society because for white people there is a passive relationship to beliefs that have gone unchecked by those “in power” protecting the “norm.” Thus, silence is a choice, not a passive stance; labeled “whiteness-at-work” by Irene H. Yoon, education professor at the University of Utah, silence is a socialization strategy that perpetuates a racist status quo. It has been happening all along.

Racial socialization for white youth, then, is the process by which they learn what it means to be white in a society that currently values whiteness. The passive or unconscious understanding that these systems and institutions were made for, or benefit, them. It differs markedly from the racial socialization of people of color because of the ways that whites tend to benefit materially from systems of racism.

While most scholars of racial socialization agree that the primary means of racial socialization happens in the home, there is also broad consensus that it is a multidirectional process and that messages reach children through books, media, television, music, and schools.

For example, when children exclude their peers of different races in the playground, we tend to focus more on the bullying behavior than the underlying racism. Both are traumatic. But both require different acknowledgement of behaviors, and then recognition and change.

Independent schools tend to have mission statements and/or diversity statements that indicate that they want their school communities to be diverse. But such statements tend to reflect the racial socialization goals of most white parents: wanting to have racially diverse communities in which race does not matter. They rarely reflect an awareness of the need to teach racial skills and competencies in order to foster healthy racially diverse communities. Nor do they reflect an awareness that white children need to learn specific competencies in order to be full members of those racially diverse environments. We need to encourage and push our thinking, and re-imagine structures and systems, as they are and have been. Beginning with our own homes, into our children’s places of education, our places of work, and in our relationships with the people we meet everyday. Activism and allyship, firstly begin with yourself.

Lastly, there is a spiritual angle to all of this, one that is ancient Buddhist. The Dalai Lama recently wrote a piece for Time Magazine regarding the current state of our world. As always , he calls for a cultivation of compassion as one of the crucial ways out of crisis, out of suffering. Below are 5 Principles of Anti-Racist White Allyship, wisdom from the Dalai Lama and Buddhist Traditions, as conceived and applied for the White Ally Toolkit.

The Five Spiritual Principles of Anti-Racist Allyship

Allyship Principle #1: Clarify Your Intentions

“The quality or purity of any spiritual practice is determined by the individual’s intention and motivation.” — Dalai Lama

Allyship Principle #2: Cultivate Mindful Courage

“Anger or hatred is like a fisherman’s hook. It is very important for us to ensure that we are not caught by it.” — Dalai Lama

Allyship Principle #3: Cultivate Curiosity

“When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.” — Dalai Lama

Allyship Principle #4: Focus On Agreement And Common Humanity

“If we can cultivate a concern for others, keeping in mind the oneness of humanity, we can build a more compassionate world.” — Dalai Lama

Allyship Principle #5: Practice Humility

“The more honest you are, the more open, the less fear you will have, because there’s no anxiety about being exposed or revealed to others.” — Dalai Lama

I urge you to make the commitment to the Movement and to sustainable change: to commit to self-reflection, communication and service. To commit to healing, knowledge share and community.

“We must also remember that nobody is free of suffering, and extend our hands to others who lack homes, resources or family to protect them…crisis shows us that we are not separate from one another—even when we are living apart. Therefore, we all have a responsibility to exercise compassion and help.” - Dalai Lama

Be well.


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