Proud to be White?

Lisa McLelland was a 15-year-old at Freedom High School in Oakley, California who yearned to belong to one of those campus clubs where students gather to celebrate cultural pride and a sense of shared history, like the Black Student Union, the Asian Club or Latinos Unidos. Lisa, whose ethnic background includes Dutch, German, Irish, Italian, Latino and NativeAmerican, didn’t quite fit in any of the existing clubs, so she decided to start a “Caucasian Club” where she could explore what it means to be white.

Before her idea could get off the ground it exploded into a firestorm of controversy that led to community outrage, worldwide media coverage, and McClelland’s eventual exile to a less hostile campus.  Though Lisa had insisted her club would be a forum where students could explore racial dynamics and discuss how “whiteness” affects those who aren’t white (among the activities planned for the group were film discussions, guest speakers, and trips to museums), her critics were not convinced. In the weeks preceding McLelland’s flight from Freedom High, she endured daily harassment and threats of violence from those who didn’t believe her mission was to create what she called a “positive organization dedicated to honoring
diversity.”

Local NAACP spokesperson Darnell Turner spoke strongly against the eager sophomore, calling her proposed Caucasian Club racist in name, if not intent:

“When we use the word ‘white’ or ‘Caucasian’ or whatever, it has always been associated with racial bigotry. Using that term opens up old wounds, and we don’t need to go there.”

It seems the adults involved either agreed with Turner’s assessment, or were afraid to openly disagree—Lisa could not find a single Freedom staff person willing to serve as an advisor to her proposed club, nor was she offered support from any community organizations committed to racial unity.

One adult who did extend a helping hand to Lisa was a representative of the Ku Kux Klan who contacted the teenager to applaud her efforts, and welcomed her to join their group. Lisa promptly informed them, “I’m part Latino, half of my friends are gay, and I don’t believe in your cause.”

Lisa and others of her generation, who missed the civil rights movement and must rely on parents and teachers to inform them of America’s racist history, are left asking the questions, “Why is the word ‘white’ so strongly associated with bigotry?” and “What can we do to change that association?”

In 1933 Carter G. Woodson wrote in his book Miseducation of the Negro:

“When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder. He will find his ‘proper place’ and will stay in it.”

Those words aptly describe the miseducation white Americans receive regarding their “proper place” in the fight for a racially just society. The heroes in that fight are invariably depicted as non-white men and women like Dr. King, Harriet Tubman, Mahatma Ghandi, Cesar Chavez and others who stand (and will stand for generations to come) as admirable, emulatable models of human rights warriors.

Mainstream American hero worship has included pitifully few white anti-racists (try to list the names of five white individuals widely known to have actively fought against racism), leaving young whites who wish to be a part of the solution with few role models who look like them. Since textbook authors have decided that white pride rests solely on the shoulders of Christopher Columbus, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and the like, without a club, conference or other extra-curricular venue, where will Lisa
and her generation go to learn of white men and women who risked their lives and livelihood to fight against racial oppression and for human rights?

By omitting the antiracist efforts of individuals like Thomas Paine, John and Jean Rankin, Carl Schurz, Jessie Ames, Viola Liuzzo and thousands of other courageous white Americans, our history books indirectly teach that white people do not (should not?) fight for the rights of non-whites.

For far too long white supremacists have had exclusive use of the words “proud to be white.” Know Good White People hopes Lisa and her white peers will gather to study, reflect and discover a new paradigm for choosing their heroes–so they can take their rightful place in the battle to undermine white privilege and eradicate racism, and in doing so might discover a new, unifying and healing definition of the term “white pride.”



9 Responses to “Proud to be White?”

  • Awyso Says:

    There is an excellent, new, scholarly book that delves into many of these questions that you and your blog readers may find useful.

    It is:

    What White Looks Like: African-American Philosophers on the Whiteness Question.
    Edited by George Yancy
    New York: Routledge 2004

    Highly recommended.

  • Dawn Adams Says:

    As always Kathleen,”Brilliant”. Am looking forward to the book coming out.

  • Dawn Adams Says:

    On, “Proud to be White?”

    Yes, because God made me who I am.

    No, when members of the White race do in-human things to degrade, humiliate, or cause any kind of pain to other members of God’s human
    race.

  • R.E.L Says:

    while i read this page, i wonder y everything in this world seems to b connected w/ the fact that some1 iz or isnt white. i am an african american/native american/french/south african/evrything else, and i am in a bi racial relatinship and still dont understand it. i always thouht it wuz who u were and not what u were. if u r white then god gave u a littke less color in your skin then he gave me. if u r black u have about the same. THATS IT!!!!!!! we wasted stupid time on stupid mitsakes of our fathers b4 us. im black, i have white friends and im the only black person @ my skool. its alrite no need 4 hatred. u all end up in heaven or hell anywayz

    R.E.L haz spoken
    OUT

  • KadiBaby Says:

    I think that it is really sad that Lisa didn’t have any friends of color to support her. Maybe she should have called her club “multicultural club.”

  • knowgoodwhitepeople Says:

    The problem with that, KadiBaby, is that Lisa really wanted to explore “whiteness.” A “multicultural club” by description is a forum in which to explore multi-cultural issues — which means over-studying whiteness would present a problem to members who expect the club to live up to its description. Perhaps Lisa would have gotten a different response with the name “Study of Whiteness Club,” or something to that effect.

  • aprildelfuego Says:

    I wish Lisa and/or the school staff could connect with Y-STEP http://www.ystep.org/. Y-STEP does political education workshops and discussion groups with white teens to help them explore the issues Lisa wanted to get into.

    Its amazing how powerful the DON’T TALK ABOUT RACE message can be in white culture. I have definitely gotten the SHUT UP message in work settings when I tried to get the white folks on the “Multi-cultural Committee” to explore whiteness.

    Adults can’t usually even talk to each other about race-related issues, so it makes sense they would be afraid to talk to teens about it. When I think about doing it, I feel excited about the idea, but then I think Damn, what would I say? Would the kids think I’m full of shit?

    There it is, that piece of white conditioning that tells me we have to be right all the time, so I shouldn’t risk sounding like I don’t have my shit completely together. Then there’s the part of it that’s about not rocking the boat. I used to get in trouble for bringing up controversial stuff at my job, so I understand people’s fear of doing something that might jeopardize their job, community standing, relationships, etc.

    For me, though, it feels like if I’m not taking some risks, then things aren’t going to change. White people have got to be a part of ending racism, and from my perspective that starts with taking a good hard look at what it means to be white, the good and the bad, then loving ourselves with all our warts and flaws, and then taking some responsibility for changing ourselves and our world.

  • Lisa Says:

    Thank you so much for understanding what I wanted to.

  • puddlesplash Says:

    I’m a white student at a “liberal” school (UC Santa Cruz), but even in a supposedly open environment, race in terms of whiteness is either not talked about or talked about only in negative terms. I have a huge problem with this because while, yes, some of my fellow white folk were awful people, there are also many white people that I should have the right to be proud of, and not simply because I am white. Always portraying whites as negative or ignoring them is racist in itself in that it raises people of color to level that no white person can ever reach simply because whites, on the whole, are not seen as a people that create positive social situations or change.
    I am proud to be white, but I often have to follow that sentence with me being proud to be Irish. It is socially ok for white people to be proud of the country their ancestors hail from, but not of being European. (And, personally, I hate that people use “Caucasian” to describe white people because that term refers to a very specific people living around the Caucus mountains in Eastern Europe.) People that are Asian, Black, or Latino do not have to specify where they come from to be openly proud of their roots.
    It is really frustrating to me to not be able to be proud of who I am because there have been Whites in the past that dehumanized people from other races. Those people do not speak for our whole race and it is close-minded to think that they do represent everything White people have and will do.
    (Also, I think that having a site that focuses on racism not only in terms of the people that have been historically marginalized but interms of whiteness as well is great. I feel like exploring racism both from and towards whites is important in trying to eradicate racism, as is discussing racism between two non-white groups because it seems that people most often think of racism as something that only Whites inflict and all others have immunity from creating).

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