Most white Americans believe
they were born white. Yet their own stories of early racial experiences describe
persons who were bred white. Which is it-nature or nurture? Neither. The social process
that creates whites produces persons who must think of their whiteness as a biological
The process begins with a rebuke. A parent or authority figure reprimands the child
because it's not yet white. The language used by the adult is racial, but the content
of the message pertains to the child's own feelings and what the child must do with
feelings the adult doesn't like. Stifle them. Philosopher Martha Nussbaum, in her
book Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education, tells
how she learned to do this as a child being taught to be white.
Nussbaum's reflections begin with a description of the incident that provoked her
father's racial rebuke: "In Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, in the early 1960s, I encountered
black people only as domestic servants. There was a black girl my age named Hattie,
daughter of the live-in help of an especially wealthy neighbor. One day, when I was
about ten, we had been playing in the street and I asked her to come in for some
lemonade. My father, who grew up in Georgia, exploded, telling me that I must never
invite a black person into the house again." Nussbaum's first lessons ended
at school where the only African Americans present were "kitchen help."
Here, she and her classmates learned how to "efface them from our minds when
we studied." The target of Nussbaum's first lessons in whiteness was her own
sentient awareness of the surrounding environment. She had to learn how to disengage
her own feelings, how to dissociate herself from them.
Most discussions of the creation of whites overlook this stage in the development
of a white racial consciousness and thus assume that whites are insensitive to blacks
by nature. White supremacist and anti-racist groups seem to hold this belief in common-that
whites are born racist with a biologically predetermined disposition to hate blacks.
To begin elsewhere, we have to pay attention to the feelings the child learns to
squelch. I was able to listen in on these feelings when I conducted interviews for
my book, Learning to Be White. An adult I call "Jay," for example, described
the rationale for his parents' decision to take him on a car tour of the "black
ghetto" when he was four. His parents knew he had never seen black people before
and did not want him to embarrass the family by staring at "them" when
the family went to New York on vacation the following month. The adult motivation
for this mini tour of black America was to pre-empt a parental rebuke that would
have occurred if Jay had indeed stared at "them" while on vacation. Jay
thus learned something about what to do with his own natural curiosity. Suppress
it. The protocol associated with this new knowledge was self-evident: don't stare
at them. The deeper implications of the message Jay received would develop over time:
don't even notice that they are there. Such behavior, of course, is described by
Ralph Ellison's protagonist in Invisible Man: "I am invisible, understand, simply
because people refuse to see me." Jay had begun to learn not to see what he
Another example. "Sally's" parents, strong civil rights supporters, preached
racial equality both at home and in the streets. She was thus flabbergasted when
her parents prevented her from going out with a high school friend who came to pick
her up for a Friday night date. He was black. The parents sent him away and forbade
her to date him. "What will our neighbors say if they see you on the arms of
a black man?" Sally was furious with them and thought them hypocrites. But she
submitted to their dictates. "What was I going to do?" she asked rhetorically.
"Rebel? Not in my household. They would have disowned me." So she suppressed
Then there's "Dan." In college during the late 1950s, Dan joined a fraternity.
With his prompting, his chapter pledged a black student. When the chapter's national
headquarters learned of this first step toward the integration of its ranks, headquarters
threatened to rescind the local chapter's charter unless the black student was expelled.
The local chapter caved in to the pressure and Dan was elected to tell the black
student member he would have to leave. Dan did it. "I felt so ashamed of what
I did," he told me. "I have carried this burden for forty years,"
he said. "I will carry it to my grave." And he began to cry. Why? Because
as psychoanalytic theorist Judith Lewis Herman reminds us in the opening pages of
her book, Trauma and Recovery, the unspeakable will out.
"Sarah." At age sixteen, Sarah brought her best friend home with her from
high school. After the friend left, Sarah's mother told her not to invite her friend
home again. "Why?" Sarah asked, astonished and confused. "Because
she's colored," her mother responded. That was not an answer, Sarah thought
to herself. It was obvious that her friend was colored, but what kind of reason was
that for not inviting her? So Sarah persisted, insisting that her mother tell her
the real reason. None was forthcoming. The indignant look on her mother's face, however,
made Sarah realize that if she persisted, she would jeopardize her mother's affection
toward her. Horrified by what she had just glimpsed, Sarah severed her friendship
with the girl. Sarah told me she had not thought of this incident in twenty years.
She also said that until now, she had never consciously said to herself that for
her the deepest tragedy in this incident was her loss of trust in her mother's love.
Sarah, like Dan, began to cry.
Every European American I interviewed could tell me a tale about how they learned
as youth to blunt positive feelings toward persons beyond the pale. These aren't
the kinds of tales I had expected when I asked them to recount stories of their earliest
racial incidents. To my astonishment, instead of describing interracial incidents,
they described intra-racial conflicts. The message they learned was repress, deny,
and split off from consciousness feelings that, if expressed, would provoke racial
attacks from the adults in their own community. >From these stories, I learned
that becoming white is the product of a child's siege mentality. It's a defense mechanism
to stop racial rebukes from one's own kith and kin.
Few accounts reveal this white siege mentality better than a story by writer Don
Wallace in his New York Times, October 11, 1995, op-ed piece, "How I Learned
to Fear the Cops." Wallace, in this essay, describes several incidents in which
he was accosted by cops. The first altercation occurred when Wallace was ten. Wallace
uses the third-person singular to tell this tale in the opening paragraphs of his
The 10-year-old boy skipped down the sidewalk a few steps ahead of his parents in
the warmth of a Los Angeles night in 1962. Behind him glowed Olvera Street, a slice
of the old California's Mexican heritage.... He heard the screech of brakes but paid
no mind until a police officer seized him by the shoulder and pushed him against
a wall. Another officer shoved his 12-year-old brother. Then the boy saw something
even more terrifying: the gun in the cop's hand.
Wallace's father spoke up, berating the cop and demanding an apology for pointing
a gun at his sons, who were church-goers, Boy and Cub Scout members, and good students.
The cops stood their ground, demanding that he get out of the way or face arrest.
Wallace, who until this point has not told the reader the "race" of the
family, now teases his reader, asking: "What do you think happened next? You've
read the papers. You followed the Rodney King case. If the family in this true story
were black, what odds would you give on the father staying out of jail? Or staying
alive?" But he and his family are white, Wallace tells us, and they "got
to go home to [their] all-white suburb."
As a teenager, Wallace continued to play on the wrong side of town. He attended a
large inner-city high school in Long Beach and would often visit his first girlfriend,
"a biology whiz" who had a Spanish surname and lived on the west side.
To visit her, Wallace had to go through a Checkpoint Charlie consisting of a concrete
levee, oil fields, and two eight-lane boulevards marking a racial change from all-white
to brown, black, and yellow. The few streets which led in or out of the area created
choke points and were usually "guarded by a squad car at each one, day and night."
In his sophomore year, almost every night as he drove from his girlfriend's house,
a squad car would swing behind him and tail him. "I got used to it," Wallace
says with the determination of a teenage Rambo. He treated "each drive home
as if it were a mission through hostile territory: my signals perfect, my turns crisp,
my speed steady and always five miles per hour below the limit." Nevertheless,
in spite of his white, "preppie look," he was stopped eleven times "with
nary a ticket to show for it." The policemen's message was clear: whites were
not allowed to socialize in a non-white zone. Recounting an incident in which he
and two friends were caught in the wrong zone, Wallace writes: "The police marched
three of us into a field behind a screen of oil wells and then separated and handcuffed
us. For an hour we were threatened with a beating and arrest, yet no infraction was
mentioned. The police were delivering their message of intimidation, insuring the
crackle of fear, the walking-on-eggshells feeling, every time we entered the nonwhite
zone." Similarly, when Wallace, who was president of the student body and a
football letterman, chose to sit with black friends during a school basketball game,
two police officers "waded into the bleachers and hauled me out to the floor
to be searched, in full view of my teachers and friends."
Such incidents made it clear not only that race mixing was prohibited by these cops,
but that neither whites nor nonwhites are safe from police brutality when they enter
a racial zone off limits to their kind. There is, however, another story being told.
Wallace, in the process of recounting his youthful escapades with the police, also
sings a different tune. He tells us how "this white boy [who] got the message
long ago" grew up to "fear the cops." Wallace recounts this adult
tale of submission to authority in another key.
Wallace's journalistic eye focuses our attention on the fact that as a youth, in
spite of his ostensibly rebellious nature, he did not rebel. The boy did not protest
his harassment but adjusted. Writes Wallace: "I am astonished how we adjusted
to this state of constant siege." This adult astonishment forces us to set aside
his teenage bravado and focus on a fact that neither the teenager nor the adult could
state directly: both the white youth and white adult civilians in Wallace's recollections
submitted to the policemen's harassment. That he submitted to authority is clear.
We simply must pay attention to the unsaid. Absent from Wallace's account is a description
of complaints to his parents or schoolteachers. Nor does he report having gone to
either the local police station or to the District Attorney's office to file a complaint.
Such acts would have been made less likely by the fact that both his parents and
the adults at his school were models of submission to police abuse rather than rebellion.
Even Wallace's father, after an initial dismayed protest against the officer who
had pulled a gun on white boys who were good (Scouts, Christian, and smart), relented
and took his family home to their "all-white suburb." This, of course,
was what the cops had wanted in the first place.
Wallace is recounting the antics of a teenager who grandstanded rather than rebelled.
He is describing more than members of a police force out of control. He is also exposing
a pervasive white adult submission to the threatening presence of its own police
force, which is dead set on preventing so-called race mixing. The adult submission
to this threat, in the boy's eyes, was the same as consent. Police harassment, together
with the massive submission of adults to this brute force, taught the boy and the
adult he grew up to be what he must do to act like a white person: submit to the
unwritten race laws of his policed state. This demand for submission to white race
laws created a zone of fear and timidity within Wallace, the adult. As he writes:
"Layer upon layer of incidents like these build a foundation of mistrust. It's
why I'm a very cautious driver today." Wallace, in effect, has described the
origins of his present siege mentality.
He had learned through experience that in a de jure and/or de facto system of racial
apartheid, every member of the community is under siege. Instead of inspiring his
rebellious rage, however, this siege mentality actually prevents Wallace from expressing
his rage toward the police force. Even in his essay, instead of calling for more
civilian oversight of an out-of-control police force, Wallace muffles his impulse
to protest by cloaking it in blackness and concludes his essay with the moral tepidity
of an interracial truism: "I firmly believe there will be no peace until black
people can walk the same streets as white people without fearing the sound of the
squad car's brakes, as I learned to do that night on Olvera Street." By referring
to the risk African Americans run when they enter white zones, Wallace expresses
in blackface his own fears as a European American caught in the wrong racial zone.
Albeit unwittingly, this gesture towards tolerance ends up confirming the system
After the siege mentality is in place, race talk by the newly created white usually
follows. Such talk, however, often distracts attention from what produced it: white
adult abuse against their own kids. The story of Dorothy, a middle-aged woman I met
at a dinner party in an Upper West Side Manhattan apartment, shows how race talk
about racism begins as a distraction from the emotional pain entailed in becoming
Dorothy and I were introduced by the host of the dinner party: Dorothy was a "poet,"
whose most recent volume of poetry was prominently displayed on the coffee table
in front of the couch on which we were seated. I was a "writer" working
on white identity issues. After our host departed, Dorothy wanted to know what a
"white identity" was. She did not have one, she assured me. She was simply
an American. I could help her find hers, I responded, if she wanted to know what
it looked like. Her interest piqued, she accepted the offer. True to form, I asked
her to recollect her earliest memory of knowing what it means to be white.
After a little excavation, she finally found the memory: When Dorothy was five, she
and her family lived in Mexico for a year. Although her family's housekeeper brought
her daughter, who was also five, to work, Dorothy's parents forbade her to play with
the little girl. Dorothy, in fact, was never allowed to play with any Mexican children,
and she and her two brothers were forbidden to venture beyond the gates of their
backyard. Dorothy remembered her feelings of sadness and regret. The Mexican children
and their parents seemed so much more at ease with themselves and each other. They
seemed warm and tactile, unlike her own family, whose manners and expressions were
cold and constrained.
Dorothy told me she had not thought of these feelings in years. She confessed that
she now recalled how often, during that year, she wished to be brown. I suggested
that the term "white" might not mean anything consciously to her today
because it had too much negative meaning for her when she was five. She agreed and
now expressed surprise that she had not written about these feelings, memories, or
experiences in her work. She said much of her life had been devoted to freeing herself
from the emotional strictures imposed on her by her parents. Most of her poetry was
about them and the way they had drained life out of her. She reiterated her astonishment
that this set of memories had not surfaced in her work. As she blushed, the resurrected
feelings of the child seemed to disappear.
I now watched Dorothy transfer her own dis-ease to me and I braced myself for an
attack. She was no longer the object of her painful racial memories. Now, I was.
"You know," Dorothy now said pointedly, "you are the first black I've
ever felt comfortable with talking about racism." To which I responded, "Why
is it so easy for you to think of me as a 'black,' and yet until a few minutes ago
you could not make any sense out of thinking about yourself as a 'white'?" Further-"Were
we really talking about racism? And if so, whose? Your parents'? Yours? That of the
five-year-old girl who wanted to be brown?"
Dorothy was silent for a long moment. "I now understand what I've just done,
and I'm horrified," she finally confessed. She realized that if I were a black,
she, too, must have a race: the one that had enraged her as a child. Not surprisingly,
Dorothy now confessed that she was afraid to say anything else-not because I might
condemn her, but much more tellingly because, as she put it, "I might not like
what I hear myself saying." If she'd been forced to listen to herself continue
to talk, she would have had to listen to a white woman speak in ways that the five-year-old
child would have despised. She did not want to listen to such talk. Nor did I. Our
conversation very quickly came to an end.
Dorothy had recalled the feelings of the child whose parents wanted to love a white
child. The parts of her that were not "white"-her positive feelings toward
Mexicans-had to be set aside as unloved and therefore unlovable. This sense of being
unlovable is the core content of shame, psychoanalyst Leon Wurmser reminds us in
his book, The Mask of Shame. Shame, Wurmser suggests, "forces one to hide, to
seek cover and to veil or mask oneself." Such feelings, self psychologist Heinz
Kohut notes in The Search for the Self, actually result from the failure of the parents
or caretakers to adequately love the child, but the child blames itself rather than
its parent or caretaking environment. Guilt, by contrast with shame, Helen Merrell
Lynd notes in her book, On Shame and the Search for Identity, results from a wrongful
deed, a self-condemnation for what one has done. A penalty can be exacted for this
wrongful act. Recompense can be made and restitution paid. Not so with shame. Nothing
can be done because shame results not from something one did wrong but rather from
something wrong with oneself. Split-off feelings can create this feeling of personal
No contemporary writer has made this link between personal shame and racial antipathy
towards African Americans more evident than Norman Podhoretz, the neo-conservative
editor-at-large of Commentary. I think of him, in fact, as an unwitting progenitor
of modern White Studies, because he so carefully chronicles his own lessons in whiteness
as both defense process and invention. While White Studies scholars like Michelle
Fine, Lois Weis, Linda C. Powell, and L. Mun Wong study "whiteness as a system
of power and privilege, as a group, an identity, a social movement, a defense, an
invention," Podhoretz chronicles whiteness writ small as his own fretful I.
Podhoretz begins his February 1963 Commentary essay, "My Negro Problem-and Ours,"
by showing how he transformed the shame entailed in his personal ordeal of becoming
white into his "Negro Problem." First, he describes how the Jewish and
Italian children in his lower-class Brooklyn neighborhood were united as "whites"
by their shared experience of persecution by local "Negro boys." He tells
us that as a child in the 1930s, he was repeatedly "beaten up, robbed, and in
general hated, terrorized, and humiliated" by the Negroes in his Brooklyn neighborhood.
Next, he tells us that, thirty years later, he's still mad even though he's now a
self-identified "liberal." He hates Negroes. However, he bases this confident
declaration of hate on his belief that all whites, whether they have had personally
harrowing experiences with black Americans or not, "are sick in their feelings
We can gather from this remark that Podhoretz' "Negro Problem" doesn't
stem from his actual assault by the "Negro boys." What then is the cause
of this pervasive feeling? Podhoretz' answer is painfully clear. It's the repression
of feelings entailed in becoming a white that creates a cauldron of self-contempt.
For Podhoretz, the Negro began to represent all the impulses in himself that he had
to repress in order to make it in the white world. The Negro, Podhoretz says, "feared
the impulses within himself toward submission to authority no less powerfully than
I feared the impulses in myself toward defiance. If I represented the jailer to him,
it was not because I was oppressing him or keeping him down: it was because I symbolized
for him the dangerous and probably pointless temptation toward greater repression,
just as he symbolized for me the equally perilous tug toward greater freedom. I personally
was to be rewarded for this repression with a new and better life in the future,
but how many of my friends paid an even higher price and were given only gall in
Podhoretz' perspective makes even more sense when put in the context of his book,
Making It. There he discloses America's "dirty little secret": if you aren't
a WASP, you'd better become a "facsimile WASP" if you want to make it.
Podhoretz thus had learned early on that "there was no socially neutral ground
to be found in the United States of America." Instead, "a distaste for
the surroundings in which I was bred, and ultimately (God forgive me) even for many
of the people I loved, and so a new taste for other kinds of people" was required.
For Podhoretz, the trick was to become white without being Anglo-Saxon or becoming
Protestant. After all, he was not about to break ranks with his chosen family, the
New York Jewish intelligentsia, as he "made it" into the American realm
of power, privilege, and prestige. Thus, his annals tell us not how he became an
Anglo-Saxon Protestant, but rather how he became "white" with WASP-like
sentiments which show up, not surprisingly, as his own self-contempt. "Becoming
white" for Podhoretz meant making the anti-Semitic sentiments of the WASPs around
him his own. The self-hatred entailed in this process was hidden from Podhoretz by
his mask of white racism towards "the Negro." Podhoretz, in short, learned
that being "white" was not a privilege, but a very painful, life-long psychological
process of denying his own more original feelings toward himself as whole, wholesome,
and good. At this level of psychological development, we must conclude that Podhoretz'
deepest sense of self is not "racist" but "broken."
Podhoretz' plot line is not new. In Europe, as University of Chicago master social
theorist Sander L. Gilman reminds us in his books Jewish Self-Hatred and Freud, Race,
and Gender, Jews were thought of as blacks. They were the "white Negroes."
Writes Gilman, "In the eyes of the non-Jew who defined them in Western [European]
society the Jews became the blacks." The male Jew and the male African were
conceived of as equivalent threats to the white race.
What's new about Podhoretz' confessions is his attempt to stay Jewish while publicly
acknowledging his acquired distaste for "many of the [Jewish] people [he] loved."
He talks freely about his "Jewish Problem." Thus the "tears of rage"
he felt toward the Negro boys who humiliated him begin to blend with his own feelings
of "self contempt," because he's ashamed of some of his own feelings toward
Jews. The Negroes begin to represent for him "the very embodiment of the values
of the street that he had abandoned: free, independent, reckless, brave, masculine,
erotic." They were "beautifully, enviably tough, not giving a damn for
anyone or anything"-all the things that Podhoretz, in his own eyes, was not
and dared not give into: the perilous tug toward greater freedom from his internalized
WASP rule over his own feelings.
Podhoretz, however, does not see the connection between his "Negro" and
"Jewish" problem. Instead, he characterizes his "rage" against
Negro anti-Semites as "insane" and proposes to end the "Negro Problem"
completely through miscegenation. The source of his rage may not be clear to him,
but is clear once we understand "whiteness." The Negro anti-Semite becomes
a mask for Podhoretz' own feelings of self-contempt as a Jew. His rage against the
Negro hides his own shame as a WASP-manque with anti-Semitic sentiments. That same
need to hide from himself also obviously prevented Podhoretz from seeing the absurdity
of his "final solution" for the Negro. This was brought home to him by
novelist Ralph Ellison, who suggested that such a strategy would simply "increase
the number of 'colored' children." Says Podhoretz: this was "a point, I
had to admit, which had never occurred to me before." But this point is so obvious
that we have to ask ourselves, what blinded him to it? The answer is self-evident.
His solution to "the Negro Problem" would get rid of his "White Problem"
by bringing about the disappearance of the WASP. Podhoretz concludes his essay with
the frank admission that if his daughter wanted to marry a Negro, he would rail,
rave, rant, and then "give her my blessing." Here we find Podhoretz with
both his best and his worst foot forward at the same time, stepping forward simultaneously
as both racial bigot and race reformer.
What can we conclude from these various examples of the processes entailed in becoming
white in America? Two things. Whites like to think of themselves as biologically
white in order to hide what they'd like to forget: once upon a time they were attacked
by whites in their own community because they weren't yet white. To stop the attack,
they learned to disdain their own feelings. Who wants to remember such attacks? Who
wants to know that they were once racial outsiders to their own racial group? Who
wants to unearth denied feelings? Better to blame the blacks (and other so-called
"colored groups"-"so-called" because I've never met anyone who
didn't have a color!) than face the truth: whites are race victims of their own community's
racial codes of conduct.
Most whites suffer from a survivor complex. They are products of a race war that
rages within white America. The fact that there's a racial pecking order among ethnic
groups in white America exacerbates this problem. As social psychologist Gordon Allport
notes in his classic 1954 study The Nature of Prejudice, this race rating-scheme
is widespread and remarkably uniform in judgments "concerning the relative acceptability
[that is, whiteness] of various ethnic stocks: Germans, Italians, Armenians, and
the like. Each of these can in sequence look down upon all groups lower in the series."
Such racial abuse meted out to "ethnics" who are too far away from the
Anglo-Saxon Protestant ethnic ideal can have devastating effects not only on one's
personality but also on one's paycheck.
This economic penalty is difficult to grasp because Americans have been taught to
think only of the benefits-the "privileges"-of whiteness accorded to Europeans
who immigrated to America and became white. W.E.B. Du Bois called the race privileges
given to these workers and their progeny "the wages of whiteness." Whiteness,
as Du Bois notes in his book Black Reconstruction in America: 1860-1880, meant "public
deference and titles of courtesy"; access to "public functions, public
parks and the best schools"; jobs as policemen; the right to sit on juries;
voting rights; flattery from newspapers while Negro news was "almost utterly
ignored except in crime and ridicule." These privileges also included the right,
based on legal indifference and social approval, to taunt, police, humiliate, mob,
rape, lynch, jibe, rob, jail, mutilate, and burn Negroes, which became a sporting
game, "a sort of permissible Roman holiday for the entertainment of vicious
whites." During the late 1800s, for example, "practically all white southern
men went armed and the South reached the extraordinary distinction of being the only
modern civilized country where human beings were publicly burned alive."
The price exacted for these privileges, however, was also considerable. Du Bois summarizes
the main cost in the nineteenth century antebellum South: no major labor movement
to protect the region's five million poor whites, who owned no slaves, from the 8,000
largest slave-holders who, in effect, ruled the South. Hatred of the Negro, slave
and free, blocked furtive attempts by the lower classes to fight their own race's
class exploiters. By playing the labor costs of both whites and Negroes against each
other, contractors kept the earnings of both groups low. Both before and after the
civil war, white privileges functioned as a kind of "public and psychological
wage," supplementing the low-paying jobs that whites could easily lose to a
lower-paid black worker.
I am not denying "white privilege." "All whites," as legal scholar
Cheryl J. Harris notes in her essay "Whiteness as Property"-regardless
of class position-"benefit from their wage of whiteness." Such talk of
privilege, however, is incomplete unless we also speak of its penalty. For poorer
wage earners "without power, money or influence," their wage of whiteness
functions as a kind of workers' "compensation." It is a "consolation
prize" to persons who, although not wealthy, do not have to consider themselves
losers because they are, at least, white.
The irony, of course, is that neither in the past nor today are low-paid wage earners
held in high esteem by their own white bosses who exploit their labor. These workers
are, in effect, exploited twice: first as workers and then as "whites."
Their "race" is used to distract them from their diminishing value as wage
earners. Diminished as workers, they feel shame. Inflated as whites, they feel white
supremacist pride. This is the double jeopardy of whiteness Martin Luther King, Jr.
pointed to in his 1967 book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, when
noting that racial prejudice put poorer whites in the ironic position of fighting
not only against the Negro, but also against themselves. White supremacy, King wryly
noted, can feed the egos of poor whites but not their stomachs.
Today's "poor whites" are the working poor, the "overspent Americans"
be they lower- or middle-class-all the white Americans who are living from paycheck
to paycheck. Whiteness functions as a distraction from the pervasive class problem
of the white American worker. Talk of white privilege from this class perspective
is really talk about the privileges entailed in being and remaining poor and exploited
in America. Such talk is cheap. Too cheap.
We can do better than this-but only if we attend to the way in which most "whites"
are broken by the persons who ostensibly made them white "for their own good":
their parents, caretakers, and bosses.
In his September/October 1996 essay "Can the Left Learn to Take Yes for an Answer?"
Tikkun editorial board member Michael Bader describes a repeated pattern among white
American progressives: "an unconscious belief that they're somehow not supposed
to have a happier and healthier life than their loved ones, past and present."
To explain this syndrome, Bader talks about "survivor guilt." We must begin
to talk about survivor shame in Americans who are forced to become white. Without
such discourse, the fact that European Americans racially abuse their own children,
suffer from class exploitation under the guise of "white-skin privilege,"
mask their own racialized feelings of shame, and then download their self-contempt
on the rest of us will remain America's invisible race problem.
Thandeka, associate professor of theology and culture, Meadville/Lombard Theological
School, is author of Learning to be White: Money, Race, and God in America (Continuum
1999). Her name, "lovable" in Xhosa, was given to her by Archbishop Desmond
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