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American colleges struggle with racial tensions every year. Some white students -- in incidents that attract widespread attention or in everyday interactions with their minority peers -- convey a lack of understanding about race.
A new book, White Kids: Growing Up With Privilege in a Racially Divided America (New York University Press), explores how wealthy white children develop their ideas about race. The author, Margaret A. Hagerman, assistant professor of sociology at Mississippi State University, took a qualitative approach, following young white people as they grew up. She answered questions via email about the book and how her findings relate to current tensions at colleges.
Q: Would you describe your research method? How many white wealthy young people did you talk to? How did you define privilege as you were considering whom to interview?
A: White Kids is based on a two-year ethnographic study of 30 families who identified as white and who lived in a medium-sized Midwest city. I interviewed 36 children who were between the ages of 10 and 13 as well as their parents, and I observed these families in their everyday lives. I drove kids to soccer practices and piano lessons, I went to birthday parties and private pools at country clubs, and so on. I also returned to this community a few years later when the youth were in high school and conducted follow-up interviews with a subset of them and their parents. In addition to their racial privilege, these families also experienced class privilege: at least one of the parents in these families, though oftentimes both, held a graduate or professional degree, worked in a professional occupation, and [they] owned a single-family home.
Q: High schools are increasingly segregated by race. How do young white people today learn about race?
A: Many people think that white kids learn about race based on what their parents say (or do not say) to them about the topic. For instance, after a racist hate crime, I often notice a surge in parenting blog posts and op-eds published that urge white parents to speak to their children about racism in America. One of the most important lessons of my research, though, is that “actions speak louder than words.” Whether parents use colorblind language (“We don’t see race”) or color-conscious language (“We are antiracist”), what they say often matters far less than what they actually do -- and specifically, what they do to design their child’s social environment. When parents move to a segregated white neighborhood because the kids in the integrated neighborhood are “too rough,” or when they believe a “good” school is a whiter school, or when the only people in a child’s life are also white with the exception of the economically marginalized black and brown people at the soup kitchen whom they are told they must help “save,” white children notice and develop understandings of not only the position of others in society but also of themselves -- they learn about their own power and privilege through observing and interpreting this world around them. My book tries to highlight how kids are making meaning of race through these interpretive processes.
Q: You write about young people (and also their parents) saying that they are not racist, and then having stereotypical attitudes about black people or behaving in ways that reinforce racial inequality. How do you explain this?
A: None of the kids in this book want to be considered “racist,” but I did find variations on why this was the case. Some children believed this label would mean that they were hurting their peers of color, which they knew was a real possibility, even if unintentional. Other kids did not believe it was even possible for them to be racist because racism is “no longer a problem.” Race scholars like Eduardo Bonilla-Silva have documented extensively the prevalence of colorblind ideology in America. This research illustrates how white people can say racism is no longer a problem while simultaneously explaining the existence of inequality in our society by blaming people of color through the use of culturally racist stereotypes. Other scholars have also explored differences between what white people say about race and what they do. For instance, scholars like Amanda Lewis and John Diamond demonstrate how white parents advocate for their own children in ways that protect and defend the very systems of inequality they say they otherwise reject. Additionally, scholars like Joyce Bell and Douglas Hartmann show how white people engage in the “happy talk” of diversity while avoiding real confrontations with structural inequality and avoiding the realities of how they perpetuate inequality in their own lives. Certainly, in my research, I found similar patterns.
Q: We are in a period of intense national debate about affirmative action in college admissions. What attitudes did you see among young white people that would influence their view of this question?
A: I found variation in these affluent white kids’ perspectives on programs or policies designed to promote equal opportunity and fight institutional racism. For instance, one child told me that she did not understand the relevance of spaces like that of a Black Student Union. In her words: “Like, this one high school has, like, the Black Student Union and the Asian Student Union. I don’t really get it. Like, why do they have to be like, ‘Oh, you’re black, so you’re in your own little union.’ I mean, there’s not like the White Student Union!” Similarly, I witnessed a brother tell his younger sibling with a tone of disgust that he would never get into a particular summer program because the program was more likely to accept “black and Mexican kids than white kids.” And yet, other kids told me that they understood the need for policies and programs that would help make up for the legacy of racism in America. For instance, another child explained, “I think there is still a lot of discrimination in jobs and stuff, and there has been for a long time … Some people are not given certain opportunities that maybe someone would give white people just because they look different, which I think is kind of bogus.” This child was in favor of trying to find ways to fix these problems. “We need to do something about this,” he told me.
Q: College leaders are stunned every year when white students (who deny being racist) pose in blackface or organize "illegal alien hunt" parties, etc. How do you explain this behavior, based on the attitudes you found?
A: Not only do many of the white kids in my study express limited awareness of the history of racism or the realities of contemporary forms of racism and racial inequality, but they also express what sociologist Tyrone Forman describes as “racial apathy” or the “lack of feeling or indifference toward societal racial and ethnic inequality and lack of engagement with race-related social issues.” From my perspective, racial apathy is at the heart of the day-to-day exclusionary practices of white supremacy prevalent on college campuses (e.g., microaggressions) as well as the much more incendiary racist events that receive national attention. My research shows that such apathy manifests itself in white childhood -- like when some of the young people tell me that they “don’t care” about black people who are killed by police because “when black people get shot, it is because they fucked up.” Kids who do not care about the suffering of people of color in middle school may not see a problem with hosting an “illegal alien hunt” party in college.
Q: Based on what you learned, what would be your advice to college leaders who want to promote inclusive environments on their campuses?
A: My research shows that many white kids are unprepared for living and learning in a racially inclusive environment because of their own white racial socialization in childhood and early adolescence. Integrating my own research with the important work of my colleagues, I think all students should be required to take classes designed to build their empathy, understanding and capacity to act in the face of racial inequalities -- classes based in critical race studies that, as sociologist Jennifer Mueller puts it, make “ignorance [or apathy] more difficult.” University leaders should support and value the faculty who teach these courses, recognizing the challenges of this work especially for faculty from racially marginalized groups. So too should university leaders work to address the consequences of racial apathy at all levels of the university -- e.g., syllabi that center white perspectives, administrative indifference to the concerns of students of color, uncritical hiring practices, inequitable service demands placed on faculty of color and so on. In order to challenge the normative nature of whiteness on college campuses, administrators first need to better understand the process of white racial socialization and the insidious power of racial apathy.