White people need to learn their own history

I get that you’re a white American, but where are you really from?
Before unpacking this complex subject, it is important to note that while the concept of whiteness was invented to uphold economic and political agendas, the consequences of the social construction of race have had profound effects on communities of color in this country, particularly Black communities. This piece is not meant to trivialize or make light of the systemic discrimination against Black people in the United States. The goal of this piece is not to center whiteness over and over again, but to complicate our discussions about diversity, equity and inclusion.
Many states, including Arkansas, South Carolina, West Virginia, Texas and Arizona, have enacted legislation restricting the extent to which the history of slavery in the U.S. can be taught in schools. To justify these policies, state governments purport that these teachings push white students to feel guilty about themselves because of their race.
In an interview with NPR, Shelby Steele, the author of “White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era,” describes white guilt as a form of moral relativity.
“[White guilt is] not a guilt of conscience … Rather it is the fact that in relation to Black Americans, [white people] lack moral authority,” said Steele. “You are, in fact, stigmatized as a racist, because, after all, you have now acknowledged that your nation practiced racism explicitly for four centuries. And, now, since the ’60s, white Americans have been grappling with the stigma, trying [to] prove that they are not racist.”
As white people have been stigmatized as racists, their reactions to this have deeply shaped the cultural and political landscape of the U.S. As the U.S. has seen more people come to grips with the historical legacy of systemic racism, it has also seen more people push back against this racial reckoning movement. For example, Great Replacement Theory, the idea that white people are actively being replaced by immigrants, has gained more popularity. Or, with his build-the-wall campaign, Muslim ban and proclamations that COVID-19 should be called the Chinese virus, the election of former President Donald Trump showcases just how successful racist and xenophobic political campaigns can be in the 21st century.
American Historian Nell Irvin Painter, in her New York Times Op-Ed: “What is Whiteness” wrote, “The problem here is the inadequacy of white identity. Everyone loves to talk about Blackness, a fascinating thing. But bring up whiteness and fewer people want to talk about it.” Painter continued, “Whiteness is a toggle switch between ‘bland nothingness’ and ‘racist hatred.’” As progressives call for greater observation and scrutiny of whiteness in the U.S., some cohorts of white people see it as an attack on themselves — that their white identity has now become something awful instead of a source of pride.
Critical Race Theory and other history curriculums that portray the historical realities of this country — in regard to slavery — are meant to acknowledge the systemic effects that slavery has had on Black Americans. As such, these teachings are crucial in understanding why whiteness holds power and privilege. While it is important to understand whiteness as a fundamental aspect of a white person’s position in society, it is equally important for white people to understand their identity beyond a universal notion of whiteness. A universal notion of whiteness points to an ambiguous, undifferentiated identity marker along racial lines — one that holds power and privilege.
To continue progressive discussions about diversity, equity and inclusion, white people should learn about their own family lineage. Why are you in this country? When did your family come to the U.S.? What drove your family to come here in the first place? Everyone has a story.
The development of whiteness in the U.S. (before it became the United States) was directly correlated with the formation of the industrialized slave trade and the 18th-century Enlightenment. The invention of white racial identity was driven by a need to justify the enslavement of Africans. Consequently, increased efforts at creating distinctions between Black people and white people arose throughout the centuries, and these distinctions became powerful legal boundaries, like the Three-Fifths Compromise and Jim Crow laws. The systemic effects of these distinctions have been deep. Access to education, economic opportunity, voting and legal rights, and resources were (and still are) incredibly unequal due to segregation. The effects of segregation remain — for example, despite being deemed unlawful in 1968 under the Fair Housing Act, the effects of redlining are still being felt today. Denial of or even infringement upon access changes social and financial mobility and therefore perpetuates a cycle of inequality and inequity.
Between the 18th and 20th centuries, immigration drastically shifted the racial and ethnic landscape of the U.S. The development of the white race in the U.S. is often ignored in our study of racial history, as who is considered white has not always been straightforward or the same.
Painter outlines the complex development of whiteness across the world. In the U.S., early notions of whiteness were more divided along ethnic lines. Italians, Irish, Russians, Poles and Jews, just to name a few, were considered ethnic groups, separate from those who were considered white: Anglo-Saxon Protestants and Old Stocks. In the early 20th century, these ethnic groups faced discrimination and xenophobia, even if they had light skin.
These racial dynamics within whiteness have changed over time in response to the U.S.’s political landscape. For example, in the 20th century, with the creation of Columbus Day as a federal holiday, Italian Americans became fully ratified as white Americans.
While some white people do understand their ethnic backgrounds — many white Jewish people, for example, have a strong understanding of their ethnic identity — it’s not enough.
“I think part of what the project of whiteness is [is] about erasing its tracks as it goes,” said Urban history teacher, Charisse Wu. “That’s why many white Americans really have to choose to teach [themselves] about a history of white supremacy or a history of land or exploitation. You have to actually go and seek it out.”
Even beyond learning about white supremacy, there is an assumed belonging that white Americans possess. The concept of an American citizen has, for the longest time, been someone who is white. So those who are white or white-passing are just assumed to be American. As such, white Americans do not need to justify or explain their ethnic origins, nor are they expected to be connected to them.
This reality runs parallel to the reality that non-white communities face because their presentation threatens the normative ideas of American-ness. Consequently, their identities and their sense of belonging in the U.S. is more often called into question — they hear “where are you really from?” more often than their white counterparts. To find that sense of belonging, people of color often turn to their own communities and cultures.
During President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, there was extensive media coverage on his religious affiliation, birthplace, race and ethnic identity, known as the Birther movement. Conspiracy theories that Obama was ineligible to be president because he was not U.S.-born continued throughout and beyond his presidency. Even something as simple as a fist bump shared between Barack and Michelle Obama after he won the Democratic nomination in 2008 was called a “terrorist fist jab” by Fox News anchor Ed Hill.
During the 2012 presidential election, Mitt Romney complained about the tone of the election and the personal attacks that had been lodged against him by Democrats — though, none were against his racial identity. Conversely, during a 2012 rally in Michigan, Romney said, “No one’s ever asked to see my birth certificate; they know that this is the place that we were born and raised.” Joke or not, Romney offered a degree of legitimacy to the Birther conspiracies.
This assumed-belonging that white Americans hold continues to perpetrate the othering of non-white communities. The Trail of Tears is a historical example of this pattern. President Andrew Jackson’s administration forced more than 100,000 Indigenous people to relocate off of land they had been living on for thousands of years. White Americans believed that they deserved this land with zero regard or respect for those who were inhabiting it. While this is a violent and more extreme example, this sense of othering holds true on many different scales.
“It does shock me how many different places on this land white Americans can set up a place and just start living there and get [support]. It’s a little bit shocking to me that they may not see it,” Wu said. “For over tens of thousands of years, like you and all of your descendants were not here, but you act like you’ve always been, or that this was destined or something.”
Rather than being asked to examine their origins, white people hold a degree of privilege in being able to ignore aspects of their own history — their ignorance and place within the U.S. aren’t vilified, ridiculed or questioned.
For all people, regardless of racial background, understanding your origins should be a fundamental part of life’s journey. Even when generations before you didn’t have the time to ponder their actions, your position today gives you the opportunity to investigate and learn.
Understanding the formation of whiteness as a notion of belonging in the U.S. is crucial to understanding how whiteness serves different groups of people on the basis of their race. But beyond that, if white people were to open themselves up to their ancestral history, there can be a greater magnitude of understanding between different identities.
Part of unpacking ancestral history includes identifying the sequence of events that led you to where you are today. When did your family immigrate to the U.S.? Under what circumstances did they immigrate and why did they leave their home country? Although often ignored, white people have a complex history in Europe. The Pilgrims came to the U.S. to escape religious persecution and the land limitations of feudalism in England in the 17th century. Flocks of European immigrants followed throughout the subsequent centuries, escaping feudalism, religious wars, famine, anti-semitism and poverty. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Everyone’s family has a story, regardless of their race.
“​​We’ve all been marginalized in some way,” said Dean of Equity and Inclusion Jason Ernest Feldman. “So the question kind of becomes like, how deep are you willing to dig into your own heritage, your own roots, to understand where and when that happened? How did your family participate? Or how did your roots, or how did your heritage, participate in a system that was trying to marginalize them if they didn’t assimilate?”
“When a lot of ethnic white Americans, in particular, came to be part of this project of the expanding nation state and were segregated to certain kinds of work, regions and living areas, obviously it could often be advantageous to scrub away the ethnic part of their identity,” Wu said. “And I think it’s interesting because I think that there are a lot of people who take pride in it. They understood it as a choice that they needed to make.”
For white people, in particular, finding the identity markers that were erased can lead to an even greater path of discovery. “It could help with some of the ancestral trauma, and then the ancestral healing that has to occur for all of us, not just folks of color,” Ernest Feldman said. “But it would also allow people to stop the system and stop perpetuating this narrative of like, ‘well, if I’m in the center, then I’m safe, and that everyone outside of these margins must be bad.’”
Understanding why generations before you made the choices they made is a lesson in history, but it’s also a lesson in connection. “It actually can help you feel like there’s some comfort in your identity,” said Voices of Incarceration teacher Courtney Rein. “If you’re a white person, I think oftentimes, you’re told that you should interrogate it. Yes, you want to look at the politics that serve you in ways that you don’t necessarily want to be served by this hegemony or this supremacy but you [also] want to know the thing that makes your family line distinct or the thing that connects you to other people.”
This degree of human connection, solidarity and community is something that everyone deserves. It opens you up to the possibility of seeing both your current role in society, but also the events that have led you to this point. Curricula that embrace Critical Race Theory, or even more specific investigations of history — like Urban’s history curriculum — help to achieve this goal.
The current dialogue about whiteness and its role in systemic racism, discrimination and oppression is important, but it can also be limiting. That narrow lens pushes people away from these political conversations. In order to include white people, in particular, in the conversation, it’s important to encourage active discussion around the multiplicity of whiteness and the intersectionalities of identity. This way, more white people are pushed to see themselves for who they are, and therefore, aren’t put into a universal box of whiteness.
This journey of learning about your own history can be complicated and daunting, but approaching it with curiosity is one of the most important steps in understanding your position in the world. Head of School Dan Miller said, “[Understanding your history] is a form of respect for those who made our own life possible as well as a window into both the privilege[s] and challenges we have inherited.” Embracing your curiosity allows you to open yourself up to the possibilities of your family’s past — and more broadly, the world’s past.
“Knowledge is power. The more knowledge you have, the more power you have access to in terms of where you want to go [and] who you want to be,” Identity and Ethnic Studies teacher Chris Williams said. “I think it’s really about wanting to know. People who don’t want to know aren’t going to find out. People who want to know will try, and you’d hope that that would open [them] up.”
Furthermore, being invested in your own generational history is to be a part of a project where you care about a lifespan that is not solely your own. You are the descendant of people’s wishes, hopes, dreams, goals, ideas and sacrifices. You are a part of an ancestral lineage that existed before you, and one that will continue after you. You have the power to change the narrative.