In the Nov. 27, 2008 edition of Diverse, Dr. Betty Jeanne Taylor recounts in the “Lastword” a friendly dialogue with a Black student worker in the library at her institution. Their discussion concerned the book, White Guys, that Taylor was checking out. The student inquired if everything was not already about White guys.
Dr. Taylor used this story to introduce the idea that White students at predominantly White institutions do not question their racial identity or the privileges associated with being White in our society. When asked how about their feelings on being White, students responded with terms of “normal” and “American”. She offers that White students need to learn about their own race.
Later in the article Taylor comments that implications of affirmative action policies could be a factor in making White students more aware of their racial identity as this relates to personal perceptions of entitlements. Where do White students obtain this sense of entitlement? I would posit from family, friends, socialization, society and U.S. history.
The citing that White students become more conscious of their racial identity from affirmative action policies outlines what is obvious to many. Racial identity and race consciousness begins at different times for Black and White youngsters. This fact of life is expressed so well by Tim Wise in his work White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son. “Black people understand race long before White people do. They know how it shapes their lives … before they finish elementary school in most cases. And for every ounce of wisdom contained in the mind of a Black child barely 10 years old … there is a corresponding void in the mind of a similar White.
In the chapter “The Development of White Identity” from the book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, Dr. Beverly Tatum recalls the response of a White participant at a workshop she was conducting when asked what her ethnic background was. The reply was “I am just normal.” Tatum related that for this participant Whiteness was the “unexamined norm.” This unexamined norm is so common place in our society it is possible for White individuals to reach adulthood without having to give significant consideration to their racial identity.
A Black person’s awareness of their racial identity and the accompanying implications provides many things. One is the knowledge that the playing field of life in our society is not level. This provides some fore knowledge regarding possible negative consequences for driving while Black, the inequalities of the criminal justice system as they relate to race, the inequalities of health care resulting in Whites live longer than Blacks in America, etc.
Racial identity brings a source of connectivity to Black people. This is why all of the Black kids are sitting together in the cafeteria. There is an unwritten linkage that Blacks have as a result of common ancestry of slavery, discrimination, and the lack of being members of the privileged group. Here racial identity provides inner strength.
Finally a Black person’s racial identity provides the basis for thanksgiving, celebration and hope at monumental accomplishments in the continuing struggle for equality exemplified by: the Brown v. Board of Education decision, Civil Rights Act of 1964, the appointment of Thurgood Marshall as the first Black justice to the Supreme Court, the selection of Colin Powell as the first Black chairman of the joint chiefs of staff and secretary of state, and the election of Barack Obama as the first Black president.
The broader issue is really not one of racial identity; it is one of entitlement, which is a constitutional issue. We, as Americans, are all entitled to those rights, protections, equalities and privileges provided for in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. The problem is: it is one thing to be entitled to something; it is another to receive it. Entitlement should not be a Black/White issue in our country, however, (like race) it has been since the founding of the United States.
The subject of entitlement in this country will continue to be controversial and complicated until our society removes all barriers to the equal treatment of all persons without regard to their racial, sexual, ethnic, religious and cultural orientation. It is here that colleges and universities can act on our responsibility to educate students not only in their respective disciplines, but also in areas such critical thinking, diversity, civics, social responsibility and constitutional entitlements.
Dr. Wayne A. Jones is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at Virginia State University.
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