Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Straight Vanilla: White Culture and its Flavor

"My life is straight vanilla," a friend once said to me during a catch-up phone conversation. There wasn't anything to report. No adventure, no excitement. She considered her life boring and has since alluded to a diffuse and pervasive sense of meaninglessness. She didn't see her life as having flavor, culture, or spice. As I listened to her speak, the word "plain" came to mind.

In seeing the words "vanilla" and "plain" as synonymous I continued with a fundamental error  in thinking that I have found common within many in my white community. My explanation requires a bit of storytelling. You see, for many years I conflated "vanilla" and "plain." As a child, I believed vanilla ice cream was plain ice cream. Vanilla meant no flavor, the same as plain. I saw plain yogurt in stores as a curiosity. Who would ever choose plain? I never chose anything plain, and I never chose vanilla either. It was as though my taste buds were not sensitive enough to pick up vanilla's flavor. My error in thinking was never questioned.

Somewhere along the line I began to taste vanilla. I don't recall when it happened. But I remember noticing that I liked Vanilla Bean ice cream and Very Vanilla Yoplait yogurt. I realized that each had a distinctive taste. Vanilla candles spelled pungently, and vanilla body wash woke me up in the morning. As I increasingly recognized the flavor of vanilla, I began pouring an extra 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla in batter when baking.

What I have since realized is that saying "vanilla" is the same as "plain" is like saying that being white has no flavor, that it is plain and has no associated culture via generalizable assumptions, tendencies, or beliefs. For most of my life, I was not sensitive enough to see how being white shaped me, contributed to the way I thought, behaved, interpreted events, and saw others. seeing my white culture as plain masked its effects on my life. My error in thinking was never questioned. In fact, my white culture taught me not to see being white as real or meaningful. My white culture taught me to only see myself as an individual, to relish in my uniqueness.

Knowing that what white culture is, means, and includes is often hotly contested, I can still say that it is partially because of it that being white equaled being "plain" in my mind. If anything, I associated being white with my life having no culture. I thought it was colorless, flavorless, lacked spice, and was boring. The fact that my ancestors had elected (and been coerced to some degree) to take on a white identity and give up our heritage to fit in to the white group is 100% a part of this. Ultimately, my cultural and ancestral history supported my inability to see white culture as a flavor, like vanilla, hard for me to taste.

At this point in my life I see being white as part of my life's flavor. I may not fit into all that some say is associated with white culture. But, that's ok. No one fits 100% into the categorical box that is used to describe any particular culture. Said a different way, no generalized description of any culture fully captures all of those who are influenced by that culture.

White culture is real to me now, just like I now recognize that vanilla is a flavor. White culture is perceptible, even if I would never claim I exemplify all of it. Seeing white culture as "plain" did me, and those around me, a disservice. When I saw white culture as having no flavor, no influence on my life, it led me to believe I was culture-less and it made me unable to perceive how my thoughts and actions were infused with ideas and assumptions I did not realize were affected by my culture.

I love the taste of vanilla, and I appreciate seeing white culture. Being aware of its flavor helps me choose how much of it to keep as part of my life and where certain elements should be shed. Although my life may not be "straight vanilla" or exclusively shaped by white culture, I now recognize how much of my life is infused with it. And, I can now more consciously and responsibly choose how to enact the recipe of my life.

(More is written about my own process around my sense of cultural loss in Chapter 1 of Witnessing Whiteness, just in case you're interested.)

Monday, September 2, 2013

The Daily Show Does White Privilege: Differing Perceptions by Race and NY's Stop and Frisk Policy

Finally! I had been watching, waiting, and hoping that The Daily Show with Jon Stewart would come through and handle race issues, particularly white privilege, in a way I would applaud. It finally happened during the first half of August of this year. With John Oliver having taken over for Jon Stewart for the summer, and race issues practically a daily topic of conversation due to the trial of George Zimmerman for the killing of Trayvon Martin, it was about time. It coincided with a couple of other recent events as well, a judge handing down a decision about New York's stop and frisk policy as well as a report indicating that (surprise, surprise) black and white people have different perceptions about how far we've come in eliminating racism from U.S. society.

I am posting this only days after the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr's "I Have a Dream" speech. I do this knowing that there is truth on both sides of the progress debate. There has been much that has changed AND there is so much more change needed.

Let us start by talking about why it is that so many white people are able to remain unaware of the significant discrimination (both overt and subtle, both individually perpetuated and systemically entrenched) that people of color continue to face on a daily basis.

As I did with the Colbert Report when I saw helpful video clips there, I created a workshop that can be used with groups (using humor as a way to enter the discussion). I haven't had the opportunity to use this workshop yet myself, so seasoned facilitators should feel free to modify as you see fit.

Teachers and facilitators can download the workshop description, agenda, facilitator's notes, and handouts on the Witnessing Whiteness book web page: The files are on the "Xtras" page.

For those of you who just need to laugh in the face of the challenge we face, here are links to the two clips I used as a foundation for the workshop.

Have fun!

Video clip #1 - The R Word - Jessica Williams and Samantha Bee convene two panels to discuss the state of race relations in the United States. Tuesday, August 6, 2013 (4:15 minutes)

Video clip #2 - Frisky Business - Mayor Bloomberg thinks New York's stop and frisk program is being unfairly stopped and scrutinized even though it's done nothing wrong, Tuesday, August 13, 2013 (7:08 minutes)

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Unmasking Whiteness 2013 - Space Available!

Please help spread the word to those who might be interested! Space is still available!

AWARE-LA is getting ready to offer our 5th annual workshop series on building white anti-racist practice and community in an intensive 4-day institute designed specifically for white people.

The institute will run from Thursday, June 27th through Sunday, June 30th, 2013 and will take place on the downtown Los Angeles, Mount St. Mary's College, Doheny campus.

The cost for attendance is only $225 in order to ensure that it's accessible to grass roots organizers, students, and those without institutional funding. A limited number of partial scholarships are available (see our info sheet for details).

This series invites white people to deepen their self-awareness and build community with other white people taking up work for racial justice. Through personal reflection, small and large group dialogue, and experiential activities, this institute invites the exploration of subjects such as:

  • The meaning of whiteness
  • White privilege and multiple identities
  • How to resolve guilt and shame
  • Institutional racism
  • Development of an anti-racist practice and identity
Please visit the main page to download our information sheet and flyer.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

New Professional Development Resources for Educators

I've just created a new set of dialogue scenes that provide school communities with tools to guide discussion among administration, faculty, and staff about common, destructive interaction patterns and attitudes arising from 1) white privilege, 2) internalized superiority, and 3) unresolved emotions.

This set was inspired by requests from many educators (over the last few years) who asked me to create more dialogue scenes like the one that is within the Chapter 2 Workshop of the Witnessing Whiteness Series. (That scene is oriented around a meeting in a non-profit organization).

After two years of interviewing, planning, writing, and revising, these scenes are finally ready for your review and use! (They are in advanced draft phase, so your input and feedback is welcome! They have been reviewed by fellow educators, but they are just beginning to be tested with audiences. So far, so good. They resonate with many. But, I'm sure these will be refined over time.)

Some of the scenes are more specific to public schools, and others target dynamics common in independent/private schools. Check them out and see which ones might be useful for your faculty and/or teacher development courses.

Dialogue scenes to prompt discussion include:
1. Committee Meeting on Creating Inclusive Classrooms
2. Committee Meeting on Campus Inclusivity
3. Grade Level Meeting on Multicultural Curriculum
4. Increasing Parent Engagement
5. Ethnic Representations in Schools
6. Student Evaluation and Assessment
7. Classroom Structure and Discipline

An introduction to the series is also available and offers descriptions of the seven dialogue scenes, a full listing of the destructive patterns treated, and a sample facilitation agenda. Facilitator's notes are also available. All resources are available at no charge on the Xtras page at

I'd love to hear how things go if you decide to use them! As is always true, it's best if those who facilitate the dialogues have a lot of experience both with facilitation and with racism/diversity issues.