A White, Anti-Racist Educator Looks Back on Her Racial Socialization

My earliest school memory was being cast as the angel for the annual Christmas pageant. I was thrilled to land the role, assuming that it meant I was the best actress in the class and therefore destined to be a famous movie star. But sometime later, I discovered that my acting ability might not have been the only factor in securing that role. Rumor had it that I had been chosen because I was the only blonde in my preschool class. I grew up in Honolulu, Hawaii; my classmates were of Asian and Hawaiian heritage with dark hair, and so naturally, none of them could be the angel—all angels are blonde. At least, that’s what I learned in preschool.

I reflect on this story now as just one of the countless subtle, constant, and unconscious ways that I learned about race, racism, and what it means to be white. For much of my life I didn’t think about these things. I didn’t even think about them after I publicly declared my goal to work against racism. At that time, I consciously believed I was anti-racist, but I now realize that I didn’t understand how the myths that maintain systemic racism had crept into my self-concept, worldview, and teaching practice. As a result, I was unaware of the ways I was unwittingly perpetuating racism at the same time I sincerely believed I was working against it. I offer the following reflections with the hope of encouraging other white educators to take the time to explore how they have been shaped by their racial socialization.

The Myth of a Few Bad Apples

Like most white folks I was taught that “those racist people” are the problem, and if we could just get rid of them, racism would disappear. I now know that it’s not that simple and that racism is a complex, self-perpetuating system of individual and institutional policies and practices that has been justified by a racial ideology of white supremacy that all of us, (yes, even us good people) have internalized. When race scholars use the term “white supremacy” they are not just referring to white nationalists or the Ku Klux Klan. They are referring to a broader society wide ideology and culture that supports systemic racism in the United States.

It can be hard to recognize the profound ways we are all immersed in an ideology of white supremacy. The implicit association of whiteness with superiority is simply baked into a socialization process that begins at birth and lasts throughout our lifetime. It is part of how we learn to be white.

I usually receive a quizzical look when I ask educators to think about the ways they have “learned to be white.” I suggest they think of socialization as a sort of script that we are covertly handed about the roles we play in society. It can be easier to recognize the ways we have received a script about how to “be” our gender. Most of us can easily recall explicit directions about how to dress or what toys to play with in accordance with our gender—as well as specific instructions of how to “sit like a lady” or to “act like a man.” The lessons about what it means to be white are not as obvious but are just as pervasive.

The Myth of White Superiority  

Rooted in the myth that the groups we call “races” are biologically distinct, a primary lesson of socialization is the pervasive ideology that white people are better than people of color. “Better” translates into a number of things: smarter, more capable, more virtuous, more trustworthy, more willing to work hard, and ultimately therefore, more deserving.

In her seminal book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?: And Other Conversations About Race, Beverly Tatum writes about how this ideology is “like smog in the air” and we are constantly breathing in “the assumed superiority of whites and the assumed inferiority of people of color.” Just like smog, we may not see it, but it is having a profound impact on us. Educators committed to creating equity need to take a very close look at the smog we have breathed in.

When I was 8 years old, my family left Hawaii and moved to a former U.S. territory, the Panama Canal Zone. While I lived there, no one ever explicitly told me that it was better to be an American than to be Panamanian, no one ever said that it was better to speak English than to speak Spanish, or that it was better to have white skin than to have brown skin. No one had to. All I had to do was look around and see who had power, who had money, and who was in charge.

My self-concept was shaped by powerful messages of white superiority just from breathing in the world around me, all while being raised by thoughtful, well-meaning parents who consciously believed and openly stated that all people should be valued equally.  

The Myths of Colorblindness and Meritocracy

Part of learning to value all people equally was learning that it’s not polite to talk about race. Like most white children, I was told that “seeing” race is wrong, and that when we do, we are promoting racism. I was raised to be colorblind. While the intention was to teach me that I shouldn’t take race into account in how I treat people, the inaccurate lesson I learned was that race is no longer a factor in how people are treated.  

This lesson was reinforced by a school curriculum that taught me that the civil rights movement had successfully eradicated racism and everyone now had equal access to jobs, schools, and seats on the bus. It is from the dangerous combination of colorblindness and a lack of understanding of the ways that racial discrimination still occurs within every institution in society (in profound and life-altering ways) that the myth of meritocracy was planted deeply into my worldview.

The concept of meritocracy is based on the premise that equitable education and employment opportunities are available to all, and therefore a person’s success is directly related to their ability and willingness to work hard. The ideology of meritocracy is firmly rooted in the historical mythology of the United States as a nation of immigrants and closely connected to one of this nation’s most sacred ideals, the American dream.

I grew up with a ringside seat to the American Dream. I learned that my father, the child of working-class German immigrants, had pulled hard on his bootstraps and moved himself into the professional middle class. Comparing his description of the “cramped and drafty” New York City tenement of his childhood to the comfortable three-bedroom home in our middle-class suburban neighborhood, I marveled at how much his hard work had accomplished in just one generation. Like many other young white middle-class Americans, I learned that if you work hard, you will succeed.

My father had unwavering integrity and an incredible work ethic. And the day I learned about the GI Bill was the day I learned that his hard work and character were not the only factors in his success. After service in World War II, the GI Bill provided him with free college tuition and a living stipend, which led to two college degrees, a fulfilling professional career, and a retirement of economic security. For much of my life I didn’t know that the GI Bill had helped move millions of returning veterans into the middle class and disproportionately benefited white men.

Most of us who are white and middle class can trace our family’s movement into the middle class to the GI Bill or a list of other federal programs—the Homestead Act, the National Housing Act, the Naturalization Act, and many others—which provided opportunities for white Americans to accumulate wealth, not equally available to Americans of color. Until I clearly understood the inequitable ways that federal programs helped white people accumulate and pass down wealth, I attributed white people’s success to naturally superior traits and work ethic. I certainly didn’t acknowledge this belief consciously; it was buried deep. I now wonder how many decisions, assumptions, and assessments I have made based on an ideology I didn’t even know I subscribed to.

Moving Beyond the Myths

No matter how well-intentioned we are, there are important steps to take before we have any chance to be effective, anti-racist educators. One first step is to gain a clear understanding of systemic racism, including the cumulative effects of historical institutional discrimination and the resulting inequitable distributions of wealth and power. Next is the hard work of digging deep to understand the ways that we have internalized the ideologies that keep the system in place.

Yes, it’s scary to admit to ourselves and to others that we might deep down believe that white people are better and that they have earned what they have, while others have not. But until we confront our biases, we can’t fulfill our goal of providing an equitable education for all students. Looking critically at the ways we have learned to be white and what that means for our teaching practice is a step in the right direction. The bottom line is that we have to care more about destroying racism than we do about preserving our self-image as good white people.

Readings & Resources

  • Waking Up White: And Finding Myself in the Story of Race by Debby Irving
  • Witnessing Whiteness: The Need to Talk About Race and How to Do It by Shelly Tochluk
  • White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo
  • Raising Race Questions: Whiteness and Inquiry in Education by Ali Michael  
  • Seeing White, a podcast hosted and produced by John Biewen  

For more from NAIS this week, read the Legal Tip of the Week, Poll Reveals Showing Gratitude Helps Retain Talent.
Sheri Lyn Schmidt

Sheri Lyn Schmidt supports social justice education initiatives and teaches in the humanities department at Parker School in Waimea, Hawaii. She previously was co-facilitator of the Equity and Inclusion Institute at the Nueva School in San Mateo, California, and also served as director of equity and social justice at The Ethel Walker School in Simsbury, Connecticut.