Tag Archives: self and other

Moving Past the Good White People Narrative

This post is a response to “I Don’t Know What to Do with Good White People” by Bennett and Chapter 3: “The Eye of the Beholder” of Revealing the Invisible by Sherry Marx.  I happened to read this article and this book chapter in the same day and couldn’t believe how many parallels there were between the two!  Both discuss the good white people narrative and the ways White people distance themselves from the construct of racism.

In her article, Bennett describes “good white people” as those who responded to the Darren Wilson non-indictment with empathy or outrage, joined protests, deleted racist Facebook friends, or performed small acts of kindness to Black people.  She emphasizes the way the good white people congratulated themselves for these acts, concerned with “seeming good,” and sometimes expecting to be rewarded for their decency. This description instantly made me feel defensive of my own actions in response to the non-indictment, but as I read through Marx’s discussions with the preservice teachers I was able to better understand what Bennett meant.

Marx writes, “When I asked Elizabeth if she could be racist, she reeled back in horror, gasped, and exclaimed, ‘No. Absolutely not. I think racism is a bad thing… It’s not like I’m a bad person. I know I’m not a bad person. I know I have a good heart” (p. 85). Marx also explains how the young women easily shared stories about the racism of others, which seemed intended to highlight their own contrasting, nonracist qualities. The good white people narrative allows us to focus on our small acts of decency and our good intentions, making our own racism invisible.

Now, I want to make it clear that critiquing the good white people narrative does not mean it’s a bad thing to try to be a good white person (using your white privilege for good). The problem with the narrative is that when we see ourselves as good white people we obscure the ways that we are implicit in racism.

As Bennett puts it, “We all want to believe in progress, in history that marches forward in a neat line, in transcended differences and growing acceptance, in how good the good white people have become. So we expect racism to appear, cartoonishly evil like a Disney villain.” However, if we understand racism “as a system that advantages Whites and disadvantages people of colour,” then we must recognize that “all members of society contribute to this reproduction of inequality simply by going about ‘business as usual’” (Marx, p. 91). This means that racism is not only evil acts done by evil people; rather, it is “an inevitable consequence of living in a racist society (Marx, p. 89).”

The good white people narrative allows us to equate racism with evil and hatred and to think of it as something that others do, rather than recognizing it in our own everyday thoughts and actions.

So how do we move past this problematic good white people narrative? These are just a few ways I have gathered from my readings. Please comment your thoughts and additional suggestions!!

  1. Accept your Whiteness.

We don’t have to feel guilty about being White. Marx writes about negative White identity, which many of her preservice teachers possessed because they associated Whiteness with shame and guilt for all the crimes of oppression Whites have committed against people of colour.  In order to move past this guilt/negative White identity, we must accept our Whiteness and define a view of Self as a racial being that does not depend on the perceived superiority of one racial group over another (Helms quoted by Marx, p. 90).

  1. Acknowledge your own racism.

To move to a positive White identity, we must acknowledge our own racism as an inevitable consequence of living in a racist society. You can’t work to be actively anti-racist unless you acknowledge and address your own racist tendencies.

  1. Stop focusing on your good intentions.

The problematic thing about the good white people narrative is that it excuses white people for racist thoughts/actions because they didn’t mean to do any harm, because it wasn’t their intention to hurt or offend anyone. As Bennett powerfully states, “What good are your good intentions if they kill us?” We need to examine our own actions and how they contribute to both equity and inequity – turning the gaze back to Self – despite the good intentions behind those actions.

To sum it all up:  If we can reject and move past the good white people narrative, we can acknowledge our own implicitness in racism, which is the first step in the direction of antiracist work.

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Carmichael Outreach Reflection

Last week, for my Health Education class, we broke into two groups and toured Carmichael Outreach, a community based organization in Regina that “serves the marginalized of Regina by advocating on their behalf and by providing a range of programming that includes preventative measures and harm reduction.”  They emphasize a non-judgmental environment and a person to person approach, rather than a medical approach.

Carmichael Outreach offers a huge variety of programs, including a coffee room, community garden, food security and nutrition, a housing coordinator, an immunization program, a needle exchange program, used clothing and small household item depot, and more.  I had no idea that all of these programs were available in Regina, let alone all these programs being offered from one organization.

As I walked into the doors of Carmichael, soup cans in hand, I immediately felt very out of place.  First impression:  we are all white and they are all brown.  Clear divisions.  Us and them.  I tried to listen to the woman guiding the tour, telling us about the amazing, necessary work they do at Carmichael, but I couldn’t stop thinking about how privileged I am.

Usually privilege is obscure and very easy to ignore.  I can get through most days believing I have earned the things I have and that my life is the way it is because of my own hard work and the hard work of my parents.  That day at Carmichael, several of my positions of privilege (being white, middle class, able-bodied, not having a mental illness), were blatantly apparent.  It was obvious that my life is the way it is because of this privilege, and that made me feel uncomfortable and awkward and guilty.

I know that I don’t have to feel guilty about my privilege because I can’t help it, but I couldn’t stop feeling guilty throughout the tour.  I kept thinking about the combined value of just the clothing that my classmates and I were wearing and how much money that could bring to an organization like this.

Back to the tour.  I was really surprised at the number of containers of food they give out every day at Carmichael – up to 250 of the tall yogurt containers (which they are always in need of)!  The need for this food security program has gone up in the last five years, she told us.  I was also impressed with the used clothing and small household item depot, where anyone in need can come take them, free of charge.  This is something I could easily help out with by donating old clothes and winter attire that I don’t use anymore.  That’s one small way I could help make a difference, but I still feel guilty.

I am aware of a few other supports in Regina to assist families, including the Food Bank and Regina Women’s Transition House.  Other than those, I’m pretty ignorant about the supports available and I definitely need to do some research to change that.

This experience made me think about how I will support students who live in poverty situations in my future classroom.  First of all, I need to become more educated on the supports available for families in Regina so that I am able to refer families to these supports or make suggestions that might help them.  In my classroom, I want to have breakfast and snacks available for all my students, so as not to single anyone out but to make sure they have all eaten.  I also want to try to do classroom fundraisers for field trips or other experiences so that students aren’t left out if they cannot afford the trip.  I want to teach for equity – not equality – which means doing my best to level the playing field so everyone can learn to their full potential.

Also, I will need to examine the stereotypes I bring and be careful not to deficit theorize about students’ families.  For example, if parents don’t come to a parent-teacher interview, I hope to be invested in the relationship enough to know that it’s not that they don’t care about their child’s schooling, but that they might have other priorities that are taking over.  I want to be open, caring, and easy to talk to, not judgmental.  I also want to have high expectations for all my students and make sure I label them as at-promise rather than at-risk, because I know the expectations (high or low) I place on students are likely to be fulfilled.

Finally, I think it’s really important to talk about poverty in the classroom.  If I make it a taboo topic, I am placing shame on my students who live out that reality.  Without singling anyone out, we can talk and learn about it together.  I want to help my students break down stereotypes they might have about people who live in poverty and find ways our class can make a difference.  One resource I have been exposed to for doing this is the Ladybug Foundation.

So I have some ideas for what I need to do in my future classroom to support students who live in poverty.  But after my experience at Carmichael Outreach, I’m wondering:  What do I do with my feelings of guilt and awkwardness?  How do I close the gap between self and other that I felt?  How can I use my privilege to make a difference?

Any suggestions would be much appreciated!