On Sept. 17, 2018, Whitefish Bay School District co-sponsored an event with PACE3 titled “Talking About Race: Understanding Our Own Racial and Cultural Identity” presented by Erin Winkler, an associate professor of Africology and Urban Studies at UWM. Winkler’s thesis focuses on how parents in a post-racial society tend to think they should avoid talking to young children about race. However, Winkler argues, it is detrimental to not talk about race with them because they “form racial impressions from environmental cues around them” and - far from being color-blind - form biases based on patterns in their observations. Winkler points out this tendency is not wrong or immoral, but that parents have a responsibility to talk to their children about where these patterns come from and explain systemic inequality that privilege Whites and disfavor Peoples of Color. Significantly, Winkler points out, “Get rid of the guilt. It’s not your fault that you weren’t taught in schools about how systemic structures of racism have created many inequalities. But it is your responsibility now to learn about it, to practice talking to adults about it, and to do something about it. Then you can learn to teach children about it in age-appropriate ways.”
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to attend the event, but Winkler’s research resonates with me academically and personally. I live in Whitefish Bay – or White Folks Bay, as it commonly goes: a bubble of suburban class and race privilege. I cringe a bit every time I say it. And I often immediately add, regardless of whom I am talking to, “We used to live in Riverwest (Milwaukee is one of the most segregated cities in the U.S. but Riverwest is a small diverse community on the Eastside) for 8 years, but after terrifying instances of crime including arson, shooting, and a sword-wielding neighbor, we needed to move to a safer neighborhood”. So here my kids are – growing up in White Folks Bay, and, yes, they are safe but also learning that the world is white, or more like colorless, and comfortable. My husband and I do often talk to our children about race and class, but still…. there is an element of guilt. So learning about tools for how to talk to children about race, and knowing the event was sold out and that many others in the Whitefish Bay community have a desire to learn this too gives me comfort.
A researcher whose work helps me frame Winkler’s ideas and my own thoughts is Krista Ratcliffe who in her book, Rhetorical Listening sets up the premise that many White people, feeling race is impolite or uncomfortable to discuss, inadvertently become blind to their unearned White privilege and power, and buy into the myth about colorblindness whereby they forget and reinforce the pernicious cycle of systemic racism.
Ratcliffe urges White people to become conscious of current racial dynamics, and similar to Winkler, to foster “a logic of accountability [that] interrupt[s] our excuses of not being personally accountable at present for existing control situations that originated in the past... This logic invites us to consider how all of us are, at present, culturally implicated in effects of the past… and, thus, accountable for what we do about our situations now, even if we are not responsible for the origins” (32). For a White woman, teacher, doctoral student, and parent, the focus is moved from my guilt to my responsibility: what I can do to disrupt the perpetuation of discourses, polices, and practices that appear color-blind but are steeped in systemic structures of oppression?
Digging a bit deeper into Ratcliffe’s theory of rhetorical listening and its exigency, one might say children in their observations of patterns unconsciously overhear their environment, but that they can be helped to conscious rhetorical listening – an open-minded way of tuning in to one’s environment –through conversations. A central concept in Ratcliffe’s theory, which evokes Winkler’s argument, is “non-identification” between people who identify differently culturally and racially. With non-identification, rhetorical listeners can position themselves on “the margin between” [self and Other] and reflect on the existence of gaps while being aware of “the partiality of our visions” (73) that causes biases and stereotypes (which in my children’s case is the outcome of living in a bubble), but also to see the “agency to engage cross-cultural rhetorical exchanges across both commonalities and differences” (73). Such exchanges can be ethical and conscious choices to “interrupt unethical discourses [which include White supremacist as well as color-blind discourses] and unethical cultural structures and practices” (75) which include the racist systemic structure Winkler is also talking about. In fact, I think although Winkler talks about young children and Ratcliffe outlines pedagogical implications for rhetorical listening in college students, they enact similar strategies aiming at a situated literacy of accountability. This is the kind of literacy I most wish to nurture in my Whitefolks Bay children. -GPF