You Can Be an Astronaut, but You Can't Be Black
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” It’s a question I always imagined every kindergarten student hearing.
“I want to be a doctor!” declares Sally.
“I want to be a teacher!” exclaims Johnny.
"I want to be an astronaut!” shouts Bobbie.
The possibilities are thought to be endless for middle-class white students, particularly boys.
“That’s great! You can do it. You can be anything you want to be!,” our teachers and parents replied. In the United States, you can do anything you want to do if you just put your mind to it.
It’s almost embarrassing to admit that I never really stopped to consider what those conversations might have been like in other households. In families where parents had not experienced the sense that this was anything resembling a land of opportunity, where their most salient experiences with carving out some degree of financial safety and success more often had to do with what sorts of demeaning labor richer people were willing to offer them money for than fulfilling their potential.
How do parents and teachers who’ve suffered incredible trauma at the hands of oppressive systems guide their young people who begin to sense that it may not be as simple as asking the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
In my family and in my schools, it was always about encouraging whatever idea I had at the moment. Although I don’t remember ever seriously thinking I would consider a career path apart from teaching, I had a profound sense that I would hear affirming comments from all of my supporting adults if those ideas ever arose.
Our American ethos is based on individual determinism. You do you. Whatever you want to do, that’s what you should do. Now, it is probably true that middle and high-income white children growing up in the United States are probably exposed to the reality that this encouragement doesn’t exist for every student all over the world. The way we’ve taught history in public schools for sometime has often emphasized American exceptionalism. We do seem to have an awareness that this is not quite what it’s like for children in all parts of the world. But rarer is the white child who understands that this unconditional support of a child’s career aspirations is not available to a great many children in the US.
One of the elements of white consciousness that may be most crippling when it comes to inter-racial dialogue is an almost total lack of opportunity to see outside of ourselves, to see outside of ways we’ve been brought up, to suppose that what we are and the way we think are mostly natural functions of the human condition rather than constructs that are built in us as we marinate in the comfortable surroundings of white, patriarchal culture.
As a result, I think we white folks often approach the world with an expectation not only that we have a right to be whatever we want, but also an assumption that everyone else thinks that way too. One place we see that play out in school is when white educators attempt to encourage students from diverse backgrounds to do well in school as if all of those students were in school primarily for themselves. A great many students from all backgrounds see their purpose in school primarily as fulfilling a responsibility to bring honor and/or strength to their family rather than to their individual name.
Because it is difficult in a culture that worships white identity for white folks to see outside of our habits of thought, we often engage with people from different backgrounds in ways that are confusing and often harmful due to our blindness of other ways of thinking and knowing. And I’m afraid that our overwhelming sense of ability, that we can do anything, also translates into a false belief in our capacity to know, understand, and be like other people.
We very often hear white folks who want to be allies to people of color and other marginalized identities whitesplaining a situation. I imagine that a white person explaining the plight of a person whose identity they’ve never experienced is among the more obnoxious of white behaviors. It seems also rooted in a white overemphasis on intellect and intellectualizing human issues that simply cannot be gotten at through white analysis.
In this way, I believe we find that many of us not only wrongfully assume that everyone has the freedom to ignore external factors in the name of pursuing a future that their individual ego guides them toward, but we also come to believe that our ability to become anything extends beyond the realm of career.
For us white folks, we sometimes imagine that being black, Asian, Hispanic, or Pacific Islander is just another sort of identity we’re free to pursue. We intellectualize what it means to exist in those identities and ignore and are ignorant of the lived experience of that identity in our world. Some of us literally claim to be black (Rachel Dolezal), while others misappropriate culture or dominate conversations about race with our analysis.
Undergirding this form of white consciousness, I believe, is a subconscious desire to distance oneself from whiteness. A sense exists that there is something harmful with whiteness and, rather than reckon with what that is or how we participate in it, we’d sooner remove ourselves from it. Rather than naming our light-skinned privilege, many of us would sooner to choose to identify as French or Irish. We come to a conscious or unconscious sense that we, as white people, are not okay. And I believe that underneath this sense of not okayness is tremendous white shame.
We should distinguish between guilt and shame. Guilt is about a negative feeling we have for something we’ve done, and it can often be healthy when we’ve done harmful things. Shame, on the other hand, is never healthy. It is a sense that there is something inherently wrong or unlovable about us as people. White shame, the sense that there is something inherently wrong or evil about white people, is a terribly harmful orientation for a white person to take on. I believe it very often serves as the fuel for many harmful white behaviors, such as cultural appropriation and saviorism.
It may seem somewhat counter-intuitive, but for white folks who are working from this lens, I think we very often have to begin our work by acknowledging the ways white supremacy has worked to disembowel our own humanity. We too have been oppressed. We too have been victims of white supremacy. While our cultural practices and behaviors have, at times, been horrendous, they are born out of harmful conditioning that infests our minds rather than an inherent evil within the basic nature of our being. When we can come to hold ourselves with the sort of love and care we’re mostly taught should be offered to others, when we can see our own wounds, then we can finally open our eyes to the largeness and depth of the wounds our culture inflicts on others and work to undo those practices.
In this process, we learn that while it may be within our grasp to become an astronaut, we can never be or understand what it’s like to be another race in the United States. We can and should try to imagine the experience, but to attempt to take on another’s culture is a fundamentally different prospect, one that is terribly damaging. The primary challenge in the work of undoing racism and prejudice is not understanding other people’s cultures. It’s understanding our own. When we begin to make real progress in that, we will be an in real position to help.