Learning To Be White (Thandeka)

Posted on September 14, 2011


This is a list of terms found in Thandeka’s Learning To Be White, as well as books she referenced which I will be following up on as soon as I have completed this book. The following is my ongoing reading notes and resource list since I am reading this book right now…. Any feedback would be great!

In Learning To Be White: Money, Race, and God in America, published in 1999, minister, theologian, and author Thandeka recounts “stories of the formation of a white identity… [stressing] the resulting loss of a sense of difference…[in order] to understand the feelings of loss and dismay entailed in becoming white” (20).

In 1991, Thandeka embarked on a journey to understand what Norman Podhoretz describes as the “white racial induction process” (28), a process in which a new understanding of racism, prejudice, and supremacy cannot adequately describe (2), despite exhaustive research in many fields, particularly the social sciences of America’s pervasive socialization process. After an experience she had in 1991 with a colleague while teaching at a local Massachusetts college, Thandeka discovered that although: “African Americans have learned to use a racial language to describe themselves and others, Euro-Americans also have learned a pervasive racial language. But in their racial lexicon, their own racial group becomes the great unsaid. I wanted my luncheon partner to give voice to her whiteness as the racial unsaid in her life. By consciously referring to this unvoiced color, she would become aware of what it feels like to take on and maintain a racial identity in America. Or so I thought” (3).

Thandeka’s luncheon partner, had wanted to get to know her and asked what it felt like to be Black. She was not offended by this, but simply turned the query around and also asked what it felt like to be European American by asking her to play the Race Game. She understood that her luncheon partner was asking this question because: “she genuinely believed that nothing in her own background or experience could help her understand me. I knew better…Her face was open; her eyes were friendly and engaged…I had been assigned a raace by America’s pervasive socialization process, and so had she. I thus believed that if she drew upon her own experience of being ‘raced’, she might then be able to see waht we had in common. But how could I make her conscious of the racialization process to which her own Euro-American community had subjected her? Searching for an answer to this question, I invented the Race Game and invited her to play for a week” (3).

Thandeka goes on to explain the result of this invitation: “The Race Game, as my luncheon partner very quickly discovered, had only one rule. For the next seven days, she must use the ascriptive term white whenever she mentioned the name of one of her Euro-American cohorts. She must say, for instance, ‘my white husband, Phil’, or ‘my white friend Julie’, or ‘my lovely white child Jackie’…I guaranteed her that if she did this for a week and then met me for lunch, I could answer her question [what it felt like to be Black] using terms she would understand. We never had lunch again. Apparently my suggestion had made her uncomfortable” (3).

Further: “Why was the very prospect of playing the Race Game so daunting? Perplexed, I decided to describe these responses to my Race Game during my next public lecture and then invite the audience to collectively reflect upon them. During the course of this public discussion, one woman challenged all of the other Euro-Americans present to play the Race Game for the rest of the day and then report back to me by mail. Enthusiasm ran high. A month later, I receieved my one and only leter from these enthusiasts- sent by the Euro-American women who had originally proffered the challenge. She could not do it, she wrote apologetically, though she shoped someday to have the courage to do so. Courage? Why courage? What had I asked her to endure? What was she afraid of seeeing? What didn’t she want to feel? To glimpse? To know?” (3, 4)

“To answer these questions, I began a series of workshops with Euro-Americans in various parts of the country. I used church settings and regional and national meetings as venues for my project. Any occasion at which a number of Euro-Americans gathered to hear me speak became an opportunity. I conducted workshops at such national forums as the Common Boundary, an annual conference devoted to spiritual exploration and personal psychological development, and held public conversations on the topic at the first national Summit on Ethics and Meaning sponsored by the Foundation on Ethics and Meaning and Tikkun magazine. I asked Euro-American colleagues to tell me their stories and turned to strangers at dinner parties to learn their racial tales. Of course, since [those I spoke with] weren’t randomly selected, the accounts I shall present [in this book] do not constitute a social-scientific survey, nor is this study a work of social science. I am a theologian interested in the way that issues of racial self-identity merge with religious sentiment and determine social behavior. I thus saw my interviews as a chance to enter into conversations with Euro-Americans who are not self-defined racists so that I could understand why it is so difficult for them to describe themselves and other Euro-Americans in racial terms. They do not hesitate, as I’ve pointed out, to make racial references to others, but they avoid making racial references to themselves and their own community, a gap in racial ascriptions deomonstrated by my luncheon partner, who could easily refer to me as ‘Black’ but could not refer to herself and her companions as ‘white’. So, too, was this gap revealed by the Euro-American woman who confessed her lack of courage to play the Race Game with other Euro-Americans. I wanted to know what feelings lay behind the word white that were too potent to be faced. I began my queries simply. I asked Euro-Americans about their earliest memory of incidents that helped form their white racial identities. I conducted workshops to this end: to listen to Euro-American adults recount early memories of forming a racial identity. As a Unitarian Universalist minster, my venue was often but not always meetings of this liberal religious association with roots deep in Puritan America, New England traditions, Protestant ethic sentitment, and Congregational and Baptist histories. [In chapter one of Learning To Be White], I present a sampling of these personal recollections, whose similarities cut across differences in religious affiliation, class background, and age. These accounts progress from simple to more complex as the persons I talked with reflect more deeply upon the feelings they had to put aside in order to remain in good standing of their own communities. As the reflections become more complex, the individuals’ sense of moral failure and loss of self-respect deepens” (4, 5).

 Reading Notes and Resource List

1) Heinz Kohut, founder of self-psychology- The Search For The Self: Selected Writings of Heintz Kohut (1950-1978), vol. 2 (1978)

2) Leon Wurmser, psychoanalytic theorist- The Mask of Shame- “basic shame is the pain of essential unlovability” (Thandeka 17)

3) Helen Merrell Lynd- On Shame and The Search For Identity, (1958), chpt 2

4) Dana Crowley Jack, therapist and educator- Silencing the Self: Women and Depression– “Many of her clients quite often forced themselves to stop thinking and judging their own thoughts in order to silence their own voices and opinions. They muffled their feelings of anger and resentment and thus, in effect, ‘stifled themselves’ in order to avoid the threat of annihilation, conceal their feelings of unlovability, or hide those feelings and perceptions they believed, if revealed, would be judged ‘wrong’ (Thandeka 9)

white shame, shame vs. guilt- “guilt by contrast with shame, is a feeling that results from a wrongful deed, a  self-condemnation for what one has done. A penalty can be exacted for this wrongful act. Recompense can be made adn restitution paid. Not so with shame. Nothing can be done because shame reults not from something one did wrong, but rather from something wrong with oneself” (Thandeka 12)

shame as “the pain of essential unlovability”-  from Leon Wurmser’s The Mask of Shame– “Shame is the death of an unloved part of the self because it, apparently, is just not good enough to be loved. As Wurmser notes, ‘the basic flaw for which one is ultimately ashamed is this painful wound: ‘I have not been loved because I am at the core unlovable- and I nver shall be loved'” (Thandeka 17)

5) Gordon W. Allport, social psychologist- The Nature of Prejudice, (1954)- His definition of prejudice: “[The] denial of one’s own feelings in order to be loved is affirmed by one’s community and, as something psychologically familiar, tends to become a personal value. These personal values are embedded in the child’s group values. Collectively, these personal and group values become the basis for developing ‘ a way of living with characteristic codes and beliefs, standards, and ‘enemies” to suit the adaptive needs of both the child and its group. When these ways of valueing are overgeneralized, however, they become prejudices against persons and groups who do not fit this valuational scheme of things” (Thandeka 17)

6) Andrew P. Morrison- The Culture of Shame, (1996)- (Thandeka 18)

7) Franz Fannon- Black Skin, White Masks

internal nonwhite zone- (Thandeka 23, *24-27)

8) Alice Miller- Prisoners of Childhood, (1981)

9) Howard Winant, sociologist- In Off White, “Behind Blue Eyes” (1997) 

10) Flannery O’Connor- In The Complete Stories, “The Artificial Nigger” (1972)

11) Raymond Massey and Nancy Denton- American Apartheid: Segregation and the Creation of the Underclass in America (1993)

12) Norman Podhoretz’s essay- “My Negro Problems- and Ours”, published in Commentary (1963)

13) Norman Podhoretz- Making It (1967) and Breaking Ranks (1979)- ethnic white rage (Thandeka 140-141, Notes from Chapter 2, 16) –  white racial induction process (Thandeka 18)

14) Sander L. Gilman- Jewish Self-Hatred (1986) and Freud, Race, and Gender (1993)

The American social contract (Thandeka 29)

15) D.W. Winnicott- In Psychoanalytic Explorations, “Ideas and Definitions”- look at his notion of the false self (Thandeka 43)

16) Robert Jay Lifton- The Broken Connection: On Death adn the Continuity of Life (1979)

* So far, what I’ve summed up as to Thandeka’s thesis is that the desire to make it in a world that depises differences creates inner turmoil, hence in the white socialization process, the white child (starting in childhood) must reject the unlovable parts in order to be accepted by its own community. Shame (the experience often beginning in childhood yet the awareness often not realized until adulthood) results from suppressing parts of the self. Hence, the white child must learn to despise itself in order to fit into a larger (white supremacist) world which despises difference. Until this inner turmoil is resolved, and the white child either rejects its own community or stops suppressing parts of the self which are different/which embrace difference, and learn to love its self (by ignoring and/or rejecting the larger world’s possible rejection of it), the white child and later the white teenager and/or adult will be in inner turmoil and will hate itself. As Robert Jay Lifton notes in his book The Broken Connection: On Death and the Continuity of Life (1979): “thwarted efforts at personal integration and self-definition produce a loss of self-integrity that feels like an inner death. The impulse to stave off such death threats to the self are violent because the self is fighting for its life. Theis relationship of threatened inner death and violent impulse is central to the experiential contiunuum of anger-rage-violence. The intensity of this response depends upon the intensity of the inner threat (Lifton 149) [Thandeka credits] psychoanalytic theorist Michael Flynn for recommending Lifton’s book to [her] for its analysis of this link between the collapse of the self and violent impulses” (Thandeka 142, Notes on Chapter 2, note 26)

….More to come….

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