When the White Cousins Come To Town:
On Race & Gender, Privilege & Fragility
By Theodore Richards
Not long ago, my nephews, aged 8 and 10, came to visit us. In part they came to visit me, but mostly they came to see their cousins, my daughters, aged 9, 4 and 2.
My nephews are white boys growing up in a suburb; my daughters are black girls growing up on the south side of Chicago.
[Note to the reader: “White” and “black” are social constructs without any biological validity. If it’s confusing that first cousins could be “white” and “black” in spite of their shared ancestry, that’s because of the arbitrary nature of “race”. In America, whiteness has been associated with power and purity. The “One Drop Rule” in America means that one only needs some African heritage to be considered “black”.]
I mostly watched the five of them – watched them play together, walk down city streets together, go to restaurants together. I had expected to see differences, of course, between my daughters and my brother’s sons. But what I noticed surprised me. At first, I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but there was something unmistakably different about the way my nephews moved in the world. I noticed, for example:
My nephews didn’t seem uncomfortable or confused at all by their new surroundings; in fact, they seemed not to even notice.
They never hesitated to walk where they want. They never paused to ask permission. They made demands – not rudely, but demands nonetheless – in restaurants. They expected to be accommodated.
They walked into crosswalks without hesitation; they expected the cars to stop.
I had expected them to be amazed and surprised at how different things were. I expected them to have questions. It was not so much that they were indifferent to being out of place; it was that they lacked the ability to recognize that they were out of place in the first place.
The differences in the way that white and black children are raised have been widely noted. Often these differences are attributed to culture and to parenting styles. But what I noticed was deeper than that, and at the same time less complicated: Their mother more or less does the same things we do. She tells them no when they do something wrong and explains why. If anything, our daughters live a more intellectual, sophisticated, cosmopolitan life than their cousins, who are being raised by a single mother (their father, my brother, died four years ago). My nephews grow up in a suburb that, one could argue, is culturally impoverished – nearly 100% white and without much in terms of intellectual or cultural enrichment. In other words, this wasn’t about privilege in the ways we normally think of it – access to enrichment, child-centered schooling and parenting styles. My daughters, really, attending private school and living a rich life in so many ways, are the privileged ones…. But still.
The difference is as simple as this: As white males, my nephews are trained to believe that the world is there for them. This isn’t about parenting styles; it’s about American culture.
A part of me wishes that my daughters could move through the world with such freedom – the freedom that I enjoyed as a child and took for granted. I never had to worry as much as they will about rape, about racism, about violence.
On the other hand, I also feel sorrow for my nephews. They’ve been forced into a fantasy – a fantasy of whiteness. James Baldwin says:
Negroes know far more about white Americans than that; it can almost be said, in fact, that they know about white Americans what parents – or, anyway, mothers – know about their children, and that they very often regard white Americans that way. And perhaps this attitude, held in spite of what they know and have endured, helps to explain why Negroes, on the whole, and until lately, have allowed themselves to feel so little hatred. The tendency has really been, insofar as this was possible, to dismiss white people as the slightly mad victims of their own brainwashing.
The fantasy of whiteness infantilizes white people. Because it is a fantasy, to participate in it requires a magical view of the world in which cars stop for you every time you enter the street, in which there is no place in which you are not welcome. As a result, white people are ill-equipped to handle the radical changes taking place in the world today.
The fantasy of whiteness is the root of white fragility. To question the fantasy is to question not merely privilege, but the very structure of the world.
So my daughter’s gender and race are also a privilege, for they open their eyes.
But the children, even mine, don’t pay much attention to this. They are family and also friends. This friendship offers possibilities for opening each other’s eyes – as well as hearts and minds. Indeed, it opens mine.
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