In my April 26, 2021 blog , Inhabiting Whiteness – How Whites Keep the Racial Hierarchy in Place, I describe the ways whites strive to keep control, and fail to work as true equals with BIPOC folk.  I believe one of the driving dynamics behind this common pattern of white behavior is confusion about the real nature of equity.  As a result of the long experience of living in segregated communities, many whites feel it is sufficient to merely include some BIPOC people in their lives.  The emphasis is on “some.”  What they do not want is to have an equal number BIPOC people around them, or they do not want the BIPOC people to have as much clout in a decision as the whites, as a group, have.  For instance, having BIPOC people represented on a school board or in a work unit is not the same condition as one where BIPOC people have an equal say in what occurs or does not occur.  In other words, without an equal vote on all matters that impact them, BIPOC are still relegated to a secondary status.  They lack the power of the whites, who still retain the power to impose any decision that fits their needs, or block any decision they feel does not meet their needs..

This long-standing pattern is noted in Critical Race Theory, where it states that the only changes that whites are willing make in the racial status quo, are changes that fit their needs.  I see this pattern continue to play out in my local community and all the communities in my part of the state.

Assimilation is an expectation that is evident in how this nation has dealt with difference.  When the European immigrants arrived here, they were expected to assimilate to the cultural norms of the English, rather than those of the French, Spanish or Greek.  Each of these nations has a culture that defines such things as:

    • When and where speakers should use formal speech or informal speech

    • Which emotions are allowed expression in public and which are not

    • How conflict is to be managed

    • What level of interpersonal intimacy is expected when transacting business

    • Whether eye contact is expected or valued

    • How important punctuality is

    • Whether an important agreement needs to be written down, or whether an oral commitment has the full force of a binding agreement

    • What level of physical touching is expected between two people

    • What constitutes proper speech in a business setting (e.g., speaking directly versus indirectly, including emotion or excluding emotion, repeating ones’ point or stating it only once, etc.)

    • Which religion to profess

    • Whether or not to confer authority on elders, on young adults or on those with physical disabilities.

Public schools were the tool for socializing the children of these immigrants to accept the English norms.  Those norms were imposed on the factories and the first corporations by the elites who owned them.  They became the work norms that still prevail in business and professional settings. People (all white) who failed to adhere to these norms were either treated with less attention or they were removed from those settings.  Many immigrants with Slavic, Italian or Jewish names, changed their names to Anglo sounding names to avoid being singled out.  It was not only the WASPs (White Anglo Saxon Protestant) who imposed the assimilation.  This drive toward uniformity was then adopted within the immigrant communities themselves.  The historian David Roediger describes how Irish American nuns in Catholic schools would ridicule Catholic children with Italian or Slavic names, intentionally mispronouncing their names in class.  He includes a quote from one these children recounting how they chose to drop out of school and go to the factories because, at least in the factories they were not ridiculed.[1]

Discrimination against Christians who were not mainline Protestant, and against Jews survived up until WWII.  It was only after WWII that Jews and Italians reached the full status of being white.  Roediger also notes that the massive creation of the suburbs was also a tool of assimilation.  The government went to the Catholic bishops and got their agreement to build new churches in the suburbs that served all Catholic ethnic groups, instead of the city parishes that were centered on one ethnic group (Poles, Irish, Italian, Lithuanian, etc.).

While the paradigm of the “melting pot” was widespread, it failed to acknowledge several things.  For one, it only included those who looked white.  As I looked at the models featured in the New York Times Magazine throughout the 1990s, I consistently saw models of color whose facial features were closer to Europeans than Africans.  African American women who worked in corporations almost unanimously straightened their hair.  Up until at least 2015, black men in the corporate world would wear their hair cut quite close to the skull, with little or no curl visible.  Finally, the so-called school integration never went beyond assimilation.  The black teachers and administrators were fired. Even today 82% of the public-school teachers are white.

We live in a society still marked by massive segregation in housing and public schools.  One of the side effects of this structure of assimilation is that whites, as a group, do not have the experience of seeing, or being in, settings where there is true equity across race.  Lacking this background, they default to what they know when they do interact across race: they seek to create situations which feel comfortable and familiar, and these are situations where whites retain the power to impose their will.  Over that last 30 years I have been living in a town with many highly-educated white academics.  I continue to see the pattern where the whites who are elected to school board hold on tightly to the power to protect white concerns and ignore the concerns of other constituent groups (this in a town where 45% of the high school students are BIPOC).

It is only natural that people resist what they find uncomfortable or unfamiliar.  We have only to see the difference between baby boomers and Gen Y people when it comes to digital technology.  Those who grew up with it, adapt quickly to the newest innovations.  Most baby boomers, on the other hand, struggle to adapt and keep somewhat current.

Whites will continue trying to impose assimilation until enough whites have experience being in settings where BIPOC folks have power equal to the whites.  This is why it is so important for what parents to expose their children to racial settings where BIPOC people predominate in terms of power. As more white children have the experience of being treated fairly in those settings, they will learn to feel comfortable when BIPOC people have power equal to or even greater than whites have.  Until then, though, I think we can expect to see the investment in continuing assimilation continue among whites.  Moreover, many will not even realize what they are doing.  For them, “normal” is what they know and they will seek to perpetuate what they know. In doing so, they will prevent BIPOC people from having the same level of power as the whites do.

[1] David Roediger, Working Toward Whiteness: How America’s Immigrants Became White., 2005