I am reading The Souls of Black Folk, which was published in 1903 by W.E.B. du Bois. I am learning a lot, and I am also remembering how he came across for me when I was a student learning about him when I was in fifth grade. I will share that with you now, though it is something that I won’t imagine being popular. I share in hopes that others will see the inner logic of a white child’s notion of race in middle class white suburbia in the 90’s.
In short, W.E.B. du Bois came across as radical and unapproachable – and he was undeniably himself and not to be tamed. Tamed. That is an offensive term in this context and I use it with care and share this mental experience to show how I had been socialized as a white person by the time I was 11 years old.
There was a sense that he couldn’t be managed or controlled and that he was himself and therefore dangerous for it. I wanted to ignore him – and yet I could not, no matter how hard I tried in my 11 year old mind.
“At least all black people aren’t like that,” I told myself as a student in Ms. Baldwin’s fifth grade class.
In retrospect, I think that I was threatened by his need not to be defined by mainstream society. In the same school year we learned the concept of the melting pot, – that America is a melting pot. And so perhaps it was this coming together of the melting pot ideology and W.E.B. du Bois didn’t fit into it. He didn’t want to fit into it. Having studied race since then, I think that by mainstream society I meant white culture. And perhaps the white supremacist aspects of it that I did not even know I had learned. And that my family had not consciously taught me.
When I looked at Booker T. Washington I was relieved. I mattered again.
This may be upsetting to read, but it also true. That was how I experienced race as a fifth grader in “colorblind” America. And it’s why I am committed to being an anti-racist practitioner and trainer.