31 Daily Questions to Help Understand and Dismantle White Privilege in 2021
This past summer, millions of Americans labeled White took a step towards understanding Whiteness and its implications, namely ongoing racism and White privilege. Dealing with these issues remains a sensitive topic that often creates defensiveness and frustration. For example, the first thing that typically needs noted is that this is not about denigrating people with European ancestry, or "White" people. It is, however, about engaging on the issue of Whiteness, or the cultural, economic and even religious assumptions that got wrapped around the racial category that have led to where we're at today. When the right questions are asked and an open heart and mind are brought to the exercise, grappling with Whiteness and choosing what do to with it in your own life can be a liberating and life-giving experience.
Recently, my book Giving Up Whiteness: One Man’s Journey was published. It documents my own personal experience with gaining a far deeper understanding of the origins of race, racism, and specifically, Whiteness and its impact on my own life and our broader culture. To kick off 2021, below are a 31 daily prompts you might consider asking yourself in January to begin your own journey. I hope they are helpful, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on any of them.
Q1: If you are a person considered White, how often have you thought about your racial designation? Have you ever been curious about its origin? If you are a person of color, how often have you thought about your racial designation? Have you ever been curious about its origin? Why do you think there might be a difference in how often each group may have answered these questions?
Q2: How much of your definition of racism involves individual prejudiced feelings vs. patterns of institutional, structural and political behavior that may be discriminatory against non-dominant groups over time? What in your life has helped shape that definition?
Q3: Many White folks point to a lack of hostility in their own hearts against people of color as evidence of a lack of racism, and many even point to ways they have tried to help underprivileged groups. How might attempting to “help” someone from a position of dominance and power feel to the one being “helped”? Has anyone ever tried to help you and it felt somewhat demeaning to you? Why or why not? What is different about helping someone individually vs. helping to dismantle a system that is keeping people from equality?
Q4: What experiences growing up helped shape your identity? Think about any family, community, religious, or other influences. Which were healthy and beneficial, and which were unhealthy and detrimental in terms of your life's opportunities and relationships with others? Which were beyond the control of you or your parents?
Q5: How does the fact that two people with the same credentials, education, or skills and abilities may not receive equal opportunities for securing a job based on their racial identity or gender affect your sense of fairness? What about two people in the same job who get paid differently?
Q6: Does the fact that over $13 trillion in economic value in the form of forced labor was stolen from enslaved African Americans surprise you? How much have you considered the economic value lost by African Americans throughout their history in the United States? How do you think this lost economic benefit has affected African American families today in relation to economic health and what that enables in health, education, and other aspects of life? What role did this labor play in establishing the country’s economic strength over time for the broader culture while it left out African Americans?
Q7: Many Americans believe that since the end of the Civil War, African Americans have been on equal legal ground (at least in the North) and therefore any inequality they are experiencing must be their own fault. However, legal discrimination continued for generations across the country and even a continued form of slavery (via deeply discriminatory law enforcement and a system of prison labor) continued in the South until the mid-20th century. How do these facts influence your understanding of a level playing field for all races in the U.S.?
Q8: Few modern people fully understand the level of “White affirmative action” that occurred through the country’s history in the form of free land grants, free or low-cost loan programs for new homes, and college scholarships. These programs were broadly unavailable to African Americans until the late 1960s or even later. What affect do you believe these White-only programs have had on the idea of equal opportunity and relative economic power?
Q9: “History is who we are and why we are the way we are,” historian David McCullough has noted. In other words, the issue isn’t one of guilt and blame over the past; it’s one of equity and justice today. How does this influence how you think about how the United States should approach issues of inequity today?
Q10: How do you react to the modern scientific understanding that race isn’t “real” from a biological perspective? For example, someone categorized as White may have darker skin than someone categorized Black. Two people from different racial categories may have closer DNA than two people from the same racial category. In what ways is race more cultural than biological? If race is primarily a social construct, or cultural in nature, what are your thoughts on who instigated beliefs about race and their motivations for propagating those beliefs?
Q11: If you believe that White, Western, or European-derived culture is superior to other cultures, is that racism? Or do you believe that only tying notions of superiority to skin color is racism? How are the two issues related? How does not fully understanding the history and culture of other people groups influence notions of superiority?
Q12: What does the fact that there were dozens of racial categories in the past and their relative superiority – depending on a point in time of history – tell us about the nature of racial categorization and who gets to decide which is “superior”?
Q13: Most students in the U.S. have never been taught about advanced ancient societies in Africa, Asia, or Central and South America. How does the fact that most of the racial and cultural history we learn in the United States is taught through a European or White lens affect most peoples’ assumptions about cultural value and superiority?
Q14: Our country’s immigration laws have been wildly inconsistent throughout history and often reflected theories of racial superiority. These laws have affected groups as diverse as the Irish, Italians, Eastern Europeans, Asians, and Latinx and Hispanic communities. How are today’s immigration politics influenced by similar racial theories and preferences? As you understand the United States and its mission statement articulated in its founding documents, what role do you think race plays in immigration policy? Is this consistent with your understanding of the United States’ mission?
Q15: The U.S. celebrates the Founding Fathers and their contribution to our country, and indeed the ideas that helped birth the country were quite revolutionary at the time. However, as we’ve seen, they have also been quite inconsistent, hypocritical, and often deadly to those not considered White. How should we teach about and celebrate other key figures in U.S. history who have helped make the principles in the founding documents “real” for everyone? If you had to add four more faces to a new Mount Rushmore (one not created on Native American land without their permission, as the current monument is), who would you add?
Q16: South Africa held a courageous “Truth and Reconciliation” process immediately after the end of their racist apartheid segregated government in which activities of racist violence and discrimination were documented, confessed, and forgiven. Most recognize that the U.S. has not purposely or broadly gone through such an exercise. How do you think this has affected the state of our current racial environment? Would undergoing a formal process of truth-telling and reconciliation help or hurt? Why?
Q17: How do you think our issues of inequality and misunderstanding between races is affecting our country’s overall economic productivity? What about our overall equal pursuit across all people groups of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”?
Q18: If you are considered a White person, have you ever experienced being a minority in an environment where the vast majority of people were not your designated race? How did it make you feel? What experiences made you more comfortable or less comfortable? If you are a person of color, how does experiencing life in an environment where the majority of faces are considered White make you feel? What experiences make you more comfortable or less comfortable? How can this thought exercise help you become more sensitive and in tune with helping others feel like they belong?
Q19: Scientific tests have shown that we all exhibit subconscious bias in various forms, but we can, in fact, retrain our brains. Regardless of the environment we grew up in, what moral responsibility do we each hold to reduce the effects of subconscious bias in our lives? Why do you feel this way? Do you believe those who serve in important public service roles such as law enforcement, teachers or doctors should go through subconscious bias assessment and training before being placed in their jobs? Why or why not?
Q20: When you think of characteristics of White identity, what is top of mind? How do you define what makes up a White person? How does this compare to how you would describe what defines a Black person, or person of another race? Do you think of your identity more in terms of a broad racial category, such as White, Black, or Asian, or in terms of a more specific ethnicity such as Chinese American, Irish American, Mexican American, or Italian American? Why do you think this is? Have you taken a DNA test, and if so, did that change how you perceived your identity?
Q21: What elements of your personal identity do you feel have been maligned or denigrated in a period of your life? How did that make you feel, and how did it influence whether you grew stronger or weaker associations with that part of your identity? How do you think this has affected various groups within the U.S.? How can this motivate you to elevate and celebrate the identity of others?
Q22: What do you think is the difference between taking pride in your identity, including race and ethnicity, and feeling superior to others? Where is that line between healthy identity and unhealthy identity that might influence us to look down on others? How do our cultural surroundings influence us in this?
Q23: Think about the process you or your loved ones made to determine where you live. Did you have many choices about where to live, or were you limited economically? If you could live anywhere you wanted, where would you live? Why would you choose that community? Does the opportunity to meet diverse people factor into your equation? Does the impact on those already living in a community cross your mind? If so, at what level?
Q24: What did your faith background teach you about race and relative value of people? Were you taught anything about it explicitly or implicitly? How has this affected your thoughts on race today? Have you visited or attended as a member of a house of worship where you were the racial or ethnic minority? How did you feel? What signals from the pastor, worship leaders, greeters, etc. did you receive, and how did you interpret them?
Q25: What has been your experience with law enforcement? What about your family’s? How much have you evaluated these experiences in light of your race or ethnicity compared to what others may face? How do you see economics playing a role in how law enforcement is managed in the United States? If you are considered a White person, what emotional, political, or spiritual obstacles keep you from getting involved to help resolve the racial disparities we clearly observe in law enforcement data?
Q26: Think of your closest circle of friends. How many of them are from different racial or ethnic communities? If you have one or more in your circle, how has this influenced your understanding of racial issues? How has your exposure – or lack of exposure – to people beyond your racial/ethnic background affected who is in your friendship network? What purposeful decisions could you make to increase your exposure to, and potential friendship with, more people beyond your racial/ethnic background? What good might come from it? Is it worth the emotional investment for you? Why or why not?
Q27: What familial or cultural forces – spoken or unspoken – were you aware of that set boundaries on who you could or couldn’t date? What did you understand would be the repercussions if you crossed such a line for a romantic relationship? How do you think relationship boundaries that have been shaped by your family and surrounding culture have helped reinforce the perceived levels of worth between human beings of different cultural categories?
Q28: Consider the economic opportunities you have experienced in your life. What mix of personal initiative, decision-making, assistance from others, and cultural circumstances do you think have led to those opportunities? Research has indicated that up to 70% of jobs are not publicly posted and that anywhere from half to upwards of 80% of jobs are filled through networking (CNBC, February 2020). Considering the extremely low rate of cross-racial friendships, how does this affect equal access to job opportunities? If you are in a position to hire employees, how could expanding your network lead to a broader, more diverse pool of qualified candidates?
Q29: In the book Giving Up Whiteness, the author concludes that “If I held a worldview unfettered by Whiteness, racial assumptions and made-up norms would not be primary determinants of how I made choices or spent time across the spectrum of pursuits that make up life. ‘White’ people would no longer be ‘my people.’ Belonging would have to be determined on other factors beyond race.” What do you think of this conclusion? Do you share it? Why or why not?
Q30: The historian Yuval Noah Harari has described “societal pretendings”, which is the human ability to create abstract ideas and treat them as “real.” Government, money, cultural practices and other abstract human constructions that help – or sometimes hurt - how humans function are examples. How is race a societal pretending? What elements of creating the made-up categories of race have led to racism? Is there a better approach to societal pretending as it relates to people groups and ancestries that could be developed to solve this problem?
Q31: “Whiteness” can be thought of as a system of assumptions, beliefs, values and institutions that are designed to elevate those designated White and keep them in a superior position compared to those not categorized White. How is continuing to participate in and perpetuate this system a moral issue? What responsibility do you have, based on your moral beliefs, to reject it and dismantle it? How would freedom from Whiteness identity empower those with European ancestry to empathize and partner with those with other ancestries in a way that unifies efforts towards solving the problems racism has created? What other elements of your identity might you elevate if you had that opportunity?
"Jeff James is doing something in writing Giving Up Whiteness that I’ve longed to see since I began studying race and culture from a psychological perspective and helping organizations become more culturally competent. I’ve long been troubled by so many initiatives labeled as 'increasing diversity' that only focus on “otherness” of minorities but does not invite those labeled as White to explore what this identity means to them and what meaning it holds in our country and all of our institutions.
"I’m going to add this book to my toolbox, making it required reading for individuals and organizations who are genuinely invested in understanding and dismantling racism and the insidious notion of White Supremacy. This book is going to help change the conversation about race!"
Nicole Cutts, Cutts Consulting, success coach and diversity trainer