Whiteness as Social Capital

Recently I was listening to an episode of the podcast About Race, a podcast where 3 hosts discuss current race issues in an open way. One of the hosts mentioned that black assimilation to white culture as a solution to race disparity is problematic.  They looked at a specific study that showed that black people who moved to white middle-class neighborhoods before they were twelve had a “compound interest of awesomeness” where they were more likely to succeed academically and financially.

When citing the reason for this success, the researchers used code words to talk about white culture. This language was identified as code words by the podcast hosts and is an example of symbolic racism. Conclusions that better “schools, local amenities, exposure to middle class norms, better education” all are code words for assimilation to white culture. The link between values and racial attitudes are implicitly present in these conclusions because “middle-class norms” really just means white norms. This is problematic because it suggests that white-norms are the norms that black people have to assimilate to if they want to succeed in the United States. The subtext to this statement is that if black people aren’t living the way white people are then they are living the wrong way and will never succeed. The conclusion of this study shows how the system is set up poorly. How do we change the system so that minorities do not need to assimilate to white culture in order to succeed in society? Looking at assimilation from a strictly psychological standpoint, it is not bad. Assimilation is how we make sense of the world and it helps us navigate social situations. When extended into this conversation I think it is an issue because the necessity to assimilate to white culture suggests that white norms are equated with the right norms and that other norms, black norms in this context, are wrong norms.

Whiteness as social capital was another theme that arose in the podcast when talking about why the results to this study were problematic. The podcast hosts thought one of the reason that these experiments were “successful” was because the black people who moved to the predominately white areas learned that whiteness is social capital that has a very high value in American society. The younger children learned this through exposure, the more successful they were. The language of “social capital” that the hosts put to this really hit the nail of the head. Growing up I witnessed the emphasis on the importance of whiteness as social capital without even being aware of it. I grew up in a small, predominately white town north of Boston. We had a program in our public schools, along with many others in the area, where black students from Boston were bussed to our schools so that they could get a better education than the public schools in Boston. The parents of the children who participate in this program are predominately people who were a part of this program when they were children. My mom worked as the volunteer coordinator for our towns program and got to know many different families in the program. Based on these experiences I have learned that one of the main reasons families participate in this program is so that their children can learn how to interact with white people and get used to existing in a predominately white environment so that they can succeed later in life. Students were learning the value of whiteness as social capital. Programs like this one and the research experiment they talked about in the podcast put a band-aid on the real problem. However, that is not to discount the very real impact programs like these have on families and individuals.

I see why assimilation to white norms is bad for society and perpetuates symbolic racism. However, I am struggling to see ways to eliminate this. We need to redefine how to be successful separate from white norms. Black students in Boston should be able to have access to a quality education without being bussed to white suburbs; and a quality education should not be synonymous with a white education. Everything here seems to lead back to policy. The levels of frustration today have caused people to underestimate the role policy plays in defining success as assimilation to whiteness. Taking a step back and examining why it is like this will reveal the structures and institutions that construct this issue. How do we remove Band-aids like this, that are present in many aspects of society, and replace them with long term solutions?

1 thought on “Whiteness as Social Capital

  1. I think a lot of what you said reminds me of the show “Blackish.” The father Dre finds it his mission to create a sense of black culture for his family who he living as an upper-middle class family in a predominantly white community. He also finds it his fault for creating the white norm for his family and wants them to realize after being constantly caught up in situations, that this is not how society should be.

What do you think? Join the conversation!