Also by Joe Laughon on HA: “Engaging the World — Debate and the BJU Protest: An Interview with Joe Laughon.”
First I think the sensitive nature of this topic demands me to explain what this piece is not about. It is not intended as a litany of racial incidents I saw or a list of microaggressions allegedly inflicted upon me. It isn’t some blanket condemnation of the society home education creates, painting it as a reborn White Citizens’ Council. Nor is it intended to be a condemnation of identifying as American, being of European background, middle class, Christian or conservative. Lastly, I am not going to pretend like I was oppressed by any means. (Sidenote: For those who are far more learned in this subject, I would like to note that my subject of study has not been critical race theory, postmodernism or even sociology but rather was rather early modern European political theory and the Near East. So, mea culpa, if I use imprecise terminology. By all means let me know.)
That being said, I feel like my experience in home education can possibly provide a helpful perspective. My experience in homeschooling has slowly taught me how race operates in our society. It’s rarely some KKK bogeyman but rather is often unconscious and structural rather than personal, and is usually unthinking. In particular it’s made worse by what theorists call whiteness.
Now what do I mean by “whiteness”? By this I do not mean simply being of a European background but rather a society system in which being labeled as “white” (a constantly changing definition with several criteria such as light skin, European background/features, English speaking, Judeo-Christian and being seen as “respectable” and middle class) is the unconscious presumed default in society and is seen as best, where one is given the benefit of the doubt. The more checkboxes you can list off the more benefit of the doubt you will be given (throw in American born, and male in there and you won the bingo game). Today that has often meant:
1. Not being classed as a criminal.
Pastor Matt Chandler, of the Acts 29 network, made a really helpful insight when he stated that his son, blonde and blue eyed, would never be followed around in a store with the assumption he was up to no good.
2. Historically seen as more accepted in society and those people of color who do conform to what we see as respectable are labeled as “courageous” or peculiar.
3. Thanks to the mistakes and outright misdeeds of history, someone who is white is more likely to be better off, better educated and safer.
This does not discount personal success or personal failure but it does mean that history does play a role into where in society we start. Historically being white has afforded economic privileges such as not being redlined, being considered acceptable for credit, being shown houses that were often denied to people of color. This meant that their children could use equity to build more opportunities such as college education and business loans, which creates more opportunity. There is nothing inherently wrong with this ladder of opportunity itself, but the fact that the rungs have been traditionally denied to people of color.
4. Lastly, and most powerfully with recent news, it means that, being white, you will not be inherently defined as suspicious or a threat.
For instance, even the rate of drug usage, possession and sale is the same across the board among ethnic and racial groups, people of color will find themselves targeted for prosecution more often and, when equally prosecuted given harsher sentences for the same crime o the same severity.
Now how did my experience play into this? Specifically I saw how the way we racially and ethnically construct identities is a game in which whiteness determines the rules and gets to decide what identity you have. For instance my family’s identity is not monolithic. English is my language, I have an Anglo sounding surname and my mother’s family is pretty stock European Midwestern-southern white folks. On the other hand, my father’s family is entirely from Mexican from South Texas and Los Angeles and I usually identified most with the Latino community, especially growing up in a neighborhood dominated by this demographic and going to Catholic school in which I was certainly the whitest there.
In my old neighborhood I was certainly an anomaly perhaps but not totally unheard of as “gueros” (“blondies” or “whiteys”) can be more common in some parts of Latin America. Thus my friends didn’t really question what I called myself (although I do remember parents laughing when I had told my class my father was born in Mexico. I simply assumed, “We’re Mexican, he must be from Mexico.”). However once we moved and I began to homeschool, I noticed a subtle shift in how the identity game was played. If you don’t even fit into one identity, one will be chosen for you. Period. I can’t remember the amount of times I’ve explained to folks, “Yes, my skin is very light. Yes, I am Latino. No, I am not joking.” (This could turn into an Abbot and Costello routine as one father literally refused to believe me.) My particular favorite was during our testing and a mother witnessed me filling in the “Latino/Hispanic” bubble. She quickly pulled me aside and noted that if I was mixed I needed to put mixed. No exceptions.
However, I won’t pretend that being white didn’t bring privileges. Besides those listed above, I didn’t have to act as the spokesman for all things Latin. What was also interesting was, as my hand was stamped, I got to see how history and society is shaped by the default of being white.
In particular I saw that a self-reinforcing narrative is created when being white isn’t just assumed to be the default, but it often is the default in homeschooling (especially when you get to subsume everyone else’s identity into the team). Which means seeing the events of history and issues in society entirely through the eyes of one “side.” Every other narrative is conveniently ignored because it is assumed to not exist.
This occurred most notably in the NCFCA and in the wider homeschool debate scene.
Having to combat civil war revisionism (Did you know that it was just over tariffs and slavery was just totally incidental to the entire war? Yeah, me neither), or even remind some students that slavery was not a “win-win” for everyone involved, became a full time occupation as a competitor and coach. But by being white, no one would think twice about sharing their fairly one sided opinion with you as they unwittingly reinforced whiteness by engaging in a host of presumptions about undocumented immigrants or why democratic governance “can’t work” in Arab society. Around me, there was no self aware look over the should to see if any of “them” might hear but rather the opinions about how Latin immigrants will “balkanize” America and how a “Euro-American majority” is needed for society to work could be shared freely.
The catalyst for this realization came when the BJU protest occurred. To recap, NCFCA chose Bob Jones University, a school associated with racial segregation, discrimination combined with a virulent fundamentalism combined with a healthy dose of violent anti-Catholicism (if you don’t believe that last one ask why Northern Irish loyalist demagogue Ian Paisley has an honorary doctorate). Many, in particular coaches, competitors and families of color objected to associating a multiracial, multiethnic and multiconfessional organization with a tainted institution.
The response was total tone deafness from some. We were asked why we were so bitter about “ancient history”, why we can’t bring ourselves to forgive BJU (I was unaware institutions have souls to absolve) and why it was acceptable to let historically black colleges exist but there were “no colleges for whites.” I finally realized that whiteness meant not only getting to decide the rules of identity, not being afraid of spouting off nonsense about race, but also never having to acknowledge the legacy of racism today and in the past.
This is not to say that I experienced a culture of open bigotry or one filled with racial strife. More often I saw a loving, tranquil multiracial group that genuinely enjoyed each other’s company. However I also saw implicit racial assumptions and privilege reinforce itself through a lack of acknowledgement and understanding in a way that was somewhat unique to the home education scene.
So how do we move forward? I think the obvious way is to rely on what unites us and it’s not our identity as homeschoolers, as Americans or as conservatives, but rather our common faith identity, which clearly rejects such constructs (Acts 10:34-35).
The first way we do this is by listening to each other.
This is some basic advice given from James as we are told to be “quick to hear.” However unfortunately our lack of hearing has created a huge perception gap. Last year the Association of Religious Data had a telling study which demonstrated a wide gap in how different groups in America viewed the interaction between race and society. The first step to overcoming our empathy gap is to overcome our perception gap. That is going to take listening. In particular that is going to take hearing narratives on race and how it effects us from others that don’t include ourselves. Rather than get defensive and jump to meaningless tropes such as “What about black on black crime?” or “What about affirmative action?” maybe we should be quicker to hear and slow to speak.
But we need to take this further.
Pastor Scott Williams, author of Sunday: The Most Segregated Day of the Week, pointed out how the institution homeschoolers are most likely to share in common is also the institution that is most racially segregated. Roughly 90% of American churches are dominated by 90% of one ethnic or racial group. Now part of this trend reflects simple demographics and part of this trend reflects the effects of historic exclusion of people of color for mainline Protestant churches. However it should give us a reason for concern. How can we understand each other and start to break down the toxicity of race in America if part of our lives that is most significant to us is the one that is the most racially segregated? Movements like Church Diversity and Operation: Desegregation are the beginnings of something that could be truly healing.
I’m not saying this will solve everything. Homeschoolers who aren’t Christian or are excluded in other ways, such as gender or sexuality, may not find much solace in this. But it could be a start.
The general principles of listening and engaging in community with The Other hold real promise to ameliorate the problem of racism and white privilege in homeschooling.