Mar 18, 2021 | Racism

It was a casual post play date chat with fellow parents from my children’s school. Somehow the conversation turned towards the representation of teachers of color in our school.

I am mindful of “containing” myself in social situations when it comes to topics about diversity and inclusion. Once you start to awaken to the complexities of the issues we still have to overcome, you start to see how the impacts of racial and gender conditioning play out in most everyday situations. My husband often draws an analogy to “taking the blue pill” from the famous scene in the Matrix.

Once you know, you can’t unknow.

However, I am also mindful that individual journeys are different.

We were doing the usual dance, skirting cautiously around the topic, teasing out where we respectively stood on the issue. And then the parent, whether he realized it or not, went directly to the heart of a complex consequence of racial inequality.

“When our kids don’t see enough people of color, they start to move away from their own — towards predominately white friends. They move away from their identities”

He was not only talking to the importance of representation; he was pointing to a deeper underlying issue — the inevitable consequence of the association of social and economic access with whiteness.

The idea of whiteness

It is now widely accepted that race is a social and power construct and has no biological basis, contrary to theories put forward by early colonists to justify the atrocities of oppressive colonist practices. However over time, the power and pervasiveness of the white ideology started to spread and take hold, and standards set by white people began to form the basis for definitions of civilization, beauty and progress.

The concept of “whiteness” has become so much more than skin color. It has become so synonymous with social, economic and structural privileges that it comes as no surprise that whiteness can now exist without white people having to perpetuate it. People of color who try to access the privileges associated with whiteness, by attempting to mirror “whiteness’, have inadvertently contributed to feeding a situation where whiteness can exist, and continue to thrive, without white people.

One constantly sees examples of this play out. Skin lightening and colorism, hair straightening, code switching, in-group assimilation, association of social status with having white friends, association of intelligence with English and accent, etc. are all behaviors which feed into the idea that whiteness is the standard we need to adhere to.

If whiteness can exist without white people, we have an unimaginably difficult task ahead of us. Our activism never has and should never be directed at white people. It should instead be directed at the ideology of whiteness, its implied benefits and the systems, structures and stereotypes which it continues to thrive on.

Early Childhood and Assimilation

Associations start in early childhood. As children go through the natural process of making sense of their world and of their own identities, they begin to notice how privilege and power plays out and of the relationships between privileges and skin color.

Social and economics privileges and power are disproportionately held by white people, so in a natural attempt to access these, children make the association that in order to obtain these privileges they need to appear “whiter” or assimilate into white groups.

When my daughter was in kindergarten, she came home one day and asked me to make her hair “flat and thin”. She was struggling to form friendships and as is age appropriate, she was observing the social privileges enjoyed by the “in-group”, who happened to be all white girls. In her developing mind she was already making the association of social acceptance with whiteness. The process of re-framing this narrative with my child is an ongoing one, offering her alternative role models and creating the spaces where she herself can start to explore and critically examine the standards set in the world around her.

Consequences of white assimilation

White mirroring and assimilation with whiteness starts in early childhood and if not interrupted, this association can play out into adulthood, resulting in a myriad of conscious and unconscious toxic behaviors.

  • Inability to recognize racial discrimination and bias and the tendency to internalize the trauma of exclusion and discrimination or to rationalize it away.
  • Finding it difficult to interrupt bias due to fear of losing social status within the in-groups (conscious or implicit fear)
  • Confusion, disappointment and a feeling of loss and betrayal if social circles change when one attempts to challenge the status quo or call out bias, often resulting in a re-assimilation back into the status quo.
  • Creation of a culture of silence, typically explained internally as a “survival mechanism” and externally as “choosing my battles”
  • Tendency to exclude other people of color into their white dominated in-groups or spaces of power, in fear of their social standing or power base being diluted by the perceived threat of other entrants.
  • A weakened sense of self identity and dependency on dominant groups for approval, acceptance and inclusion, often feeling an implicit pressure to comply with social and economic standards
  • Inability to identify with one’s own ethnic or racial groups and commonly migrating away from their cultural groups accompanied by feeling a general sense of discomfort or embarrassment at stereotyped associations with their racial or ethnic groups.

The continuation of these racially induced toxic behaviors into adulthood can be linked to a range of mental health issues, substance abuse and increased risk of suicide.

Interrupting the narrative

As long as the standards for beauty and success are set by and associated with whiteness, people of color will continue to migrate towards whiteness.


Having people of color represented in roles and spaces traditionally associated with whiteness is a crucial step in interrupting the race-power dynamic. More so is the emergence of the non-white role model in business, politics, media, art, sport, education and entrepreneurship. Representative role models matter in every place where decisions are made and where minds are influenced.

Kamala Harris, Amanda Gorman, Zozi Tunzi, Priyanka Chopra, Satya Nadella, Sundar Pichai are just some of the many examples of the black and brown role models our children can now look to. They are changing the accepted standards of beauty and success and the association of whiteness with social and economic access.

Question your ingrained beliefs

We can only achieve this when we ourselves start the hard work of interrogating and interrupting your limiting thoughts and behaviors. What ingrained thoughts do we have about social and economic access, what example are we setting in our social, business and family environments, what are we doing everyday to lift and rise others like us?

Our fight is not with white people but with the idea of whiteness. The more we feed into this idea, we are inadvertently giving life to an ideology which can exist without white people having to perpetuate it. It creates a convenient way for dominant white groups to justify harmful practices by offering examples of the people of color who “choose” to assimilate into and support their set standards, giving credence to the basis for enforcing white ideals in the first place — “see, our ways are simply better.”