Breaking White Solidarity: Baldwin on Critical Race Theory

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

It was just two years ago when educators were being hailed as heroes for stepping up to the challenge of distance learning during the initial peak of the COVID-19 Pandemic. This effort was in addition to the already Herculean effort given by teachers every school year, and I’m not just saying that because my wife is a teacher. Educators give so much because they care about preparing our children for entering society and understanding our common history. But what if that common history, developed largely by white, male politicians and academics, is missing critical perspectives from non-white, non-male voices? And what happens when we try to include those perspectives within society?

A Word on This Series
As we come to terms with the white backlash towards efforts to implement Critical Race Theory within our educational system, it becomes more imperative than ever that white people learn to break white solidarity. White solidarity is defined by Robin DiAngelo, author of White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, as “the tacit agreement that we [white people] will protect white privilege and not hold each other accountable for our racism.” (Beacon Press, 125) It can be as simple as letting racist jokes slide and as extreme as calling the police when feeling threatened by a non-white person. In the case of the reaction to Critical Race Theory, it is a wholehearted denial of the racist parts of our shared history. Every time a white person fails to call out privileged or racist behavior, it reinforces white solidarity on some level.

It is imperative that white people confront white supremacism in their lives at all levels. This article is the fourth in a series about breaking white solidarity. It is intended for white audiences, to investigate the ways in which we tolerate individual and systemic racism in our lives, and to investigate methods by which we can work effectively to remove individual and systemic racism to the best of our ability. Hopefully, there will also be an adjacent non-white audience here as well, seeing white people trying to engage in hard discussions with other white people about the racists and supremacists among us.

Purpose, Process, and Paradox
On October 16th, 1963 James Baldwin gave a talk to black educators in New York City entitled “The Negro Child — His Self-Image”, looking specifically at the role of education in the development of black children, particularly those living in Harlem and in other ghettos of the time. The speech was revised for print in The Saturday Review and published on December 21st, 1963. It is an amazing speech, one which cuts right to the heart of the problems with our educational system then and now, and one which I’ll be doing my very best not to quote in its entirety.

Baldwin opens his speech by looking at the purpose of education and the process for providing it, offering up definitions for each. The purpose of education is to civilize our children to enter society, including teaching necessary skills and about their history. The process for providing that education is a social framework created to ensure children fulfill the aims or goals of society. When we live in a just society, or one that we perceive to be just, then these definitions make perfect sense. (Baldwin, “A Talk to Teachers”, 678)

In an unjust society, however, education becomes a paradox. Children are given the necessary skills they need to understand their history. Unfortunately, the history being taught in public schools during Baldwin’s time, in both black and white communities, was largely developed by white, male politicians and academics. The histories laid down and approved for classrooms were largely whitewashed, glossing over topics like genocide, slavery, and segregation as too difficult for children to understand, and reinforced the social aims of a society dominated by white, male privilege. Children who receive the necessary skills to interpret their history begin to challenge it, because their history and education doesn’t match up to the lived experience of non-white, non-male individuals in the past or the present. (Baldwin, “A Talk to Teachers”, 679)

If our purpose for education is to civilize a child to enter a society, but our process is aimed at upholding a systematically racist society, then to avoid the paradox of education, we should transform the purpose of education to “create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions”. (Baldwin, “A Talk to Teachers”, 679) Remember, Baldwin is giving this speech prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 being signed into law. The United States was still within the age of segregation for black communities, with racist laws throughout the country, not just in Southern States. It makes no sense for any black person to “civilize themselves” to enter that sort of uncivil society.

Baldwin closes with a list of suggestions for black educators. First and foremost, to teach black children to understand the whitewashed history and education they were being given was criminally negligent, filled with fantasies about freedom and equality with few, if any, non-white voices. Baldwin then suggests that one can extend this whitewashing to the media, the press, and popular culture, also largely created by white males, reinforcing the education taught in schools. Finally, Baldwin closes on emphasizing that black people should never make peace with this society and that it is up to black people to challenge the myths underlying this society. (Baldwin, “A Talk to Teachers”, 685–686) Indeed, as he states towards the beginning of the speech, this is the only way that societies can change for the better. (Baldwin, “A Talk to Teachers”, 679)

Baldwin’s Schizophrenia: Resolving Two Educations
The main cause for this paradox of education in an unjust society is expressed, in Baldwin’s words, as a type of social schizophrenia which black children and black adults must live with to function within both the black and white worlds. The black child who was lucky enough to receive an education was taught a formal, mythological, whitewashed history of the United States, aimed at reinforcing the segregated society in which they lived. Outside of school, however, the black child also received an informal, reality-based, experiential education, often based on the histories and experiences of non-white, non-male voices. (Baldwin, “A Talk to Teachers”, 679)

Baldwin describes this formalized, mythological education in the following way:

“On the one hand he is born in the shadow of the stars and stripes and he is assured it represents a nation which has never lost a war. He pledges allegiance to the flag which guarantees ‘liberty and justice for all.’ He is part of a country in which anyone can become President, and so forth. But on the other hand he is also assured by his country and his countrymen that he has never contributed anything to civilization — that his past is nothing more than a record of humiliations gladly endured. He is assured by the republic that he, his father, his mother, and his ancestors were happy, shiftless, watermelon-eating d*****s who loved Mr. Charlie and Miss Ann, that the value he has as a black man is proven by one thing only — his devotion to white people. If you think I am exaggerating, examine the myths which proliferate in this country about Negroes.” (Baldwin, “A Talk to Teachers”, 679)

Baldwin does not believe this was an accident, but that it was done to justify how slaves treated then and how black people should be treated now. (Baldwin, “A Talk to Teachers”, 681–682).

Baldwin continues:

“What passes for identity in America is a series of myths about one’s heroic ancestors. It’s astounding to me, for example, that so many people really appear to believe that the country was founded by a band of heroes who wanted to be free. That happens not to be true. What happened was that some people left Europe because they couldn’t stay there any longer and had to go someplace else to make it. That’s all. They were hungry, they were poor, they were convicts. Those who were making it in England, for example, did not get on the Mayflower. That’s how the country was settled. Not by Gary Cooper. Yet we have a whole race of people, a whole republic, who believe the myths to the point where even today they select political representatives, as far as I can tell, by how closely they resemble Gary Cooper.” (Baldwin, “A Talk to Teachers”, 683–684)

This formal, mythological, whitewashed history stands in sharp contrast to the informal, reality-based, black experience of the world and understanding of history. It is almost impossible for the black child to learn anything about their history because their voices are not represented. Black children know early on that what they’re being taught in school and what they’re experiencing in the world are radically different experiences. Black children living in poor socio-economic conditions understand they are exposed to disproportionate levels of danger and harassment. Baldwin relates how, when receiving his first glimpses of the white world, that “you know — you know instinctively — that none of this is for you.” The culmination of this education is to know that there are few opportunities, little to be done about it, and that one must learn to contain their rage at this injustice. (Baldwin, “A Talk to Teachers”, 679–681)

This formal education has become the basis for our current conceptions of United States history and society, often nakedly patriotic, and wholly in line with the kind of perspective pushed by far-right, white nationalists in the media. Our formal educations have evolved quite a bit since 1963, but I remember in the late 1980s and early 1990s being taught this same mythological history throughout my entire primary and secondary education, where we skipped over genocide (or recast it as accidental due to disease) and slavery (other than the economic side of it) and the white abandonment and terrorism during the age of segregation (ignoring Reconstruction).

What’s the result of this discrepancy for white children? First and foremost, white children are taught history in a way that keeps them ignorant, often assuaged that the formalized history we’ve received was objectively developed by white, male academics and white, male politicians with the help of white-dominated school boards intent on preventing integration at all costs. It wasn’t until I began reading slave narratives, the voices of black leaders, and the literature of black authors, including James Baldwin, that I began to understand this social schizophrenia. It also meant I made a lot of faux pas when leaving my largely white community and entering more diverse communities. But perhaps most importantly of all, I failed to understand the rage of black people having to maintain these two realities for my psychological benefit.

“All this means that there are in this country tremendous reservoirs of bitterness which have never been able to find an outlet, but may find an outlet soon. It means that well-meaning white liberals place themselves in great danger when they try to deal with Negroes as though they were missionaries. It means, in brief, that a great price is demanded to liberate all those silent people so that they can breathe for the first time and tell you what they think of you. And a price is demanded to liberate all those white children — some of them near forty — who have never grown up, and who never will grow up, because they have no sense of their identity.” (Baldwin, “A Talk to Teachers”, 683)

This acceptance of the formalized, mythological, whitewashed education is another form of cognitive dissonance among white people, because it generally stands in direct contradiction to the history and experience of non-white people. Two other forms of cognitive dissonance, as they relate to white solidarity and forgiveness, are available in the previous article in this series.

Resolving Two Educations
What should we do to resolve these two educations? Three possible solutions come to mind: embrace the formalized education, reject the formalized education, or expand the formalized education to accurately reflect the history and experience of non-white people. We see all three approaches to resolving this contradiction at play in today’s world.

The first approach is to embrace the formalized education, despite all evidence to the contrary. We see this approach championed largely by right-wing politicians and voters, which requires not only rejecting non-white perspectives of our history and education, but also convincing themselves that the formalized education is objectively true and unbiased. We also see this in the white backlash towards any attempts to challenge this formalized education, which Baldwin predicted at the very outset of his speech.

“You must understand that in the attempt to correct so many generations of bad faith and cruelty, when it is operating not only in the classroom but in society, you will meet the most fantastic, the most brutal, and the most determined resistance. There is no point in pretending that this won’t happen.” (Baldwin, “A Talk to Teachers”, 678)

The white backlash we’re seeing, particularly among right-wing people, isn’t really about the challenges themselves. Baldwin states eloquently that “what is upsetting the country is a sense of its own identity”. Ultimately, accepting our history has been whitewashed, primarily for our own benefit, means we must also accept these horrors as part of our history and accept the very real concept of white privilege. In addition to coming to terms with our privilege, we must also challenge the cognitive dissonance that perpetuates our ignorance of our history, because “if you are compelled to lie about one aspect of anybody’s history, you must lie about it all.” (Baldwin, “A Talk to Teachers”, 683)

“What I’m trying to suggest here is that in the doing of all this for 100 years or more, it is the American white man who has long since lost his grip on reality. In some peculiar way, having created this myth about Negroes, and the myth about his own history, he created myths about the world… The political level in this country now, on the part of people who should know better, is abysmal.” (Baldwin, “A Talk to Teachers”, 684)

The great irony of the white backlash to accepting these changes to our histories and our education system is that they understand the power of education to shape the minds of children to accept society as it has been constructed. However, they’ve never really stopped to consider that maybe the histories and education they received as children, largely shaped by white males, has perhaps shaped the minds of white people into believing our formalized, mythological histories to be objectively true.

Embracing this formalized, mythological education perpetuates our ignorance and our cognitive dissonance regarding society. It is often championed in the efforts of right-wing politicians to push structurally racist agendas and in the justifications for the violence of right-wing terrorists engaged in online trolling and gun violence. While this would resolve the discrepancy, it would come at the price of willful ignorance. Denialism of the cruelty of white people towards the indigenous, black slaves, and all people of color, is a major form of white solidarity, because we are not holding our ancestors accountable for their racism.

Another solution is to reject the formalized education. Baldwin spends time considering the rationale of the “street boy”, someone who has rejected the formalized education to pursue ways and means outside of the acceptable bounds of society. If the real world doesn’t line up with the education we receive, then why should we accept that education? Why should they participate in an unjust society? (Baldwin, “A Talk to Teachers”, 681) This isn’t a justification for criminal behavior, obviously, but rather one potential consequence of rejecting the formalized education: throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Understanding this rationale for criminal behavior doesn’t mean accepting it, but one should be able appreciate it within a society structured against your very existence.

Sensible people looking at this problem understand that we should expand and reform our formalized education, to remove its mythological elements and to insert the missing histories and perspectives into our collective history. Once society is accurately and inclusively reflected in education, then we can resolve the paradox of education within an unjust society, and we can allow education to go back to its original, primary purpose. This is the purpose of Critical Race Theory in all aspects of our society, including education.

Critical Race Theory as Liberation
Critical Race Theory is thrown around like a curse word nowadays. Most people are ignorant to the purpose of Critical Race Theory, drawing their own fantastic conclusions based simply on what they think it means, usually influenced by people who are maliciously intent on preventing Critical Race Theory from growing in acceptance. We’ll first talk about what Critical Race Theory is and talk about the benefits in applying two key principles to our history and educational experience.

Critical Race Theory is “a cross-disciplinary intellectual and social movement of civil-rights scholars and activists who seek to examine the intersection of race, society, and law in the United States and to challenge mainstream American liberal approaches to racial justice.” (“Critical Race Theory”) It is an acknowledgement that our current histories are radically deficient because they are missing or have de-emphasized non-white, non-male voices, that our country was founded upon the systemic racism of slavery fueled by the individual racism of European prejudice, and that we have never fully dealt with the effects of first genocide, then slavery, then segregation, and presently, incarceration.

Critical Race Theory uses several important concepts to understand this discrepancy between our taught experience and our lived experience. The first is intersectionality, or “the way in which different forms of inequality and identity are affected by interconnections of race, class, gender, and disability.” Intersectionality means we cannot consider a person outside of their race, class, gender, or ability, nor should we focus on just one aspect of their identity when considering the whole person. Second is that race is a social construct, not a genetic one as proposed by white supremacists. Only when we acknowledge that race is a social construct, not a genetic construct, can we begin to dismantle and remove the racism from our society. For more information about the perverse genetic construct of white supremacists, check out the second article in this series.

Intersectionality teaches us that we must consider race, class, gender, and ability within our history and educational experience. Everyone should be accurately reflected in our histories, the good and the bad, including how racism, classism, sexism, and ablism have affected our history and education. The black child, and every non-white, non-male child, should see their story within our history. As Baldwin states, “American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it, so is the world larger, more daring, more beautiful and more terrible, but principally larger.” (Baldwin, “A Talk to Teachers”, 685–686) The white backlash to this inclusion can easily be understood as a massive act of white solidarity, one aimed at protecting the privilege of a whitewashed history.

Embracing race as a social construct also gives us the means, as white people, to understand that our privilege isn’t something related to the color of our skin, but the structures of the society around us based upon that skin color. We are oppressing our own ability to authentically exist by knowing nothing or intentionally not learning about our own history. Critical Race Theory isn’t about reconciling the conflicting experiences of white and non-white people, but also to help us understand ourselves better as white people in our society.

“If, for example, one managed to change the curriculum in all the schools so that Negroes learned more about themselves and their real contributions to this culture, you would be liberating not only Negroes, you’d be liberating white people who know nothing about their own history.” (Baldwin, “A Talk to Teachers”, 683)

We don’t know what we don’t know, but it is the peculiar arrogance of white people, with regards to our history, to deny the contradicting experience of non-white people without even considering our preconceived notions may be incorrect. If we as white people insist on maintaining this formalized, mythological education, then we are willfully preserving our own ignorance and the ignorance of our children. We are robbing white children of understanding the full history of white people for the sake of protecting their psyches, which only leads to bad social outcomes when we begin interacting as white people with non-white people and cultures in the United States. Expanding our perspectives allows us to challenge our own whiteness, and to begin repairing the damage caused by our willful ignorance.

Conclusion
James Baldwin gave a talk to black teachers about the two educations that black children receive: the formalized, mythological, whitewashed history and education of public institutions, and the informal, reality-based, black experience of that history and education. While his speech was given during the age of segregation, these contradictory educations persist in today’s battle over the inclusion of Critical Race Theory into our modern histories and education. Baldwin understood that the normative purpose of education, to prepare a black child for entering society, was wholly inappropriate for a segregated society.

While this situation materially affects people of color, it also hurts white people to maintain this formalized, mythological, whitewashed version of history. White people remain willfully ignorant with regards to our country’s common history, and must operate with cognitive dissonance while interacting with non-white people, often to protect the psychological burden of accepting that genocide, slavery, segregation, and today’s wave of incarceration was done and is being done for our privilege and benefit. Critical Race Theory being applied to our history and our educational system, in Baldwin’s words, liberates us from our ignorance and frees us from our cognitive dissonance, so that we can change this society built primarily for the benefit of white people. To maintain this formalized, mythological, whitewashed version of history is to participate in a massive act of white solidarity, because we refuse to hold our previous generations accountable for their racism.

Breaking white solidarity is a necessary step for white people to confront the ideologies of white supremacy in our lives. Confronting these ideologies enables us to begin understanding what drives them, to begin reforming and expanding the whitewashed history and educational system, and to repair the damage to non-white individuals caused by this dissonance within society. We cannot continue to champion false views of our history because the price is our own ignorance and ability to interact with non-white people in society. If we are not holding our systems accountable for accurately reflecting the experience of all cultures and demographics within our histories and education, then we are tacitly approving the benefits we continue to receive from this situation. We must break that solidarity in all its forms.

Works Cited
Baldwin, James. James Baldwin : Collected Essays. Library of America, 1998.

“Critical Race Theory” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 29 May 2022. Web. 16 Jun 2022, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Critical_race_theory

Further Reading
White people, in general, should begin to correct this willful ignorance by seeking out the perspectives of non-white individuals in books, articles, magazines, news, and multimedia experiences. Absolutely anything will combat the poor educations many of us received as children and the perpetration of those poor educations by right-wing media today. Below are two sources to consider from the Zinn Education Project. This website also contains other inclusive lessons on history and society for teachers from all time periods and for all grade levels.

James Baldwin’s “A Talk to Teachers”
I would recommend reading anything by James Baldwin for a direct analysis of white culture from the 1960s, without any mincing of words or ideas. You can read the full essay for “A Talk to Teachers” here:

Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States
Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States is particularly eye-opening for those who want proof that our country pushed and profited from genocide, slavery, and segregation, among other evils. Personally formative for my understanding of our shared history. The text is meticulously sourced, largely by primary sources you can look up online to verify, and which you can use as a sort of checklist for the voices currently missing from our standardized history and education.

Here are links to previous entries in this series on Breaking White Solidarity.

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Amateur writer, reader, critic, and philosopher. Follow for fiction, satire, analysis, books, and philosophy with a leftist bent.

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Joseph Dobzynski, Jr.

Amateur writer, reader, critic, and philosopher. Follow for fiction, satire, analysis, books, and philosophy with a leftist bent.