Failing White Kids

By Jennifer Harvey


Excerpts by Glenn Robinson


In the mid-1990s Mary Bucholtz spent hours in conversation with students at a racially diverse high school in northern California. During her interviews, she asked each student a seemingly straightforward question. She asked them “for the record” to identify themselves according to their age, sex/gender, grade and race/ethnicity.

One of her persistent experiences blew my mind.

Almost every white student could not or would not answer Bucholtz’s question in a straightforward way. On everything else they did fine. But when it came to race/ethnicity, their responses ranged from the ironic (exemplified by a student who said, “I’m the whiteness of the white boys” in a fake British accent; responses Buchold characterizes as mock-celebrations of “affiliation with whiteness”), to those “feigning ignorance” (respondents qualifying “I’m white” with phrases like “I guess,” or “I don’t know” or odd elaborations like “From, uh, outward signs”).

how problematic “white” is in a racially supremacist society

if one names one’s white identity without demonstrating a reluctance about that identity one risks being perceived as somehow endorsing racism

white racial identity and white supremacy are so bound up with each other in the U.S. that these young people get silly, snarky or tongue-tied because–forced to own “white”–they are trying desperately to create a gap between these two things.


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