Before moving to Ann Arbor in late-August to begin graduate school at the University of Michigan, School of Social Work, I was in St. Louis, MO visiting my parents. I was walking my dog through my childhood neighborhood, a route I have easily taken hundreds of times throughout my life. As I walked down Hillvale Drive, I noticed a well-dressed African-American man peacefully walking on the other side of the street. The man was likely in his 50s, graying hair, wearing tailored khaki slacks, a collared shirt with a forest green V-neck sweater. We made brief eye contact, the man smiled at me and then we continued to walk in opposite directions. After a few more strides, I looked back. The man had already turned left down Audubon Drive and was out-of-sight.
I don’t remember seeing any other onlookers and the gentlemen likely thought little of this spontaneous encounter. However, to this day, I am mad at myself. Why did I feel the need to look back at this man? Did something strike me as odd about this guy? Did I really think this person looked suspicious or out-of-place? Sure…I grew up in an affluent and homogenous area of St. Louis, but this guy in all likelihood was a fellow neighbor. Regardless, my behavior and thinking was unacceptable.
Fast-forward to late September when I came across a video on my Facebook Newsfeed that made me think more critically about my personal identity, white privilege and the role I play in perpetuating racism.
The video was of San Antonio Spurs Head Coach Gregg Popovich (click on link to watch) talking to the media about white privilege and the need for more honest conversation about race. The press conference came in the wake of news surrounding continued racial inequality, police brutality, right to silent protests and Trump/NFL comments. Popovich made several key points but one especially stood out to me – “We [white people] still have no clue of what being born white means” (“Still Have No Clue”).
Popovich and recent current events inspired this project, which aims to increase awareness and understanding of race, paying particular attention to white privilege. Whites need to be more reflective and aware of their good fortune and of the amazing level of racism that still exists in the U.S.
The results presented are based on the sixteen (16) photographs and thirteen (13) descriptions collected from University of Michigan graduate students and various professionals from Washtenaw County (MI). Details on the participation rate and demographic characteristics of the sample are provided below. It is important to remind readers that only Whites/Caucasians were asked to participate in this study. Initially, I had thought about including Blacks/African-Americans, but, after more thought, I decided it would be most compelling to focus on strictly whites.
Thirty-four (34) emails with project overview and instructions were sent to a mixture of University of Michigan undergraduate and graduate students, young professionals in Washtenaw County and a few individuals from out-of-state (Missouri, New York, Ohio, Texas). Of those sent emails, ten (10) females and three (3) males responded, yielding a total response rate of 38%. Females and UM graduate students are overrepresented in the sample. No out-of-state participants fully completed the project. The youngest participant in the sample was 23-years-old and the oldest was 47-years-old. Average age of participants was 28-years-old.
INSTRUMENT & DATA COLLECTION
Photovoice was utilized for this project. For those who are unaware of this methodology, Photovoice blends photography and social action as a tool for increasing awareness of social problems (Wang & Burris, 1997). “The heart of Photovoice is the intermingling of images and words…we humans have used different kinds of images and words to express what we need, what we fear, what we cherish, what we dream of and all sorts of other ideas for as far back as we know” (Palibroda et al., 2009, p. 8). Participants’ photos raise important questions and hopefully spark meaningful conversations.
For this project, participants were asked two questions: (1) what does being born white mean? And (2) what do white people take for granted? Participants were asked to capture photographs to illustrate their answers. Once photographs (maximum of three) were taken, they were asked to submit them via text or email with an accompanying open-ended written summary.
Each participant received the following email with project overview and instructions:
Subject Line: Photovoice Project
I’m currently working on a class project and am in need of participants. See project description below:
Project Overview: I’m hoping to learn more about the concepts of race, white privilege and color-consciousness through engaging in this activity. The data collected will be used for a Photovoice project for SW504: Diversity and Social Justice at University of Michigan, School of Social Work. (*Pseudonyms will be assigned to all participants to protect identities.)
- What does being born white mean?
- What do white people take for granted?
- Think deeply about the questions being asked.
- After carefully thought, take one or more photos (maximum of 3) that reflect your understanding of the questions. Use a digital camera, smartphone or other electronic device – whatever is easiest and most convenient for you.
- Email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or text (314-704-9094) photos to me along with a brief description. What did you photograph? Why? What does this represent to you? Did this project require much thought? How did this task make you feel? Anything else you’d like to add?
- I’ll then sort through all images/descriptions collected. I’ll share results with classmates and participants towards the end of Fall Semester.
Let me know if you have any questions and thanks in advance for your help.
There were no direct or indirect benefits to participants in this study. And there were no significant risks for participants in this study; however, some people may have felt uncomfortable answering certain questions. Additionally, it is important to note the limitations of this project. Sample size was small and all participants resided in a similar geographic location. It would be interesting and worthwhile to survey a wider age-range across the U.S. to compare/contrast data and potential trends.
Results & Analysis
Below are the images and verbatim responses received from all thirteen (13) participants. No participants’ names will be used to protect their identities. Following the data is a more reflective piece that outlines some general observations.
PHOTOGRAPHS & WRITTEN DESCRIPTIONS
Here’s a photo in whiteness that I took last week for your photo voice project. It’s from a sporting goods store in Austin. All of the models on the TVs are white, as are the people watching them in the store. This represents whiteness to me because (1) it only uses white models to market products that should be for a universal audience, and (2) it reinforces a stereotype of only white people engaging in outdoor exploration activities. If the second point was to be taken further, one might ask about the implications that an activity that is intended to represent the freedom of exploring nature has become an expensive endeavor (i.e. it’s ironic that you need to pay a lot to experience what’s naturally occurring) that is marketed to a white audience.
I was planning on taking a photo while I was home for Fall Break, although I wasn’t expecting something as dramatic as I found. I live in the suburbs of Des Moines, Iowa, which is vastly white. As I was packing up my things at the end of the weekend, I looked out my window and saw three police cars in front of the house across the street. The only Black people I know in my neighborhood live there- a 20-year-old man and his grandparents. Immediately, my assumptions took over. I assumed the young man was caught for drug usage, or that someone they know had died, as the three cars seemed odd. I still don’t know what happened, but I can’t get that scene out of my head, and can’t help but wonder how much race factored into the reason for those cars. This photo to me represents police brutality against Black folks; regardless of what actually transpired that day, I am reminded of how disproportionately Black and Brown people encounter police and the historical interaction between people of color and law enforcement and the harm it has caused. It also challenged the biases I recognize I hold and the assumptions I made about what could have happened.
This is a sign I walk by everyday on the way to my office. The building I work in was named after Clarence Cook Little, who was president of the University of Michigan from 1925-1929, but he also actively promoted eugenics using University of Michigan as a platform. I photographed it because it worries me that the building still hasn’t been renamed.
I think being white means that our history is not as painful, oppressive or disruptively present as it may be for others races. Sure, everyone has their familial and personal pains in their own histories, but as an overarching narrative of white populations in America, history is something we can often read about or hear about without truly cringing at the pain of what happened or how that negatively affects us today because it has mostly been to our benefit. In general, the history of our country has not directly oppressed us. If there is a felt wound, it often has to come through deeper, intentional reflection on the second-hand stories of others who have been on the underside of history.
I decided to photograph my own arm with a Band-Aid on it. I chose this because I think it is an accurate representation of the ease and simplicity that being white provides someone. To me, being white is being a part of the majority, it is being comfortable in most situations, situations as simple as having a Band-Aid that blends in with my natural skin tone. It is privileges, such as having a band aid to match my skin tone, that I have been blind to in the past, and that is the privilege that being born white has provided me.
One photo would be of my dog living so comfortably in my home. I feel like the photo captures living in a suburb. Many suburbs have great neighborhoods, infrastructure, resources, parks (even dog parks) for those in the nice areas. Because I was surrounded by people who had similar backgrounds/financial situations, I never understood the need or how incredibly privileged, safe, and sheltered my childhood was.
Another photo would be of Michigan – representing how white privilege/social class has been so helpful in my education. When I struggled in grade school or high school, my parents especially and some of my teachers would ensure I had the resources, support, and really stressed the value/necessity of doing well in school.
I think one of the most powerful things I read on race, particularly in this political environment, was an article in Mother Jones called “We Just Feel Like We Don’t Belong Here Anymore”. It makes me so disappointed, upset, and frustrated that Trump is president and people are feeling so oppressed and marginalized. However, I maintain hope that we can unite and progress as a country after truly opening up the dialogue, understand similarities and differences, work to solve needs, and support one another. We need to achieve racial equality and always pursue social justice.
The first image I took a photograph that contrasted my criminal record with my acceptance into prestigious programs. At 19 years old, I was summoned to court because I attempted to use a fake ID to enter a bar. I contrasted the image of my criminal record with two recent acceptances to graduate school and the Peace Corps. Despite the fact that I have had a criminal record, I have not been stopped from my ability to positively move forward with my life, education, and career. The framing around my use of a fake ID was seen as a “mistake” that I made because I was young. If I were not white, there would have been negative stereotypes about my criminality connected to my race. However, my white privilege has allowed me to move forward with my life.
The second image I took a picture of was the family portrait in my parents’ house. This image speaks volumes of what it means to be white. The picture shows my entire family wearing The College of Wooster shirts, a small private liberal arts college in Ohio. Both my siblings and myself graduated from Wooster and continued our education into Master’s and PhD programs. My parents stressed the importance of education since the time we were children. They spent their careers saving money in order to help pay for our educations. Their ability to save money and use it so their children came out of college debt free is representative of being white. For many people of color, the ability to save money is hard since avenues to things like sustainable jobs and affordable housing. This picture is hung up in my parents’ home which is also indicative of being white. My family has not experienced challenges of being denied the ability to purchase a home.
This project has been interesting for me to think about what being white means and some of the things I have been afforded because of it. At the time of going to court, I thought the sanctions against me were brutal. I lost my license, spent hundreds of dollars in fines, and have a record until May (5 years). But when I think about what my experience would have been if I were of a minority race, I know the outcome would have been different. The association between non-white races and crime would have changed the conversation of my experience. Additionally, as I have entered my 20s, I have become more and more aware of all the sacrifices my parents made to raise the three children they have. Thinking about my upbringing, I realize my experience has not only been impacted by my parent’s hard work, but is also associated to my family being white. Both my parents grew up in a large family that struggled to make ends meet from month to month. With my parents’ devotion to hard work and education, they pulled themselves out of a lower socioeconomic status and worked so their children would not experience what they did. For my parents, the American dream, of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” was possible because there were less barriers for them than minority races.
The color of your skin means something different for each person, and it means something different depending on your geographic location. Growing up as a white person in Michigan, specifically in metro-Detroit, and being born white means that I am in the majority. Prior to graduate school, I had never really thought about my whiteness. It seems that white people have a much easier life than those of color, yet we don’t even realize it (or at least I didn’t). Being born white means that I don’t need to think about the color of my skin, I don’t need think about the fact that I might be the only “different” person in a room, I don’t need to feel as though I represent an entire population. In my opinion, white people take everything for granted, walking down the street, walking into a store, walking into a hair salon. Life seems easier for white people because it seems as though white people are (unfortunately) held to a different standard.
I chose to include a collage of TV shows from various timeframes that do not have a character of color as a main character. I thought it was really interesting to see that TV shows today have not added characters of color even with all of the awareness in the world now. Our generation looks at TV as a model of our lives, but so many of our peers are not represented in the shows-so how can they feel included.
Being born “white” has been a confusing part of my own identify for my entire life. Aesthetically, I have appeared “white” and privileged in almost all realms of my life. I had opportunities to go to top-rated public schools in Oakland County, MI, in college I joined a majority white Panhellenic Sorority, and I was raised in an upper-middle class household. My neighborhood friends were Caucasian, my Barbies were blonde, and my educators where white. However, my parents are both immigrants, making me a first-generation American. My father is Hungarian, and my mother is Filipino – the mix has caused for racial ambiguity and confusion.
In the 4th grade, when taking the MEAP test, I was asked for the first time to identify my “race.” I was confused, because there were only so many choices… and I was told to circle only one, and I circled “Asian.” When I shared this with my parents at the end of a long test day, they were enraged. My Filipino mother scolded me, and told me that my skin is White- and I should be proud. I did not understand why I could not openly say I am a Pacific Islander. I chose to identify as white on tests and paperwork until high school, until more common “multi-race” or “pacific islander” status became available. For me, being born racially ambiguous and privileged has given me opportunities, and the ability to avoid both internal and external racial prejudice in America that my family has experienced.
When I was 12 years old, my family traveled back home the Philippines, and this was my first time being fully submerged in Filipino culture. Throughout the years, my family has been going to Filipino grocery stores, Halo-Halo and Adobo Chicken were staples in my childhood diet, and my family watched Filipino TV. I experienced some culture shock, but I was also able found similarities between the third-world country and my home country. Advertising was similar- billboards flooded the city, but one billboard caught my eye- I saw an advertisement for Skin-Bleaching lotion. I had a flashback to the day of my 4th grade MEAP test, seeing my mother feel shame for her darker skin, flatter nose and curly hair, qualities in her that I thought made her the most beautiful and unique woman, but I had lacked myself because I was half-white.
I did not revisit the topic of “skin bleaching” until my teens, when I realized the magazines, movies, and TV shows dominated the media displayed people who looked myself, but not like my mother. I spent my entire life idolizing white Disney princesses, but found them just as gorgeous as my mother- who found little value in her own beauty. Although in the 21st century, American Media has worked to integrate people of color onto our television screens, it is still clear that we are a minority in comparison to the masses of mostly-white TV. Looking back, I understood that my mother did not see role models in women who looked like her- she has been a victim to her own internal racism- struggling to find her identity in white-washed America, while I have taken my racial ambiguity for granted. Whites take for granted their ability to see people of their own ethnic group on screen, and take for granted their influence of American beauty standards by dominating the entertainment industry.
One part of being white in my experience as a young student is to engage in critical thinking and feeling and then doing nothing to put that learning in action. It’s the inheritance of a world of oppression that is hard to own and breathe in. I took this picture while visiting Harvard University over the weekend. I went to a talk by Professor William Jennings on mass incarceration, and, in his speech, he mentioned that at educational institutions predominately occupied by white bodies – we learn to engage in radical thinking around ideas of race and equity, but never live them outside of the classroom. The ideas do not extend outside of the campus bubble, they do not permeate where we live after graduation or where we send our kids to school. This idea, and the picture of the edge of campus where the city of Cambridge begins, captures one facet of whiteness for me. Intending white folks who learn about injustice, bolster themselves with the Band-Aid that knowledge is a good enough remedy to the problem and then continue to live their lives in the same pattern that perpetuates the same problems.
I photographed my closet full of clothes. I thought about the daily task of getting dressed, leaving my house, and going wherever I want without worry. Specifically, as a white person, I never have to worry about the clothes I wear and how they affect perceptions or beliefs about me. When I took this photo, I thought a lot about Trayvon Martin and how the dialogue defending his murder included that wearing a hoodie made him look threatening. As a white person, people don’t make assumptions about me based on my clothing or race. I never have to worry about being perceived as threatening, trespassing, being gang-affiliated, bearing a weapon, an illegal alien, or a terrorist. This project did not require too much thought but deciding exactly what to photograph, to best capture my idea was difficult. Reflection on the picture made me feel sad for the numerous people who have been murdered, assaulted, or wrongly convicted, by people or law enforcement. I have the responsibility to contest racial profiling and challenge people’s perceptions if they are discriminatory.
Being born white means you are born with an undeserved privilege that people of color are not born with. Being born white means we are already at an advantage in this country, just because of the color of our skin. White people like to believe that “white privilege” is not a thing but as a white man I can tell that it certainly is. Not only am I white but I come from a family with money which adds even another layer of money. I decided to take a picture of my two laptops to show just how privileged I am. Most people do not even have one laptop, but I have two. I also included in the picture the University of Michigan flag. I have been fortunate enough to be able to get an education. Not only was able to attend undergraduate school, but I was also able to attend graduate school…twice.
I took a photo of a speedometer. This represents my first real understanding of structural racism. When my boyfriend lived in Detroit I drove back and forth on 94 a lot…and realized that people that looked like me didn’t get pulled over, but those of the male gender, with dark skin, seemed to always be pulled over…no matter how much or how often I sped.
I feel like I try to keep myself mindful of my privileged regularly. It did cause me to reflect that this was also around the time where I became socially conscious, interested in social justice and then decided to become a social worker.
THEMES & OBSERVATIONS
I know oftentimes for Photovoice projects the researcher summarizes the data and generates themes using relevant theoretically frameworks. I want to let the images and text speak for themselves.
However, I wanted to include some type of reflective piece, so here are some general (and biased) observations. I first focused on the text. Based on the phrasing of my questions, my lived experiences and my biases, I was fascinated by the use of language. Some words and phrasing were quite visible while other words I was expecting — maybe even wanting to see — never appeared.
Now focusing on imagery, I found it strange that only two participants (Participants #5 and #9) included a photo of themselves, though both photos were unidentifiable. Why did so few people include pictures of themselves, loved ones or friends? Is that surprising? Does this illustrate a greater societal problem – people separating themselves from discussions about racial discrimination and inequality?
Below is a self-generated list of themes that I thought photos referenced. Please note that photos can be sorted into more than one category. I am open to feedback, and would be curious if viewers agree with these categories or not.
This project forced white members of society (including me) to think about their privilege(s), engage with complex issues and explore their un/conscious biases. My hope is that this exercise intensified participants’ attention to detail and awareness of inequality.
Continued reflection and questions to ask yourself:
- Why are Americans so reluctant to discuss issues of race and racism in U.S.?
- Why should you care about issues regarding race?
- Do you have friends that look and think differently than you?
- Do you refer to other people groups as “they” or “them”?
- What is the connection between racism and power?
Paliborda, B., Krieg, B., Murdock, L., & Havelock, J. (2009). A practical guide to photovoice: sharing pictures, telling stories and changing communities. The Prairie Women’s Health Center of Excellence: Manitoba (Canada).
Popovich, G. (2017, September 26). We still have no clue of what being born white means. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Cbtvzh8Voo.
Wang, C., & Burris, M. (1997). Photovoice: Concept, methodology, and use for participatory needs assessment. Health education & behavior, 24(3), 369-387.