Naming ‘White People’: From a 5th Grader’s Perspective

The hands of my 5th grade class. We were together for 4th grade as well, so we had two years of making sense of math, reading, social studies, and, of course, race.

During a lesson for my 5th graders, I referred to ‘white people’. The lesson itself was not political or historical. We were not talking about present-day racism, or colonization, which is the context my students, who are all students of color, were used to hearing about ‘white people.’ I just casually referred to ‘white people,’ or maybe I called a person ‘white.’ Either way, this provoked a student to raise his hand and say, “Ms. Peters I don’t think we should say ‘white people.’”

I asked him why, hushing those who were quick to contradict him in their allegiance to their teacher’s choice of race-naming.

“Because it may sound racist.” I imagined what it would look like if adults were equally thoughtful when talking about other ethnic groups.

I told him to explain his thinking.

As he thought of his explanation, I admired his ability to name something he considered insensitive. Adults don’t do this enough. I was also proud of his concern for respectfully describing a group’s race, when many people look at him, not knowing how to place him on the race-o-meter.

This particular student was born in Hawaii, and is of Tongan descent. If he wants people to honor his ethnicity, he is guaranteed a future of explaining that he is not Samoan, not Filipino, not mixed with Black. He’ll have to educate others (including a tour guide on one of our field trips) that Tonga is a country. It is a collection of Polynesian islands off the Pacific Ocean, that resisted European colonization. I wondered if his future self will tire of others’ ignorance, while he, at 10-years-old, concerns himself with being respectful to the naming of ‘white people.’

“Well, if we had a student in our community who wasn’t a person of color,” he began. “And he or she was the only one… saying ‘white people’ might hurt their feelings.”

I then asked the class what they thought.

Some  agreed, while others said it wasn’t racist to say ‘white people.’

“Well, saying ‘white people’ is weird,” another student offered. “There is no place called ‘White.’”  Other students said saying ‘white’ wasn’t ‘right.’

I reminded them there was not a place called ‘Black,’ or ‘Brown,’ but there is political significance to this type of naming. We’d discussed this while learning about the Black Panther Party. There were times when I assumed such ideas went over their young minds. But then I’d hear students proudly marking themselves as ‘Black’ or ‘Brown’ with such conviction, their tone gave way to their understanding of the politics of renaming.

This particular student, however– the only Tongan student from Hawaii in my class–was able to decipher that the American naming for ‘white people’ didn’t have the same political context as ‘Black’ or ‘Brown.’

I asked the class what we should call ‘white people.’ I have my ideas; my own binary philosophy of the differences between ‘white people’ and people like my mom. But, I wanted to see where their thinking took them.

We discussed where white people originated.

“America,” someone said.

This was immediately followed with, “Nuh-uh!!! The Native Americans were here first!”

“Yeah!” many echoed, while showing our class hand-gesture for agreement– a waving of the wrist with the three middle fingers folded, while the pinky and thumb stand up. The same sign for “I love you.”

I asked them where ‘white people,’ came from before coming to, what we now call, the United States.

“England,” one student shouted.

“Spain,” another said.

“Europe,” stated a girl who had a knack for generalizing when appropriate. “Why don’t we refer to ‘white people,’ as European-American?!!”

I asked the class if they felt this was a respectful and responsible way to refer to ‘white people.’

“Yes, because when we say African-American, we’re talking about people whose ancestors were from Africa, but have lived in America for a long time, and that’s also what we mean when we say Asian-American and Mexican-American,” a student explained.

They all agreed. And while I feel it’s more complicated than this, I also agree. European-American provides identity markers that don’t come with the labeling of ‘white.’ As one of my students said, “white don’t sound right.” Why? Because it brings up memories of racism.” White Only” vs. “Negros Only.” The naming of Black people has shifted, but the naming of white folks remains the same. This isn’t coincidence, but metaphorical.

But, I digress.

When my students decided to rename ‘white people,’ I followed suit. It was European-American only when discussing ‘white people’ from the United States. If someone, myself included, said ‘white people,’ you’d hear a trail of voices say, “EUROpean-Americaaaan,” with a tone recognizable as a frustrated, “duuuuh!!”

This moment was an important moment in their own race-consciousness. It was a moment when they named their own consciousness. I imagine/ hope there is a class of Eruopean-American students considering how to responsibly name my students– Latino, Mexican-American, Salvadorian-American, Black, African-American, Tongan, Cambodian, Asian-American, Pacific Islander, Filipino, Biracial/Mixed-Race…

Because students of color mustn’t be the only ones talking about race.


2 thoughts on “Naming ‘White People’: From a 5th Grader’s Perspective

  1. What an interesting conversation in your classroom. It’s stories like this that I continue to go back to when I hear educators say that we don’t need to be or shouldn’t be talking about race in our classrooms. How can we not? Our students have to deal with the fact that race and racism are still significant parts of our society. Studies have shown that even preschoolers are cognizant of race. We have to provide them the space and opportunity to discuss these things, what they mean, how they make sense of them, and how they impact them. Great post.

    1. I absolutely agree! Sometimes, I feel like I’m given flack for “focusing too much on race,” as if I’m inventing students’ awareness of race. My students are very aware of race and race privilege before entering my classroom; I simply give them the vocabulary to have productive conversations around race, otherwise it can come out in less productive ways.

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