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What's in a Name? The Importance of Being White

Race: Some object to naming a new Riverside high school for Martin Luther King Jr.

January 13, 1998|KAREN GRIGSBY BATES | Karen Grigsby Bates is a regular contributor to this page

I love irony, because it always possesses such impeccable timing. Certainly its reputation remained intact last week, when the Riverside County School Board voted to name its newest high school for slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and, just a few days before the annual celebration of his birthday, many of the county's white citizens revolted en masse.

Martin Luther King Jr. High School? How dare they! There's no connection to the region's history, critics complained. Better to christen the school after something with serious historic and cultural importance, like--produce. It's pretty, there used to be lots of it (before houses replaced the citrus groves) and best of all, it's not controversial. Who, after all, can honestly claim to hate lemons and oranges?

It's not a race thing. Uh-uh. If King had been a son of the local soil, I'm sure the concerned Riverside citizens who spoke against having a school named for him would have been tickled to do so. Honest.

But King wasn't a local and so the name is just, well, not right, y'know? It could lead to all kinds of unfortunate confusion. Like a college admissions officer assuming, according to protester Dale Dunn, that "we have a black school there." Heavens, wouldn't want that, now would we? They might draw all kinds of wrong conclusions from that, might they not? College admissions boards are sophisticated, but some Riverside citizens' angst over a possible mix-up says more about the those individuals' anxiety than perhaps they intended.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday January 14, 1998 Home Edition Metro Part B Page 7 Op Ed Desk 2 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
Riverside high school: A commentary Tuesday by Karen Grigsby Bates incorrectly identified the school district in which a new high school was named for Martin Luther King Jr. It was the Riverside Unified School District Board of Education, not the Riverside County School Board, that voted to name the school for King.

More and more articles in the media are beginning to focus on what it means to be white in America. The area of Whiteness Studies is beginning to flourish in the academy. ("Honestly," a black professor friend chortled. "What do they think they've been teaching all this time?")

Perhaps all this scrutiny comes at a time when many of the superficial differences between white folks and everybody else are starting to minimize. White teenagers, entranced by urban black culture, are wearing clothes that are far different from the penny loafers and Peter Pan collars that used to identify them just a few decades ago. In a typical fit of provocative whimsy, shock-jock Howard Stern recently invited three guys to sit in the studio and he and his staff, blindfolded, tried to guess from their voices who was white and who was black. (Hint: The white guy could have been a disc jockey on a soul oldies station.) Lots of little white boys want to Be Like Mike, too. So much of American culture draws on black culture that the two are inextricably intertwined on many levels.

But the most salient component to whiteness in America still remains the advantage of being white. Period. White, for all the assaults on its position of primacy in the past 30 years, is still considered the standard, the goal, the desired state of being by much of the American mainstream. Riverside residents who worry that their school could be confused as a predominately black one (even though there are predominately black schools that shine academically; Baldwin Hills Elementary School is a good local example) are really saying, "We understand the advantage being white gives us in society, and we'll fight if you'll try to take it away. It's important." There's that irony thing again. The color of their skin is much more important that the content of King's character.

Maybe their energies should be focused on something more useful. If Riverside's color-conscious citizens concentrated more on enabling the school to produce good scholastic aptitude test scores and worried less about whose picture is hanging in the school lobby, the school--and everyone else--would probably be off to a good start.

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