Talking about racism, gently (part one)

Doug and I intend to approach this urgent topic with grace and gentleness, because we value mutual respect, and treating every person with dignity. Talking about racism is difficult because people have profoundly different experiences around race and so often, we mean different things when we use the word “racism.”

When we say “racism,” often white people mean racial bias, or prejudice which I have considered and acted upon: mean things I as an individual either said, or did against people of color. That’s why we often think or say, “but I’m not a racist.” We’re thinking of ourselves as individual agents. This idea can be extended to groups: think of fraternities singing racially offensive songs, sororities throwing “black face” parties, or uncles telling ugly racist jokes. If we reject those activities, we think we are not racist.

But actually racial bias runs deeper than conscious choice. Figuring out if I am this kind of racist is pretty easy: spend a few minutes taking Harvard Project Implicit tests on line and they’ll reveal our biases. After doing this, spend some weeks noticing my interactions, my thoughts, when I meet people of different races and genders. What are my assumptions?

Thinking about racism as acts of race prejudice ignores the presence of power and privilege. Wonder if you have privilege because of your race, or want to understand it? Take Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” or watch her TEDx talk “How studying privilege systems can strengthen compassion”.  But racism operates not only on an individual level, it’s also external, and institutional.

When white people came to this country, many of our families were given land – land taken from Native Americans and Latinos. I went to high school in Texas and learned a historical narrative about the brave settlers (some of whom were my family members). In graduate school, I went across the border and visited a Mexican museum where I learned the other side of the story: about massacres, and systemic displacement. I looked at historical maps showing Mexican territory extending across most of modern Texas, the southwest and California (circa 1820-1840.)    More than a century later, white veterans (yes, my uncles) got help with more education and a mortgage (through the G.I. bill), while Japanese Americans had their property systematically taken from them (look into Japanese internment). Sure, slavery is over, and the Chinese exclusion act overturned, but neither African Americans nor Chinese people received any financial or educational compensation for these systematic evils. These are only a few of the institutional and structural expressions of racism.

The systems which were historically created are now held together by simple structural arrangements System_of_Inequity_Graphic_624_450_90_c1_172_172_85_s_c1_smart_scalelike property taxes: our schools and their quality reflect the property values of our neighborhoods. Instead of slavery and Jim Crow laws, we now have the school-to-prison pipeline and mass incarceration.

So these days when I hear the word “racism” I translate “a system of racial inequity.” The clearest way to understand this is the spiral from World Trust “The system of racial inequity has internal and external components, as well as institutional and systematic. It’s held together by money and power and embedded in history, culture and identity.”

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