A few weeks ago, I was riding in the back of an Uber when a great conversation sprung up between the driver and myself. The discussion was about my Multicultural Education class. He was quite happy to hear that such a class existed because it wasn’t that long ago, he said, when people would shut you down whenever you talked about race. From that point on this amazing man and I spoke animatedly about race, police brutality, culture, slavery, institutional/systemic racism, and reflected on how change would not happen overnight but it is certainly in the air. When I got to work, I was almost sad that I couldn’t take him with me.
I’d like to make it very clear that when I am talking about racism in this article, I am not referring to the very simple, unfulfilling, broad dictionary definition which states:
“…the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.”
I am talking about race in the sociological, social, and psychological sense that historians, sociologists, psychologists, educators, anthropologists, and others have spent years probing and poring over. This definition of race has to do with domination and power—with the dominant race exerting their authority over the non-dominant races.
My awesome Uber driver made an excellent point during our chat. In the recent past, these crucial conversations about race were not being brought to the forefront of the national rhetoric. It’s almost as if racism was some sort of endangered animal that would slowly die away on its own. After all, aren’t we the amazing country that elected a black president? No. No, we’re not. Because racism is a lot like HPV – it can go undetected for a long while. You may not ever even know that you have HPV. But then one day someone calls you a racial slur and then BAM, you’ve been thrown into the racial fires.
It is the domination in racism that allows it to thrive and that…
As someone with white skin and blonde hair, I can very much see the privilege I am granted of flying under the radar, not having to experience racial profiling and stereotyping every single day of my life. But as someone with a dual citizenship from a Muslim country, I am discriminated against at the airport every time I visit my birthplace. As a Muslim, I am worried sick (literally, physically worried sick) that when my family goes to pray in Astoria Park out in the open on Eid, an Islamophobe will decide to take his/her rage and hatred out on my family. As a future teacher, I am worried for the [Muslim, undocumented, black, Asian, Latino, Jewish, etc..] children in my classroom that will come to me and ask whether or not they are truly welcome here because they are not part of the dominant, WASPy, master narrative of this country.
It is the domination in racism that allows it to thrive and that, consequently, produces these very real fears in minorities and, in part, is to blame for the current state of the country. According to Dr. Zeus Leonardo, professor, author, and researcher with expertise in pedagogy and multicultural education, “Privilege is the daily cognate of structural domination. Without securing the latter, the former is not activated.” In his article The Color of Supremacy: Beyond the discourse of ‘white privilege’ published in Educational Philosophy and Theory, Vol. 36, No. 2, 2004, Leonardo lists 29 ways in which actual litigation and actions have created and kept systemic racism in place.
It is beyond time that we all engage in some serious reflection and critique and admit that America has always had a problem with the “others.” Like it or not, America has a history of exploiting and abusing people that are thought of as inferior or unknown. It began with the Native Americans and continued with slavery (and later Jim Crow). It can be seen with the prohibition of Chinese immigrants from becoming American citizens (sounds eerily too familiar nowadays) and the Japanese Americans being put into internment camps. These are not the only examples — though, they are the most blatant and disgusting. Irish, Italian, and Jewish immigrants were all tormented, teased, and discriminated against when they first made their way here.
In an ideal world, everyone truly wouldn’t see color — we would all have the same exact opportunities and could all pick ourselves up from the bootstraps to rise to our fullest potential. Unfortunately, however, a system of supremacy has been set in place since Christopher Columbus first discovered the Americas and paved the way for slavery and racial hierarchy. While modern-day America is definitely far more free and wonderful than many other places in the world, that doesn’t mean it is perfect. And it is through having these very tough and REAL discussions on race that we will finally be able to move forward.
Yes, Sally Suburbs isn’t responsible for the slaves that her great-great-great grand pappy had and abused, but she is definitely responsible for helping to heal the after-effects that blacks still feel today and that starts by not denying they exist. So let’s talk about race. Let’s be honest with each other. Let’s engage in self-reflection. Let’s keep an open mind. Let’s stop telling people their experience with race and bigotry is nothing but made-up liberal agenda. Let us move forward and heal by stepping out of our comfort zone and realizing that just because we haven’t experienced it doesn’t mean it isn’t many other people’s harsh reality. We won’t be able to unite as a country if we are just going to sweep racism (and other forms of ism) under the rug.
Conversations about racism are not comfortable — but they are not supposed to be. Next time a person of color tries to talk to you about their experiences, or that of their peers, try to listen with an open mind. And even if you personally disagree because you yourself do not discriminate, still listen. We all have subconscious biases. We all have certain privileges that we may not even be aware of. But it is through having an open mind and being willing to constantly learn and grow that we can start to fix the problem of institutionalized racism in America (and the rest of the world). It is not meant to be an easy, quick, or pain-free process. It is a complex one where we are forced to look within and reflect on ourselves. We might find out things that we may not like but that is how to really be able to move forward and begin to engage in the more positive work against racism — such as community building and singing koombaya. Much like a cavity, ignoring racism just because we personally do not experience or see it only prolongs the suffering and leads to a root canal.
There is hope. Once we talk and acknowledge that these are very real issues in our society, we can work together for a better future. We can dismantle the systems in place that keep people of color down. We can use our voices to advocate for a better public education system that doesn’t segregate based on school district. We can urge our politicians to fight to decriminalize marijuana since African Americans are disproportionately more likely to be incarcerated for minor drug charges than their white counterparts. These problems are very real — the statistics and research are there. Acknowledging them doesn’t mean that only people of color have problems or that all people of the dominant race are evil, racist perps. It indicates being an ally and putting other people’s needs and experiences on the same level as your own. It is how true progress will be made.
Leonardo, Z. (2004). The Color of Supremacy: Beyond the discourse of ‘white privilege’ Educational
Philosophy and Theory, 36(2), 137-152.