Opening a Dialogue about Racism

The first post of the academic year comes from Sociology Professor Linda Markowitz, whose research interests are deeply rooted in social justice, one of the emphases of our program.  As scholars Verna Williams and Kristin Kalsem have argued, it is crucial that feminists expand their focus to address all forms of oppression, not just those rooted in gender; as most of us recognize, systems of inequity are often deeply–if sometimes invisibly–linked.  Williams and Kalsem join a movement to reframe current modes of feminism as “social justice feminism,”  noting that “at this critical time, with efforts to exacerbate the divides of race and gender, social justice feminism provides a new paradigm for talking about …issues that threaten movements dedicated to dismantling oppression and bettering people’s lives.”  Prof. Markowitz’s blog post gives us a starting point for approaching the sort of authentic reflection and thoughtful conversations about race that we need for social change.

There are many definitions of racism but the basic idea that ties the definitions together is that racism is about systems of ideologies and behaviors that benefit the racial group in power.  According to these definitions, White people may not intend to be racist, we may even refute that we are racist, but when we hold ideas and act on behaviors that maintain the current system of racial power, we are racist.

Just hearing me say that White people are racist will bring up lots of resistance from many reading this. But please, let me be clear. I am not saying that White people are bad because we’re racist.  I am not saying that White people are evil.  I am simply describing what is.

I think a big part of the problem is that somewhere along the way we have taken the descriptive term “racism” and crafted it into a moral monster.  So we have this idea in our heads that racist people are bad people, that “they” are horrible people who are easily distinguishable from the “rest of us.”   They are Hitler or the Imperial Wizard.  But in reality, most racists don’t dress differently.  We don’t wear signs or have special handshakes.  In reality, racists are teachers, spiritual leaders, students and bosses. Racists are sometimes “good.” Racists are sometimes “bad.”  We are simply every-day people who believe and act in ways that support the present racial system.

Because we’ve turned racism into a moral term, we’ve made race and racism very, very difficult to talk about.  So in order to open a dialogue, I’d like for us to think about racism and racists descriptively rather than morally.  To that end, I suggest that there are useful strategies White people can adopt to make a dialogue about racism more likely and more fruitful.  The strategies I want to talk about here are: 1) Listen and give up being the expert; 2) Understand that we are everyday racists; and 3) Be curious about emotions.

Listen and Give Up Being the Expert: White people don’t mind talking about race and racism.  Just like most people with power, we feel we understand reality better than others.  I have spoken to many White students who state they know that racism no longer exists.  When I ask how they “know,” they say,  “Well, I’ve never seen it.”  One very bright White student, in fact, after sitting in a class and reading many articles and watching several documentaries about contemporary racism said, “I think those readings and movies are exaggerating things.”  It is difficult to have a conversation about racism when White people, who have never experienced racism, see themselves as “experts.”

One year, when I was a graduate student, I went home to Dallas and had dinner with my parents and my parents’ friends. The topic of conversation that night was the choice I had made to study gender oppression.  My father and his friend were making the case that anti-semitism was a much more pressing problem in the United States than gender oppression.   They made arguments for some hours that they knew what they were talking about because they had experienced tremendous anti-semitism, yet they didn’t know anyone who had problems with gender oppression.   They saw no irony in presenting themselves as the experts to me, a Jewish woman.

If we want to have a conversation about racism, White people need to recognize that, because we have not experienced racism, we cannot be the experts about racism.  No doubt, many White people have experienced other forms of oppression, (sexism, homophobia, classism, ageism, etc.) and those forms of oppression are equally problematic.  From my perspective, there is no hierarchy of oppression, there is just oppression.  But the systems and structures of oppression shift in unique ways for different groups.  Thus, to open a dialogue about racism, White people need to be the students.  We need to be the humble students eager to learn.  So we need to be silent for a change and let People of Color be the experts that they are.

Understand that We Are Everyday Racists: The SIUE “We Are One” campaign is nice as it tries to demonstrate that humans are humans, regardless of things like race, gender, disability, etc. But in order to have a conversation about oppression, be it racial or disability injustice, we need to admit that we are one is a goal and not yet reality.  Some groups are treated better than others, and as a result, some groups have more opportunities than others.  Our desire to feel as one is admirable but we first need to understand that, even if we wish it were so, not all SIUE, faculty, staff, and students experience the one-ness.

Eduardo Bonilla-Silva wrote a pretty famous book called Everyday Racism.  In this book he makes the case that while the structures of racism keep People of Color oppressed, it’s the everyday racism that makes it so tenacious.  It’s getting stopped and frisked by police because you look suspicious; it’s watching White people clutch their bags as you walk by.  We can’t be one unless some groups admit that they have more power, that they benefit from oppression, and that they are everyday racists.

What do I mean by everyday racist?  I have heard White students say they know of People of Color who get jobs just because of their race.  In fact, I hear this every semester when I discuss affirmative action.  Interestingly, I have never heard one White student say they know of White people who get jobs just because of their race.  Think about it, have you ever heard someone say, “He got that job because he’s White?”  We may hear, “She got that job because she knew the boss” or “Her Uncle owns the company so she got the job” but we never hear someone say, “She got the job because she’s White.”

Research shows, however, that Whites disproportionately get jobs because of their race, and if we think about this, it really makes sense.  How are most jobs attained?  It’s not solely through merit.  It’s networking, and our networks tend to be racially segregated.  When networking isn’t the cause of job attainment, research shows managers (who are disproportionately White) tend to trust people of their same race and gender. In 2012, the unemployment rate for Whites was 8% while the unemployment rate was 16% for African Americans, 12% for Latinos and 25-50% for Native Americans.  The odds that White people get their jobs just because they’re White are clearly much, much higher.

Be Curious about Emotions: We are a country that prides itself on reason.  In fact, White men used “lack of reason” to justify why they denied White women and People of Color rights of citizenship.  White men worried that if they let such “emotional” people have a voice, our country would be in grave trouble.  But the truth is, White men were, and are, just as emotional as the rest of us.  To really understand this, all you have to do is ask the men in your life the following question, “Would you be willing to take a woman’s name after marriage?”  If the men were to answer thoughtfully, we would learn quickly that emotions of masculinity run high.

I personally don’t think there’s anything wrong with emotions; in fact, I think our country would be better off if we were more curious about how we use our emotions to make decisions.  Just think of the real conversations we could have about education if we were curious about the emotions that guided decisions to use property taxes from economically and racially segregated neighborhoods to fund public schools.  We really can’t logically justify such a decision if we desire equal opportunity for everyone.  So even though we may use the language of logic in our justifications, underneath the language there exist paradoxes and contradictions that can only be explained with emotion. Getting curious about those emotions would build conversation rather than shut it down.

But White people need to be curious about more than their own emotions; we need to be curious about the emotions of People of Color.

Can White people get curious about how groups might feel when called (by the media and politicians) lazy, morally inferior, naturally violent and welfare frauds? Can White people get curious about how groups might feel when denied equal education, access to health care, affordable day care, sustainable neighborhoods, and good paying jobs?  My daughter once came home from work very upset because the manager was continuously only scheduling the kids she (the manager) knew very well.   My immediate emotional reaction was anger.  I wanted to approach the manager to let her know how unfair she was being.  Instead, I refrained and got curious.  I told my daughter to remember how she felt at that moment.  Remember it clearly, because that is how People of Color feel every day.  Just imagine listening to your child come home with story after story after story of unfairness.  Can we be that curious?

Yes, racism is emotional.  People of Color feel angry and hurt. They feel dismissed, ignored, rejected and abandoned.   You know those movies that get the audience all stirred up and rooting for the underdog?  Well, People of Color are the underdog but White people don’t tend to root for them. White people tend to get pretty self-righteous and defensive when People of Color talk about being an underdog. We call People of Color complainers and expect them to be silent.

But if we want to open a dialogue about racism, White people need to be curious about emotion.  Emotions are scary, especially when they are directed at you. And I wish I could say listening to emotions about racism gets easier…but it just doesn’t.  Racism is emotional.

I am an everyday racist as are other White people. We like to think of ourselves as curious, open, and intellectual.  But we cannot have an authentic dialogue about racism until we are willing to really reflect on the ways that racism shapes our society, our families and even our universities.  To really reflect, White people must be ready to understand how we often think we’re the experts in discussions about racism, how we are everyday racists, and how we use emotions to guide our decisions.

3 Comments

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3 responses to “Opening a Dialogue about Racism

  1. Tian Yu

    Linda, you raised a very interesting point about ‘de-moralizing” racism, but I’m not sure if I can agree with you. Will read your post again and come back…Just learned the existence of this blog; thanks for providing us this forum.

  2. Pingback: The Language of Racial Innocence | Processed Life

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