Part of my reason for starting this blog is because I have been led to believe by multiple interactions with people my own age (and occasionally older) who are terrified to discuss race. Part of this comes from a general distaste for even the concept of race, such that certain people think it is not a subject to be discussed in polite society. Still others (fewer of my own friends, to be sure) think that the discussion of race is redundant, and that talking about race is what causes racism in the same way that Wile E. Coyote was immune from the effects of gravity until he noticed he’d walked off the cliff.
Those two camps aside, the most common response I get from people when discussing why they don’t like talking about race is that they are uncomfortable discussing the subject for fear of being perceived as racist. We have a strong societal taboo about racism – so strong in fact that it has begun to interfere with our ability to discuss strategies for dealing with racism. We thereby get mired in the morass of a kind of “hear/see/speak no evil” approach to a major societal problem.
My reason (one among many others) for speaking about racism as candidly and frequently and publicly as I do is to try and equip the average person with some basic vocabulary that we can use in our discussions of inequities of various types, racism being one of those. Given that our (my) generation is born into a discussion of race that has never really happened before, we are in the unique (and perhaps unenviable) position of inventing a new language to talk about it:
There’s little question that most Millennials [those people born after 1980] struggle to articulate their views on how race and racism operate in their lives. But our focus groups’ deeper discussions revealed that a structural understanding of racism—of racism as something that grows out of political and economic systems rather than individual animus—is not completely lost on this generation. And that, of course, has serious implications for how they will go about eradicating it from our society.
It’s certainly unusual to find yourself in the position of having to describe something that operates outside our capacity to tangibly identify. Racism is a bad idea – a product of crappy human brains and superficial but prominent differences between groups. Because it is folded into our societal interactions, most of it happens in such a way as to appear completely normal, but resulting in disparity that runs in a consistent direction.
This report, abstracts of which are published in Colorlines, is an attempt to determine how the conversation is having on the “front lines” of the discussion – the people who are inheriting the problem and charting the course for society’s future:
“This is a hard one. Racism today would be, um…” stumbled Jenny, a 21-year-old Asian-American college student in the Los Angeles area, where we held focus 16 groups in late 2010 and early 2011. “I guess discriminating based on the color of someone’s skin,” Jenny continued, falling back upon the type of relatively generic description that many participants of all races and ethnicities used.
I have given my own ham-handed attempt to define racism, or at least what racism means to me. Briefly, racism is what happens when ideas about an ethnic group are applied to an individual. So when someone thinks that I am handy in a fight because I’m black, or assumes that my buddy Joel is good with money because he’s Jewish, or assumes that Brian is a habitual drunk because he’s Irish, we’re all being judged as individuals by group characteristics. Inherent is this judgment is the embedded assumption that your ethnic group comprises a meaningful encapsulation of your entire persona – that there is enough truth in stereotypes that you can judge someone entirely based on something as superficial as skin colour or cultural background.
What’s interesting is that while we all struggle with this problem, some differences in understanding do seem to fall along group lines:
Of course, the fact that most Millennials believe race still shapes American life should not mask the very real differences of opinion both across and within racial groups about the extent to which it matters. Which is the second theme that emerged from our focus groups: There are real differences in how young people of different races and ethnicities think and talk about this subject. Young people of color are more likely to independently bring up race, resources and access to them, while white Millennials are less likely to make connections across systems like housing and education, and less likely to prescribe political action to fix it.
It is fairly elementary psychology to understand why white kids may see racism as being an individual failing, and youth of colour are more likely to see a systematic process. These are more or less th realms in which these groups experience racism – white kids as seeing the actions of racist people as those people victimize people of colour (PoCs); PoCs seeing a systemic lack of both respect and access coming from all areas in their lives, without having to encounter too many white-hood-wearing “racists”. In this way, both groups are protected from having to make negative judgments about themselves: white kids don’t feel like they’re responsible for a system they can’t exert control over (and which was laid down before they were born), and kids of colour can point to racism as a reason for lack of success.
Whether either of these narrative is true (it is my opinion that they are both false), it reveals a significant disconnect between the way that white people and PoCs understand race and racism:
[One participant's answer that the public school system isn't racist...] revealed a broad tendency among our participants who were white college students, and came from comparatively privileged backgrounds. They didn’t believe their high schools intentionally discriminated against anyone; the segregation they witnessed and the corresponding difference in resources were just “the way it is,” and there was no need to question that fact. Participants like Justin generally did not talk about the policies and practices that created their public school systems—property tax-based funding, abundant availability of college-prep courses, and low student-counselor ratios, among others.
And until we can begin to speak each other’s languages and learn from each other’s experiences, we cannot get ourselves dislodged from our reluctance to talk to each other about problems and potential solutions. I strongly recommend, regardless of your pigment, you read these articles in their entirety. They’re quite interesting.
Like this article? Follow me on Twitter!