By Diane Carlson
It’s only been a little over a week now since the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case and folks are already moving on. Some other new shiny object in the media has our attention – oooh, look, royal baby! Our heads turn so fast we almost get whiplash. But our heads turn because we will do everything we can to not talk about the history and legacy of racism in this country.
No matter how many Trayvons or Oscar Grants or Marissa Alexanders, no matter how many times folks of color are profiled, no matter how many times an almost all white jury gets to “decide” if racism exists or not, we will wiggle out of it with a quick, “Zimmerman was Hispanic” or “racism was over 50 years ago” and look away as swiftly as possible.
As a white woman who gets to teach two or three courses on racism every semester, I see this happen with my students. I teach at a community college in an area that is more segregated and more economically well off than many communities served by other colleges. For so many of my students, my course is the first time they have ever explored the reality of racism.
I take this opportunity and my role as a teacher in this setting quite seriously. Teaching has helped me understand that not everyone has been exposed to the same information and the same experiences.
Most of us grew up in segregated communities and may not even know that we don’t know. Much of the knowledge white people in particular have about anyone else comes from the limited stereotypes of what is shown in the media. Many of us then take our limited experience and information from media and attempt to generalize that to the rest of the world.
So, it’s not really a great shocker that many white people are clueless when it comes time to determine the role racism plays in any event or institution. We don’t choose our parents or where we are born. We can’t be blamed for the contexts in which we grew up. But, and it’s a big but, it doesn’t absolve us of responsibility to figure all this out.
Our privilege has kept us from having to know anything about the history and experiences of everyone else. Our privilege allows us to perpetuate segregation. Our privilege lets us ignore that we have inherited this legacy of racism and benefited from it. Our privilege means that while we don’t know much of anything at all about racism we will still jump up to claim we are experts on it and expect to be taken seriously.
And that has been a difficult part this past week or so: hearing folks talk about how Trayvon’s murder is not about racism when they clearly have *no idea* the role that racism plays in today’s world. Many of these people are decent people, people we may know and love, but they speak from a place that is incomprehensible because their arguments are based on little that is real.
When any of that is challenged they get defensive and trot out those “using the sidewalk as a weapon” or “thug” arguments. Nothing real. I see in my students the reality of racial identity development – that it can be a difficult process to come to grips with the certainty and horribleness of racism.
Many of them do feel defensive at first and then discover that while defensiveness is a normal part of racial identity development, they do not have to stay there. They can choose to continue to develop their identity and understanding of these issues far beyond where they are.
They discover that remaining defensive is not very helpful to anyone and that using privilege to transform the status quo and challenge others is possible.
So challenge yourself. Because we all do not begin with the same information and understanding, you must start where you are. As a white person, I remind myself all the time that part of privilege is not having to think about racism on a regular basis. Part of privilege is that when I get tired of talking or thinking about it, I could choose to just not.
So I make myself think about it, talk about it, work on it – even when I’m tired. I have been actively involved and studying these issues for years and years and I still don’t have it all dialed in.
I mess up sometimes. Making a mistake is going to happen, but I don’t have to let my fears get in the way of standing up and I can accept and even appreciate being corrected. I am rarely eloquent when I speak out, but I’ll say what I need to anyway. I remind my students that saying something imperfectly is much better than saying nothing at all.
Challenge others. As a teacher, I see that students want to develop tools and skills for having the difficult conversations that must be had. The hardest conversations are likely to be those with your family and friends, those you love. With that, I pass on to my students (and you) two gifts that were given to me to help in this process.
The first was given by Dr. Winnie LaNier from Cosumnes River College. I heard her ask someone (after the person repeatedly used the word, “guys” to mean everyone), “may I challenge you on something?”
The other person accepted and they had an amazing conversation about the word and its use. I was utterly impressed how her simple question led to that discussion. It opened a lovely door I had never considered before.
Rather than either extreme of being silently mad or eating them alive, I could ask someone if we could talk about a particular issue that was relevant in the moment. Wow. The second gift came from a class I took from Dr. Francisco Rodriguez (former president of Cosumnes River College, hmmm, CRC again, interesting) who shared his response when something comes up that challenges his social justice core: “help me understand…”
Help me understand what you mean. Help me understand your perspective. Help me understand your evidence. Help me understand why you feel the way you do. Help me understand your experience. Again, floored. Bridges to conversation and understanding I had never considered. I set both of these phrases as alarms on my phone to remind me every day that there are additional ways to begin a conversation about these desperately essential issues.
While it’s not easy to start a conversation or work to keep it going, what choice really do we have? If we don’t take responsibility, who will? It is far past time for us to educate ourselves about our history and legacy of racism, our privileges and how we can stand up with others.
These are good lessons no matter what the inequality issue is. Whatever privileges we have, we can learn to recognize them and use them to challenge the structures of inequality that allow for them to exist.
Below are some excellent foundational resources relating to racism to get you going if you have had less exposure to these issues. Start here and work them around in your mind. Talk about them. Question them.
While they represent only a tiny part of what is out there in the research and conversations on racism, they do cover some seminal work and some highly respected sources.
This material is a small beginning, not an end. Let it get you started and then let’s talk. We can begin with why a young African American man engaging in nothing at all suspicious should nevertheless still be profiled as “suspicious.” It’s a good place to start.
- Peggy McIntosh on White Privilege
- George Lipsitz, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness
- Douglas Massey, American Apartheid
- Thomas Shapiro, Wealth Gap
- Devah Pager, Mark of a Criminal Record (pay close attention to the graph on p.958)
- Beverly Daniel Tatum, especially great on racial identity development and discussion of privilege: Why are all the Black Kids sitting together in the Cafeteria
- Residential Segregation maps
Read and/or watch (both meticulously researched)
Additional helpful sites to explore linked to substantial research and evidential support:
An excellent and essential conversation:
Wow, just wow (at 48:37):
Diane Carlson teaches sociology at Folsom Lake College and is a former member of the Davis Human Relations Commission.