Recognize and evaluate hidden dangers of structural racism

This past summer my three-year-old nephew told me, “I don’t want to become any darker, I just want to stay white.” His father is white and his mother is black, so his skin was very light when he was born and has only recently started to get darker.

I love my nephew, but when he said this, I couldn’t help but feel shocked, angry, and sad. I didn’t actually know how to respond. I knew that what he was saying was so horrifyingly wrong, and it was a prime example of racial prejudice.

But I also couldn’t blame him. As a three-year-old, he’s incredibly impressionable and has only really had enough time in the world to absorb the thoughts and ideas of people around him.

That goes to say that he had to have absorbed these ideas from somewhere else.

He lives with his mom and his older sister, both of whom are black and neither of whom would ever promote the superiority of any race over another. He visits my siblings, my parents and me often, all of whom (including myself) are white. But we too would never promote the superiority of any race over another.

If his feelings don’t come from his family, the most influential group of people for any child, then they must come from his general experiences and interactions with society. Yes, I know, this sounds remarkably like the over-attacked and vague “society” that we all seek to salvage, deconstruct or write BuzzFeed quizzes about, but specific examples may help to clarify what I mean.

Let’s start local to my nephew’s life. His favorite TV shows, like Bob the Builder, only have white protagonists. His favorite picture books, often about trucks and trains, only feature white train conductors, mechanics or engineers. His favorite superheroes and their respective action figures, like Superman, Batman, the Flash and Spider-Man, are also all white.

Now, I’m not saying that every TV show star, literary protagonist and superhero is white. But the majority and the most popular ones are, which is incredibly alarming. Some might argue that even if that were all true and my nephew’s fictional role models were all white, it still would not be enough to induce a racial prejudice.

To address that claim, we’ll shift our lens from local to macro.

Last year I did some research on racially color-blind attitudes (i.e. how post-racial we think we are) and how they correlate with discrimination. I published a piece in The Justice that reflected much of this research, but I’ll quickly summarize for clarity.

The popular television channel MTV generated a nationally representative sample of people ages 14 to 24 (millennials) and found that a majority believes that we are post-racial as a society, with 67% believing that Obama being president is proof.

Research conducted by Brandescha M. Tynes, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, found a strong correlation between racially color blind attitudes and discrimination on social media by examining participants’ reactions to racially obscene pictures (like white actors wearing “blackface”) on sites like Facebook. In other words, she found that there was a correlation between how post-racial we think we are and how willing we are to discriminate.

If a majority of us believe we are post-racial, and if thinking we are post-racial means we’re more likely to discriminate based on race, then a majority of us discriminate based on race in some capacity. Even still, some might argue that there are exceptions to the rule.

In fact, I’ve heard many argue that we at Brandeis are this exception, because we’re in the liberal Northeast on a liberal college campus or because we go to a “diverse” school (according to fall 2013 enrollment: 5.1% African American, 12.4% Asian, 6.5% Hispanic, 50.0% white, 14% nonresident alien, and 11.0% multi ethnic or race, ethnicity unknown).

I ran my own study at Brandeis to see how we compared. I took 64 students’ Color Blind Racial Attitudes Scale (CoBRAS) scores and then had the same students give three-word responses to several videos from Vine that I had selected for their notoriety of being racist. I analyzed the three-word responses using methods described in a study by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, a Duke professor of sociology. The study is titled “The Linguistics of Color Blind Racism: How to Talk Nasty about Blacks without Sounding ‘Racist.’” I found exactly the same correlation that Tynes’ study found: that people’s CoBRAS scores correlated strongly with their demonstrated racial prejudice, as determined by Bonilla-Silva’s study.

Regarding “diverse” schools, I examined this same phenomenon at my high school, Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, a school with a staggering amount of diversity.

The demographic breakdown by race during the 2013/2014 school year was 33.2% African American (compared to 8.7% in the state), 11.7% Asian (compared to 6.1% in the state), 14% hispanic (compared to 17% in the state), and 37.5% white (compared to 64.9% in the state).

You would expect such a statistically diverse school to model the perfectly post-racial society.But it only struck me during my senior year of high school, when we could finally choose most of the classes we were taking, just how segregated the school was. Classes like AP Physics, AP Chemistry, and AP Calculus were over 90% white, which, given that only 37.5% of the student body is white, indicates a serious racial achievement gap. On the first day of my psychology class, which was exactly 50% white and 50% black, we were told we could sit wherever we wanted in the two rows of available seats.

It took me a moment to realize that after everyone had sat down, the entire front row of the classroom was white and the entire back row was black and that no one else had noticed.

Many of us feel personally exempted from the idea that we harbor racial prejudice. We’ll often point out that we have black friends or that we know that George Washington had slaves to prove our innocence. We misunderstand structural racism. It’s not nearly as obvious or simple as supporting slavery or not.

Structural racism is often much more insidious and pervasive, manifesting as subconscious judgements, opinions and thoughts. It’s easy to excuse ourselves from the more conscious and obvious racism, but it’s a lot harder to examine ourselves for those subtleties that are most often ignored.

I do not believe in feeling guilty for things that are out of our control.

We were all born into this society, and we didn’t create it. But we do need to be cognizant of the problem. It may not be our faults that we harbor racial prejudices, but it is our responsibility to try to destruct them. Doing so doesn’t have to change our lives drastically. We can simply question ourselves and reflect. Was the joke I just made racist? Is it weird that I hang out with mostly people from the same racial background as me?

We’re responsible for more than just ourselves. We’re responsible for everyone with whom who we live and everyone who will soon be living with us. We’re responsible for my nephew and for yours.


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