The topic of race has been in the news a lot the past few weeks, but that doesn’t mean we have gotten any better at talking about it. People have celebrated Rosa Parks and Nelson Mandela largely without acknowledging the fights they fought are not yet won. And, in fact, educators have been reprimanded for stating those basic facts. Shannon Gibney, a professor at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, was admonished for making white male students feel uncomfortable in a discussion about structural racism. A high school course in Wisconsin came under intense scrutiny earlier this year when a parent complained it was “teaching white guilt” because it discussed white privilege.
Racism exists. It’s not a coincidence that in every category of wealth and health in the United States, white people are doing better than people of color, especially black people. Ezra Klein gives just a few examples in a recent blog post, along with a perfect visual illustration of how racism has played out in the United States. However, it’s not just a problem here — recently two Roma children were removed from their families in Ireland because they had fairer coloring than their parents. Tests soon confirmed the biological relationship.
I once took a psychology class in college on stereotyping and prejudice. One of the things we talked about is that everyone has racist thoughts at one point or another simply because of the ways we’re socialized. The key lies in realizing the thought is racist and working to dismantle it. For example, a white woman may have a quick, stereotypical reaction to a stranger of another race. However, as soon as she has the thought, she follows up with recognition of the power structures that benefit from trying to instill that reaction in her in the first place. Discrediting the stereotype makes that reaction less likely in the future.
Denying racism is a problem isn’t going to make it go away. Becoming defensive if someone points out a racist joke or comment doesn’t solve anything. Telling people they’re wrong about their lived experiences just makes things worse. Destroying systems of oppression that have been in place for centuries is painful but necessary. Actual lives depend on it. If you really want to honor Rosa Parks and Nelson Mandela, take a close look at your own beliefs and assumptions — and make changes to ensure we all live in a more just society.