In Part I I made the case that one of the major roadblocks to dismantling racism is that white parents don’t talk about racism with their white kids. Or, they wait till they are teenagers missing crucial periods when science tells us kids’ views of race are being solidified. The reality, we find, is that even babies notice race and children as young as four are developing stereotypes and even prejudices about people of other races (often in direct opposition to the attitudes we’d share if we were talking about it with them). The task is clear that we can not wait and we can not remain silent on this important topic. Our kids need us to be talking about racism early and often.
So, what next? I was going to dive into teaching empathy and diversity, offer some resources, and model some conversations but I’ve decided to push that into part III. Why? Because there is another enormous roadblock we have to navigate around before those steps make sense. And here it is: most white adults know very little about racism and are overburdened with misconceptions about it.
In order to teach our kids about racism we first have to address some of the deficiencies in our own understanding of race. Rooting out our own racism is the single best step we can take to raise anti-racist kids. They will see us model our own seeking and enlightenment on the issue and will hopefully be freed from some of the misconceptions we labor under. But, why do we have so many misconceptions about racism?
Remember in elementary school when we learned about human reproduction? People come in two types – male, XY and female, XX – and these were often conflated without thought to “boy” and “girl”. This, we know now, is a completely false, massive oversimplification of the reality of human sex that obscures the very existence of over 200,000 births EVERY DAY that don’t fit this falsehood. I’m not sure why they told us something so wrong. Maybe it was religious obfuscation or just a worry that kids so young “can’t handle” the truth (similar to how people erroneously feel about discussing racism) or, at least in part, the truth of human sexuality just hadn’t trickled down to the non-sexuality researcher in a pre-Internet world. Whatever the reason it’s time we re-educated ourselves about sexuality and racism.
We would laugh (or maybe cry) if someone told us we had to use a 1981 personal computer (with a whopping 16 kb (yes KILObytes) of memory). It’s been 35 years! Science and technology are ever changing and growing. Why do we know this inherently for technology, medicine, and other “hard” sciences but act like what Freud said in 1886 was the end of psychology or that what Spock wrote in 1946 about parenting was the final word?
The first sociologist to talk about racism was W. E. B. Du Bois in 1903 and the term “racism” wasn’t added to the dictionary until 1936. Prior to the 20th century talk of racism (called racialism at the time) was primarily used to bolster white supremacy. Through pseudo-scientific ideology the study of racism was void of a consideration of equality and even more void of voices that weren’t white men. That means we haven’t even reached 100 years of the study of racism with its modern definition. Add to that the lack of sociology (of any kind) taught in US public schools and is it any wonder most adults don’t understand the current, modern definitions and analysis of the problem?
Most of the time when I say, “that is racist” or “I am a racist” and people get upset with me I find that they’re using definitions of racism from the Reagan era. Times have changed. No more 16 kb computers, no more model-t cars on the road, no more slapping infants’ hands for reaching for objects. We’ve grown. Let’s catch up.
10 Ways White People Get Racism Wrong
1. We don’t understand that race is a social construct.
Biologists, sociologists, anthropologists, and geneticists agree that there is no scientific basis for the idea of “race.” It is a social construct. A social construct is a thing that doesn’t exist in objective reality but people choose to believe in order to support something important to the society. For example, I’m sitting here on a Wednesday afternoon and, while afternoon is an objectively real thing (the period of time after the Sun hits its zenith but before it sets), Wednesday is not. There is nothing inherent about this moment that is defined by “wednesday”. It is a constructed idea that helps society run smoothly because it gives us all a united frame of reference for communicating about time.
Race is similar to “wednesday” – it doesn’t exist. We hold on to “wednesday” because it helps us and doesn’t harm anyone. Can the same be said for race?
2. We think we are colorblind.
I talked about this in the first installment so I won’t repeat but it was really common when I was in college to frame anti-racism work as trying to be colorblind (we even had a great En Vogue anthem.) I often hear, “I don’t see race” or, “we are all one race” from white people who are invested in being “good” white people. We’ve already seen that this is completely false. You DO see race. Even infants see it. It might be a social construct but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter. Money is a social construct and try to pretend it doesn’t exist for a few days and tell me how that works out for you.
The fact is we live in a society that is built on centuries of racism. We can hope to one day be “one race” again but we are deluding ourselves if we think that day is today.
3. We don’t understand that evolution brought us variation in skin tone.
So, if race isn’t a real thing, what’s with all the variation in human skin tone? That’s an easy one and I’m frustrated that every kindergartener isn’t taught this.
I’m pale skinned because my ancestors (at least the ancestors who brought me my dominate genes) lived in latitudes closer to the poles than the equator. A black person’s ancestors lived nearer the equator and received much more constant and direct sun exposure. All humans once had the melanin-rich skin needed for living in Africa, our common ancestral home. It was an adaptation to lighter skin that helped early humans thrive in more northern and southern latitudes where too much melanin retarded vitamin D production which was already inhibited by the lack of direct sunlight.
Other differences we encounter in human appearance also have a scientific explanation rooted in evolution. People in cold climates needed their bodies to preserve heat and thus their noses and lips, which had previously been large to disseminate heat in hot African environs, became smaller to reduce the surface area for heat loss when breathing. Tightly curled, flat-cross section hair creates space for airflow allowing for cooling in hot climates while straight, oval-cross section hair acts more like a blanket, keeping much needed heat inside in cold climates.
There are countless children’s books that bring home the value of diversity but adding the science of why we look so different really helps. (While also keeping in mind the vast variety of human presentation even within “race” groups. I’ll talk more about appreciating diversity in part III.)
4. We don’t understand the difference between prejudice and racism.
Growing up in the ‘80s and being raised in an all white place with parents who didn’t want me to be racist, I learned that “racism” was being mean to other people based on their skin color. There were words, too horrific to say aloud, that were “racist.” There were groups of people, including the salutatorian of my class who proudly listed “aryan nation” as his hobby, who were “racists.” Racists were bad people who did bad things. Good people weren’t racists.
We were wrong. And our wrongness ended up being profoundly racist.
Whoa! I get it. I believed the same thing you did. Being told I was dead wrong about what racism is was hard for me to hear the first time. Deep breath. Smaller computers, faster cars, gender isn’t binary, etc. Let’s learn where racism research actually IS right now, not when moon boots were cool.
Prejudice means to “pre-judge” which is the follow-on in our brains to our categorization and stereotyping I talked about in Part I. Pre-judging is one of those ways that our brains create short-cuts. Thin, curvy things on the ground = dangerous. However, when we apply it to other humans, as our brains will do without conscious effort and training otherwise, we create massive inequalities amongst our fellow humans.
If someone is cruel to you because of your skin tone or calls you a racial slur, that is prejudice.
Racism is a different beast. Racism is systemic. Institutionalized. It becomes the way society works. Racism uses stereotypes and prejudices to create whole systems designed to marginalize one group in order to entrench power in the dominant group. Stereotypes like “black people are savage” were used as insults thrown at individual black people. But, they were also used to prejudicially make brown-skinned people owned objects through slavery and to justify “saving” them through colonization or murdering them en masse in every corner of the planet. That is racism.
We are seeing this today too. The stereotype that “black men are dangerous” is being used to prejudicially harass, imprison, and violate black men. Even black boys feel this prejudice against them when the school system treats them unfairly. For example, read these startling statistics),
Black students made up just 18 percent of students in the public schools sampled by the New York Times in 2012, but “they accounted for 35 percent of those suspended once” and 39 percent of those expelled — examining federal data, the Times also noted that “nationwide, more than 70 percent of students involved in arrests or referrals to court are black or Hispanic.” Even black preschoolers were not exempt: They made up the same 18 percent of the student population, but constituted half of all suspensions.
Even black four year olds are treated worse than their white counterparts by the schools.
For white people, when a black person treats you poorly, calling you a name or making assumptions about you that are rooted in a false stereotype, it is prejudice you are experiencing. When you have to send your sons to school knowing they have an uphill battle just to stay out of prison because they are treated as criminals at four years old, that is racism.
Having someone say, “white people can’t dance” is a prejudiced stereotype. Being unable to get a bank to give you a loan to buy a house is racism.
Having someone call you “Becky” in a disdainful way can be mean. A 12 year old boy being shot by a state official on sight for suspicion of having a firearm is racism.
Having someone tell you that you’re being “a baby” when you’re in pain is rude. Having medical doctors give you pain medication 39% less often than white people with the same malady is racism. Worse, the idea that black bodies feel pain less than white bodies has be found in children as young as seven.
The point is, when we pretend that the prejudice we may experience is the same as racism we belittle the very real, and very life-threatening ways racism works.
5. We think “reverse racism” is real.
Reverse racism – the idea of “racism towards” white people – isn’t a thing. It is simply the bellyaching of white people clinging desperately to their white supremacy. White people can experience prejudice as we’ve seen, they can also be the victims of classism and sexism, but they can never experience racism as we’ve just defined it. For a white person to experience racism – that is systemic, institutionalized discrimination – there would need to be a system of black, institutionalized power to benefit from and that has never existed in the US.
Remember, racism isn’t hate. Racism is a system. Individual people of any color can be hateful, prejudiced and discriminatory. You, as a white person, can be subject to prejudice. Saying that is not racism doesn’t mean it is ok that you’ve been discriminated against. It just means you understand the difference between individual behavior and systemic practices.
6. We don’t understand our white privilege.
The actual reverse of racism isn’t racism against white people. It’s the privilege of being white. This is another topic that gets people’s hackles up. Especially in this economy with the financial hardships so many of us face, it is hard to imagine being white as privileged.
I already talked about this in part I when I told the story of my husband’s job and his black co-worker that has to knock on each door to avoid having the police called on him. Each example of racism has its reverse of white privilege:
The ability to get a loan for a house is a privilege of being white.
Being able to be a normal four year old who acts out in school and doesn’t get expelled is a privilege of being white.
Being unharmed and arrested for suspicion of a crime instead of dead is a privilege of being white.
The ability to get pain medication and be taken seriously by doctors is a privilege of being white.
White privilege is invisible to white people. It is hard to notice when your day is run-of-the-mill that you’ve benefited from your skin color dozens of times. The privilege conveyed in a white supremacist society to white people is like water to a fish. You don’t notice it unless you decide you will notice it. This is why Peggy McIntosh calls white privilege the “invisible knapsack.” We carry it with us everywhere and we aren’t even aware of it.
White privilege is also about white-as-default. When part I of this series was published I had more than one person tell me I shouldn’t have called it “Talking Racism with White Kids” because it wasn’t necessary to specify or they felt I was unfairly targeting white parents.
Well, let me be clear: I AM targeting white parents and I think that is perfectly fair. When it comes to dropping the ball on talking about race with our kids it is white people who are the problem. You and me and people who look like us. We are doing it wrong. That we don’t expect to be singled out is white privilege.
7. We don’t understand our own implicit bias.
If you send out identical resumes with only one difference – one has a sterotypically white name and the other a stereotypically black name – the one with the white name will get 50% more callbacks.
It would be convenient for us to assume all the resume reviewers were just KKK card-carrying racists and thus explicitly tossed out resumes of Lakisha and Jamal and kept the ones of Emily and Greg. This would help us feel safe that racists are “those people” and not us.
We all have biases – both explicit and implicit. I explicitly state I’m biased against dropping the oxford comma. I openly and consciously hold that bias. A KKK member explicitly holds the bias that white people are better than black people. Explicit biases are easy to see and label.
Implicit biases, on the other hand, are particularly pernicious because they are not out in the open. An implicit bias is one we hold subconsciously, often not even aware that we have the bias.
For example, Project Implicit, a Harvard research group that has been studying implicit attitudes since 1998, has found strong implicit discrimination attitudes amongst people with explicit anti-racism stances. In other words, even people who openly state anti-racist viewpoints show subconscious biases against people of color. Even people of color show these biases (although to a lesser extent than white people). We have been born into and raised inside of a white-favoring society that sends us daily messages that are pro-white and/or anti-black. It would be more strange if we weren’t racist.
We know that our brains like shortcuts and that as a result they are prone to generalizations and stereotypes. Our brains are also shockingly susceptible to even subliminal suggestions. Being reminded about death, even subconsciously with images flashed faster than our brains can register seeing them, changes behaviors and attitudes often in a prejudicial way (favoring in-group individuals and demanding punishment for out-group individuals). White people reminded of counterstereotypical success stories featuring black people (like, for example, President Obama or Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison) were more likely to indicate that racism isn’t a huge problem in the US even when these same people explicitly stated that one person’s success didn’t affect overall race issues.
The fact is, through repeated experiments in a variety of cultures and in myriad bias areas, humans have been shown to have very impressionable brains. The images and ideas we see and hear, even incidentally and without conscious thought, have a measurable effect on our behaviors.
8. We ignore media bias.
The concept of implicit bias and how it forms is so important because we are all subjected to biased images and words on a daily basis through media. From children’s TV shows to local newspapers, the US has an abysmal track record on unbiased reporting.
This shows up in how we report crime. Headlines with black suspects are more likely to dehumanize the suspect with words like “thug” and the images used are often mugshots. While white suspects have the privilege of having their humanity reinforced in the headline and having non-mugshot pictures used. Look at this example from Sociological Images.
The white suspects are shown in school photos and the headline points out that they are university students while the black suspects are shown in unflattering mug shots and not mentioned at all in the headline. Now imagine this every day in every paper, every online news article, every evening news program every day for your entire existence on this planet. It becomes a subtle, invisible but powerful programming in how we subconsciously view white people, black people and crime (it’s also interesting to note how much more the media reports on violent crime instead of the much more prevalent types of crime like “white collar” crime and property crimes. The paradigm of crime news in the US is based in fear even before it steers into racist territory.)
This is particularly devastating when you look at the sheer volume of bias we are fed each day through the news. “According to New York City Police Department statistics, African Americans were suspects in 54 percent of murders, 55 percent of thefts, and 49 percent of assaults. But the suspects in the stations’ coverage were black in 74 percent of murder stories, 84 percent of theft stories, and 73 percent of assault stories (source).”
In other words, the stereotype I discussed above that “black men are dangerous” is constantly being reinforced through biased reporting. This leads to violence against black men based on this conditioned fear-bias we’ve been fed.
For example, so-called “stand your ground” laws, which rely heavily on the idea that a person was “justifiably afraid” when they open fire, disportionately harms black people. A white person who uses “stand your ground” as a defense of shooting a black person is 354% more likely to be judged justified than a black person using the defense in the shooting of a white person (and to dispel the idea that non-stand your ground states are all equal and peachy the number is 250% more likely in those states). It is less relevant to find out whether a police officer or civilian gunman is individually “racist” (usually used to mean they are overtly, explicitly hateful and prejudiced) and more important to look at how we are all conditioned to feel a certain way about black people and how, even unconsciously, this plays out in fear-based responses that kill black people disportionately more often than white people.
None of this means that there is some white guy at your local paper rubbing his hands together thinking “how can I hurt black people today?” (At least, I hope that is rare!) That, once again, is the erroneous idea that racism stems from overt hate and “racist people.” The people who work in news media (which are nearly 90% white) have been conditioned in the same way for several generations. This isn’t about pointing fingers and saying “that person is racist” – rather, it is about understanding the racism we all carry inside us from decades of intentional and unintentional media bias.
9. We misunderstand black anger.
Movements like #BlackLivesMatter are seen by some white people as a threat (some even characterize it as a terrorist organization). Even progressive, anti-racist people will bemoan the movement for “disrupting” events and “being angry.” We seemingly agree with them but just want them to simmer down and be calmer because you, “catch more flies with honey.”
This is called tone policing and it is racist. Asking oppressed people to consider your comfort level above their own righteous feelings is the height of white privilege. And it is just plain cruel. If your daughter came home hysterical because someone sexually assaulted her would you tell her to calm down and say it again in a more friendly voice? Maybe with a smile too? No. Then why are we asking black mothers and sisters to “take it down a notch” when they’re telling us we are killing their sons and brothers?
When protesters interrupt a favorite presidential candidate, for example, we feel angry and frustrated that they are “attacking” people “on their side.” But, if we listen closely there is a lesson there. We are getting a dose of what oppression feels like every day. Why wouldn’t they be angry?
10. We center whiteness in everything.
When we feel fear or anger at black anti-racism activists or expect them to consider our comfort level in their work we are partaking in one of the most difficult things to overcome as a would-be ally: white-centeredness. We have to work hard to de-center ourselves and our feelings/needs/desires. To truly break free from our racist conditioning we have to realize that we’ve been raised in a culture that elevates whiteness in all things.
It isn’t surprising we feel this way. In addition to the media bias, we go to schools where we learn white history (which we just call history), white holidays (which we just call holidays, for example, Columbus Day), and white-centered patriotism (which we just call patriotism). “Flesh tone” means a peachy pale color in crayons, we see ourselves in TV, commercials, billboards, we hear ourselves read the news, we see ourselves in our leaders, we see our stories as “the” stories. Black representation is still “counterstereotypical” and often side-kick status. Main characters are white (and if you ever think “racism is over” just look at the racist reaction to the unveiling of a black main character on Star Wars). We’ve always been elevated as the center of the cultural universe and this conditioning spills over into tone policing, respectability politics, and erasure of the people whose slave labor built this country.
For example, thinking that #blacklivesmatter means your life doesn’t matter is white-centeredness. We don’t think that “save the rainforest” means burn the other forests to the ground, so why do we think #blacklivesmatter means white lives don’t?
Why does an article targeted at white parents make us cry racism? We don’t think that an article geared towards raising non-sexist boys is sexist because it leaves out girls. The conversations are decidedly different when you are talking to a person of the power-class vs. a person of the oppressed class.
Why does the idea that white people have privilege make us defensive? We don’t think that the privileges afforded men over women are silly (for example the pay gap), why do the privileges afforded white over black make us grasp at excuses instead of solutions (for example, while white women make only $.78 on a white man’s dollar, black men only make $.75 cents. Black women $.64 cents and hispanic women $.54.)?
The reason we are prone to this is everything has always been centered around us and it throws us off balance when we are confronted with this fact.
The most important thing you can do to become less racist is stop talking and listen. Read and listen to the perspectives of people of color. When someone tells you that your words or actions are racist, swallow that initial reaction to argue and just sit with the discomfort. When a person of color seems angry in their response don’t tone police.
It isn’t about you. It isn’t about you. Everything isn’t about you. We’ve dominated this conversation for 300 years. It is time to listen.
Here are some excellent websites run by and for black people that I have learned so much from: Black Girl Dangerous, The Root, Blavity, For Harriet, The Grio. Also, two white-authored websites that have helped me: Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) and Sociological Images which talks about more than race but is excellent for understanding implicit bias and media bias.
I know it is a heavy thing to see behind the curtain and realize that what we thought was racism – hate and pointy hats – is the tiniest tip of the iceberg of racism. The real bulk of racism is much harder to find, root out, and cure because it is simultaneously ubiquitous and subvert. I think it is a normal response to feel overwhelmed by the juggernaut of racism. What can I do about something so big and woven into the fabric of our society? And what hope do I possibly have of helping my kids when I’m going to be working on this inside myself for…well, forever.
Don’t be discouraged! Understanding racism in a new way is a huge step towards change in yourself and your kids will benefit from your growth. Next month I’ll talk about some of the ways we can teach anti-racism to our kids and provide answers to some of your questions. If you have a question ‘d love to hear from you! Please contact me on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/ParentingGently
Author note: There were so many examples of racism to use, many more than I could fit into one article. For this reason I focused my examples on black americans. It is important to note that other peoples of color face both similar and unique challenges as well as a result of racism.