What does racism mean to you?
For a long time I didn’t believe in modern racism. As a woman, I could recognize imbalances of power in the world. But racism? It was a bad word about bad people, and it was in the past. However, my understanding has been evolving over the last few years. I now know that racism persists in America, and I am committed to working against it.
This active engagement is called anti-racism. I recently read What Does it Mean to Be White? by Dr. Robin DiAngelo. In the book she explains that the goal of anti-racist education is to:
disrupt predictable patterns of inequities in our society by “enabling people to identify, name, and challenge the norms, patterns, traditions, structures, and institutions” that keep those inequities in place.
Before reading this book, this term--anti-racism--seemed abrasive to me. Seeing it defined in this way was a breakthrough in my understanding because it captured the actions I try to take in my life. As I continued reading, Dr. DiAngelo outlined the tenets of anti-racist education. As I moved through each of the principles, detailed below, I recognized my journey in their words.
Racism Exists Today, In Both Traditional And Non-Traditional Forms
Blindspot is an introspective look at the "hidden biases of good people", and it continues to teach me a lot. Just this week, I was searching for “twins clipart” to use in a class activity. I had pulled quite a few examples before I noticed that all of the children were white. The lack of people of color in a basic image search, and my lack of awareness--this is the bias that the authors call out.
Bias is a survival instinct that all people have. I wasn’t intentionally excluding anyone, but these biases risked leaving my students (over 90% of whom are Latinx) out of the opportunity to see themselves in the lesson I was planning.
Thankfully in this instance I caught myself and changed course. But how many times do similar situations occur in my life and around me without corrective action? This is non-traditional racism, a newer, sneakier form.
All Members Of This Society Have Been Socialized To Participate In Racism. This Occurred Without Our Consent And Doesn’t Make Us Bad People.
Recently, I played the Identity Card Toss Game, a group activity in which each person was asked to write down identifiers in the following categories, one per card. Race. Gender. Religion. Name. Other.
In secret, we each tossed away the least important card to us. We did this repeatedly, until each of us held only one card. We then shared out this most important part of our identity with the group. In the end, many of the people of color were holding their racial identity card. Most of the white people confessed that our “white” card was the first we tossed, without a care.
This, to me, is what it means to be white.
To be white is to be oblivious to the relevance that race and racism have in our individual lives and in our collective culture. When we are confronted with racialization in the world, we push back. We proclaim that “we don’t see color” without realizing that this statement closes us off from hearing the experiences of people of color, or valuing them for who they are. We have been so carefully taught to Not Be Racist, that we instantly reject any suggestion that racism is acting in our lives.
I now realize this is not helpful as I work to better understand and interrupt the harms that impact my students. The Card Toss Game taught me that I can’t see the whole story. Dr. DiAngelo’s writing taught me that this doesn’t make me a bad person.
All White People Benefit From Racism, Regardless Of Intentions.
American culture is centered on whiteness. That fact has shaped my identity and given me unearned, powerful privileges in my life. Eric Jensen explains this as wind in my sails that I cannot see, blowing me in a positive direction through life.
I can feel this wind in my own classroom. I teach enrichment and highly capable programs, and five years ago my classroom didn’t reflect the majority Latinx population of our school. At all. I learned that this is not an isolated issue, but the status quo across the nation.
Traditional achievement measures and identification procedures are good at recognizing the talent and potential of white students but consistently miss these strengths in students of color. As my school district has worked to better understand and recognize the strengths of the students in our care, we have begun to realize how much we had overlooked.
I don’t believe anyone intended to set up advanced learning opportunities that would leave students behind. We just didn’t realize that we were. In the meantime, white students have been advancing and excelling within opportunities to which students of color have had limited access.
That is the invisible wind. It is called institutional racism, and it pervades all of our systems.
We Have to Take Responsibility for Racism.
Brad Brown, an equity facilitator from the Puget Sound ESD, recently told me that taking responsibility for racism does not mean asking if it is taking place in a given situation, but how.
So how is racism taking place now? Through writing this blog? Through reading it?
As I reflect, I realize that by writing this I’m putting my own story at the center, another white perspective on the experiences of people of color. I question if I should publish it at all. For now, I will--to take responsibility for racism in and around me. I hope that as I continue this journey, the answer to that question and others will become ever more clear. Only one thing I know for sure.
I have so much more to learn.
Resources that Have Guided Me:
- How to Overcome Biases? Walk Boldly Toward Them, TED Talk by Verna Myers
- Interchangeable White Ladies Podcast, by Hope Teague-Bowling & Annie Jansen
- Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehishi Coates
- The conversation I’m tired of not having, by Nathan Bowling
- Blogs by Tom Rademacher
- Books by Robin DiAngelo
- Beginning Courageous Conversations About Race by Glenn E. Singleton & Cyndie Hays
- Surviving institutions that weren’t created for you, by Yareliz Mendez-Zamora
- On Twitter: @MNTOY2006, @TheJLV, @EspiOnFire, @MandyRheaWrites
Next on My List:
- Cultural Competency