Sunday, August 29, 2010

Why Talking About Race is Good for White People

Maybe I'm just given to subversive thinking, but I believe that if a lot of people tend to avoid talking about something, there might be a wound at the heart of the subject.

In this case, the 'wound' is the size of the Grand Canyon: the mutual history of race relations in this country.  And history doesn't end.  It's not as though racial problems became untwisted, all fixed, with the passage of the civil rights act or the election of Barak Obama.  Whether we want to admit it or not, we whites are actually IN the Grand Canyon.  We can pretend that race is a non-issue, but only at a cost to ourselves.

If we were to speak of how we've experienced issues of race, we might reveal pain and confusion.  Beverly Tatum, in her excellent book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? says that for people of all races, recalling their earliest childhood memories of racial awareness conjures the emotions of "confusion, sadness...embarrassment." And, she adds, the majority of these, however young they were, never discussed these formative experiences with anyone. Say a young white child  is unused to seeing anyone but white people.  According to Tatum, it's developmentally appropriate for a small child to ask why the darker skin looks "dirty".  Many parents would shush the question, sending a tacit message: talking about skin color is shameful.  But what if they gently explain that skin naturally comes in different colors?

By not wanting to make a big deal about race, we make a big deal about race.  This makes us mistrustful, and  it fosters stereotypes.  A study done by Princeton University  reveals that in New York City, when young men of equal skills and similar background apply for entry level jobs, white men with criminal records are more likely to be hired than black men with impeccable histories.  Chances are that most of the white people involved in the hiring would not consider themselves racist.

I think of it as "atmospheric racism".  It's everywhere, and it's subtle. I've seen it in my own family, in my neighborhood. And in myself.

Is it possible that white people aren't affected by racism against people of color? Think again. The US economy is directly impacted by incidents that happen even in a racially diverse city like New York.  Extrapolate the findings of the study across the economy, in the areas of housing, law enforcement, education, political life.  I am not saying that people in these professions are more likely to be racist than anyone else.  What I am saying is that each small action motivated by prejudice digs the hole a little deeper.  We have a choice.

Next Post: Aren't Black People Prejudiced, too?


Rich Sidney said...

Good post. I especially like that it's backed up by research.

Of course, you know that you next post's question is obvious? (Of course you do -- it's a point that has to be made, but shouldn't)

HelenQP said...

Ah, thanks for the support!! It was a really fascinating study. And obvious, yes, but...

Enjoy the last days of summer!!