Race was socially constructed in the 17th Century in order to justify racism and European imperialism. In other words the notion of “race” is a lie. Now, especially in America most Americans are ethnically mixed (a little bit of white, a little bit of black, perhaps a dash of Native American etc.) although we only technically consider people “bi-racial” when they have two parents that are from different “races.” We’ve elected our first Black President (who is truly biracial) and interracial relationships are more socially accepted (at least in our era of political correctness). In American nothing is official until it has a unique name, and many people say that we are in a “Post-racial” society. But I beg to defer. Race, especially in America is very much a reality that we have to deal with and regardless of whether it’s right or wrong, we need dialogue in order to overcome this grotesque love affair with this figment of our imagination (race).
Not only are people multi-racial, but we are also multicultural. One’s culture includes: religion, language, sexual orientation, gender, economic status, household makeup, residence, level of formal education, one’s experiences (having traveled to certain places for example), one’s interests (football vs. basketball, coke vs. pepsi etc.). And in order to truly progress as a society we have to start highlighting not only the differences but the things we have in common and rally around that. I’m progressive enough to understand that in certain situations I’m a part of the majority (e.g. I was raised a Christian, and economically I’m a part of the middle class and I’m heterosexual) but in other cases I’m considered a minority (in terms of race and the fact that I was raised in a single parent household). In certain contexts I’m embraced (e.g. as a heterosexual woman for example and policy rules in my favor) but I can also sympathize with the muslim woman’s struggle who wears traditional garb in a post-September 11th world.
I also understand that no one sees my other cultures. You can’t look at me and tell that I’m a hybrid Christian/Muslim/Buddhist (don’t ask lol) or that I live in the Hyde Park neighborhood. The first thing you see is my complexion, my facial features (broad nose, large lips, “big” forehead”) and the texture of my hair (which would be considered course or nappy) and based on what you see – you come to the conclusion that I’m a “black” woman. Race is the only thing that you can see besides gender, and even before you speak to someone (and hear their dialect or language) you recognize their race. When asked to describe someone (especially of a different race) – we say they are black, white, Latino, etc. first. Now this wouldn’t be so much of a problem if race (and physical appearance) didn’t have ramifications but it does and they include:
- Race is often associated with class and social welfare programs. For years many people thought that “black” women were “taking advantage of the system” when in all actuality more white women were on welfare than black women.
- President Obama’s heritage and the tea party movement. From the birthers who are demanding that Barack Obama show his birth certificate (which he has done), to the blatant misrepresentation of his policy — I don’t believe that Barack Obama would be criticized as much if he were not considered black. This was especially evident when President Obama got involved with the Professor Henry Louis Gates issue (we did not see the same level of backlash with Bush and the Schivo case).
- Race is considered in the perception of character. More black people are followed around in upscale stores than whites and black people (even with good credit ratings) are charged higher interest rates. Many people refer to this as the “black tax.”
- Academically, many blacks are assumed to be at majority white institutions due to affirmative action (I went to a predominantly white college and during heated discussion this commonly held misconception reared it’s ugly head regularly).
- Shall we go on?
In order to overcome this institutional racism I think a few things need to happen:
- The history and contributions of African Americans needs to be taught in tandem with the history of European Americans rather than as an addendum in Elementary and Secondary Schools. People should not have to wait to get to college to learn conflicting perspectives. While patriotism is important and our curriculum reflects that, ethnic children (particularly black children) are suffering from psychological trauma due to the lack of balance in education.
- People need to embrace and celebrate that which we have in common and the only way that this can be done is through experience. This is the reason why I am a proponent of Affirmative Action and/or other quota based systems. When people have to socialize and work with each other, stereotypes and generalizations are debunked.
- Dialogue, dialogue, dialogue. The media has a responsibility to discuss the social ills of underrepresented and traditionally exploited communities. This is why I can appreciate “Black in America” and “Latino in America” on CNN. Now we can all find reasons to criticize such programming, but it helped to educate people on issues that they would otherwise not know about and CNN is a respected institution so people were a bit more open to the discussion than they would’ve otherwise been.
As long as African-Americans and other ethnic “minorities” are considered hyphenated Americans we will have issues with prejudice and discrimination. While we have certainly come a long way in waking up from the fantasy that is race in America, we still have a long way to go to become fully conscious and AWAKE!
Watch “A Girl Like Me” which explores the psychological trauma that black children experience in America: http://www.mediathatmattersfest.org/watch/6/a_girl_like_me#
“The Color of Beauty” a black model discusses her experiences with racism in the modeling industry. http://www.nfb.ca/film/colour_of_beauty