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“Bigger Than A Nigger’s Heart”

I promised myself a little time to vent about the nigger “joke” I heard on Christmas, and then I would forgive and move on.  At the close of the sentence, “bigger than a nigger’s lips,” my mind went spiraling.  I was shocked that I heard what I heard.  Five feet away from me?  In mixed company on many accounts?  How was the joke even relevant to the conversation?  How, in 2013, do whites still make nigger “jokes”?  I felt eyes dart in my direction.  Oh, Eric — the Black guy — the professor — the one who does research on racism — the one who speaks openly about racism — oh, gosh.

I tried to play it cool.  But, that all dissolved in a matter of minutes.  Sitting in the car for the remainder of our time at the party was the only thing keeping me from vomiting.  Or at least it felt as though I would, as nausea built from feeling trapped between politeness and my burning, screaming mind.  I promised I would get over it by the next day, continuing to focus on racism as a system of oppression — not individual acts and attitudes.

But, in just seeing @StandForOurFlag, a defender of the Confederate flag, notify me that many in the US South continue to feel nostalgia for the confederacy (which lasted for four years) 150 years later because of something about liberty (give me a break), I cannot quickly get over the Christmas event.  Two days later, I saw a Confederate flag waving proudly on my way to the mall.  I tweeted about it, which is why I received the aforementioned response about liberty for (whites in) the South.  Liberty?

Source: Kevin WongIn the spirit of one of my my 2013 resolutions (now one for 2014 because it is still a work in progress) — forgiveness — I had hoped to move on from the nigger “joke.”  Black people, from capture, forced removal, enslavement, to Jim Crow, lynching, rape, to a continuing, yet subtler practice of racism today have been forgiving whites for a lot.  Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and other Civil Rights movement leaders advocated for forgiveness even in the face of vehement racist hatred.  It takes a huge, committed, faith-filled heart to forgive that.  But, I have been trying.  Something akin to “forgive the sinner, but not the sin” because racist individuals are simply a product of their racist society.  It takes an evolved mind and spirit to be better than your upbringing, in my opinion.  People can change — I have, and I have seen others become better, more compassionate, more open-minded, more understanding, and more critical of inequality and injustice.

I can think of something bigger than a nigger’s lips: a nigger’s heart.  Still today, Black people and other people of color fight to make the US a better, more equal place — even with a continued willingness to work with white people where they are.  Despite accusations of “playing the race card” and being hypersensitive, there is a great deal of patience afforded to whites without laying blame for this country’s racist past.  We ask only to address today’s racism, which is a product of past racism.  You cannot eradicate racial inequalities today without addressing the impact of centuries of enslavement, disenfranchisement, violence, and barriers to advancing and succeeding in life.  You cannot tell a group of people who have never experienced full, equal citizenship in this nation to “get over” the very events and treatment that continues to constrain their lives.

So, I admit that alongside my forgiveness is a twinge of resentment.  I have been asked again and again to forgive, even to forget, even to forgo recognizing bigotry when it occurs.  But, I am sometimes automatically damned, accused, found guilty, punished simply because of my racial identity.  I am asked to forgive those who refuse to forgive me for not being like them.  How small is your heart (and your mind) if you automatically punish someone for being something you have decided is inferior or undesirable?  So, we’ve got you beat there, racist white people!  In this vein, we have the more open minds, we have the bigger, more forgiving hearts.  We are able to simultaneously love this country and hate its ugliness in order to make it a better place.

I will keep forging ahead in my work to fight racism as a system, including racist treatment and attitudes.  But, I think I have reached my capacity for forgiveness.  Now approaching 30 years, I am beginning to feel heartache.  I cannot forgive the murder of Trayvon Martin, nor that the State, which unfairly punishes those it should be protecting, that let his murderer free.  I cannot forgive “oh, I didn’t know anyone would be offended,” and then be told celebrating the racist legacy of the South is a matter of liberty.  I do not know that I can forgive the political sabotage driven by racism that has severely hindered President Obama’s important legacy in this nation.

My heart is big, but it would burst if I forgave any more without forgiveness in return.

Actually, Racism Is Probably Worse Than We Realize

In 2008, the argument that race has declined in importance became the crystallized “post-racial” thesis upon the election of President Barack Obama.  By his re-election in 2012, some had offered clarification that race still exists, but it is racism that has disappeared – the “post-racism” thesis.  There it sits, almost as a sense of relief — “whew, now we can stop tip-toeing around people of color, and supporting these race-related causes like Affirmative Action.”

On day 2 of George Zimmerman’s trial for the murder of Trayvon Martin, the supposed reality of post-racism contrasts with that of the hyperrelevance of race and racism.  A young Black man was killed because his race made him a suspect.

Today, Blackness is still a crime, and whites are charged with the task of policing Black people.  The harshness of law enforcement and the criminal justice system is magnified for Blacks, from the use of excessive force to longer sentences to denial of justice all together.  Even those who are not police officers, judges, and lawyers serve to police Blacks; the days of lynching Black women and men has merely evolved into a calmer form of extralegal vigilance.

For example:

My blood boiled as I watched this video.  I posted it in various places on Facebook, expecting similar outrage.  The video was widely shared, but often introduced with concerned, but surprisingly calm notes: “watch this”; “wow”; “this is messed up.”  Those were comments mostly comments from white people.

But, even some Black folks articulated concern, but little surprise.  In fact, a few people seemed to think that it was problematic that I was surprised, and that they are superior in some way for being unmoved.  The unsympathetic response of “why are you surprised?” stung, playing on my fear that I am “not Black enough” or “too white” to fully comprehend the severity of contemporary racism.  I suppose the anonymity of the internet is a dual-edged sword, where hostility is widely expressed and, absent of an in-person connection, there is little expression of empathy and solidarity.

Racism Is Worse Than We Realize

As I further processed my reactions to this video, I realized that my surprise and anger are warranted.  Yes, in the self-confident sense where I do not need to justify my feelings, or shape or suppress them according to others’ opinions.  But, also because the sheer pervasiveness and severity of racism cannot be fully comprehended by one person.  Even as a researcher, I am unable to see every instance, manifestation, and consequence of racism in every corner of the world.

Like this video, racism that hides behind seemingly race-neutral interactions, laws, and practices is harder to see, and near impossible to prove exists.  Today, we are dealing with consciously suppressed and unconscious racial prejudice — both which shape behaviors.  Few racists openly, proudly identify themselves as racists, and most racists do not even know that they are racist.

Racial discrimination, too, is harder to identify, particularly absent of outwardly expressed racial bias.  It is no longer limited to exclusion at the entry point or first contact.  The “whites only” sign has to be implied since it cannot be hung from the front door.  We may be hired, but then harassed on the job or denied opportunities to advance.  We may receive a loan, but are offered one that is economically risky.

On the ground, we cannot see other interactions to “accurately” assess whether we have been discriminated against.  (This speaks to the importance of research to look at the broader patterns!)  Like the racial profiling video above, Black people may suspect unfair or differential treatment driven by racial prejudice, but rarely can we compare the same situation experienced by a white person.  Even in some of the recent audit studies that demonstrate racial discrimination in the labor force, some of the participants were unaware of the discriminatory treatment they faced until they compared notes with others and the researchers.

In reality, racism and the pervasiveness of racial discrimination are likely far worse than we can imagine.  So, I stand by my surprise because it is a reasonable reaction to such harsh reminders of the everyday consequences of racism.  But, also because I much prefer to hope for something better than resign myself to accept the world as it is.

Another Consequence Of Everyday Racism: Daily Disappointment

Racism, as a social system, shapes and structures every aspect of society.  As sociologist Eduado Bonilla-Silva argues in his structural perspective of racism (PDF), racism operates as a social structure that has taken on a life of its own, and serves as an “organizing principle of social relations in itself” (page 475).  So, a more appropriate conceptualization of racism reminds us that it operates as a system of oppression, not merely an ideology (i.e., racial prejudice or, the more sanitized reference to “racial attitudes”) nor actions (i.e., interpersonal racial discrimination).  Borrowing from sociologist Barbara Risman‘s thesis of gender (specifically sexism) as a social structure (PDF), we can think of racism as system that operates on multiple levels:

  1. Racialized Individuals: aspects of the self directly related to race (e.g., racial identity, racial attitudes) and consequences of racism (e.g., health, income, education, values, aspirations).
  2. Racialized Interactions: re-creation and reinforcement of racial inequality in interactions between individuals (e.g., racial discrimination; “doing” race and holding one another accountable for “appropriate” performances of our presumed race; immediate, automatic categorization of others by race).
  3. Racialized Institutions: laws, policies, organizational practices, cultural and social norms that re-create and reinforce racial inequality (e.g., racial disparities in the criminal justice system, redlining and other forms of housing discrimination, pay inequality, “professional” standards that privilege white middle-class ways of living and behaving).

When framed this way, our challenge is not to “prove” when race does matter or when racism is at play.  Rather, racism is understood as universally and perpetually relevant, shaping the core of every aspect of social life.  We are hard pressed, then, to prove when race doesn’t mater or when racism isn’t at play.  This puts to rest the misguided and naive discussions about the supposed “post-racial” society.  And, it helps to maintain attention to racial prejudice, while not being completely distracted by playing the “who’s a racist?” game.

Everyday Racism

Even in this modern era — supposedly “post-racial,” or even “post-racist,” — racism operates as a daily burden in the lives of racial and ethnic minorities.  As such, scholars have introduced a fitting concept: everyday racism:

Racism is easily recognized in its extreme forms (e.g., white youth beating up and killing dark-skinned people), or in its overt forms (e.g., throwing bananas at black players on European soccer fields). Everyday racism can be more coded (a white teacher saying to an African-American student: “How come you write so well?”); ingrained in institutional practice (appointing friends of friends for a position, as a result of which the workplace remains white); and not consciously intended (when lunch tables in a canteen or cafeteria are informally racially segregated and the white manager “naturally” joins the table with the white workers where only they will benefit from casually shared, relevant information and networking).

The term is quite apt, first, because of its reference to the daily occurrences of subtle actions, slights, and microaggressions, and second, because it refers to a common, “everyday” feel of the reality of racism.  By attending to the extreme, overt expressions of racism of a few “bad apples,” we miss the widespread existence of minor, subtle expressions of racism.  Though a rare slight here or there has little effect, the everyday exposure to these slights adds up, taking a toll on the health and well-being of each person of color.

In fact, the health consequence of everyday racial discrimination is comparable to, and may even exceed, those of major events of discrimination, like being unfairly fired or denied a job.  This is, in part, due to the heavy cognitive and emotional toll of processing — “was that discrimination?  was that because I’m Latina?”  Despite the stereotype that people of color are quick to “play the race card,” to assume unsatisfactory or differential outcomes are the result of discrimination, most probably go through a series of steps in their heads before concluding racism may have been at play.  That represents a lot of used up mental and emotional energy, on top of all of the other stressors everyone experiences regardless of race, as well as those disproportionately faced by people of color (e.g., poverty, barriers to important institutions like education, health care, etc.).

Ironically, because of accusations of hypersensitivity or that one is “playing the race card,” people of color face even greater pressure to process potentially racist events before making such conclusions.  Yet, one still faces the risk of having one’s claims of victimization denied or dismissed.  This, then, could lead one to doubt or question their own experiences, or feel that white people — even those who proclaim to be allies, liberal, anti-racist, or “color-blind” — just don’t “get” it and thus aren’t worth speaking with about issues related to race and racism.

Another Consequence Of Everyday Racism: Daily Disappointment

I will say up front that this may be my own, personal burden: daily disappointment.  It may come as a surprise that I am stubbornly optimistic.  I have chosen to devote my life’s work to challenging inequality, prejudice and discrimination, and exclusion, and promoting equality, acceptance, and diversity because I have high hopes that such change can (continue to) occur.  And, though a product of their time and social context, humans are capable of good, humanity, and peace.  So, despite the crappy things that I may experience, witness, or read or hear about today, I will sleep tonight and wake tomorrow with replenished hope for peace and justice.

My optimism is a gift.  And, it is often a curse, leaving me open to constant disappointment.  An example:

I spent my first Christmas with my partner a couple of months ago.  Deciding against participating in the capitalist take-over of the holiday, we spent the day together as our “gifts” to each other.  I decided to take a brief walk to get some fresh air, and used getting sodas from the local gas station as a fine excuse.  (There wasn’t much else open on the holiday.)  I walked to the store jamming to Shangela’s “Werqin’ Girl,” and feeling great (I’m digging songs by drag queens these days).  I headed to the back toward the coolers, and two women entered the store after me.  With sodas in hand, I got in line to check out.  Two people were ahead of me in line.  I watched as the cashier told one customer (a young white man), “you’re coming back later?  Oh, you can pay for this then.”  Such trust.  And, sadly, my first thought was, “there is no way this white cashier would trust me to pay for something later, no matter how many times he sees me as a customer here.”  It is what it is in this racist country.

Then, another customer (a white woman) cut in front of me in line.  I thought many things in that moment: maybe she hasn’t seen me yet; maybe she is planning to get behind me once we move forward; maybe she is with this other (white woman) customer.  Maybe there is some logical reason for her otherwise rude behavior.  The other customer began checking out.  The person who cut in line did not check out with her.  She did not move behind me upon seeing me.  I became angry.  “Should I tell her, politely, that I was next in line?”  I decided to let it go, albeit unsuccessfully.  My anger started to beat out my logic.  I moved closer, attempting to rely on her presumed fear of me as a large brown man to get her attention.  Nothing.  With her purse on the counter, partially open, I rested my hand close to it, trying harder to make her uncomfortable.  Nothing.  She checked out.  I checked out.

Outside, I noticed the two white women were together, though they did not check out their purchases within the same transaction.  I walked out toward the street, putting my headphones back on.  I noticed the two women pull up behind me in their van.  An opportunity for revenge!  I stood in the way of their exit.  I looked both ways before crossing the street: once, twice, three times.  When it was obvious that the street was safe to cross, and had been for more time than presumably necessary, I looked back at the woman who cut in front of me in line.  Then, I looked her up and down, and proceeded to cross the street.

The entire event disappointed me.  Can’t I go one day — even Christmas day — without being forced to think about racism?  And, my own (constrained) actions disappointed me.  Wasn’t there a better way to handle the situation?  But, unfortunately, people of color are constantly placed in these situations to process, to weigh appropriate courses of action (or inaction).  We are placed in situations in which we are forced to ask, “was that about race?”  And, no matter our response, we are left thinking about it days, months, or years later, while it never develops into a significant memory in the minds of our privileged counterparts.

The insult to the injury of these events of everyday racism are the responses that belittle our experiences: “are you sure that was about race?”; “maybe you’re overreacting”; “maybe…” [some other “logical” explanation]; “just try to forget about it.”  Upon facing some subtle, minor, and presumably “innocent” incident, we are then told by a group who are not faced with such a burden that our reaction, how we feel, think, or act, is inappropriate or excessive.  Figuratively speaking, you are punched in the gut and then asked why you are curled over and groaning.

I suppose I could avoid these daily disappointments by assuming the worst in people.  But, disappointed or not, I am inclined to continue to see the potential for good and kindness in every person.  I can’t imagine that great leaders of yesterday and today would be as strong in their conviction if they had little hope for humanity.