I don’t profess to be an expert on race, racism, prejudice, or similar social issues. I’ve just had some thoughts recently on the matter, and figured I’d put together some of my questions, answers, and thoughts here.
What is racism?
I think before we try to end racism, we have to understand what it is.
racism |ˈrāˌsizəm| noun
the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, esp. so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.
This is what I got from the dictionary, and I really like the way that the definition points out that the differences we draw between races in ability or characteristics are inherently racist if they are intended to distinguish one race as better or worse than another. I learned recently that race is a social construct; if you were to line everyone in the world up by skin color, from darkest to lightest, there would be no dividing lines between any groups, but rather a gradual imperceptible shift of color. Race is a set of lines that we have chosen to draw between ourselves. And racism is when we use those man-made lines to say that one group is better than another.
So is it racist to say that (for example) all black people are better at basketball than all white people? Yes, it is. It’s racist because it draws lines between two races to make one better than another. This gets me to thinking: what other reason would we have for drawing lines between races other than to distinguish one as better, worse, preferable, superior, inferior, etc.?
So how do we put an end to it?
I tend to think of things simply. I think that when we decide to make a thing complex, we make it harder to understand and manage. Albert Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” So I have a simple way to start on the path towards the end of racism. I don’t propose this as a quick fix, but rather a long-term shift in thinking that might eventually be able to push racism out of our minds.
We need to erase the lines between race and focus on individuals instead of groups.
I recently attended the Southwest Conference on Language Teaching. In one of the sessions, Rafael Gómez taught that American-born Spanish speakers and members of culturally Hispanic families struggle with school, and that the biggest question that gets in the way concerns identity. These “heritage speakers” aren’t sure if they’re Hispanic, American, both, or neither. Once they discover who they are, they can begin to fit somewhere. One big take-away from the session, however, was that each and every heritage speaker will have a different identity, because they are each individuals.
I had lunch with a friend recently who belongs to a racial group that has historically been in the minority in the United States. We had a conversation about racism (perceived and real), and how it is still a very prevalent issue. She talked about how members of her race expect her to behave a certain way, and members of the majority expect her to behave a certain way, but she decides to behave a certain way in order to succeed. We do have to fit into the culture of power in order to fit in, that’s a reality that we do need to face. And currently, that culture seems to include race, whether or not it should. She also mentioned that there are certain people that she can just be herself around, regardless of the racial implications, because they just don’t know her and who she is.
We need to take the focus off of race and put it on individuals
Do we still need to talk about racism? Sure. I think that we need to be aware of what’s going on. Not as a way to build a laundry list of reasons to get angry. I think that an accurate awareness of the racism that still exists, coupled with a healthy desire and drive for change, can make the world a better place. Do we need to stop talking about race and racism? Maybe eventually, but I believe, not now. Do we need to start talking about individuals, where they come from, what they think, what they struggle with, what successes they have, what world views they have?
Nieves Knapp has said in regards to foreign language teaching, “If every child were to learn another language, there would be less war.” I believe that as we learn to see through the eyes of another, speak through the language of another, walk in the shoes of another; we will learn to be more compassionate, more understanding, and less inclined to hold firmly to the belief that any race, group, or culture is better than another, but that we are, in fact, just different individuals.
Less war sounds like a good thing.