Friday, June 15, 2007
A Different World: Racism
In fourth grade, when learning about slavery for the first time, my teacher assured the class that racism was a thing of the past in America. This lesson plan was a pretty big departure from learning about the heroic Christopher Columbus finding the (completely deserted, of course) New World and the wonderful Thanksgiving feasts that ensued. Being nine, I'm not sure if we all really grasped what slavery was and what it meant for our country, but we were all happy to hear that there were absolutely no consequences for the enslavement and subsequent harassment, segregation and bigotry that followed. Whew!
My college (like my elementary, middle and high school) is a predominantly white institution. In many of my classes, it is a sea of Caucasian. Most students come from similar backgrounds -- upper middle class households and towns with little to no diversity. Another thing many of these students have in common is the fact that they are, from my point of view, at least slightly racist. Not all, to be sure, but a significant number.
And why not? As an educated white person in an all white classroom, it is easy to safeguard against being called a racist. You simply tack onto the beginning of your sentence "I'm not racist, but..." and you are at liberty to say whatever you'd like! "I'm not racist, but if they don't like America, maybe they should go back to Africa." "I'm not racist, but they already have affirmative action, what more do they want?" "I'm not racist, but I want to be able to say the N word if they can." "I'm not racist, but if my immigrant ancestors could make their own way, they should be able to, too." Direct quotes from some of my entirely "non-racist" peers. I wonder, would they have been so free to voice these opinions if there had been a black person in the room?
Racism is no longer burning crosses and white pointy sheets, separate water fountains and lynchings. It's deeply embedded in our society, and we are taught at a young age to not recognize it for what it is. My generation, at least, was raised to believe that America treats everyone the same, and thus many children grow up with the understanding that any disadvantage is a personal construction. Yes, everyone can vote now, but unfair legislation has never been the root of the problem. We confront blatant racism (thanks, Imus!) in a media frenzy, as if it were an exception to the rule, but even then, it's probably Snoop Dogg's fault. Or it's just old people. Or people from the South. Or anyone other than yourself, your neighbors, your colleagues.
I'm not saying everyone is racist. But I think the environment I grew up in is a breeding ground for this weird, closeted kind that is prevalent in a lot of people I know. It may not be new, but it's flourishing in a society where talking about racism is unacceptable. You can't confront a problem if it isn't there, right? Keep burying, America.