Race Does Matter

by Christina Tinglof

 

"Does race still matter?" The question by itself is a strong indication of America's disillusioned attitude towards race. It has been barely forty years since segregation— arbitrary laws that separated white children from everyone else because of the assumed superiority of whites—was abolished, and already Americans, especially white Americans, have begun to complain that we are too focused on race. Why, they plead, can't we be a color-blind society? How could that possibly happen unless we first embrace color-consciousness: the fact that people are still treated differently based on the color of their skin. Racism today is not always the same as racism in the past. Horrific incidents of overt racism still occur and hate groups still exist, but the racism of today is much more subtle than the past. As Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, "The absence of brutality and unregenerate evil is not the presence of justice." The racism that exists today quietly benefits and privileges whites in terms of what they receive from systems and institutions already in place in America.

If you are a white, while you read, take a moment to think about what you learned in elementary school, about your professors here at Colby, about the programs you watched on TV last night. Do the people you interact with daily look like you or do they look differently? Because I am white, it did not occur to me that most magazine covers had white models on them, most commercials featured whites, most of the baby dolls in the toy store were blond and blue-eyed, most of the "heroes" I learned about in school were white, and most of the authors I studied were white. I did not notice because I was not different. The different, the "others," the ones who were "not like us" were the people of color. Peggy MacIntosh, in her essay "White Privilege Unpacking The Invisible Knapsack" says "whites are taught to think of their lives as morally neutral, normative and average, and also ideal." The little I learned about people of color in school was through special programs or during special times. I learned "history" throughout the year, and I learned "black history" during February. I learned "literature" all throughout high school, and I learned about "African-American literature" when I took a separate class. Recognizing the reality of white privilege—that growing up believing that whites were the norm and people of color were the "other"—was a slap in the face for me. For the first time, I had to accept that although I never used racial slurs or deliberately shunned a person of color, I was not actively resisting my white privilege. Instead, I was accepting the unearned advantages that being white brought me. I would never have called myself racist, but by not being an active antiracist I was allowing the systematic institutional racism that ultimately benefits me to go on.

I have since learned to differentiate between racial prejudice and racism. It often causes anger and discomfort among other whites when I assert my belief that while people of races can be racially prejudiced, only whites can be racist. Because only whites benefit from the systems of advantages in America, this anger appears to stem from whites realizing their own guilt. This anger and discomfort, however, only comes from the first painful acknowledgement that race does matter in America, and the secondary realization that everyone in America doesn’t always have the same chance at success. This also happens to be a fact that most people of color have probably known their whole lives.

Once whites have this knowledge, they have a choice people of color will never have. They can go back to sleep and never think about race again, or they can continue to be awakened with more and more knowledge and awareness of the reality of race in America. Whites can begin to notice that there have been only three attempts at hour-long dramas with a predominantly black cast. They can begin to notice the most popularized image of Jesus is probably an inaccurate "whitened" version of the real Middle Eastern man. They can begin to notice the lack of people of color in the literary "canon." Whites can begin to notice the lack of faculty and staff of color on their campus. They can begin to notice how people of color are constantly being called on to be representatives of their race. And then they can begin to think about what they can do.

The notion of white privilege is the antithesis of the American dream. To acknowledge white privilege is to acknowledge that America is not a meritocracy. We, as Americans, do not always end up in the places we end up because we deserve that position or we have earned it. The individualistic idea that each American can pull him or herself up by the bootstraps is as big an illusion as the idea of a color-blind society. America works as a society and the institutions that are in place work in such a way that not everyone has the same opportunity from birth to succeed. Two children, born on exactly the same day—one in the slums of the inner city and one in a middle class suburb—will not have the same education or opportunities in life. The child from the suburb will have enough books, chairs, and pencils for all his classmates; the child from the city will be missing at least a few, and everything will be in poorer conditions. The child from the suburb will have educated teachers, motivated and fresh from college; the child in the city will have the last of the pick. And a disproportionate number of children from the suburb will be white and a disproportionate number of children form the inner city will be colored. Which child will have a better shot at success in the world? Imagine now both children on a wooden ladder...both must do equal work to climb each rung, but one will reach the top faster if that one starts above the other. Admitting that we start higher on the ladder than people of color is admitting white privilege. This admission does NOT say that whites are less capable or less deserving of any rewards or privileges in life. It only says that whites are more likely to get them—despite equally capable and deserving people of color—because they are white.

We don't need to look any further than Colby for examples of white privilege and racism. Last year, several students of color felt devalued and disregarded enough after a year of battling Colby's political system to band together with white allies and stage a sit-in in President Cotter's office. Now, in what will soon be a year later, students of color still struggle on this campus to have their voices heard. A Multicultural Committee with an Interlocking Committee on Race and Racism was approved and then lost in a quagmire of vetoes and meetings. The position of Pugh Center Alliance Representative (originally intended as the Racial Minorities Affairs Representative, but changed last year by President's Council to encompass everyone housed in the Pugh Center) sat in ambiguity, able to come to President's Council meetings but unable to vote. Colby is willing and eager to embark on discussions about race, but unwilling to admit that there might be racial problems on Colby's campus. As zealous as we are to discuss race in the broader context of America, we hesitate to say how it affects Colby, or to make it an issue that must stand in the forefront. There would be no discussion on multicultural committees if a young woman of color had not voiced her complaints about some of Colby's institutionally racist policies. There would be no Pugh center Representative position on President's Council if this young woman had not suggested it and the students had not demanded it. Race began this controversy.

If you are a white student at Colby, you come and are able to blend right in. You can surround yourself with friends who are also white and no one accuses you of "sticking to your own." You can take classes all four years with teachers who are all white. Even though your father or aunt graduated from here, no one looks at you and thinks you don't really deserve to be at Colby. You can live in a dorm with people who look like you. You are represented by a president who probably looks like you; and even if s/he doesn't, s/he is representing people who look like you. You do not notice because the systems in place are benefiting you. You do not notice because you are not "different". But here at Colby, people of color wake up every day and are smacked in the face with the knowledge that they are different, that the systems in place in this institution and in society do not support "them." People of color have to think about race every day because it is impossible for them not to.

American society has a long way to go before we can be a color-blind society. How can we be color blind when this country has been in existence 400 years and only 40 years have passed since people of different colors were legally given equal rights? How can we be color-blind when many high schools (and some colleges) still ignore the contributions of people of color, as well as the history of racism in this country? How can we be color blind when the faces of the poorest sections of the poorest cities are the darkest, and the faces of those with the highest positions of power are the lightest?

If you believe race does not matter in America, you are wearing a powerful and dangerous blindfold only education can remove.


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