Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Have You Thought About Your Racism? (Part 2)

I was having a coffee with a friend, Dan (name changed for privacy) at Starbucks. I savored my Frappuccino drink when Dan suddenly signed, "I'm no racist, but...."

I furrowed my eyebrows and interrupted him, "Dan, it is curious how you have to deny your racism in the first part of your sentence? Why do you feel a need to do that? After all, what you are about to say is probably racist." 

Let me tell you, Dan was not happy with me, and he chewed me out. He rattled on how he had black friends, black coworkers, and black neighbors. I finished my coffee with half smile on my face. Finally, he said that I have changed ever since I returned from Washington DC. I shook my head and corrected Dan, "No. I just became aware, that's all."

"We learn to be racist, therefore we can learn not to be racist. Racism is not genetic. It has everything to do with power." -Jane Elliot

For those who do know who Jane Elliot is; she is well-known for a study that she conducted in her grade school classroom to teach her students about racism. She divided her students based on their eye colors (Brown and Blue) and said, "Okay, children with blue eyes are now better than children with brown eyes." The result was stunning. The children with blue eyes acted superior to those with brown eyes. BE (blue eyes) children taunted, ignored, rejected, and turned up their noses to children with brown eyes. Jane Elliot was curious if she had reversed the eye colors then would brown eyes behave in such way that blue eyed children did? On the following day, she reversed the roles by stating, "Okay, now children with brown eyes are better than children with blue eyes." Again, the finding was stunning. The children with brown eyes taunted, ignored, and rejected those with blue eyes. (You can watch this study on Youtube: Experiment Part 1

The bottom line? This sense of superiority, both covert and overt, is a learned behavior through social conditioning. 

I have always prided in treating people equally because of my Deafness. Silly me, right? After taking Multicultural class, and taking workshops on racism, I became more cognizant of how I treat people of color in subtle ways, and opened my eyes to how others spread Racism. 

Locking car doors while driving through "ghetto". A woman clutching the purse close to her side as she walks upward to person of color. Hearing "black" jokes. Referring certain restaurants/food to be a black thing.  A white person going first in the line to purchase items at the food store. A black mother apologizing for her child bumping into a white person (yet a white mother does not apologize if her child bumps onto a stranger). A teacher picking a white student to answer a question over a black student. Reading a history textbook that has very little or no experiences with people of color. Dismissing experiences from a person of color. A waitress taking an order from white people first then a person of color last at the table. Telling a black girl to "talk right". Labeling a Native American as a drunken gambler. Laughing at a joke involving a Chinese person. Sitting at a table with white people; subtly giving off a message that a person of color is not able to join them for lunch.

The examples I just typed.....is called COVERT racist behavior. Covert is a term that describes a set of hidden behaviors that is not openly recognized or acknowledged. This behavior is often practiced by well-abiding folks with good intentions that happened to be inadvertently taught by our society to behave in racist manner. 

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The problem with many people in this country is when we think of a term, racist, we immediately think of those who practices OVERT racist behavior. An overt behavior is when a person openly acknowledges and displays their racist beliefs: 

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A few days after the coffee incident, Dan emailed me and wanted to meet for a lunch to "talk things over". I agreed. 

The first thing Dan said when we sat down was this, "Ash, it really bothered me that you called me a racist. I felt that I was being blamed for being white. I didn't think it was fair that all white people should be blamed and labeled as racists. Hell, even blacks can be racists."

I mulled my answer for a while and allowed Dan's words to be absorbed for a few minutes. Then I answered, "You know, Dan, nobody are born racists. No one wants to be a racist. The word, racism, does trigger a lot of negativity because it does seem to put all the blame on the white folks. Let me use my Deafness as an example to help you understand this whole matter.

As a Deaf person, I have encountered a lot of prejudices...some obvious and some not. It did make me angry. I did blame ALL hearing people. There was a time when I even hated them because of hurt I experienced. I felt all hearing people should have been held accountable. Was that prejudice? Oh, absolutely! I wasn't entirely innocent in this fiasco. I did make jokes about hearing people. I did insult them. I did look down at them.

We Deaf people can't be oppressors because we have no power at all. We don't have a voice in this society. We are constantly mocked, ignored, and told by doctors that we must be fixed. Our history of Deaf culture is marred by genocide, sterilization, experimentation, forced speech therapy, being labeled as mentally retarded, and so many more. We have been told that our language is worthless and unauthentic. Yet our history as Deaf people is excluded from history textbooks. Hearing people are told that Deaf people have no culture. Hearing folks are taught that to be Deaf is a terrible thing....that being Deaf is a disability. We have to fight our way up. We have to fight to get the same rights as you do, Dan, even to this day. Oh, you wouldn't have imagined what I have gone through just because I am Deaf.

Fortunately, my prejudice did change because I met several hearing people, who sincerely wanted to learn about my culture and supported what Deaf culture was all about. The very same hearing people who have accepted that they have spread Audism (an oppression of Deaf people) unintentionally. They've accepted that they have been ingrained with Audist attitude because it was how our society had taught them. By recognizing this, they worked on eliminating Audism within themselves and in our society.

That made me respect them. That validated my experiences as a Deaf person going through a series of oppression. That made me feel less angry, alone, sad, and hurt because I had allies.

By having allies, they help us to have a voice in our society. They help us to prevent Audism and Audist attitude that most hearing people unintentionally continue to spread.

Now.....with Racism, you see, by accepting your own racism tendencies doesn't mean that you are at a fault for being white. It means you are becoming accountable for preventing Racism. You are acknowledging that Racism is a problem, and the problem won't be going away unless if you spread awareness about this. It's our society that is very sick and we can't allow this sickness to continue. This needs to be addressed and talked about. The key is education. Do you understand, Dan?"

Dan slowly nodded his head, "I still don't like the idea of being a racist ...but I get where you are coming from. It is something I need to think about."

I smiled and said, "That's a start."