Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The confession of a well-intentioned, closet racist

In my virtual class tonight, one of my fellow students posted a link to a story on CNN that discussed colleges that study "whiteness," and how since Obama was elected, some characterize this as a "post-racist" period in our history, which makes the study of white supremacy less relevant. Our professor asked us, "do a few people of color achieving high positions of recognition within a predominantly and historically-long lived structure of white privilege deconstruct a structure of racism?"

This was my reply:

In my opinion, Elise, the answer is no. And those that say racism is over now that we have a black president are ignoring the statistics or rationalizing them via a racist prospective.

For instance, the overwhelming difference between "minority" incarsarations versus white can only be rationalized in a post-racist world by saying people of color are just more susceptible to antisocial behavior. Obviously, if opportunity is the same across the spectrum, there is no other factor that could account for the disparity. This argument, of course is totally racist. I think there should be a line about it in Alanis Morrisette's song (isn't ironic?).

A few years ago, before Obama was elected, I taught a course called "deconstructing the documentary" in Rochester. In it, we watched a different documentary each Tuesday and discussed it on Thursday. We were watching one called (I think) "Persons of Interest." It was about how the Middle Eastern community in Manhattan was treated just after 9/11. The stories were nightmarish.

One of my suburban students was very skeptical. She said, "I'm sure if the FBI knocked down their door, they had good reason. That sort of thing just doesn't happen in America."

I watched as my African American students glanced at each other, and I asked them to react to the comment. To a person, each said they needed to plan to leave home early in order to make it to class on time, since the college was in a fairly affluent neighborhood, and they were often pulled over on their way to class. My white student who originally spoke up,and a few others were shocked and appalled. It was one of those "ah ha" moments that a teacher lives for, and it was the start of a really productive conversation on race relations.

I would like to think it made a difference in how those white students viewed the subject from then on. I wonder if they think everything is OK now that Obama is in the White House. I wonder too if any of them believe that he is a Muslim, and more important, if they think it matters.

Addendum: as I reread this after posting (which seems to be the only time the typos stand out) I discovered some racism in my own writing. I charactized my skeptical white student as "suburban" as though an African American student couldn't live in the suburbs. Is racism dead? If this good-intentioned, white liberal is still susceptible, I think the answer is clear. My apologies to my "colleagues of color."

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