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Writers' Fortnight 2019: Racism is not always caused by racists
Writers' Fortnight 2019: Racism is not always caused by racists
By Imogen Woodward, Grade 9, East Campus
The divide between white people and people of colour is nothing new to anyone, it’s been an ongoing struggle throughout our world history. Nobody can argue that the rate of racism has improved tremendously, slavery was demolished (not completely it’s still happening around the world through human trafficking, forced labour and marriage etc.) and people of colour are not banished from doing normal things, such as, going on a bus or having to give up their seats to white people, but does that mean that we’ve solved the problem?
It seems to be common that people recognise racism as its definition “Prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.” which is entirely correct. But are we missing subtle acts or words that one says/does that aren’t under the definition but are still considered racist? Such as when a person of colour walks by a white person and, subconsciously, the white person holds their belongings closer to themselves. People think it goes unnoticed – which is incorrect. These acts are so prevalent in the world that a study was administered by San Francisco State University’s (SFSU) by Professor Alvin Alvarez, he classified everyday racism as “subtle, commonplace forms of discrimination, such as being ignored, ridiculed or treated differently.” Alvarez stated: “These are incidents that may seem innocent and small, but cumulatively they can have a powerful impact on an individual’s mental health,” Alvarez learning does not only highlight the effects on the person who is being discriminated against but also the people who are witnessing it or causing it.
In the book written by Annie Barnes called “Everyday Racism: A Book for All Americans.”, she classifies this racism as a “virus” of sorts presented in the body language, speech and isolating attitude of racists, among other behaviours. Due to the lack of knowledge on such behaviours, victims of this form of racism may struggle to determine for certain if injustice is at play. In the book, it highlights the experience of a boy named Daniel who’s a black college student. It shows that his apartment building manager asked him not to listen to music through his earphones while strolling the premises. When Daniel asked why the apartment building manager responded saying that other residents found it distracting. Nothing wrong with that, right? Barnes then explained the problem: “Daniel observed that a white youth in his complex had a similar radio with earphones and that the supervisor never complained about him.”
Based on their fears, stereotypes, and knowledge of black men (through the media and/or their upbringings), Daniel’s neighbours found the concept of him listening to music through earphones off-putting but his neighbours made no objections to someone who’s white doing the same thing. This struck Daniel with the understanding and the message that someone with his skin colour is required to abide by a different set of rules, a discovery that made him uncomfortable.
While Daniel recognised that racial discrimination was to blame for why the manager treated him differently, some victims of everyday racism fail to make this connection. The reason? They’re so attached to the concept of racism been a racial slur, act, or something of that manner that’s aimed towards someone instead of the underlining meaning. When the case study was done by San Francisco State University’s (SFSU), Professor Alvin Alvarez found out that “Trying to ignore these insidious incidents could become taxing and debilitating over time, chipping away at a person’s spirit,”
Something that is very common but many people are incredibly oblivious and in many ways, uninformed of is something called “passive racism”. For example, the head of a company doesn’t hire somebody because they are a person of colour – they don’t tell that person verbally or actively do anything that would come off as racist but behind the scenes in a passive manner that unconscious bias has caused that person of colour to not get the job; instead, a white individual got it.
To make matters even worse, unconscious discrimination is making an appearance in hospitals and medical clinics for when doctors are treating patients. Dr David Williams, who’s a professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard University, cited investigations that discovered that when Latinos and African Americans were treated by physicians for a broken bone in their leg, they were given pain medication significantly less often than white patients with the same injury. Dr Williams was appalled by these results and spent a large amount of time trying to make sense of it, asking questions such as “How on earth do we make sense of this? How is it possible for the best trained medical workforce in the world to produce care that appears to be so discriminatory?” to which he answered: with the easy and subtle act of unconscious discrimination. Williams noted that most Americans would object to being labelled as “racist” or even as “discriminating”, but he added, “Welcome to the human race. It is a normal process about how all of us process information. The problem for our society is that the level of negative stereotypes is very high.” He concluded that the upbringing that one has has an extensive impact on how they view other groups of people and that the average person wouldn’t even notice that they’re treating people differently.
Dr Gail Christopher, vice-president for programme strategy at the Kellogg Foundation, explained that centuries of racial hierarchies have left a trace on our society, especially concerning how people of colour are perceived by whites. “Our society assigns a value to groups of people, it is a process that is embedded in the consciousness of people and impacted by centuries of bias.” And what could make all of this even worse, other than it being unconscious is that people are in denial about it. They’re in denial that they’ve said something and to some extent they’re in denial about the existence of racism.
There was an experiment conducted by Buzzfeed, where they had six co-workers take the “Race IAT” test, which is designed to tell you your unconscious racial preference. The options were as follows: Little to none, slight, moderate or strong preference towards either European American over African American or vice versa. What were the results? None of the six participants got the result ‘little to none’. Those who took part got slight or higher and unsurprisingly, depending on their race, their preference would change. The African American participants had a higher preference for the African Americans whereas the Caucasian and Asian people had a higher preference for the European Americans. But they all had something in common. When the test came to a close the participants had some time to reflect on the experience. They were questioned about what they thought of their results. Every participant confessed to thinking they’d be little to none, and they admitted the outcome of the test had shocked them. The participants were then asked why they thought the test results came back as they did, the majority said because of their childhood and who they were surrounded by. One participant said, “Even in kindergarten or elementary school, white was like heavenly, angels, and black was always associated with coal or darkness. So I’m not surprised that that’s an automatic response.” This really shows that our basis is really formed from when we’re children and becomes automatic to the point where we’re unconscious of what we’re doing or saying.
How do we solve this problem? It’s quite simple actually, we just have to learn to become aware and be willing to acknowledge our own biases and then consciously override them. Denial and professed racial colour-blindness only makes things worse. The best thing to do is find your triggers as to why you may act a certain way towards a certain group of people in a certain situation. That’s the first step to take to demolish unconscious discrimination and bias. But even though we know that unconscious discrimination is real, even though there are studies that prove this, will we ever be truly able to stop our unconscious discrimination?
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