Racism - it all adds up
Picture, if you will, a potential week in the life of a black student – she heads to school Monday through Friday where she is taught by an all-white staff, is regulated by an all-white administration and is cleaned up after by a black custodian. Ripping a people out of her notebook, she gets a paper cut and bandages it with a “skin colored” Band-Aid that contrasts with her dark chocolate-colored skin. Holding hands with her white boyfriend she walks through the hallways in between classes and counts the number of weird looks and whispered comments people shoot her way. She goes to see a movie Friday night and wonders why there aren’t any black women shown in leadership positions. On the way home, a policeman pulls her and her cousin over, orders them out of the vehicle and searched them in the ten-degree weather.
Racism and its effects are present in our everyday lives. Although it has been defined in many ways, racism can be understood as conscious or unconscious negative actions toward a group of people based on their race. Racism is not racism only when blood is shed. Little acts of insensitivity, such as the color of “flesh colored” Band-Aids, are not intended as racism, but they add to a larger sense that one is not normal – that one is the “other”. The effects of this comparably minor intolerance go far beyond the immediate alienation result on the person of color – they extend into job hiring, college admissions, the granting of loans and countless other transactions that affect where people live, where they go to school and how much money they make.
Last month, the E.M.B.R.A.C.E. club held a Minority Student Forum. The purpose of the forum was to bring together students of color to discuss to what extent racism is a problem at this school and the brainstorm ways to address the issues and improve the school’s atmosphere.
Several students were less than eager to attend the forum – some said they had encountered very little racism in their years in Grand Haven. That these students have no encountered prejudice is wonderful, and it signifies how successful the civil rights movement and the work of Martin Luther King, Jr. and other activists really was. However, it does not diminish the impact of racism today on those who experience it. When students at the forum were asked if they had been the targets of racism, approximately three fourths of the students raised their hands. It is their concerns that the forum ws aiming to bring to the surface and address.
The forum was organized by E.M.B.R.A.C.E members witnessed the need fro it. Heck, I’m white and I’ve witnessed xenophobia regularly in this school. A month ago, I hear someone call his friend a “Jewish monkey” which, although it’s not racism, certainly shows the presence of insensitivity. The Muskegon Chronicle recently did an article on the Sudanese “Lost Boys” in which it reported that senior James Garang, a Sudanese student at GHHS was nicknamed “coon” and “nigger” by classmates.
Without the sit-ins, affirmative action, lobbying and discussions about race that came about as a result of the civil rights movement, we would still have “legal” lynchings and legal segregation. And we would not have as many minorities in office. American has made great progress, but there is still much we can do. Michigan has been declared one of the most segregated states in America – as more blacks moved in, whites fled the inner cities of places like Detroit, taking their wealth with them and playing into a cycle of race, poverty and crime. Racism has permeated our subconscious minds and our society. It has been largely eliminated from the legal system and from our body of laws, but it lives on in areas that depend on human bias. It can be eradicated even here, but not without effort.
At this year’s Ottawa Area Summit on Racism, keynote speaker John Dovidio, a professor of psychology at Colgate University, discussed how people are anxious to prove that they are not racist, but subconsciously, most people reflect the prejudices of the society that we live in.
The Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance, which organizes the Summit, also holds seminars on racism for businesses seeking to increase their openness to people of color. One of the roles in these seminars is to point out to participants the enormous role white privilege plays in our lives. They use an exercise in which they ask people at the seminar to take a step forward if they are not, for example, asked to speak for all members of their race, or if when they achieve something, they are not called a credit to their race. At the end of the exercise, reports the Grand Rapids Press, the gap between white participants and those of color is wide.
So what can you do to help bridge the gap? Challenge yourself and whatever prejudgments you may hold. When you catch yourself falling back on a stereotype, don’t become mired in the guilt. We are living in a society permeated with racist ideas – we are bound to get some of them stuck in our heads. But don’t do nothing, either. Question your immediate reaction – ask, “Whoa, where did I get that idea? Why do I assume that?”
Choose to overcome your subconscious biases and help stem the little racism that, too often, results in big hate crimes.