Uncomfortable Conversations: Reconceptualizing Racism in 2019 and Beyond
Part 1- The Value of Whiteness.
"I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually." ~ James Baldwin
Conversations about "Race" are complicated. The truth is, I don't even know how to start this blog. Do I start with a hard history to lay a foundation or a short parable to gain understanding? How do I give perspective without offending, and how do I pander without compromising the truth? In my short journey in life, I've been to many forums, town hall meeting, think tanks, and thoughtful dialogues which try to tackle the issue of "race." In most of these meetings, the crowds consist of people who already understand that racism is an issue, which at best results in "preaching to the choir" type scenario. In other cases, think meetings turn into venting session for people of color to publicly express current or past racial mistreatment. In the rare case that a crowd of "disbelievers" do come out, very little understanding is ever gained from these meetings, at best people leave civilly flustered.
How do we get to a place of understanding? Is it possible for two people to exist in the same place, space, and time and have too different experiences? In large part, I believe that our most significant barrier to understanding is our lack of racial experiential perspective. White people do not understand the lived racial perspective of being Black, and Blacks do not understand the lived racial perspective of being White. While we live with race, we fail to understand its impact on our perception. We filter the life experiences that we have through the lens of race. While we all may exist in the same place, space, and time, our conscious realities are entirely different. Because of this reality, it's essential for us to understand how race alters our lived experience, and the first step is understanding the value of whiteness.
Race as a matter of value, not just difference
The existence of races in a given society presupposes the presence of racism, for without racism, physical characteristics are devoid of social significance . . . it is not the presence of objective physical differences between groups that creates race, but the social recognition of such differences as socially significant or relevant.~ Pierre van den Berghe, in Race is Racism
What is a race? The social scientist will tell you that race is a social construct that we use to separate ourselves. Race is social constructed, but it doesn't take away from the significant impact that the construct has on our daily lives. Whether imagined or socially constructed, it's clear to me that race plays a dominant role in the coloring of our perception that creates our reality, especially in America.
Who socially constructed race? The truth is Europeans constructed race, not in the physical sense but the perceptive since. Is race just about culture? Not really! While a race may have the same culture, race doesn't guarantee culture. When I think of culture, I think of the food, music, and family practices associated with the people that are in my community. Culture transcends race. Race alone does not dictate the food you eat, the music you love, or your family traditions. Does nationality determine race? Ponder over this question; if a White person was born in Africa, and becomes a citizen, and then moves to America, are they considered African-American? The answer is no. Nationality has more precedence for ethnicity than race, which is different. As a construct, it appears that race is only a matter of physical features; Skin color, hair texture, and facial features.
As Europeans colonized lands of people of color, they simultaneously apprized "whiteness." Europeans would not divide themselves by fickle cultural differences, such as language, but unite in the constant "Whiteness." The construction of whiteness places value on not only the whiteness of skin, white textures of hair, and white facial features but also the cultural norms of Europe. To be white in looks or thinking was to be considered civilized, and to be any other way to be barbaric. All other races were constructed juxtapose their closeness to whiteness, thus the creation of caste systems. The more you could emulate whiteness, if not in looks, in speech, if not in speech, in dress, and if not in dress, in religion; the more you were "rewarded” for your efforts. Conversely, an affinity for your own culture assured your place at the bottom of society. As Europeans colonized the world, whiteness became the standard of perfection, to be white was to be the perfect human.
This is why for white people, "race" is barely a part of their life because to be white is to be normal. At a diversity training I attended, the presenter asked the audience to classify the titles or groups they identify with starting from most important to least, these titles would include your race, gender, family role (i.e., mother, son, etc.), your position at work, etc. In almost all cases, white people never started with their race as the most significant classification. They started with their family role, gender, or a group they are a member of in their community. People of color, however, almost always had race as their most important or second most important identifier.
To be White is to be normal and to be normal is to be unnoticed, therefore for white people their race is an unnoticeable classification in their life; or as philosophers often point out, “A fish doesn’t know water is wet.” White people are not used to acknowledging their race, which is why talking about it makes them uncomfortable. Race is not a daily or even a monthly thought for them. When confronted with conversations of race they would rather divert to topics about “all” people instead of specificity of race. What they fail to realize that their definition of all people is just whiteness with an “All People’s” T-shirt on.
For people of color, race is the most important part of our lives, whether we are conscious of it or not. Our race gives us the unwritten rules that we have to follow to survive from day-to-day. Not knowing the rules prescribed to your race could get you ostracized, fired, or even killed. Growing up, I was given the "when you're Black" talk, by almost every adult I encountered. For example, "When you're Black, you have to work twice as hard." You can replace Black with any non-white identifier; the conversation is the same. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of unwritten rules that people of color have to teach their children because of the engrained value of whiteness.
Race is only noticeable when its non-white. Possessing traits outside of whiteness is an abnormality and labeled as exotic, ethnic, or peculiar. Non-white traits are eccentric but not valuable. This is also why, historically, Blacks have always been allowed to be entertainers. Whether you could sing, dance, or perform comedy, peculiarity is always good for entertainment, peculiarity, however, is never good for business. When Blacks are invited into groups, they most always are there to entertain.
Our first step in tackling issues of racism is to acknowledge whiteness as a source of value. The acknowledgement of whiteness helps us become consciously aware of the assumptions we make and biases we carry because of this value. The more conscious we are of the biases we hold the more effective we become at eliminating racism and prejudice.
In Part 2 of Uncomfortable Conversations I will tackle How Valuing Whiteness Perpetuates Racism.
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