In chapter 3 of her book, White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo takes a look at the changes in the face of racism over the years, particularly after the civil rights movement. Racism, according to sociologist Eduardo Ponilla-Silva says that racism is quite adaptive and changes over time. This continues even after the passage of civil rights legislation. She suggests the following as some ways racism has changed:
- Color Blind Racism
After the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it was less acceptable for white people to admit to racial prejudice. Sometimes you would hear them say that they are blind to color differences or “I don’t see color.” The idea that people can’t see color is based on a line from the famous “I Have a Dream” speech by Dr. Martin Luther King in 1963. He said that he hoped one day he might be judged by the content of his character and not the color of his skin. Whites seized upon the phrase as a simple way to reduce racial tension. It sort of works as can stop a conversation in its tracks.
Frankly, it is ridiculous to say you can’t see race, unless you are actually blind -or am I the one that is a fool? After reading this chapter, I had to drive home from my daughter’s home in Bemidji, MN. Along the route, I saw just a couple of Black people and, gol darn! I couldn’t not see the color of their skin no matter how hard I tried.
- Aversion Racism
Aversion racism is prevalent among well-intentioned people who see themselves as educated and progressive. (When I read this, I stiffened up because I see myself as well-intentioned, educated and progressive.) Such a person might say “I have lots of friends of color” or “I judge people by the content of their character, not the color of their skin.”
There are two ways I saw this in my life. The first I may have mentioned earlier…I tended to be “surprised” when I encountered a truly intelligent person of color, as though they were the exception to their race. The second way is that when I was telling a story about someone, if they were Black or Asian or Hispanic, I would mention their race as a way to identify them but not if they were white. When I caught myself doing this, I stopped it. Yet even now, as I tell a story, not mentioning race is a choice in the moment. It still doesn’t come naturally. I notice this a lot in news reporting.
DiAngelo mentions that white people in this type of racism may perceive white people as dangerous. I related to this as well. I can remember two occasions when I was traveling in Minneapolis and happened to be driving through primarily black neighborhoods. Each was a situation in which I was lost and needed directions. I admit that I was scared, but I told myself, “You are being stupid. Why should these people be any different than people living in a white neighborhood? In both situations, I swallowed my fear and stopped to ask for directions. In both situations, I encountered people eager to explain to me how to get where I wanted to go.
I realized at some point in my life that prejudice is learned and that the best way to overcome it is to step out and engage in situations that used to frighten me. Prejudice is more than a set of ideas in one’s mind. This is why receiving statistics that refute the beliefs about minority people doesn’t necessarily change one’s feeling. I believe in the adage, “Act as if…” I would never have had the experience of friendly helpers had I not taken the chance.
- Cultural Racism
I think of cultural racism as racism that is so part of the culture that one hardly notices. I experience it in the telling of racist jokes or the use of racist phrases such as “jewing somebody”. One study of 626 white college students at 28 colleges were asked to keep a journal of racist comments and actions by white friends and family members . They recorded more than seventy-five hundred examples. Again, as I grow, I am more attune to such innuendos and racial-laced jokes. I am also becoming more brave about saying something. “Act as if…”
I thought about current programs designed to deal with bullying in the schools when Diangelo talked about the dynamic of racist acts where there is a protagonist who initiates a racist act, a cheerleader who encourages it, bystanders who stand by in silence, and (very rarely) a dissenter who objects. She said that in virtually all incidents that were cited, “all dissenters were subject to a form of peer pressure in which they were told it was only a joke and that they should lighten up.”
I am still working on this. I believe overcoming prejudice is an inside job, though I think that working on oneself should not preclude action in helping to overcome racism in our culture.