"Race": A Social and Cultural Construct that Divides
On May 25, 2020, George Floyd, a 46 year-old Black man, died at the hands of Minneapolis police while being apprehended for allegedly using a counterfeit $20 bill. Video footage from bystanders as well as surrounding surveillance cameras showed that over a period of 8 minutes and 46 seconds, as his life was being snuffed out while an officer's knee compressed his neck, none of the four police officers responded to his pleas for help, as he made clear that he could not breathe. Since then, protests decrying racism have erupted throughout the world, prompting us to question notions of race and our role in the metastasis of racism. While many other black people have died due to police brutality, the blatant extinguishing of Mr. Floyd's life has affected so many like no other. Will his death be yet another footnote in the Black Lives Matter movement, or will it stand as that pivotal moment that caused the world to finally lurch away from a status quo that is humanity's shame? Time will tell, but until then, it is incumbent on each and every one of us to consciously choose to be anti-racist. Here are some ways that I hope will make a difference....
A handprint from more innocent times. I hope
that my kids' children will not witness the kind of
anguish that has shaken the world in the last month.
I'll confess - this post required time for careful thought and consideration. I started scribbling a few thoughts back in early June, but I did not know enough. I also knew that not saying anything, remaining silent, was not an option, as silence only serves to enable systemic racism, and that whatever I do say must move beyond denouncing the pointless loss of lives and the oppression of black people - it is not enough to proclaim that one is not racist. One must be intentional about being anti-racist. The thoughts that follow form an ongoing work in progress, one that I'll need to revisit as part of the work of being anti-racist.
A Word about Race and Ethnicity
During the 17th century, the modern meaning of the word "race" emerged, in which human populations were classified on the basis of stature, shape, and skin colour. Since then, the term has morphed through various meanings, but they are all common in their categorization of people on the basis of their physical traits (phenotype).
I'll just cut to the chase: the human genome does not contain any genes that encode specific identifying or distinguishing features that reflect conventional categories of race.
If anything, we have more in common genetically than we have differences, and the "genetic difference between any two humans is less than 1 percent" (Takezawa, Wade, & Smedley, 2020). Race is a social construct that emerged from European colonization, one that has since been enshrined as a means to divide and impose social order. It is not a biological fact. Ethnicity, on the other hand, reflects the manner in which a group of people identify with each other on the basis of common experience: ancestral, social, cultural, or national. Much more can be said about the concept of race, but the science says enough - race is not biological. A difference in the proportion of a pigment, melanin, in a person's skin does not reflect a person's intelligence, social values, morals, or worth. With this immutable fact, then, we must be compelled to dismantle a system that is founded on false ideology. We do this by listening to Black voices, educating ourselves, reflecting on the ways we can address systemic racism, and undertaking the necessary work that saves lives.
The chorus of Black voices, so long oppressed, continue to make known not only the macroaggressions, such as segregation, discrimination, and police brutality, that Black people face, but also the microaggressions that they encounter in virtually every aspect of their lives. Don't tell a Black person that she is so articulate, or so pretty "for a Black girl," regardless of good intent, as the subtext of prejudice is clear. Listen to not only the voices of Black people, but also to your own words, as you may be unaware of the subtle (and maybe unconscious) digs at Blackness.
Listen to Black people as people. Full stop. This video, released in 2017, brings home the repugnance of systemic racism. It is absolutely horrifying and gut-wrenching that Black parents need to have conversations with their children about how to behave in the presence of police, in order to avoid confrontation and the risk of escalation with potentially fatal outcomes. Most non-Black people teach their kids to look for the helpers in their community when they need assistance. It is a perversion that Black children cannot trust supposedly standard pillars of societal safety. Surely, we can empathize with anybody who desperately wants only to protect their children.
Racism - A Definition
In a 2014 essay addressing the uproar over a singer's planned (and subsequently cancelled) retreat at a former slave plantation, Scott Woods, an American author and poet, provided one of the best definitions of racism that lays bare its insidious and systemic nature:
"The problem is that white people see racism as conscious hate, when racism is bigger than that. Racism is a complex system of social and political levers and pulleys set up generations ago to continue working on the behalf of whites at other people’s expense, whether whites know/like it or not.
Racism is an insidious cultural disease. It is so insidious that it doesn’t care if you are a white person who likes black people; it’s still going to find a way to infect how you deal with people who don’t look like you. Yes, racism looks like hate, but hate is just one manifestation. Privilege is another. Access is another. Ignorance is another. Apathy is another. And so on. So while I agree with people who say no one is born racist, it remains a powerful system that we’re immediately born into. It’s like being born into air: you take it in as soon as you breathe. It’s not a cold that you can get over. There is no anti-racist certification class. It’s a set of socioeconomic traps and cultural values that are fired up every time we interact with the world. It is a thing you have to keep scooping out of the boat of your life to keep from drowning in it. I know it’s hard work, but it’s the price you pay for owning everything." - Scott Woods
This unconscious bias creeps in early on. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, babies as young as 6 months can distinguish features - humans learn by categorizing, by identifying difference. It's the attribution of qualities that have nothing to do with a feature, ie. skin colour, that derails us as humans, as by the ages of 2 to 4, racial bias can be internalized. Parents, take note: by age 12, many children "become set in their beliefs" (Anderson & Dougé, 2019). This gives us a decade to shape their understanding and awareness of bias. This process cannot be passive, as systemic racism guarantees that even if parents 'are not racist,' "children exposed to society will gain fluency in racial bias" (Anderson & Dougé, 2019).
As non-Black children are susceptible to systemic racism, the effects on Black children are devastating. In the 1940s, psychologists, scholars, and activists Mamie and Kenneth Clark (right) conducted the "Doll Test" experiments to determine the psychological effects of segregation on Black children between the ages of three to seven (McNeill, 2017). Children of various ethnicities were asked to select, between a white doll with yellow hair and and a brown doll with black hair, which one they preferred and which one had positive attributes.
Almost all of the children chose the white doll with yellow hair.
The Clarks concluded that "prejudice, discrimination, and segregation"engendered a sense of inferiority in Black children and damaged their self esteem. The Clarks referred to their findings when they testified in Brown vs. The Board of Education, a 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that U.S. state laws that established racial segregation in public schools were unconstitutional.
"It is easier to break an atom than a prejudice." - Albert Einstein
The disingenuous aspect of systemic racism is white privilege, wherein simply by virtue of one's white skin colour, one can enjoy, without second thought, the privilege of learning about white history in school, the preponderance of children's books in a library that reflect white protagonists/experience/history, a media that is biased toward white people (next time, ask yourself how Black victims of violence are portrayed compared to white victims... were the Black victims 'troubled' or homeless addicts? Were the white victims upstanding and beloved members of their community?), the welcome opportunity to succeed (vs. having to work three times as hard just to get a foot in the door to have that opportunity?), and the freedom of walking unburdened by stereotypes of violence/low intelligence/laziness. Without the protection of white privilege, a Black person does not expect to be treated with respect and civility. White privilege empowers insidiously, as Woods points out that one does not have to be overtly "racist" to be a cog in the racist wheel. The monolithic nature of racism did not transpire overnight, and it will take more than words to dismantle it.
"Racism is a spectrum, with varying degrees of unconscious & learned behaviors reinforced by society every day.
It’s not: either you’re racist or you’re not. It’s to what degree are you prejudiced, against whom, and why?
It doesn’t matter what your intention was!
It speaks to a sickness within you, and our entire society, that you feel comfortable weaponizing your privilege to put a Black person in danger- that you feel you have the authority to monitor/enforce the behavior of Black people." - Padma Lakshmi
Everybody needs to know the name Jane Elliott. Elliott is an educator and anti-racism activist who conducted her "Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes" experiment on her third grade class in Iowa on April 5, 1968, the day after Martin Luthor King Jr. was assassinated. I have included a short clip of her experiment on discrimination (the full-length documentary, uncomfortably revealing in demonstrating how quickly and easily people succumb to the construct and vitriol of discrimination, can be found here: https://youtu.be/1mcCLm_LwpE) as well as a recent conversation with Jimmy Fallon. There are many other interviews and clips, but her message has been the same uncompromising truth for over 50 years:
"God created one race, the human race, and human beings created racism." - Jane Elliott
The damaging effects of racism on Black people, people of colour, and society as a whole are clear. Knowing this, we must enact change.
Change starts at home.
Check out artist Danielle Coke (@ohhappydani),
whose illustrations on justice and allyship are authentic and beautiful.
Given that children internalize bias at such a young age, we must talk to our children, and refrain from sugar-coating the reality: bias exists, and this is based on mere physical differences. In order to conduct these conversations with honesty, we ourselves must confront our own biases and our own discriminatory behaviour (known and perhaps subconscious), regardless of how uncomfortable and unpleasant the process, and choose to model how we want our kids to treat others who are Black or non-white. There is no room for stereotypes - teach your children that kindness and compassion should be the default when we interact with anybody.
1. Use your voice
Educate - not only yourself, your own children, or your parents or family, but also your friends and co-workers. Find out how your children's schools, your workplace, your place of worship, and your retail vendors address, engage, and support Black people. If they can do more, demand the change.
Advocate - for Black voices, for Black art, for Black talent, for Black businesses, for Black students, for Black single moms, for Black leaders, for those who have never had a fair shake. Freedom is not freedom unless all are free.
Intervene - when something is wrong, do something about it. We teach our kids that bystanders are not absolved of responsibility in the perpetration of wrong. Let's match our words with our actions.
If you are a non-Black person-of-colour, be a good ally by challenging your role in keeping the racism machine running. Refrain from striving to become "White-adjacent," ie. "as successful as White people, as fitting in and assimilated as White people, as deserving as White people of dignity and respect," because by doing so, you run the risk of "(adopting) the language and beliefs of White Supremacy and anti-Blackness" (Kim, 2020). This may have been a means of survival, but becoming "White-adjacent" only serves to empower systemic racism. (If you are Asian, please check out Chow's article on the "'Model Minority' Myth.")
2. Amplify the voices of black people (and other people of colour)
Because Black voices, carrying tales of Black experience and Black history, have long been suppressed, bring them to the forefront, so that Black people have a place at the table in the social, political, and economic decisions of society. We can only benefit from the shared creativity and innovation, and have a better chance of ensuring equality in the decisions that matter.
3. Continue to learn (and unlearn) with intention
Most professions require ongoing professional development/education so that new skills and knowledge are acquired to keep up with the evolving workplace. We, likewise, are responsible for keeping current where matters of social evolution (or revolution) are at stake. It is not the responsibility of Black people to educate us about the machinations of racism nor what can be done to dismantle it. There is a lot of information available, but where should one start? I came across this document compiled by Sarah Sophie Flicker and Alyssa Klein (2020) that contains an exhaustive list of anti-racism resources (articles, books, films, social media accounts, podcasts, movies, organizations, etc.) for not only adults but also children. In Canada, both anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism shamefully persist. For Canadian resources, refer to the reports by the Centre for Race and Culture entitled "Race and Respect" and "Anti-Racism Education in Canada: Best Practices," the fact sheets from the National Collaborating Centre for Indigenous Health, as well as "20 Organizations Canadians Can Support in the Fight for Racial Equality" (Marchildon, 2020) and "Black Organizations And Anti-Racist Groups Canadians Can Support Now" (Woods, 2020). These sources are by no means exhaustive, but I can say that because of them, I now know more than I did before.
4. Facilitate change
It's time to rebuild and reimagine. Rethink what was previously accepted solely because "that's the way it has always been." Do I refer to my kids, conventionally considered "mixed-race," as "multicultural" or of different ethnic origins? (Yes. And yes.). We know that the word "race" is loaded - even referring to a person as "bi-racial" defaults to a "half-Black" and "half-(whatever)" connotation. Why should that be? Words have power, and the way we use our words matters. Addressing these sorts of issues, especially with our kids, forces us to examine even the little ways we can change the race narrative.
The process of addressing racism in a substantive way should be at least uncomfortable, as acknowledging one's role, known or unknown, in racism's powerful hold on society may bring forth feelings of shame and guilt as we understand how each one of us is complicit in its pervasiveness. Rather than fixate on this discomfort, we should focus our energies on all the ways that we can right this horrible wrong. My hope is that enough people, while seeing, hearing, and learning everything from this time of upheaval, will finally demand, not only of themselves, but also of their lawmakers and social institutions, the reformation so desperately needed to save lives and to save our humanity. Black suffering has not mattered for hundreds of years. Let us be clear now: Black lives do matter.
I'll end with this 2017 clip from the New Zealand Human Rights Commission featuring Taika Waititi, a filmmaker, actor, and activist of Maori descent. Racism is a serious and devastating matter, but through his irreverence, Waititi exposes the absurdity and subtlety of racism.
Let's do better. Let's be better.
Until next time,
Anderson, A., & Dougé, J. (2019, July 29). Talking to Children About Racial Bias. Retrieved June 21, 2020, from https://www.healthychildren.org/English/healthy-living/emotional-wellness/Building-Resilience/Pages/Talking-to-Children-About-Racial-Bias.aspx
Chow, K. (2017, April 19). 'Model Minority' Myth Again Used As A Racial Wedge Between Asians And Blacks. Retrieved June 15, 2020, from https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2017/04/19/524571669/model-minority-myth-again-used-as-a-racial-wedge-between-asians-and-blacks
Flicker, S., & Klein, A. (2020). Anti-racism resources for white people. Retrieved June 6, 2020 from https://docs.google.com/document/u/1/d/1BRlF2_zhNe86SGgHa6-VlBO-QgirITwCTugSfKie5Fs/mobilebasic
Kim, M. (2020, May 8). 20 Allyship Actions for Asians to Show Up for the Black Community Right Now. Retrieved June 8, 2020 from https://medium.com/awaken-blog/20-allyship-actions-for-asians-to-show-up-for-the-black-community-right-now-464e5689cf3e
Markchildon, J. (2020, June 5). 20 Organizations Canadians Can Support in the Fight for Racial Equality. Retrieved June 6, 2020, from https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/anti-racism-organizations-canada/
McNeill, L. (2017, October 26). How a Psychologist’s Work on Race Identity Helped Overturn School Segregation in 1950s America. Retrieved June 8, 2020, from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/psychologist-work-racial-identity-helped-overturn-school-segregation-180966934/
Takezawa, Y., Wade, P., & Smedley, A. (2020, January 29). Race. Retrieved June 20, 2020, from https://www.britannica.com/topic/race-human
Woods, M. (2020, June 1). Black Organizations And Anti-Racist Groups Canadians Can Support Now. Retrieved June 3, 2020, from https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/entry/black-organizations-anti-racist-groups-canada_ca_5ed57ea1c5b6867b30853e20