Saturday, October 12, 2013

Racism, Colorblindness and Me

"Stop staring!  What's the matter with you?"

I was about six years old, living in a smallish town in Colorado.  One Sunday afternoon we went to a park in a nearby larger town.  An African-American family had also brought their children to the park, and they were playing on the children's play equipment.

My eyes were riveted.  I couldn't look away.

I had never seen black people in person before. Only on TV.

I don't remember now whether my mother hissed those words, or if I said them to myself.  "Be colorblind," she had always told me.  "We don't look at people according to their race.  We simply see people."

I must be a racist, I thought to myself.  I had only seen black people on TV before.  These people looked strange, exotic, different.  I couldn't stop seeing their race.

I felt miserable and ashamed.

It was, I think, sometime in 1969.  The Civil Rights movement was in full swing, and my parents-- white-skinned, white-collar people living in the Rocky Mountains in a house my dad built himself-- were against Jim Crow laws and very supportive of the protests happening in far-away cities.  But where we lived, there were no black people anywhere in sight.

Later, when I was in high school, there were a few African-American kids in my school.  They were immensely popular, considered "cool."  I was far down on the social scale.  They never noticed or spoke to me.

When we moved and I went to college at the University of Oregon, I finally had the opportunity to get to know some African-American students.  The strangeness finally fell away, and I relaxed and could be natural around my new friends.  Although the campus ministry I went to was coercive and controlling, it did have this strength-- it actively sought out people of all cultures, and it was probably the most integrated church in town.  I lived in a big sorority house with kids who were African-American, Chinese, Indonesian, Latino.  I began to see that the incident when I was six had been pretty much just a normal, childish response to a new thing.  I wasn't racist after all.  I had learned to be "colorblind."

And that's how I saw myself for about the next 25 years.

Nowadays I live in a smallish town in Oregon where there are very few people of color. The largest minority group here is Latino, but we don't see very many even of them.  Most black people in town are here because of the college.  When they graduate, they don't stay here.

I always thought it was because there weren't enough of the kinds of jobs they wanted.

But recently I decided it wasn't right for me, as a Christian egalitarian, to speak out only for women in the way I've been doing. Because simply by concentrating on the concerns of women like me, in the churches and communities I know, I am by default excluding women of color.

Because Christ calls me to speak out for the marginalized and disenfranchised, and not just for the group I belong to.

Because though I lack male privilege, I have white privilege and a host of other privileges.  So I need to listen to and learn from people unlike myself, and then speak out for them too.

Because a few years back I began to understand that being "colorblind" wasn't enough.

Eduardo Bonilla-Silva's 2003 book Racism Without Racists explains:
Color-blind racism. . . explains contemporary racial inequality as the outcome of nonracial dynamics. Whereas Jim Crow racism explained blacks' social standing as a result of their biological and moral inferiority. . . instead, whites rationalize minorities' contemporary status as the product of market dynamics, naturally occurring phenomena, and blacks' imputed cultural limitations.  For instance, whites can attribute Latinos' high poverty rate to a relaxed work ethic. . .  
[C]ontemporary racial inequality is reproduced through "new racism" practices that are subtle, institutional, and apparently nonracial. . . And the beauty of this new ideology is that it aids in the maintenance of white privilege without fanfare, without naming those who it subjects and those who it rewards. . . Thus whites enunciate positions that safeguard their racial interests without sounding "racist." 
In other words, just because we aren't using racial epithets or promoting racial stereotypes, doesn't mean we're not, consciously or subconsciously, participating in subtler forms of a more modern racism.  As Bonilla-Silva states:
Relying on questions that were formed in the Jim Crow era to assess white's racial views today produces an artificial image of progress [and] . . . a rosy picture of race relations that misses what is going on on the ground.
This is why people like me, living in areas where we are privileged to never have to deal with racial issues directly (because of the lack of integration of our communities), can think racism is largely a past issue, rapidly becoming obsolete.  We would never, and we know of no one who would, use the n-word or deny housing to someone based on race.  So race just isn't an issue any more, or if it is, it's only down in those Southern states, right?

But isn't it time I asked myself why, after all these years, my city and most of my state remain so white?  According to this data, Oregon's population is 86.6% white-- 17th highest in the country.  And it is 37th in the nation for black population.

I decided to look a little bit into my state's history.  The Oregon History Project states that the Ku Klux Klan had a large presence here in the 1920s-- "one of the strongest state Klans in the country"-- largely because
[t]he Klan philosophy of “100 percent Americanism” rested primarily on three attributes: belief in a philosophy of white supremacy; adherence to Protestant or “American” Christianity; and the superiority of native-born Americans. Given Oregon’s long history of racial exclusion and the fact that almost 90 percent of the state’s population in the early 1920s was native-born, white, and protestant, Klan organizers had little trouble enrolling new members.
Wait-- Oregon is historically racially exclusionist?  Yes, very.  According to 7Stops online magazine, Oregon was intended by white settlers from the start to be a racially exclusive state:
Even in its earliest incarnations, the Oregon Territory did not legally allow slaves to be brought into the state. This law, though, had little to do with abolitionism; in fact, the first governor of the state of Oregon held a decidedly pro-slavery stance. Outlawing slavery was, in effect, just a way of keeping African-Americans out of the state. An article in the Oregonian on Portland’s lack of racial diversity quotes Darrell Millner, professor of black studies at Portland State University, as saying: “Conventional wisdom at the time was clear… If you don’t have more than one race, then you don’t have any racial problems.” For working class or poor whites living in Midwestern and southern states in the mid 1840s, free blacks represented a threat not only to their job security, but also their social standing, as “white trash” was often placed on a rung lower than “black” on the social ladder. . . .
Oregon enacted several laws in an attempt to curb the influx of free blacks. There were exclusion laws to keep any new “negroes and mullatos” from entering the territory, and a law called the “Lash Law” that mandated that every black in the territory be lashed every six months until they left. When Oregon adopted its constitution, one of the amendments was an exclusion law, making it the only free state in the union to include an exclusion law in its constitution. In the 1860s the laws were reduced, and African-Americans, Chinese and Hawaiian immigrants, and multiracial people were allowed to live in the state for a $5-a-year fee, although they were not allowed to own property. [Emphases added]
I don't think my children learned any of this in school.  I know for a fact that race relations was not part of the curriculum in Colorado schools when I was growing up.  But the fact remains that my current home state has a long-standing history of hostility to minorities, and this deep-seated historical attitude almost certainly contributes to the lack of welcome minorities, and particularly black people, undoubtedly still feel today. If you then add modern policies like urban renewal that favors white development at the expense of the very few traditionally black neighborhoods, it's no wonder that cities like Portland have actually seen their diversity decrease in recent years.

It's seeming more and more to me that unless I start actively engaging with this issue and listening to the voices of those who don't look like me, I'm part of the problem rather than part of the solution. I don't want to be racist or to contribute to racism.  But good intentions aren't enough, as detailed by the Christian racial reconciliation website By Their Strange Fruit: Christianity and Race in Today's Culture:
Our modern racial paradox is that our society is filled with profound differences based on race, yet few claim to even see race at all.

This is perhaps the most dangerous form of racism. Because we refuse to acknowledge its existence, we are helpless to combat it. Racism is allowed to run rampant because we deny the reality of its strength.
As a Christian who knows my own sinfulness and relies on the abundant, freely-given grace of God, I needn't be afraid to face my unaware and unwilling participation in the status quo of systemic, institutional racism-- or even the deep-rooted, unwitting biases I may have-- but instead to trust in Christ's hand in my own as He leads me further into the ways of His upside-down kingdom, where no one clings to power but instead lays it down for the good of others.   The first thing for me to do is learn to listen well as a person of privilege.

I commit myself now to do that.  White readers, will you join me?

Because being colorblind is not enough.


Sandy said...

Kristin, I live in the South and I find Blacks acting racist to whites more than the other way around. It is a two sided coin. Blacks have often cried "racism" to cover for their shortcomings and to avoid taking responsibility in a situation. Not all "racism" is actually racism.

Kristen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kristen said...

Sandy, I agree that black people, like white people, can act in racial discrimination. But according to my understanding of the way these terms are used now, minorities technically cannot be "racist," because "racism" refers to the whole system of institutionalized privilege that white people are automatically advantaged by, and people of color are disadvantaged by. So, given that white people are often actually blind to many of the social systems that advantage us, isn't it better to not assume a given black person is "crying racism" to avoid taking responsibility, but to listen and try to understand that person's perspective?

Personally, I think a person who is negatively affected by systemic racism is in a better position to tell me what is racism and what isn't, than I can do myself.

Anonymous said...

This is a really good post. Seeing the reaction (or lack thereof), a lot of our fellow white people are in denial. After all, we've always received these subliminal messages about our innate goodness and worthiness that were wrapped up in a racialized identity. To find out that we perpetuate structural racism attacks that false pride and institutes cognitive dissonance. Lotta white people on the run today.

Btw, for the other commenter, I live in the South too. I've met some Black people that are biased against whites but there's a big difference between being a racist and being just plain DISTRUSTFUL because white people have hurt you and yours so many times in the past. I have a coworker who is Black and Native American who people often think is "mean". One day she opened up and told me about when she was a little child and her grandfather in rural Florida was firing warning shots into the woods because some white men were trying to run him off of his property. This would have been in the early 1970s. Why wouldn't you distrust white people if they were trying to kill you? The Rosewood Massacre happened in the 1920s in rural Florida in Levy County--look it up. That era also saw the Tulsa "race riots". Calling them "race riots" is an attempt to blame Blacks and excuse whites. Actually, they were another existential attack on a Black community by the white community... look at the death toll. If you know what a pogrom is, that is what Rosewood was. And such things happened many, many times all over the South after Reconstruction ended.

Anonymous said...

Just found your blog today and wanted to say I appreciate how well-researched each post is. For this post in particular, man, do I struggle with it too! I'm a single white female who lives a very racially and economically divided city. I struggle with knowing that someday I'm probably going to move out of the city when I have kids for the safety and better school districts, and then I feel guilty because I know not everyone can move to safer areas with the best opportunities for their children. But what would, me, as an individual, accomplish by staying in the terrible school districts besides disadvantaging my kids? I don't know any answers.