The Power of the “R” Word to Inflame and Change

Vina Kay

Vina Kay

Every one of us holds bias. We see someone coming down the street and make an assumption that informs our behavior. We fail to see how others in the same room are experiencing social interactions differently. We do not see who is not sitting with us at the table, whether in school, at a workplace, or in the chambers of our Legislature.

Similarly, we all hold some amount of privilege. That advantage plays out in different environments. A tall person has the best view at the concert. One family member always gets her way. The boss’s son jumps ahead of others.

It’s just the way it is, we could very easily argue.

Or we could choose to arrange the situation differently to recognize bias and privilege. That does not mean we have to undo all that we each hold within ourselves. It simply means we can, as a community, choose to do things differently – especially when we see that something isn’t working right. Our disparities in all kinds of opportunities, most often by race and poverty, show us that things are not always working well.

If our institutions and structures of opportunities are not fully available to every member of the community, is it possible that changing how we do things could help close gaps?

The “R” word, I have come to see, really does result in discomfort, indignity, defensiveness, maybe even hopelessness. Although we must recognize and address racism, especially at the institutional and structural levels, in order to bring about real change, we need not overcome every aspect of racism in our society to address the issue. Wherever we stand personally, we can develop and implement policies that work better.

I have heard several different arguments in reaction to last week’s post. Some themes have emerged.

Raising racism is racist – and disempowering to people of color. The claim is that assuming that people of color cannot overcome the racism in our society assumes the worst of people, and is itself demeaning and racist. The opposite is true if we look to the important laws that have made it possible for communities of color and other groups to overcome the barriers to full participation in our society. The Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act are examples of laws that paved the way to more inclusive participation. Having the power of the law recognize and stand behind very real experiences of discrimination was not a perpetuation of racism or exclusion. Instead, these laws have done a lot to undo structures of exclusion that were long in place. But it is also important to realize that laws change, and interpretation and enforcement is in the hands of human beings. Last summer, the Supreme Court undid a significant part of the Voting Rights Act based on an analysis that the protections of the Act were no longer necessary. So we must now ask and document whether and how fewer voting protections changes the landscape of democratic participation. Asking those questions and developing solutions to the structural barriers – and racism – that persists is an act of power.

Pointing to racism dodges the problem. Some have said that raising the issue of racism allows both individuals and institutions to throw up their hands and say, “Oh well, we can’t do anything since racism is the problem.” This argument assumes that racism is a big, amorphous thing outside of people and institutions. It gives the idea and act of racism more power than people and institutions to both perpetuate it and to undo it. Pointing to how our institutions and structures and simple ways of doing things do not work for everyone in the same way just allows us to think about how to adjust the landscape. One analogy we use at Organizing Apprenticeship Project might help. Equality, we say, is making sure every child has a pair of shoes. Equity means every child has a pair of shoes that fits. Racial equity then attempts to make systems work more fluidly, so that opportunities are not defined by whether your foot is the right size for all the shoes.

Personal responsibility is the real issue. I have two teenage sons. I believe in personal responsibility. But what allows any of us to exercise our best selves is the fertile ground of community and opportunities. At the end of the road, we all have choices to make. The road must actually provide a walkable path with opportunities to exercise meaningful choices. Every one of us faces bumps along the way. As beneficial as two parent families can be, it just doesn’t work out that way all the time. It stinks to lose a job. Homelessness makes it hard to get homework done. We could say that personal responsibility is the solution to all of these misfortunes. Or we could address the situations that people find themselves in and think and act to minimize the harm. What are the solutions within the control of communities, schools, and government? Can those solutions make the ground more fertile for each of us to be our best selves?

It is difficult, I realize, to see beyond the sting of the word racism. We must recognize that so much of the world we operate in was set up to work by and for those at the decision making table. How else can anyone craft policies and practices but through their own experiential lens? As our demographics change, hopefully we will see more representation of communities of color in all levels of decision making. But for the time being, we must also stretch ourselves to walk in the shoes of others.

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2 thoughts on “The Power of the “R” Word to Inflame and Change

  1. Is average cranial volume amongst different populations due to racism or evolutionary forces? What about blood type or resistance to different disease? I don’t know. Do you? No, but you assume you have the solution to what is implied to be a problem stemming from genetic diversity and evolution. Here is a clue- Yao Ming’s height,as towering as he is, isn’t enough to change the average height of the Han Chinese population.

    I can’t even take you seriously. You work from an anti-reality paradigm, based on narratives and proposed problems already excessively propagated and proven unsolvable but that is so popular, that I wonder if you simply cut and paste this stuff from textbooks and old leftist pamphlets leftover from the closing of Arise bookstore.

    And again, who are “people of color” and how is racism holding “them” down? Asians,Indians and other “people of color” are the most successful,generally accepted and best assimilated to American culture,especially the leftist/egalitarian culture you’re promoting,so why take a institutions/privileged aka white people vs all others position? Can racism be credited for the success of Indian IT sector success or does collectivity only apply to guilt?

    The tall blades of grass get cut down I guess. Those who dare to do well in the multikult had better not be white!

  2. I’ve been searching for your definition of “racism”, and all I can find is general calls for “racial justice”, “equity”, and other such identity multiculturalist rhetoric and preaching to the choir. I’d just assume ask you what your definition of “racism” is, though all I may get is another column with no answers.

    Racism as it is commonly understood is the belief that one race is inherently superior or inferior to another and the expression of behavior that reflects such a belief. From what I have gathered from the left (i.e. Green Party, progressives, GreenDems, et. al.) is that racism is power plus prejudice. That’s all well and good if you believe that only whites can be racists – and even then, such an attempt to portray racism as a universal white trait is….racist.

    The Japanese were quite good at racism in the last century, butchering and subjugating their captive populations (Korean, Chinese, Philippine) as they swept across Korea, Manchuria and the Pacific. Blacks have been targeting whites in mob attacks recently in “polar bear hunting” and other mass attacks – now *that’s* prejudice plus power.

    The impression I get – and I’ve been to one such “anti-racism” session at the Minneapolis DFL before – is the assumptions that are made. There is no room, apparently, for discussion of what responsibilities “people of color” have in civil society. It is not my responsibility, as a white ethnic, to purge myself in an auto-da-fe. It is not my responsibility to do so, I owe “people of color” not one dime or one confession of alleged racial sin. I am responsible for my own behavior as others are responsible for theirs.

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