Reflections on Race
The topic of race can cause us to feel uncomfortable, defensive, or even resistant. This is largely due to the uncomfortable truths about the history of racism and systemic racial inequalities of our country. Some of us would rather tip toe around the topic rather than discuss it. Others claim that they don't see race or that talking about it is damaging to intercultural relationships, working only to divide us. And then, you have those who believe that we are a post-race society, arguing that racial "issues" are a thing of the past. I've even had a few people tell me that they don't believe in the concept of race.As an anti-racist educator, I am committed to helping others get the past the uncomfortabilities of communicating about race. In order to do so, it is important for all of us to invest in exploring the concept of race and examine how race impacts the lived experiences of ourselves and others. One of the ways I help my students to realize the important role that racial identity plays in our lives is to have them reflect, write, and share their individual experiences of how they learned about race. I have been doing this in my Intercultural Communication Class for over a decade, and these reflections have been insightful and telling of just how pervasive racism is in our society. My own understanding of the complexities of race has been shaped by these student reflections and I am grateful to my students for having taught me so much.
In honor of Martin Luther King Jr.'s 90th birthday, I wanted to share just a few student reflections (with full permission) that I received in the Fall 2018 semester. Dr. King's commitment to dismantling racism and white supremacy influenced and inspired generations of people (myself included) to be dedicated to the fight for racial justice. I find it heartbreaking that 51 years have come and gone since Dr. King was murdered, yet racism and racial inequalities are still very much alive and well today.
James Baldwin famously said, "you can not fix what you will not face" and I am hopeful that we can be courageous in 2019 and have meaningful discussions about race and racism, no matter how uncomfortable it might feel. If we are not willing to do so, we will never realize Dr. King's dream of an America in which all people have equal rights, access, and opportunities. I'm hoping that the experiences shared below will provide insight about the salience of race and the pervasiveness of racism that continues to exist in this country.
How Sophia Learned About Race:
I do not remember how old I was when I learned about race, but I do know that I was still in elementary school. I remember I was sitting next to and talking to one of my friends. While I was talking I noticed him staring at my face and seemed to be distracted by something. It took him a while to say anything but he finally said what he was so distracted by. “Why do you have a mustache” he said. I had never felt so embarrassed in my life. I quickly shut down, told him I didn't, covered my upper lip, and walked away.
I remember that whole day at school I was so embarrassed to talk to anyone, in fear of them noticing too. From that day on I remember looking at other girls to see if they had visible peach fuzz on their upper lips. Of course they did not because I went to a predominantly white school and I was one of the only people of color. Most of the girls I went to school with had lighter skin and lighter hair. My peach fuzz was darker on my upper lip because all of my hair on my body was just darker. I never noticed this because, besides at school, I was surrounded by people who were the same race as me. My sister and girl cousins all had that same upper lip peach fuzz. I never noticed it on anyone until that boy pointed it out. I also remember getting home sometime after that incident and going home and actually shaving it off with a razor. I had felt so embarrassed that I never told anyone. It wasn't
until my mom noticed that I spoke about it. She had asked me if I shaved my upper lip and of course I denied it at first because I thought I was the only girl who had this problem. She then told me that she had one too but hers was not visible because she got hers waxed/threaded off. She had also told me that it was nothing to be ashamed of because most people the race as us have the same exact thing done to them. I learned that day about race and learned that it was nothing to be ashamed of to be/look different than others."
How Taylor Learned About Race:
“I learned a great deal about race throughout my high school years. I dated several guys of different races, and each time I would go anywhere, or even sometimes walking down the hallways at school together, people showed the obvious disgust in the looks on their faces. One particular occurrence that happened rather recently occurred when I was riding passenger with my boyfriend of color who was driving. We got pulled over by the police for a traffic violation. Usually, when I get pulled over when driving by myself (a white woman), I am treated with respect and the officer will explain my violation to me and issue a citation if necessary. However, in this instance, I had a much different experience. We were pulled over and two cops got out of the car, one came to my door and the other to my boyfriend's door. They came up fast with their hands on their weapons and immediately pulled us out of the vehicle. They separated us and immediately started questioning me about how I knew my boyfriend, while they searched my vehicle. I was scared, as I had never been in this situation before, and I had nothing to hide so I complied. After this happened, my boyfriend explained to me that this was a "normal" occurrence for him, and that if anything the cops were "nice" because they didn't attempt to throw him to the ground or pull their guns on him. This situation really opened my eyes to the racism and power issues that are so prevalent in this world that we live in! I now find myself seeing the hidden racism in a lot of minuscule things throughout my everyday life, and although these are just small things, I think it is a huge problem.”
How Ingrid Learned About Race:
"It was not until I was hitting middle school that I thought about my race. This was the time when the likes of George Lopez and Carlos Mencia were on television and making satirical jokes or parodies of my own culture that people would then take and twist into offensive ammunition that I really started taking notice. I was coming to recognize that there were people that didn’t mean these things as jokes but rather used them to mask an underlying anger or even hatred towards people of my particular race.
Then I met my eighth grade homeroom teacher, she had been working at this school for so long she was my older brother’s (13 years older than me) teacher as well. She was an upper middle class white woman who worked in at a school that was populated by mostly children of color. She often referred to us as juvenile delinquents, which I could dismiss as her attempt to joke around with the class but my mom sure could not. I would make excuses for her until she began signaling me out by often asking me, in front of the whole class, if I was an illegal immigrant or if I had papers. I shared this with my brother and he told me he had had a similar situation with her back when he was her student, she would often tell him he would not amount to anything and would probably end up working at a factory. That was the moment I realized I could not excuse her behavior as jokes or old age and that she might just be racist."
How Marie Learned about Race:
"My real first encounter with racism was when I was just entering the 8th grade. I learned about racism in grade school and middle school and I knew what it was. However, I never really experienced it first hand until the first day of 8th grade. I was always a really smart student. I got good grades and always excelled in all of my classes. When 8th grade year began my middle school was rolling out a new program called multi team. This was added for kids who needed extra help in their classes. On my first day of 8th grade I came to find out I was placed in multi team classes. My first class that day my teacher asked us to pull out a piece of paper and write a number from a scale of 1-5, 1 being we can’t speak any English to 5 being we can speak English. I was so confused on why I was placed in these classes. I looked around the room and saw that every kid in my class was Hispanic. A lot of these kids I recognized from 6th and 7th grade and I knew some of these kids were extremely smart. I asked my teacher why they created multi team and she said it’s for bilingual students. I asked her if it was because we were all Hispanic and she smiled and said “don’t you feel more comfortable in this class environment?” I came to realize later on that day that all the kids that were in multi team were all Hispanic. I went home that day and told my parents what happened and they were furious. My dad went to the school the next day and stood up for me. He told my principal that I was an extremely smart girl and that my class placement should be based off of my test grades, not the color of my skin. A couple of days later my class schedule was changed and I ended up being placed in all honors classes. I wasn’t the only student either. A lot of students got moved around and placed into different class levels. I even saw some students from multi team in my new honors classes. Never in my life has someone based my intelligence off of the way I look. This experience was a real eye opener for me. It’s one thing learning about discrimination and racism in school but when you experience it for yourself in real life it really gives you a whole new outlook on it. This was just one of a few experiences for me throughout my whole life."