Friday, September 16, 2005

A conversation about UR - unintentional racism

After an intense conversation regarding the president’s spin control last night, I received a request from a co-worker.

*I want you to educate me on all the racial tension in NOLA. I don't want to have U.R.! (UR= unintentional racism)

My answer:
Honey, unfortunately, it’s everywhere. Even when you don’t see it. We all have to deal with UR. Well, at the very least – UB – unintentional bigotry. So the following is based on a mixture of what I’ve experienced, learned in classrooms, and read on my own. A nice little disclaimer to say – this is my opinion and I could be dead wrong. - but I don’t think so.
Dealing with UR is harder than the more blatant stuff. It’s all wrapped up in privilege and perception. There is some REALLY good stuff out there that really help all folks look at their places of privilege. Hell, even I have to catch myself when I’m not being purposeful in my interactions or personal thoughts/actions. Little stuff like, how my education gives me privilege over those who don’t have one, or being raised middle class, or gender identity/preference, my nationality, etc. In a nutshell though, UR are the mindless things that get said and done that ignore, discount, or support statements, actions or beliefs that are steeped in a long history of maintaining the unspoken boundaries of race/class and privileged over non-privileged – whether the person is aware of it or not. Dealing with it requires getting educated, subverting it requires confronting privilege when it is offered to you, or denied to others in your presences.
Statements like “those people” or, especially in the South or West, “Heard County is named for my family”, or “the trust fund takes care of that” are examples of UR. Folks, whose families owned enough property to have a county named after them, also owned slaves/killed Indians/broke treaties. Recent studies into some of the largest/oldest companies in America – including insurance companies – have revealed a heavy reliance on money from first slaveholders, and then continued corporate benefits from exploiting Jim Crow. Most white Americans have no idea how Jim Crow affected blacks and other non-white minorities. Basically, Jim Crow laws were applied to whatever race/ethnicity whites dealt with in their region. So in the West, it was, blacks, Hispanics, Asian Americans, and Ameridians, in the south, it was blacks.
Another good one is nepotism/legacy versus affirmative action. Most of the colleges in this country did not admit minorities in any significant numbers before the mid-60’s and early 70’s – and most of these campuses are still struggling to proportionately raise their minority student populations (oft times people will be accepted, but unable to attend due to finances). Agnes Scott’s first Black students were admitted during that time. Those campuses that did admit minority students, predominantly took in students who had backing from white families or institutions. Often times, they only dealt with black-white issues – causing more friction between the minorities. Many times, it would be the illegitimate child of some rich white man, or some otherwise fair-skinned person (Spelman and Morehouse had unofficial “paper bag” tests up until the 60’s – basically, you couldn’t be darker than the paper bag). Until the 60’s and 70’s, most of the HBCU’s were run by whites. So when people are against affirmative action, but are a legacy at their alma mater, it’s a double slap to those minorities who’ve only been allowed to take classes on those campuses in significant numbers for less than 2 generations.
The same is true in the work place. Companies are still getting ratted out for unfair hiring practices, jacking up interest rates, refusing to advertise to blacks or in black media, not promoting blacks, etc. When people assume that you “deserve” your job, but immediately question the qualifications/education of a minority in the same or similar position, but they owe their job to a padded resume and the boss is a relative or a friend of a friend of a friend, that’s UR.
My current favorite example of UR has been the unbalanced media portrayals during the Katrina crisis. Whites were “heroes scavenging for desperately needed food and supplies”, black folks carrying the same things, in the same newscast, were “looters”. Word choice has a powerful influence on perception.
Telling people of color or other nationalities that they are articulate or “don’t sound like they’re______” is another example of UR. It assumes that they are novelties instead of equally educated. Assumptions regarding a persons economic status, level of education, religion, or political affiliation based on how they dress, what they drive, the music they listen to, or their occupation – or lack there of – or where they live is another example. It assumes the stereotype applies unilaterally. I was a poor single mother on welfare living in the hood, at the same time that I was working and going to Agnes Scott. I’ve been watched by sales clerks as I walked through a store, then ignored at the register when I was ready to make my purchase, and finally asked for id after watching them not do the same to their white customers – this year. When people assume that the face of crime is black, when the judicial system continues to hand down harsher sentences to blacks than they do to whites with the same charges, that’s UR.
My father married a black woman but still had to deal with his own issues of UR. As a first generation American, he firmly believed that blacks could just assimilate into American culture because his parents had. Europeans and fair skinned non-whites who are disenfranchised can take speech lessons, change their names, have a little surgery, cut off ties to their families, and yes, completely assimilate into the American fabric. No matter how I speak or write, where I went to school, or my occupation – even when I dress like a corporate drone, I am still just a black woman when I am walking down the street. I have seen white women clutch their purses in the elevator when faced with a Black man in a business suit getting on. He did everything this society told him to assimilate, but he’s still just a black man. That’s a classic example of UR at work.
Another is assuming that the playing field is level because some people have crossed class strata, when historically there have always been minorities in the upper classes in this country. There has been an abysmal rate of change in minority communities – something like only an overall 5% decrease in the number of blacks who are at or below the poverty line since the 70’s. UR looks at that and says – well why won’t “they” do better? Privilege acknowledgement looks at it and says, it’s going to take MUCH more than 40 years to clean up the toxic affects of institutionalized racism in a country that experienced nearly 400 years of slavery, genocide and Jim Crow.
How do we know? There are still occupations and Universities sending out PR notices about their “first Black/Minority” whatever. There are still campuses with tenured professors who’ve never given a person of color a grade above a low B – I’ve had a couple of them. There are still banks who, when given the portfolio’s of potential loan applicants, disproportionately deny loans to blacks and other minorities, even when the only thing that differs in their file from that of white applicants is their race. If we’d passed the need for addressing the issue, no minority would be looking at any school, government position, or industry wondering when they’re going to get their chance at being the “first” or when we’ll stop uncovering examples of those who are qualified, or even over qualified, still being denied access to opportunities.

No comments: