Educating Against Racial Injustice

A protestor speaks out at a protest following the Eric Garner grand jury decision. (Arthur Bailin / Heights Editor)

From Oscar Grant to Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner to Tamir Rice—and so many other less-covered cases of white males shooting black males—it is hard to pinpoint why what happened in Ferguson, Mo. has sparked national outrage. I think a police officer—a symbol of state authority—killing a black man is reminiscent of the same force that had the right to round up escaped slaves when slavery was abolished,  the right to enforce Jim Crow laws before they were eliminated, and then the right to hose down peaceful protesters during the Civil Rights movement before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed.

At each step, discrimination has been outlawed but there has been no effort to ensure that not only is there a lack of discrimination, but that the stereotypes that legitimized those racist policies were eradicated, and the new, more just policies were implemented in a way that brought about real equality. Just two years ago, when I was first learning about how systems of racial injustice worked in this country, when I first realized that the civil rights movement of the ’60s was not over, that there was still a lot to be done, I felt helpless. Outside of anti-racist organizations and circles, race wasn’t on any white person’s mind. In fact, the mainstream discourse of the country had become one of “colorblindness” and a post-racial society—ideal to be sought after, but by no means the reality of our world today.

My Facebook newsfeed has never been so divided—there are people talking about the injustice of the shooting of Michael Brown and the lack of indictment for Darren Wilson, and there are those who are more incensed by the protests in reaction to those two events. For white folks who are frustrated with the protesters, and not with what is being protested—I get it. You have most likely gone through your whole life not having to think about race and how it affects you. And now people are trying to tell you that a system that you trust, that you feel protected by, is racist and wrong? The answer MUST be that this is an isolated event and that Michael Brown acted in a way that justified Wilson shooting him in fear of his own life. Maybe our quickness to jump to Wilson’s defense stems from the answer to the question, “If we were in his place, would we have done the same thing?” I myself have been the culprit of the grab-your-purse-when-you-are-in-close-quarters-with-a-black-man move. And I am aware that I’m just socialized to react that way, so each time it happens, I make a conscious effort to relax. But in a perceived life or death situation, you can’t just tell yourself to calm down. How do we get to a place where our law enforcement officers do not feel that their life is threatened by black males?

Racism isn’t something that I feel. I had to learn about it.  For those who don’t go looking for it, it is impossible to learn about something that you don’t know exists in the first place. Nobody wants to be racist because we all know that it is bad. Just as the nature of oppression in this country has transformed since emancipation, so has what it means to be racist. We know that it’s wrong to kill somebody because they are black. We have to ask ourselves why Wilson felt so threatened by Michael Brown that he shot to kill.

Where do you see people of color in your day-to-day life? What roles do they play? Where do you see people of color in the media? In TV and movies? Who has control over what content goes into those institutions? Who are the legislators, the CEOs, the producers? For those who feel lost by these sorts of questions but are open for more conversation, read Peggy McIntosh’s Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, Tim Wise’s White Like Me, and Debby Irving’s Waking Up White. And then once you understand your place as a white person in this country, start trying to understand the black experience. Read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, President Obama’s Dreams of My Father, and Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow.

For white allies who know what’s up and can have those conversations with other whites, I implore you, do not get angry with other white people who simply don’t understand. That doesn’t mean don’t be angry—anger at injustice is what drives the movement—but be angry in spaces where people understand your anger, and then present people who haven’t had the opportunity to learn about racism with the same open mind that you want them to have with you. Everyone is a product of their society and you have to meet people where they are, or else you will alienate an otherwise willing supporter. Like I said, usually no one is actively trying to be racist, and you are not above anyone just because you understand how systems of injustice work.

At the Black Student Forum town hall meeting last Monday, we spent a lot of time talking about how to be a useful white ally. Because being spoken to about racism from someone of your own race is oftentimes easier to swallow, we have a particular responsibility in the movement for racial justice.

So first and foremost, it is the role of the white ally to follow black leadership. For the past two weeks Boston College’s Black Student Forum has been organizing events in reaction to the lack of indictment for Darren Wilson—leading protests, panels, and meetings about the issue which allow students space to voice their concerns about BC’s reaction and what BC can do to improve the experience of non-white students at this school. White people have a tendency to want to help, which comes from a good place. We are used to having our voices heard whenever we have a grievance to voice, but this is one space where it is not our grievances that matter. Racism is our problem, in that we perpetuate and benefit from the systems that oppress non-white people (again, if you don’t know how this works, read the aforementioned books), but when joining a black-led movement, we are only participants.

The next most important thing for white allies to do is to keep learning. Racial awareness is a continuous  process—as something that we do not experience, we have to keep re-conditioning ourselves to identify when systems of injustice are present (which is most of the time). As knowledgeable white people, we have an absolute responsibility to speak up when we encounter other white people who don’t understand systems of injustice. The discourse on race in this country is changing, and white people—allies or not—have to prepare for a new wave of the justice movement.

Featured Image by Alex Gaynor / Heights Senior Staff

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About Eleanor Sciannella 5 Articles
Eleanor Sciannella is a staff Opinions columnist for The Heights. She is from Silver Spring, Maryland and is a member of the Class of 2015 in the College of Arts and Sciences, majoring in sociology and minoring in faith, peace, and justice. She is a member of the BC women's rugby football club and has been writing for The Heights since January 2013.

7 Comments

  1. Love this. You’re a great example to all. Thanks for the empathy, hope and promoting love. I thought earlier, what if when we saw a white police officer and a black male we made them family? What would it look like if we walked out on the streets and saw a white officer and young black male talking, laughing, helping each other grow as men and learn how to be better for other people and to love others so radically people wonder why. These kind of relationships are what turned the world upside down in the first century. And I know the wall of hostility has been broken down today. Let’s get others on the same page together.

  2. you asked where do i see black people?
    I put on CNN and see Don Lemon and Van Jones. Then I switch over to MSNBC and see Al Sharpton and Melissa Harris-Perry. Then I put on my favorite tv show at the moment brooklyn 99 (FOX btw) and see a Terry Crews as the loving father of two little girls and Andre Braugher as the gay station chief. After that i flip the channel to watch some comedy. On the way going through the channels foxnews is in the process of interviewing their favorite conservative of this election cycle, Ben Carson. Once i find some comedy Kevin Hart is the performer. Since I have a medical condition I pop some pills from the pharmaceutical company Merck, run by Kenneth Frazer. After that I order some Godfather Pizza (Herman Cain) and pay my monthly chunk of college loans I owe TIAA-Cref (Roger Ferguson). Tiaa cref happens to be one of the largest financial institutions in America you never heard of.
    So when you ask where do I, as a white person, see black people on a day to day basis? In every single position and role imaginable.
    Next time you write an article about this kind of stuff do a little more research, because it’s a bit more complex than you make it out to be.

    • I am a sociology major and have spent my last four years at BC learning about racial injustice, including a year spent as an intern at Community Change, Inc., a non-profit that teaches about systems of racism and white privilege in this country, as my PULSE placement. Please do not insinuate that I have not done my research. I have.

      Here are some articles that point out, that while yes, there are people of color in most all roles in our society, it is still overwhelmingly white. I did not mean to say that there are none, and I am sorry that that is how it came off.

      http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/05/02/corporate-boards-getting-_n_856650.html

      These are long, but such is the nature of research:
      http://www.bunchecenter.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/2014-Hollywood-Diversity-Report-2-12-14.pdf

      https://cdr.lib.unc.edu/indexablecontent/uuid:65c6bb6f-82e3-4d08-8f05-194f32dc03ce

      • its a tricky thing to say that the under representation of minorities/women means there is a direct correlation to racism. Lets take the opposite scenario as an example:
        Something like every second billionaire in the US is Jewish. For a long time Jews were a minority treated like many others (ex: there were quotas on universities up until the 60s stating how many jews were allowed to attend). If we apply the same thinking we do to Jews as to all the other minorities we are talking about Jews should have a lower percentage of billionaires than their percent of US population should suggest. However we find the opposite. The same thing in Russia. There are about 200k Jews in Russia, yet they make up 25% of the billionaire population. Both countries have TOTALLY different histories and cultures, yet we find the same phenomenon. This kinda indicates that economic success and failure of an ethnic group is in large driven by that groups culture, not the political scenario of the country.
        A good example are Nigerian-Americans because they have the highest percentage of college degrees amongst all american ethnic groups. We would think since blacks who are already here have a bad time Nigerians should see the same fate. yet they dont.

        • The history of exclusion, subordination, and dehumanization of blacks in this country runs a lot deeper and has had a lot more long lasting effects than the oppression experienced by the Jewish, which also might contribute to why Nigerian Americans are the ethnic group with the highest rates of college degrees. They haven’t been kept back by that history. That being said, both black Americans and African Americans suffer from racial injustices.
          There are studies done (link here for an example: http://www.chicagobooth.edu/capideas/spring03/racialbias.html) where resumes with the exact same qualifications on them except for “black” and “white” sounding names are sent out. “White” resumes are answered at a much higher rate than “black” resumes with the same exact qualifications- this suggests it is not a cultural thing, it is a racism thing. I would again suggest you read the books I mention in the article to further understand how I connect the disproportionate racial demographics of the media with racism.

          • if you tell me that the difference in success between a Nigerian American and a black American is that they “haven’t been kept back by that history” than that means that the difference/what is holding them back is cultural/psychological aspects in their society, not racism. Because as you mentioned Nigerians succeeded where other blacks haven’t. As you mentioned there might be racism with name selection etc (although somehow every second person on wall street these days is indian with an extremely exotic name), but somehow Nigerians manage to get past that. There has been racism towards many groups in countries, but somehow most of them have managed to get tackle that hurdle and move past it.
            I don’t disagree with you that there is bias and racism, I dont think a multiethnic society will ever completely move past that. However, I do not believe race is the crucial factor determining/hindering success you make it out to be. I think as you have slightly touched upon there is a lot of cultural aspects and psychology involved that are inhibiting some members of our country to realize their full potential.
            I read your studies (chicago one not working) and i understand what they are saying. However, I think it is a bit more complex than that. Most decisions people make do not rely on one or two key factors, they usually rely on a much broader range of things they use to evaluate people that are hard to all factor into a lab/research study setting. You would have to control so many variables making it hard to execute your study.

          • I did not say it was the difference, I said it may contribute to the difference. There are certainly cultural factors- most immigrant families put a large emphasis on education for their children. I was not the one that pointed out Nigerians “succeed” here- you gave the example of degree attainment. I would like to point out that your study compared ethnic groups, so “black American” might not have been a category used for comparison, seeing as black is not an ethnicity, it is a race, and a Nigerian American would fit into both the category of black American and Nigerian American. The study I mentioned used black American names, not Nigerian or any African, or any other “exotic” names, so the name bias isn’t something they would “get passed” necessarily, because it doesn’t reflect their demographic.
            What I mean by “that history” is the history of racism in the US. And I’m not just talking about slavery. There are economic policies, housing policies, banking loan practices, education policies that have excluded and continue to exclude people of color. Another book I would recommend is “Possessive Investment in Whiteness” by George Lipsitz, that maps out how these policies work against people of color.

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