We Don’t See Racism?

Two afternoons a week, I tutor a high school junior in English and history and enjoy gleaning insights into a different school community than the one in which I work. My client Mary attends a school with a predominantly white and wealthy student population. I work mainly with students of color from families who live in poverty.

Mary’s latest English assignment is to write a letter to the school board on whether The Adventures of Huck Finn should be required reading for juniors. Mary argues, “yes.” I ask her why.

“Our school is very white and we don’t have much of a chance to see what racism is like,” she states.

Oh really? This is the same school that was in the news because of the racially-based harassment of a black football player by white students.  Mary also told me that she frequently hears the n-word exchanged between students in the hallways.

“What do you mean it gives you a chance to see what racism is like?” I ask, wanting her to offer a clearer picture of her perceptions.

“Since we’re mainly white at our school, we just don’t see what it’s like for black people,” Mary clarified. “We don’t see racism.”

I should mention that Mary’s family is Iranian and lives in a community that has not been friendly to people of Middle-Eastern descent post-9/11. 

“So,” I venture, “is racism only between whites and blacks?” 

“Well, no. But that’s what I think of when I think of racism,” she said.

I’m reminded of a recent argument with a family acquaintance. He implied that there was no longer racism in the United States because President Barack Obama had been re-elected. I argued that as a white, middle-aged male,  he might view the world through a different lens than did a person of color. Just because he doesn’t see racism, doesn’t mean it no longer exists.

Too often we talk about racism when we need to talk about equity. If our high school students view Huck Finn as an exemplar of contemporary racism, we are doing more damage than good. 

I asked Mary if her class talked about their personal experiences with racism or about the everyday micro-aggressions experienced by people of color in our society. Did they discuss the persistent racial achievement gap in schools? “Nope,” she said.  

Huck Finn can be a powerful tool for prompting discussion about racism in the United States, past and present. It is, however, an extremely complex work to teach and should be done so critically and sensitively.

We have a responsibility to our students to have honest dialogue about race, privilege and institutional racism so that they can articulately speak out against it. We can no longer afford to create citizens who don’t see racism. 

Ryan Fear is a high school dean of students in Oregon.


Just wondering how to

Submitted by Greg on 12 December 2012 - 7:48am.

Just wondering how to approach some of the more current issues with race. My students have brought up some more recent issues which have prompted conversations. The biggest issue I'm seeing is the seeming disparity in how racism is defined and differentiated between the actual races. A couple of cases in point. Jamie Fox had a recent comment where he was glad to be in a movie where he got to kill lots of white people. In another case, we were talking about voter suppression and one of the students mentioned how the Obama administration did nothing (and even dropped charges) in a case where the new Black Panthers were intimidating voters at voting places. Another topic was that, in presenting Dr. King's speech, the students picked out how he said not judge by the color of skin, but by the content of character and asked why the vast majority of African Americans voted for someone based on skin color. I simply had no answer! How can I explain this considering that I'm trying teach about Civil Rights when there seems to be a racial double standard (as one of my students expressed it). These topics sort of took me by surprise and I have a difficult time explaining it and feel somewhat powerless. Any insights?

Hi Greg, my two cents on the

Submitted by Gus on 16 December 2012 - 3:58am.

Hi Greg, my two cents on the issues you've raised is as follows. (a) Jamie Fox, one can only suspect that the statement was made in jest. I may be wrong but I suspect the good actor is yet to display systemic racism. (b) alleged voter suppresion by alleged Black Panthers, once again I may be wrong but you appear to be insinuating that the Obama administration may have failed to prosecute the alleged offences because they were allegedly committed by Black Panthers. I am yet to see any evidence of the same. Also, I suspect that the decision on whether to prosecute the alleged offences would ordinarily have been made by the local District Attorney based on the evidence available to support alleged breaches. (c) African Americans voting for predominantly Pres. Obama and Rev King's message. I think it would be fairer to examine recent viting records of African Americans in order to come to a conclusion as to their support for Obama. I remember Pres Clinton carrying an overwhelming majority of the African American vote and a majority of them voting for Sen Kerry in 2004. Could it be the case that they were then considering the content of the character of their preferred candidate but not that of Pres. Obama in 2008 & 2012? Of course there may have been elements in the African American community who may have had other motivations for voting for him much as some Catholics and Irish Americans when JFK ran. You may ask the students about the other 'groups' that Obama carried e.g. Hispanics, Asian Americans, young college educated types etc. Cheers, Gus

Thanks. Some of your comments

Submitted by Greg on 17 December 2012 - 8:10am.

Thanks. Some of your comments helped, especially those dealing with groups voting a certain way. My problem is that I encourage my students to do their own research, which will sometimes come back and bite me. I have one kid who has (because I think he thinks it is funny) who has come up with case after case where predominant African-American actors, politicians, etc. make all these different overtly racist statements and I can't figure out any way to explain it. They're predominant, so I hesitate to overtly call them racists or idiots like the Klu Klux Klan. He expresses concerns about a double standard when it comes to racism. He has even found some old comments from I think it is Obama's old church and some of his pre-political comments that sound pretty bad. How do I handle such things? I don't want to cause any issues. Do I talk to his parents?

First, I would suggest you do

Submitted by Samir on 28 August 2013 - 5:15pm.

First, I would suggest you do some research of your own on the difference between racism (which involves a systemic nature) and bias, and then proceed from there in your instruction. Second, when you say that you encourage your students to do their own research, what parameters do you put in place? What is the research topic or question? Are they using primary sources with context of the larger message, or secondary sources that pull out snippets? I'm not sure by what you mean about being "predominant" or figuring out a "way to explain it." Calling anyone racists or idiots, even the KKK, does nothing to promote deeper understanding of historical struggles. To suggest that there is no reaction to statements made by African Americans is also incorrect, as evidenced by your own lack of response to Wright's comments (which by the way were heavily dissected during the election, far more than any discussion about racism in the Mormon church). You may want to discuss the concept of false equivalency, of equating the comments of someone with no authority to that of an official policy. If you are teaching a US History course, these comments should be a great opening for much more nuanced discussions. But it requires a lot of thought and information on the part of the teacher if you hope to truly lead your students--you can't blame them for going in the wrong direction if you haven't given them a map.

Excellent commentary here...

Submitted by Sarah Sansbury on 11 December 2012 - 11:22am.

Excellent commentary here... so true.

Last night I attended a City

Submitted by Rosemarie on 11 December 2012 - 5:10pm.

Last night I attended a City Council meeting in Lakewood Colorado. Most attendees were White. Many elderly residents of a certain neighborhood were there to speak out against the proposed change that would allow a beehive and 4 chickens on smaller lots. Some used creative stories to make their point. One lady read a fictional conversation between two neighbors. It was amusing and seem to make the point until one character lamented that his wife said she would be able to take her goats and chickens to the swap meet on the light rail and went on to reference how Lakewood would soon be mistaken for Mexico and India. Her lack of cultural competency didn't surprise me, because it is not the first time I have encountered that since moving to Colorado. But, I waited for the Mayor or Councilpersons to say something. They all smiled and chuckled and thanked her for her story, as did many people in the audience. Not one of our leaders was offended, and that is what I find disturbing! A principal I worked for once made a comment that as long as we were all heading west, it was good. Some of us, she went on to say, may already be in Oregon, starting our farm. Some might be just starting out and some of us might have our wagons in a circle because we were under Indian attack. My mouth literally dropped. Comments such as these have no place anywhere, but especially not in professional meetings. The principal was from Alabama and her disrespect for the teachers from Mexico was very apparent. However, what was surprising and disappointing was the number of my colleagues who told me not to make a big deal out of it because "We're sure she didn't really mean it" No? I am reminded of a NARF ( Native American Rights Fund) T shirt that says "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere". Interesting is that Lakewood's motto is "An Inclusive Community" I am not so sure about that. Were the minority members of the Council silenced because they do not feel they would be supported, or are they so assimilated that they no longer feel offended by such comments? We had several young people attending the meeting. What example are we setting when we tolerate comments that are, at a minimum, culturally incompetent, and probably racist? The scary thing for me, is that the Council, like my colleagues at school, probably didn’t even realize that the woman’s comment was offensive. It shouldn’t matter that the majority of attendees were Caucasian. It doesn’t matter who is sitting in the seats, cultural competency should be a mandate regardless. We are taught that talking about people behind their back is not OK. Nor then, should we be making comments such as the one made last night, even if people whose roots represent the two countries mentioned aren’t in the audience. My family is American Indian , from three tribes. My sister in law, niece and nephew and many friends, are from Mexico and South America and I have a couple of acquaintances who ae from India. When none of the Council responded to the women’s reference to India and Mexico last night, I was embarrassed to call Lakewood my home. We have encountered racism from a few City employees but believed that it was the exception, rather than the rule. The fact that, in our encounters, the City dept. in question refused to acknowledge that racism could happen in their city was disturbing. I see now that perhaps they choose not to see subtle racism, such as that which was perpetuated last night. Subtle racism is as hurtful as the blatant variety, perhaps more so because the racism is thinly disguised under a veil of false acceptance. When parents of color are told that their child is capable, but not gifted, it sounds as though the school is in support of their child, when the reality is that the student is not being properly identified. But, if we dare to suggest that it is racism, we are accused of "playing the race card" What in the heck is "the Race Card" anyway, other than just an excuse to justify disproportionate treatment based on Race?

The "Race Card" is the

Submitted by Dick Lancaster on 12 December 2012 - 8:31am.

The "Race Card" is the practice of diverting legitimate critisism of any non-white American by assigning the critic's motive to racism. By using the phrase, "culturally incompentent" and assigning it to those with whom you do not agree you are assuming your cultural understanding is superior. This is called snobery. From what you've written, the subjects of your derision would, at best, be guilty of this rather than racism. Your entire submission could be descibed as the pot calling the kettle black; and I am sure you would assume that desciption is racist. By doing so, you enjoy the right to critisize without the burden of being called on it. It's a classic and successful SPLC tactic.

In response to the statement-

Submitted by Alyson on 14 December 2012 - 3:36am.

In response to the statement- The race card is the practice of diverting legitimate criticism on any non white American by assigning the critics motive to racism- I reflect on this and ask, is this so? or can it be seen as the practice of assigning a card to a personal belief that you are being discriminated against based on your race, having experienced racism from a very young age you know it when you see it.

If you have never experienced racism it may be easy to suggest that people play a card- is it a card or is it that after years of racial abuse, discrimination, harassment and devaluing people because of skin colour individuals know when racism is taking place and stand up for themselves.?

Could it be that the person/s accusing individuals of playing the card may be diverting their actions, attitudes and behaviour which are intended to be racist by suggesting that someone is playing the race card?

Is it only non white people who are accused of this or is this also applied to polish people, English people in America who complain of discriminatory treatment based on a characteristic of being from a different racial group- if not, why not? (can this card if it is a card at all, only be played by non-white people) Do white people ever get accused of playing this card in black Africa, Barbados, Jamaica, Mexico etc?

Knowledge and understanding about intercultural competencies in any professional job is not snobbery- it is professional competence and should be a given in any job description in our multicultural society.
Leaders and professionals should be professionally competent when managing diversity in the workplace- surely people who are developing their knowledge and understanding of diversity and inclusion should not be labelled as snobs- leaders, movers and shakers- YES but snobs NO (definition of Snob: 1. One who tends to patronize, rebuff, or ignore people regarded as social inferiors and imitate, admire, or seek association with people regarded as social superiors. 2. One who affects an offensive air of self-satisfied superiority in matters of taste or intellect.)

We all see the world from different viewpoints depending on who we are. As a professional, I welcome dialogue and debate without assumption or insult. If we are to live in harmony we need to actively listen to others, questions and debate with diverse groups of people to gain understanding. Thank you for motivating me to write here

If not you who? If not now

Submitted by John Holloway on 11 December 2012 - 7:07pm.

If not you who? If not now when?