In the last five years living in the United States (2014-2019), I had many conversations with friends, family, and complete strangers about race, racial disparities, and racism in America. Some of these conversations were very enlightening – some even encouraging – and many left me scratching my head or venting my frustration to my closest people when otherwise wonderful and reasonable friends and family became too emotional to be able to have these important conversations.
One theme that I discovered in these conversations was that many of my White American friends and relatives didn’t feel equipped to have in depth conversations about these topics because their experience hasn’t prepared them. As my brother often reminds me, in difficult conversations, it’s super important to start by defining your terms. Many White Americans don’t understand the definition of “racism” in the depth or complexity that social scientists and many Black or Brown Americans do, which means everyone comes to the conversation with a different starting point.
Many White Americans understand racism as an individual to individual phenomenon, usually conscious and with bad intent. If such a person looked up “racism” in the Oxford dictionary, they would agree with the definition which says that racism is unfair treatment of people of other races. So, if I am not aware of any conscious prejudice against another race, I am innocent. “That guy wearing a KKK hood and spouting white supremacy – he’s a bad guy. But, I’m good, and racial categories don’t apply to me.” This individual-level understanding of racism is a narrow definition of a broad phenomenon.
Many of my Black American friends, due to a lifelong experience of living while Black, understand race and racism in a more complex and broader light. Sociologists too (and even computer scientists) who have spent their careers studying race and the history of societies also see racism as much more complex than between two individuals. Sociologists define racism as an institutional and structural phenomenon. Sociologists define racism as a system of actions in place that maintain a social hierarchy differentiated by race, which provide social benefits to some more than others (read a more extended definition here).
Obviously, definitions are important. To have an effective conversation, we have to use shared language. Here’s an introductory video to define some important sociological terms, like “prejudice,” “stereotype,” and “racism”:
If you’re curious to learn more, and to strengthen your ability to have robust conversations about issues of race, look at some of the following videos and articles:
How to Have Conversations About Race
Creating Conversations on Race (16:54), Tricia Rose, Ph.D.
Why “I’m Not Racist” Is Only Half of the Story (6:33), Robin DiAngelo, Ph.D.
Intent vs. Impact (4:00), Leadership and Communication Illustration
Where, When, and How did “Race” Get Defined, Anyway?
Defining Race and Ethnicity (10:58), Crash Course Sociology
The Origin of the Idea of Race, Anthropology Essay by Audrey Smedley
Philosophy of Race and Racist Institutions (7:04), Eduardo Mendieta, Ph.D.
History of Structural Racism in the USA
Systemic Racism in Jamal and Kevin’s Lives (4:23)
Prejudice and Discrimination (9:53), Crash Course Social Psychology
Racism of America’s Food System TEDx (16:34), Dr. Regina Bernard-Carreno
Racism and Childbirth in America (4:53), Dr. Karen Scott and Panelists
How Structural Racism Works (54:18), Tricia Rose, Ph.D.
Understanding Whiteness (AKA, realize that it’s not baseline “normal”)
Center for White American Culture
I’m White: I don’t have a culture, Courtnay Veazey
What is Whiteness in the USA? Looking at Stats, Mona Chalabi
White Americans, Psychology Research and Reference
What is White Fragility? (1:23:30), Robin DiAngelo, Ph.D.
Want to go further?
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