Everyday when I wake up, I see the same person in the mirror I have always seen. I was born white, I grew up white, and I continue to live white in a society that continues to debate what skin color means in today’s world. Like everyone, I did not choose to be born white—I was born where I was born by the parents who created me. I grew up in the very homogenous community of Sandy, Utah, a suburb of Salt Lake City. As I reflect back on the lack of diversity that defined my upbringing, it is easy now to recognize that I was the same racially, socio-economically, politically, ethnically, and religiously of easily 95% of the teachers I had in all my years of schooling. I was the norm and the world looked like me.
Growing up in that homogenous environment, nothing compelled me to recognize how little difference surrounded me. Even less compelling was the need to recognize race. It wasn’t till I was a graduate student at the University of Southern California and living in the Los Angeles’ neighborhood of Korea Town that I readily begin to see and acknowledge racial difference. I had to—that part of LA is less than 10% white! Nevertheless, at the time I labeled this an “ethnic experience” rather than a racial reality. Why? Because I still had not learned how to understand and define race, racism, and institutionalized racism. Devoid of this terminology, I could not consciously process the lived reality of race as I still was just seeing difference in skin color.
Thank goodness for a number of impactful mentors, I was able to shift my paradigm and begin to see that race is a lived experience that defines the way we wake up and go through the world each and every day. My white racial identity means I live a different experience than another person’s black, brown, yellow, or red racial identity.
So what does all this race talk really mean? First, race is simply defined as the color of one’s skin. My skin, even though it tonally may appear as peach or tan, is white. That is the racial grouping I am part of. As I said earlier, I did not choose to be white, but I am most definitely white. That is race—skin color.
But what we think about race is where racism begins. Racism is the set of values we attach to skin color, whether positive or negative. If I lock the door to my car when a black man crosses the street in front of me, that is racism—I have attached values of fear and suspicion to a racial identity. Likewise, if I assume that the Asian student in a math class is the most likely to do well, I am still energizing racism since I have willingly attached values of intelligence and hard work to a racial identity. Whether labeled as a stereotype, bias, or judgment, I am using racial identity to pre-determine a person’s capacity and worth.
Institutionalized racism is when we do this collectively. Our society perpetuates racial discrimination at the institutional level when policies and practices are implemented that serve certain racial groups less abundantly than other racial groups. Our schools are a perfect example of this—despite years of public efforts, certain racial groups in the collective tend to perform less than white students, whereas Asian students in the collective tend to outperform white students. Whether it be board politics, funding and tax discrepancies, or outright racism in the curriculum, the “institution” of school struggles to reverse these achievement gaps. Institutionalized racism is also found in the segregation of churches, voter discrimination efforts, the legal justice system, and other arenas where racial discrimination continues, despite the good will of reform efforts. It is important to note that white people can be anti-racist in their personal attitudes and beliefs, but still perpetuate racial inequity within an institution, i.e. teachers who may embrace diversity and succeed with students of color in their own classroom, but are part of a school or school system that has perpetual racial achievement gaps.
By understanding race, racism, and institutionalized racism, white people can move beyond diversity into a greater understanding and deliberate recognition of racial inequity, and the forces that cause discrimination. As I gained this knowledge, racial tendencies became far more clear to me, and thus my ability improved to counter racist inclinations.
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