Following recent protest events around George Floyd, Brianna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and including the riots in Baltimore after the tragic death of Freddie Gray, the shootings in Charleston, South Carolina, and Rachel Dolezal stepping down as head of the Spokane chapter of NAACP, public discussions have centered around topics involving mental illness, individual responsibility, and police brutality.
It seems that today’s understanding of racial inequality in America focuses on “color-blind racism.” According to this belief, racial inequality can be ascribed only to “race-neutral” issues. Considering the fact that today racial discrimination is illegal, this means that every person has an equal chance at achieving the American Dream, regardless of race.
Having in mind the public and legal racism before the Civil Rights movement, this new twisted type of racism makes significant social discussions impossible, keeping racial inequality alive and resulting in these recent incidents.
Conversations Around Race with Students
Do proper discussions about race and racism take place in classrooms and can professors shape some of these discussions? – the assistant professor of sociology at the Birmingham Southern College Meghan L. Mills tries to give the answers to these questions.
She recalls a “color-blind racism” example from her first year as an assistant professor of sociology at BSC in Birmingham, Alabama.
As a “Yankee,” she was warned in advance about the bigger social and political conservatism among BSC students than what she was used to in the UNH or the University of New Hampshire.
Somewhere in the middle of her first semester, professor Mills realized that most of her students could critically engage in topics that have the potential to be controversial. These included the legalization of marijuana, health care reform, and LGBT rights. Class inequality was also discussed in the classroom with students from the middle and upper class living inside the campus gates and lower class students living outside the gated hilltop campus.
But, the most challenging topic to discuss in the classroom was race and racism.
The professor tried to get her students to address the elephant in the living room – that racial minorities make up the majority of the lower social class neighborhood, while most professors at the university as well as students had the societal privilege that benefits white people, also known as “white privilege,” based entirely on people’s skin color.
The Challenges of Talking Openly about Race
Professor Mills was wrong to think that talking about racial inequality in a university in Birmingham, Alabama will produce one of the most meaningful and engaging discussions in the course.
Her students didn’t want to talk about racism beyond a superficial level. Namely, most of the students coming from the South have been raised to avoid discussing race because they believed that they are living in a color-blind society and that race doesn’t matter.
She could see that from the answers of students from four classes when asked, “Does race still matter?” Most of them responded that “only racists see race” and “there’s only one race – human.”
Discussions with many of her colleagues across disciplines pointed out that this was a common theme.
Professor Mills concluded that if she wanted more effective discussions about race and racism in her classroom, she first had to address one of the biggest social myths regarding racial inequality nowadays – that our society is color blind.
How to Teach Race
Professor Mills started to open her lessons with a conversation about color-blind racism. The most challenging part of these discussions was to make students use their sociological imaginations to help them look at underlying social problems behind certain recent events.
Students are asked to consider larger social issues like the criminal justice system, institutional racism, and poverty instead of focusing on individuals like Dylann Roof, Rachael Dolezal, and Baltimore police officers.
According to Professor Mills, her experiences in the classroom are not isolated incidents. Constant research shows that this “color-blind” ideology has affected politics, education, the media, the criminal justice system, etc.
She believes that this new color-blind racism is maybe even more dangerous than the obvious racism during Jim Crow. Being seemingly invisible, color-blind racism is most commonly neglected in public discussions on social problems, thus successfully perpetuating racial inequality.
The notion of many of today’s students that seeing race is wrong points to their inability to discuss more serious issues of racial inequality and institutional racism. How can society expect such discussions and solutions?
According to Professor Mills, academics should make clear to their students that race is real, just like its consequences are. As long as people avoid meaningfully discussing and seeing race, society will face more Charleston shootings and Baltimore riots.
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