Families should be talking more about race. That may be obvious given the level and frequency of anti-racism protests across the country over the past six months. But the talking I’m referring to is serious, thoughtful, and ongoing conversations about race, not short term reactions to current events.
We must talk about race so that we can understand it. We need to talk about race specifically in America because the ways it has been used are truly problematic and harmful. And we have to discuss it regularly so that we can become more aware of the unquestionable danger of its evil partner — racism. Race as an American concept cannot be separated from the way it has been crafted and manipulated historically, to the benefit of some and the detriment of others.
Dr. Aisha White is the director of the P.R.I.D.E. (Positive Racial Identity Development in Early Education) Program at the University of Pittsburgh Office of Child Development. Learn more about the program at racepride.pitt.edu. (featured at PBS Kids)
There are probably as many definitions of race as there are scholarly fields that explore the human condition. Pulling from the field of anthropology can be helpful in taking a somewhat objective view of the topic. According to the American Anthropological Association: Race is a recent human invention. It’s only a few hundred years old, in comparison to the lengthy span of human history. Although not scientific, the idea of race proposed that there were significant differences among people that allowed them to be grouped into a limited number of categories or races.
It means race is recent. It's a new concept when considered within the long history of human development. It’s an invention, not a universal truth. It is not scientific. Race is not based on rigorous study or investigation — it is, essentially, made up. And, according to the definition, it allows the grouping of people into categories. Lumping people into groups is not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, it’s when we assign inherent attributes — typically negative ones — to groups because we have the power to do so, that problems begin to emerge.
First, the biological differences we see in each other — skin color, hair texture, facial features, are not only superficial, but they emerged as a result of adaptations to geography. That means many of the physical differences are the result of climate, not real group distinctions.
Second, the racial labels used to categorize the people presenting physical differences were created by others — that is, they are not fundamental to those very people. The labels were created to divide. Black people are Kikuyu or Yoruba, white people are German or Italian, Indigenous people are Odawa or Haudenosaunee.
Third, the values and qualities that are assigned to different races, particularly people of color, were devised for the benefit of people outside their so-called race — specifically white people. Claiming people were lesser benefited some and harmed others.
And lastly, although the idea of race is fundamentally woven into our minds and institutions, I believe we can change the way that we understand race, but we must understand it first. It was constructed so it can be deconstructed.
I would be remiss if I didn’t talk at least briefly about racism and the ongoing efforts throughout history to dismantle it. My standard definition of racism is: Racial prejudice combined with power. And in a country founded on the idea that white is better, that power is not typically wielded by people of color. It was white (elite) power that enabled and preserved legal segregation (the enforced separation of different racial groups) for nearly 90 years. A power that was also wielded by non-elite whites. But, it was grassroots people power (that also included many white people) that dismantled it and led to desegregation — the ending of the policy of racial segregation.
Of course, the struggle to end segregation would not have been possible without the work of advocates, people speaking out in support or defense of a cause. These days we sometimes refer to them as upstanders. We’ve seen thousands of them in the recent public protests and demonstrations in support of Black Lives Matter (BLM), a movement that advocates for non-violent civil disobedience to protest police brutality and other racially motivated violence against Black people. I can imagine that BLM started with a conversation about race.
Although I began this article strongly promoting the need for dialogue, the kind of talk I’m suggesting necessarily requires some kind of action. And it begins with changing ourselves.
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