Thursday, June 21, 2012

Christianity and Whiteness

In doing some reading this summer, I came across the works of antiracist activist Tim Wise.  I haven’t actually read his books yet, but I have listened to a few of his lectures on YouTube.   My first impression was pure awe.  I totally agree with his antiracist message, which he delivers with humor and selective profanity.  I found him helpful in clarifying otherwise muddied arguments regarding race and racism.  He inspired me to have the courage to speak out against racism. However, two things coincided for me.  

First, many of the people in my sphere of influence seem to dislike liberals, feminists, socialists, etc, a detail that has caused conflict between me and these same people at times. These friends cannot reconcile their worldview with these ideologies so as to even sympathize with the aforementioned groups.  This is supremely frustrating to me most of the time, and I have been known to express said frustration.  On the other hand, as Tim Wise pointed out, it's kind of like talking about "my momma."  I can do it, but don't you dare.  So when Wise starts "conservative bashing" on Twitter, it's not like I haven't done it before, but it hits me the wrong way coming from him.  And then he went there—he started insulting Jesus and Christians. 

I found myself slightly defensive, to say the least.  I argued, “I mean,  I understand there is hypocrisy in the Christian church, I get that there have been abuses, but for me, these have not been a correct representation or interpretation of my faith."  I find it supremely intolerant and hypocritical for Tim Wise to defend Islam and denounce stereotyping of Muslims for the acts of just a few, and then proceed to lambast Christianity and stereotype Christians.  Both religions have been potentially misinterpreted by groups of extremists.  Further, both religions have historically and currently do maintain hegemony in various parts of the world.  According to his own moral code, if it's not okay for him to stereotype Muslims or insult Islam, it should not be okay for him to do the same towards Christians and Christianity.

However, as I reflected on my reaction I suddenly had an "aha" moment regarding Christianity and its role in the U.S.  I suddenly saw the parallel between White privilege and "Christian privilege," between White supremacy and role of Christianity (or a distorted interpretation of it) since the before colonies were established by White settlers.   I'm not trying to gloss over the entire history of Christianity, and it's important to note that I’m locating my discussion in the U.S. 

All this to say, I realize there are reasons why Tim Wise and others would be angry at Christians, and specifically White Christians.  I also realized that I had used the same type of logic that I have heard other White people use when talking about "race," but this time applied it to religion.  The argument goes something like, "Well, there is racism in other countries.  Look at what [insert oppressive people group] did to [insert oppressed people group]."  At which point, I want to say, "Right, but we're in this country, and we have to deal with our mess, not theirs."  So in saying, "Islam maintains hegemony in other countries, oppresses people, etc." I should follow my own logic, "Right, but it doesn't here, whereas Christianity has and does."  

In this country, Christianity has a complex and problematic relationship with "Whiteness."  (This first and foremost evidenced by the fact that when I or other White Christians talk about Christianity, we are thinking about White people.) This dual identity, often seen as one and the same, maintained institutionalized slavery based on a hierarchical racial order.  This ideology continues to dictate life in the U.S. and has real psychological and material consequencesWhite Christians cannot separate themselves from this history, nor from the present reality of segregation and racial inequality.  It must be acknowledged first before continuing in any public or community relations.  

My new stance is that Christianity may have earned a good number of the insults dealt out by Tim Wise, although I can't fully stand behind his type of activism.  We [White Christians] have marginalized and oppressed people of color, and we continue to maintain a segregated order (see Emerson's study, "Divided by Faith").  Secondly, as a Christian I am supposed to follow Christ, who "while being reviled, did not revile in return," and he was blameless—I am not.  Finally, I started to wonder how much of White Christian’s outrage at being "persecuted" in the U.S. is really just masked rage at losing privilege?  Rage at being perceived as anything but the norm?  Fear at losing power?  And anyway, how do Christians justify fear and rage?  Do we recognize it as such, or do we call it “righteous indignation”?  This is one of the reasons why we need truly diverse churches.  As Christians, we need the perspective of people from other racial groups to reveal our pride, indignation, fear, privilege and oppression for the purpose of repentance and reconciliation.

Critical interrogations of whiteness

I have been trekking through a book for the past two weeks, "White women, race matters: The social construction of whiteness" by Ruth Frankenberg (1993).  Part of the trek was due to my lack of familiarity with feminist theory.   After I did some background reading, I was able to better contextualize this work.  I also learned that feminist theory is quite useful for framing and discussing oppression, privilege, inequality and racism.  Standpoint theory, concepts of oppression (Frye, 1983) and privilege (Bailey, 2004; McIntosh, 1990) are particularly helpful in understanding and placing Frankenberg's work.

Standpoint theory is basically that a person’s standpoint (i.e. gender, race, class, etc.) determines how s/he views the world.   The dominant people, those at the top of society, do not clearly view those below them, while those in subordinate positions are able to see both their own position, as well as those in the dominant position.  While standpoint theory would suggest that those who are oppressed or subordinate in some way  could understand the oppression of other people more easily, there are some limitations.  For example, while it would seem that White women should be able to empathize with the perspective of people of color, women of color were historically excluded from the feminist movement.  While the White feminists had an understanding of oppression (i.e. "systematically related barriers and forces not of one's own making"), the understanding of the opposite side of the coin, that of White privilege (i.e. "unearned assets conferred systematically"), was not at the forefront of the feminist dialogue at that time.  Frankenberg documents how White identity prevented White women from seeing outside the hegemonic White Discourse.  In other words, it was not obvious that racism did and does also shape the experience of White women. 

In her book, Frankenberg discusses how many White women moved from anti-racist movements to the feminist movement.  However, the second wave feminist movement was dominated by White women's perspective, which marginalized and ignored the experience of women of color.  This is the intervention Frankenberg makes with her study, a series of interviews with 30 White women in the 1980s in California.   The women came from a wide range of backgrounds (i.e. ages, class, sexual orientation, place of origin, etc.); however, her sample did provide a disproportionate number of women who had been involved in the feminist movement and/or interracial relationships (i.e. partners and/or children).  Specifically, she uses interracial relationships as a focal point for examining the dominant discourse (or discursive repertoires) regarding race. 

Frankenberg defines racial difference as social constructed and historically located, which I see as related to the cycle of socialization (Harro, 2010).  We are socialized into ideologies by our families and institutions so we don’t even recognize them; the ideologies are considered to be the norm.  Whereas White people have often assumed that people of color have a racial identity and that they are affected by racism, they have largely been unaware of also being “racialized.”  Frankenberg holds that “Whiteness” is also socially constructed and has changed over time.  The very language that racializes the “other” (i.e. Native Americans, Hispanic, blacks and Asians) also defines Whiteness. 

Through critical discourse analysis, Frankenberg found that the White women in her study adopted one predominant discourse, a power- and color-evasive language (similar to Bonilla-Silva’s “color-blind racism”).  In other words, the women avoided or talked around issues of race, privilege, power and inequality. However, Frankenberg notes that for most of the history of the U.S. the concept of race has been defined in terms of biological difference or genetics.  This “essentialist racism” maintained that different phenotypical "races" were essentially different and hierarchical.  Therefore, the power- and color evasive discourse was marked by undercurrents of this essentialist racism.  Some of the women had escaped the cycle of socialization; they realized that racism did affect their loved ones and themselves and decided to move in an antiracist direction.  Frankenberg marked this as a “race cognizant” discourse.  Again, the power- and color-evasive discourse sometimes still subverted race cognizance in these women’s narratives, displaying the power of this hegemonic discourse.

Haviland's (2008) study also involves discourse analysis in an all-White setting.  Her results parallels and corroborates with the works of Frankenberg (1993) and Bonilla-Silva (2002, 2003).  Her particular niche is examining interactional White discourse in a setting that was intended to actually combat racism.  She found that "White educational discourse" prevented pre-service teachers in a multicuturalism seminar from moving beyond their racist perceptions.  Even the instructors of the seminar seemed unable to escape this discourse.  Semantic moves such as avoiding certain words, false starts, claiming uncertainty, and silence enabled participants to never confront each other about racially biased attitudes.  This discourse carried over into the classroom where a seminar participant was a student teacher.  She was unsuccessful in combating racism in the elementary school classroom because of her lack of awareness of the White educational discourse. 

The implications of this study are important for teacher educators, university supervisors, and cooperating educators, but also for other activists who wish to help White people overcome racist ideologies.  Haviland suggests actually using the "White educational discourse" against itself.  By staying within the norms of the students' culture, but still confronting racist perceptions, she hopes that they might be more open to changing racist perceptions.  Haviland's (2008) study, along with Frankenberg's (1993) and Bonilla-Silva's (2003) studies, are indispensable for researchers who wish to conduct qualitative research with regard to racism in all-White settings. 

  1. Bailey, A. (2004). Privilege: Expanding on Marilyn Frye’s “Oppression.” In L. M. Heldke & P. O’Connor (Eds.), Oppression, privilege, and resistance: Theoretical perspectives on racism, sexism, and heterosexism (pp. 301–316). Boston: McGraw-Hill.
  2. Bonilla-Silva, E. (2002). The linguistics of color blind racism: How to talk nasty about blacks without sounding “racist.” Critical Sociology (Brill Academic Publishers), 28(1/2), 41.
  3. Bonilla-Silva, E. (2003). Racism without racists: Color-blind racism and the persistence of racial inequality in the United States. Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield.
  4. Frankenberg, R. (1993). White women, race matters: The social construction of whiteness. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  5. Frye, M. (1983). The politics of reality: Essays in feminist theory. Crossing Press feminist series. Trumansburg, N.Y: Crossing Press.
  6. Harro, B. (2010). The cycle of socialization. In M. Adams, W. J. Blumenfeld, & H. W. Hackman (Eds.), Readings for diversity and social justice (2nd ed., pp. 45–51). New York: Routledge.
  7. Haviland, V. (2008). “Things get glossed over”: Rearticulating the silencing power of whiteness in education. Journal of Teacher Education, 59(1), 40–54. doi:10.1177/0022487107310751
  8. McIntosh, P. (1990). White privilege: Unpacking the invisible knapsack. Independent School, 49, 31.

Interracial Marriage

My husband and I finally made to Shakespeare in the Park to see Othello last week.  This was a tradition for us before we were dating, but since child #1 and #2 came, we hadn’t been in a few years.   For those of you, like me, who haven’t thought about Othello since high school (and I think we didn’t read the whole thing then, but watched the movie instead)…

Othello is one of Shakespeare’s tragedies, with possibly the worst villain in English literature—Iago.   Unfortunately, Iago is Othello's best friend.  Othello is one of Shakespeare’s few Black or “dark” principal characters.  There seems to be some debate as to whether Othello was truly Black in the modern sense of the term; nonetheless, it is clear that Othello is perceived as racially “other” in the play.  Othello marries Desdemona, who is described as White, which enrages Desdemona’s father.  Prior to this, Othello had been in good favor with Desdemona’s father as a Moorish prince and military officer.  Through a series of machinations, Iago manages to incense Othello by inventing a story of Desdemona’s unfaithfulness.  He plays on the idea that she will ultimately wish to be with someone who looks like her.  Othello ultimately kills his wife, and then kills himself when he finds out Iago has deceived him. 

This plot is supremely depressing, however, I don’t remember being as disturbed by the story as a high school student as I was this past week.   As I watched, I was horrified by the racial slurs, sexual innuendo, sexism and misogyny.   I looked around at the crowd and wondered what they were thinking about these atrocities taking place on stage.  As in previous years, I was aware that the majority of the crowd was White.  I think I noticed more Black people this time, but I’m not sure if that was because I was looking for them or if there were in fact more Black people present.  I wondered if it was also hard to watch for the Black folks.  I wondered if the White people were thinking, “Gee, I’m glad we don’t live in that time period.  See how far we have come?”  All I kept thinking was, “Nothing has changed.” 

Let me repeat that.  Nothing has changed.  There are still White parents who refuse to attend their daughter’s wedding because she married a Black man.  There are still White families who treat interracial couples poorly.  And conversely, there are Black men who won’t date a White woman because of the Black family’s negative feelings about this type of union, although admittedly this bias might be more defensible in light of our history.  However, it all ends up adding up to the same thing--attitudes against interracial marriage.  And these are only examples from people I know.  If you don’t want to take my word for it, there are also studies that have been done that document white people’s attitudes towards interracial marriages (Bonilla-Silva, 2002, 2003; Frankenberg, 1993). 

I focus on White people’s attitudes because the social construct of “Whiteness” has historically shaped the dominant discourse about "race' and racial difference in the U.S.  In other words, “Whiteness” is the concept by which all racial difference is measured and defined.   Laws made by White people and based on “Whiteness,” and backed by Christianity, forbid interracial marriages (i.e. White marriage with black, Hispanic, Asian, and Native American) until 1967 in the U.S.  The issue was and is also not limited to Black/White, however, there is evidence that White people’s attitudes towards people of color exist on a spectrum (i.e. Asian people are considered to be closest to White, while Black people are considered to be the most different, with everyone else falling somewhere in the middle). White people had the power to enforce these norms on everyone else.

One argument against interracial marriages has been that the interracial couple will struggle because of cultural differences.  The second argument, and perhaps more prevalent, has typically been the kingpin: “The children will suffer.”  These arguments are based on an understanding of White people as essentially different (either culturally and/or biologically) from Black people.  Second, the argument about the children acknowledges that racism still exists in society (i.e. the children will be treated differently because of their racial identity), but puts the onus on the interracial couple, not the society at large. 

Even when White people spoke in favor of interracial marriage in the studies I mentioned, it was mostly in ambivalent tones.  In other words, while there are strong arguments against interracial marriage, there has been a dearth of arguments for interracial marriages.   I recently had an e-mail conversation with a friend who pointed out the number of interracial marriages or unions in the Bible.  (While I realize that the modern concept of race based on phenotype is unique, I maintain that the concept of the “other” based on ethnic origin resulted in systemic and institutional hierarchy and discrimination from which we can draw many parallels.)    I quote my friend’s list below:

1.       Judah and Tamar: scholars believe that Tamar is probably Canaanite (Judah had already married a Canaanite wife Gen. 38:2); Tamar is “more righteous” than Judah (his own words in Gen. 38:26).
2.       Joseph and Asenath (daughter of Potiphera-priest of On) Gen. 41:45. Joseph and Asenath have two children—Manasseh and Ephraim (Gen. 41:51-52) who are adopted by Joseph’s father Jacob (Gen. 48:5) to become part of the 12 tribes!
3.       Moses (Jewish/adopted by Egyptians) and Zipporah (daughter of Reuel/Jethro/priest of Midian) Ex. 2:15-22; Ex. 18 “Guess who’s coming to Dinner?”; Family “dynamics” of inter-racial marriage Num 12:1-3,9-13.
4.       Salmon and Rahab (Canaanite in Jericho) Josh. 2; “she lives among the Israelites to this day” Josh. 6:25; Heb. 11:31; James 2:25 “considered righteous”
5.       Boaz and Ruth (Moabite) Ruth 1:4
6.       David and Bathsheba (debated if Bathsheba was Israelite or not)
7.       Timothy’s parents (Acts 16:1,3) “a disciple named Timothy lived, whose mother was a Jewess and a believer, but whose father was a Greek”

Christianity clearly has no basis for an argument against interracial marriages.  If anything, this would be a strong argument for interracial marriages, if nothing else because many of the couples listed above are included in the lineage of Jesus.  I believe that it is time we not only recognize that interracial marriages are not a problem, but that they are an advantage and a blessing.  The problem has always been the racist ideology that still prevails in society. 

  1. Bonilla-Silva, E. (2002). The linguistics of color blind racism: How to talk nasty about blacks without sounding “racist.” Critical Sociology (Brill Academic Publishers), 28(1/2), 41.
  2. Bonilla-Silva, E. (2003). Racism without racists: Color-blind racism and the persistence of racial inequality in the United States. Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield.
  3. Frankenberg, R. (1993). White women, race matters: The social construction of whiteness. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Social interaction and the construction of racial stereotypes

Racial stereotypes constitute more than just racial epithets and individual prejudice.  Prior assumptions about people based on their appearance, accents, possessions, or other racial markers are incorporated and institutionalized into every arena of society.  Again, life outcomes can be determined not by an individual peoples’ performance, but by how their actions are perceived by society and the response that this perception precipitates.

Perhaps there is no group that is as affected by this in the U.S. as African American males.  With higher rates of high school dropouts, incarceration, and lower life expectancy, black males have been stereotyped as criminals, dangerous, hypersexual, and even an endangered species (Ferguson, 2000).  My friends who teach in schools with black children tell me that teachers often can predict at a very early age which students will end up in jail.  I have had well-intentioned friends explain to me that the problem is the black culture, explained in terms of the matriarchy, deadbeat/absent fathers, teen pregnancy, low value placed on education, no support in the home, together with problematic family situations involving violence, drugs, alcohol, and an overwhelming poverty/welfare mentality.  With obstacles like these, my friends reason, it’s no wonder these boys are running the streets by 4th grade. How could they ever learn how to make choices like a man when they don’t have any good role models?  This explanation is deceptively appealing in that it is overly simplistic and belies the crippling effect of systemic, institutional racism on the victims of racial stereotypes.

As Ferguson (2000) explains, her critical incident occurred when she walked in as a volunteer to after-school tutoring and recreation program for “at-risk” students and realized that the students in the program were predominantly African American males (in a school with approximately 50% black students).  This realization was accompanied by the growing awareness that the teachers and staff seemed to take for granted the demographics of the “at-risk” students.  This launched her into a three-year, in-depth qualitative study that encompassed not only the elementary school environment, but the homes of several boys whom she came to know.  She spent most of her time in the school observing the comings and goings of a room she came to call the “Punishing Room.”  Through vignettes, powerful narrative, interwoven with critical analysis, Ferguson shows that the black boys she tracked were pegged as “troublemakers” before they walked in the door.  Whether the boys ended up in the “troublemaker” or “schoolboy” group involved a complicated series of choices that were not so clearly right or wrong. 

While the boys did have experience with poverty and hard knocks, Ferguson found that the families did not fit into the stereotype of the drug-infested and violent home life.  Instead, the patterns of inequitable punishment and injustice enacted in school were echoed in the families’ interactions in society with far-reaching consequences.  In this context, the choices of the boys actually seemed rather limited: maintain a sense of self-worth through resistance or conform to systematic injustice, bullying from teachers, and racial discrimination.  In contrast to the “troublemakers,” the “schoolboys” often made the choice to do what was expected of them at the cost of an internalized self-loathing.  In order to succeed in school, there is external pressure to “act white” and suppress the black part of self, which is seen as problematic and deficient. For understanding these dynamics, Bourdieu’s theories of a superior “cultural capital” and “symbolic violence,” as well as Foucault’s theory of disciplinary power are useful.  

Two other studies emphasize the harmful effects of racial stereotypes as they are constructed and reinforced through social interactions in school.  Negative stereotypes like those described by Rolón-Dow (2004) in her study of Puerto Rican adolescent girls result in frustration and apathy on the part of teachers.  Because the teachers perceived the girls as having competing interests (i.e. boys) that precluding being good students, they were more likely to shift blame onto the girls for academic failure.  On the other hand, it is important to recognize that even a seemingly positive stereotype is not benign.  Lee (1994) studied the impact of the “model-minority” stereotype on different groups of Asian students.   While stereotypes are sometimes minimized (i.e. humans need to make generalizations in order to understand the world), they carry power to perpetuate prejudice and discrimination.  The “model-minority” is not only harmful to other racial groups, but also to Asian people who are treated differently because of a perceived racial difference. 

Ferguson  (2000), Rolón-Dow (2004), and Lee (1994) would argue against a predisposition of certain groups to succeed or fail based on their culture.  Instead, the research indicates that institutions serve as sites for social reproduction of hierarchy and stratification that continue to benefit people with white skin. 

At one point in our conversations, my husband argued, “You can’t just blame the institutions.”  I asked him, “Why is it important for you to not blame the institutions?”  As he thought about the question, I realized the implications of these studies. If the institution is to blame, and not the individual student, then hard work and “merit” don’t come into play.  Conversely, my success or my husband’s positive experiences in school and society are not a result of a “Puritan work ethic,” pulling up the proverbial boot straps, exceeding talent or intellect, but instead the possession of the correct cultural capital and the right skin color to receive preferential treatment in our social interactions.  This is huge disturbance to the personal narrative that we tell ourselves about our own experiences. 


Ferguson, A. A. (2000). Bad boys: Public schools in the making of black masculinity. Law, meaning, and violence. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Lee, S. J. (1994). Behind the model-minority stereotype: Voices of high- and low-achieving Asian American students. Anthropology & Education Quarterly, 25, 413–429. 

Rolón-Dow, R. (2004). Seduced by images: Identity and schooling in the lives of Puerto Rican girls. Anthropology & Education Quarterly, 35(1), 8–29.

The construction of racial difference through social interaction

In the U.S., there is a widespread belief that those who work hard will be rewarded with success.  This faith in “meritocracy” will also lead us to the conclusion that those who do not succeed did not try hard enough.  Many have made the claim that education can be the “great equalizer” where all children are given an equal chance to be anything they want to be.  However, the reality is that certain groups of children (i.e. poor, Black, Hispanic, American Indian, etc.) are not succeeding at the same rate as other groups (i.e. middle to upper-class, Whites, some groups of Asians) in school.

In an effort to explain this phenomenon, some have proposed the idea certain cultures place more emphasis on hard work, education, or economic status than others.  However, this conclusion has been consistently refuted in recent research.  A more convincing argument, and one that bears out in numerous qualitative studies, is that of “social capital,” a concept that Pierre Bourdieu has used to describe the resources (i.e. finances, social networks, cultural knowledge, and status) that children bring with them to school.  From this framework, children enter school with varying amounts of the social capital necessary to succeed in school, and therefore end up with very different experiences and outcomes unless there is significant effort to mitigate these inequities.  Lewis (2001, 2003) examines how schools reproduce existing social hierarchies and reinforce the construct of racial difference. 

Amanda Lewis spent a year in three different elementary schools in California: Foresthills, West City and Metro2.  Foresthills is a mostly white, middle-class suburban school, while West City and Metro2 are both located in the city.  West City is described a neighborhood school with mostly black and Hispanic students, but with predominantly white teachers and administrators.  Metro2 is a language immersion school that mostly “non-white” in terms of the student population, as well as teachers and administrators.  The through-line of the narrative is the understanding of racial differences that is implicit in interactions in each school.  Although the schools are seemingly different, they each serve a foil to the others by revealing commonalities in the way people give meaning to the concept of race.  For the students at West City and Metro2, this has implications for their success or failure in school.  At Foresthills, constructions of racial differences serve to perpetuate a segregated white community that is left with unexamined and unchallenged assumptions and biases. 

I found myself most riveted by the description of Foresthills.  I could see so many parallels to my own experience in a predominantly white school.  Current statistics from my elementary school indicate that it is much the same as it was over 20 years ago: 89% white, 17% free/reduced lunch (“Glen Carbon Elem School,” 2010).   My high school shows similar demographics, with the exception that there are over 2,000 students instead of only 400 (“Edwardsville High School,” 2010).  I never realized that I went to a “white” school.  The concept of race was muted in my world, except for racial lines that clearly delineated what neighborhoods in which we would not live and the kinds of people with whom we did not associate.  Sometime after college, I discovered the book “Why are all the Black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?” I actually wondered how Dr. Tatum (2003) knew about my high school.  It was the question that was always somewhere in my mind, but I had never asked.  I was amazed to find that other people had asked similar questions and was intrigued to find out the answer.  I found that there was no simple answer, but that the topic was so much more complex than I had ever imagined. 

Lewis’ (2001) radical assertion is that White middle- to upper-class schools need a critical multicultural curriculum, not only for the small percentage of students of color in these schools.  This multicultural education must go beyond a cursory treatment of “ethnic” history and culture, such as confining black history to one month and hosting Cinco de Mayo celebrations.  White students need to understand and unpack “white privilege,” as well as the segregated nature of their schools, neighborhoods, churches, and social groups.  Without this type of education, white schools only serve to perpetuate a “color-blind” ideology that fails to challenge institutional racism and social stratification.  In turn, these students go one to be the teachers of the next generation.  In the case of West City, it became evident that white, black or Latino teachers with unexamined and unchallenged constructs of racial can actually act in ways that harm the students they desire to help.  Differential treatment of black and Hispanic students played out in daily interactions, enacting chain reactions with damaging results.  Metro2 served as a school where teachers and staff attempted to directly address race, but even this school was not immune to the insidious assumptions about racial differences.  It became evident that on-going, critical multicultural professional development is also needed for teachers if the cycle is to be broken. 


Edwardsville High School. (2010).National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved June 4, 2012, from

Glen Carbon Elem School. (2010).National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved June 4, 2012, from

Lewis, A. E. (2001). There is no “race” in the schoolyard: Color-blind ideology in an (almost) all-white school. American Educational Research Journal, 38(4), 781–811. 

Lewis, A. E. (2003). Race in the schoolyard: Negotiating the color line in classrooms and communities. Rutgers series in childhood studies. New Brunswick, N.J: Rutgers University Press.

Tatum, B. D. (2003). “Why are all the Black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?”: And other conversations about race. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Introduction to Race

It should not come as a surprise to me that race is not a biological reality.  It makes sense from what I know about biology that humans are all part of the same species.  There are no humanoid sub-species—those only exist in science fiction.  Having said that, I found myself amazed at the idea that race has no genetic basis as I watched a PBS series called “Race: The Power of an Illusion” (Herbes-Sommers, Strain, & Smith, 2003).  Geneticists compared human DNA and found just as many variations between two people from the same race as between two people with different skin color and facial features.  In other words, race is only skin deep.  All human DNA examined up until now contains all the same components with only variations on the same theme: blue or brown eyes, straight or curly hair, long or short legs, a tongue that does or does not curl, etc. 

So what is race?  How have we arrived at the concept of different group of people who are divided by the way that they look instead of language and/or a shared culture?  Why is it that a person of Chinese descent, who speaks English and eats pizza on a regular basis, should select “Asian” on the U.S. census survey?  Or that someone living the U.S. who has dark skin and is not Hispanic or Asian will be referred to as “black” whether they have “white” ancestry or not?  Why is “whiteness” viewed as a monolithic racial category when the concept has changed over time (e.g. Irish immigrants in the 1900s were not considered white)? 

If race is not “real,” then why are there a multitude of euphemisms we to talk about other groups of people?  For example, in St. Louis the mention of geographic locations calls to mind specific racialized contexts.  If someone mentions “South County” it is usually in reference to a specific group of people, namely middle-class white people.  Conversely, the mention “Jefferson County” is often the punch line to some comment about impoverished white people.  A reference to “the city” or “North County” generally translates to “the area where black people live,” and more often than not signals recognition of some level of poverty.  Similarly, the words “urban,” “inner city,” “diverse” and “multicultural” indicate the presence of people of color.  On the other hand, why is it that obviously racialized comments (e.g. white church, black neighborhood) elicit such perplexing responses accompanied with intense feelings? 

“It’s not so much race as it is culture.”  “Why can’t we just be ‘race neutral’?”  “I prefer to be ‘color-blind.’”  “I’m not racist—I have black/Asian/Hispanic friends.”  “The U.S. isn’t the only country that has race problems, you know.”  “Hey, black people can be racist, too.”  “White people just don’t get it.”

Are we living in a “post-racial” society?  Does race matter?  And if so, how does it matter?  One does not have to look very hard to find reports of disparity with regards to race.  For example, the Washington Post recently reported that white people earned more than three-fourths of the total income in the U.S. (Morello, 2012).  The article cites higher levels of education for non-Hispanic whites and Asians as one of the primary reason for this inequity.  Another example, and the topic of my friend’s dissertation, is that black women are more likely to die from breast cancer than white women in the U.S. (Pittman, 2012).  It seems that while race does not exist as a biological reality, it can make a difference in terms of life outcomes, academic and economic achievement, as well as health and well-being.  Why is this so? Does culture contribute to these inequalities?  What about the role of education?  The following series of blogs will examine the social construction of race, racial inequality in urban education, white privilege, and racism. 


Herbes-Sommers, C., Strain, T. H., & Smith, L. (2003). Race: The power of an illusion [Television Series]. San Francisco, CA: California Newsreel & Independent Television Service.

Morello, C. (2012, May 31). Whites earn more than three-fourths of the nation’s income. The Washington Post. Retrieved from

Pittman, G. (2012, March 21). Black women more likely to die of breast cancer. Reuters. New York. Retrieved from