There was something very poignant in that story for me beyond the sheer force of the anti-racist intervention by this four or five year-old child. It reminded me of the kind of parent I want to be, of the legacy I want to leave for my children. I shared the story and got mixed reactions. One Mexican-American facebook friend shared a story about her daughter, who is of Native American ancestry, who was excluded from childhood games because of her dark skin. The daughter went through a phase of trying to scrub the color off her skin, much to the dismay of her mother.
On the other end of the spectrum, a White facebook friend posted, “So it’s ‘white boy,’ not ‘American American.’” I responded, after writing and deleting a few times, “White = European American.” After that I noticed that my Mexican-American friend’s comment had disappeared. I had not posted a strong rebuttal to this White man’s comment in hopes of not starting an argument. However, I realize now that while I was slightly offended by the comment, my Mexican-American friend was deeply wounded and angered in a way that I cannot truly understand. I commented again using part of what I was originally going to write, “White is not more American than any other racial identity, so the comment ‘American American’ can be seen as an assertion of White supremacy.” But in my mind, it was too little, too late.
I had just finished listening to a podcast of a report from Yale’s Dr. John Dovidio about a study (Kawakami, Dunn, Karmali, & Dovidio, 2009) in which White participants all failed to speak out against an overtly racist comment against a Black person they had just met. Further, after the incident, 71% of the participants chose to work with the White person who made the remark instead of the Black person at whom the comment was directed. These same participants had just denounced overtly racist behavior that they saw in a video recording. The researchers concluded that White people overestimate their actual response when confronted with blatantly racist behavior or comments. This study further examines “aversive racism,” a subtle, and perhaps unconscious, bias that manifests as a preference for White people and an avoidance of people of color. This bias is “more likely to be expressed under conditions of situational ambiguity—when identification of prejudice is rendered less obvious,” allowing the person to maintain a positive (not prejudiced) view of self (Hodson, Dovidio, & Gaertner, 2004, p. 120). This correlates to the discursive patterns of colorblind racism (Bonilla-Silva, 2003). White participants used predictable rhetorical tools to explain and talk around their underlying bias.
In moments of critical reflection, I realize that I am not exempt from this analysis. The eye-opener for me is the discovery that White people frequently fail to speak out in incidents of overt racism. How much more do White people fail to speak out when racism manifests itself more subtly? How many times do we not even recognize that it is racism? And so for every time that I have spoken out against an obvious case of racism, there are probably ten cases in which I did nothing. The psychological studies indicating that this bias is unconscious relieves my guilt to an extent; it is the clinical way of saying I have breathed the smog in the air or have been walking along with everyone else on the moving walkway (Tatum, 2003).
I am guilty by virtue of inaction and unconsciousness, which somehow feels better than guilt of active participation in a white supremacy group. The problem is that my implicit bias doesn’t stay in my unconscious. It does surface, often in moments where I could take real anti-racist action, but instead go along with the flow. It dictates my choices, where I will live, where my children will go to school, who I hang out with on the weekend, where I go to church, how I interact with people at the grocery store or in my family. And all of these choices have real consequences for people. All of these choices add up to my individual participation in systemic, institutionalized racism.
So I’m guilty, but it’s unconscious. Does it count if my intentions were good? As the researchers in the Yale study demonstrated, the answer is a resounding no. All of those participants had really good intentions of getting very upset and speaking out when they watched a video of racist behavior, but when push came to shove (read the study to find out why that is a pun) they not only failed to confront a racist comment, but they still preferred a White person displaying racist beliefs over a Black person.
Going back to my facebook interaction, I have a few thoughts. First, social media is a strange animal. No one seems to know what the rules of engagement are, and I’m not quite sure if it falls in the category of authentic, human interaction at times. However, there are still real human beings who post comments, albeit without facial expression or tone of voice to indicate a joke. But even in the case of a joke, for example, the comment “American American” with reference to White people is still hurtful to people of color, revealing an unrealistic view of what it means to be White in America. It encapsulates the idea of “White as norm” that children as early as two years old begin to absorb (Derman-Sparks & Ramsey, 2011).
Secondly, I did fail to speak out. My fear of a negative reaction outweighed my anger on behalf of a person of color, revealing my complicity in this incident. Again, the fact that this happened on social media compounds the issue; people often tell me it is better to say it face-to-face than on-line. But the incident happened on social media, not face-to-face. I don’t actually interact on a daily basis (or even yearly basis) with my 600+ facebook friends. So when is the right time and place to say something? I am beginning to believe the answer is right away or as soon as possible. And I invite others to confront me when my implicit bias surfaces, as well.
- Bonilla-Silva, E. (2003). Racism without racists: Color-blind racism and the persistence of racial inequality in the United States. Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield.
- Derman-Sparks, L., & Ramsey, P. G. (2011). What if all the kids are white?: Anti-bias multiculture education with young children and families. Early childhood education series (2nd ed.). New York: Teachers College Press.
- Hodson, G., Dovidio, J., & Gaertner, S. (2004). The aversive form of racism. In J. L. Chin (Ed.), The Psychology of Prejudice and Discrimination: Racism in America (pp. 119–135). Greenwood Publishing Group.
- Kawakami, K., Dunn, E., Karmali, F., & Dovidio, J. F. (2009). Mispredicting affective and behavioral responses to racism. Science, 323(5911), 276–278.
- 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.