Triticum Turgidum

Lying Dormant and Waiting to Bloom Since 2005

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Location: The Prairie, Illinois, United States

I am a beauty-loving ambidextrous higher-order primate who learned transcendental meditation at 7, statistical analysis at 23, tap dancing at 30, and piano at 35. I tolerate gluten, lactose, and differences of opinion, but not abuse. Or beets.

Friday, November 03, 2006

The Racist Next Door

As a white non-Jewish American I get to spend most of my time not thinking about my race or ethnicity (although my gender is another thing entirely). Not constantly having to define oneself by race is the privilege of being white in America. That is precisely why, in a class I teach called Media and the Human Body, we read and discuss original research relevant to the way people of color are portrayed in the mass media. My hope is to urge my students, many of whom are white kids from homogenous communities in the Midwest, to interrogate their assumptions about race.

Most of my students are open-minded enough to thoughtfully consider the findings of the research in light of their own, limited life experience -- or perhaps vice versa. My goal isn't to turn them into budding liberals, just to get them thinking about whether the dynamics they've always assumed to be true because their parents told them they were true really hold up when tested in a scientific manner.

Every few years I encounter a student who is deeply resistant to learning anything new about race. This year it was a young white woman (we'll call her Holly) whose sweet demeanor led me to expect this from just about anyone in the class but her.

I require students to submit questions about each reading. Most students ask about the theoretical assumptions or the research methods or the statistical analyses. Here were Holly's three latest questions. (Keep in mind that students know I will choose some of their questions to read out loud to the class, so she wrote these with full awareness that they could be made public.)

(1) Her first question was written in response to an experiment showing that when a black man's face was pictured in a mock news story about a violent crime, research participants using criminal suspect identification software reconstructed his face using more Afrocentric features (e.g., fuller lips, broader nose, and darker skin) than when the same man's face was pictured in a news story unrelated to crime:

"While I don't want to sound racist, I agree that when I think of scary criminals, I think of African Americans. A recent experience just solidified my opinion about them last weekend. My friends and I went to Chicago and were lost for an hour in the 'ghetto,' and I've never been so scared in my life. It was really late, and there were floods of black people everywhere, just walking the streets and blasting loud music. And they wonder why people stereotype them. I'm not saying that white people are perfect by any means, but you definitely don't see tons of them all over the streets making drug deals and living in projects. It interested me to see in the video on Tuesday that African Americans feel the need to act like bad asses to show they are not inferior. Why is it that African Americans wonder why they are discriminated against, when many of them act like animals? I hate to admit it, but I feel as though the media portrays (sic) them in pretty realistic situations, and many times try to glamorize their existence to try to break these stereotypes."

(2) She wrote this comment in response to a content analysis showing that black men are overrepresented as criminals on TV news (e.g., 37% of violent criminal suspects on the news were black, versus 21% in the same region according to actual arrest statistics):

"It was found in this survey that blacks are overrepresented on news programs. This goes back to my question/thoughts from the last article. I don't think that news programs try to find crime stories based on race. Again, I don't want to sound racist by any means, but blacks are probably overrepresented in the news because they are the ones committing the most crimes! The media should not at all lessen the amount of news stories dealing with blacks because they are afraid it may cause more racism or stereotyping. If the blacks want the media to stop overrepresenting them in bad ways, maybe they should stop being involved in these ridiculous crimes!"

(3) Her third question was in response to a content analysis showing that black women are portrayed as more dominant than white women in magazine advertisements:

"It is stated that the image of submissive sex objects applies specifically to white women. This makes me wonder why the media tends (sic) to stay away from portraying black women in this way. I'm not saying portraying any women as sex objects is right in any way, but it's crazy to me that many people fail to notice these little things that people and the media do to protect African Americans from being stereotyped even more."

I'm not sure what to do about this. I thought about calling Holly into my office and asking her to probe the source of her anger, but I don't want to come across as pushy. She has a right to her opinions, after all. And I suppose I should be flattered that she felt safe enough with me to share them in the first place.

More than anything, Holly's questions sadden me. Her resistance to the notion of walking in someone else's shoes, even for a few hours, even only symbolically, speaks to an ideological rigidity that strikes me as a disability, not of the body but of the soul. What's to be gained by adhering so vehemently to one's narrow worldview? Why do some people experience knowledge acquisition as liberating while others see it as the ultimate threat? Just what has she got to lose by acknowledging that racism exists in her country?

If I do end up talking to her, I'll let you know how it went.


Blogger Parisjasmal said...

I am from the South, so my upbringing and surroundings afflicted me to say the least--the VERY LEAST on this subject.

As a woman in the United States Holly should be aware of her surroundings no matter where she is- whether it is the "ghetto" in Chicago where she says there is a large African American population or in the "hollers" of Appalachia where it is mostly white folks. She just might be surprised to know the crime statistics in areas that are considered "mostly white".

Holly is still young and her horizons will broaden. Mine did.
Ignorance is a cruel thing sometimes and fear is sometimes worse than ignorance. I do not think she is angry--I think she is afraid.

I am interested in what other people have to say on this, and very interested to know how your conversation with her went.

3:16 PM, November 03, 2006  
Blogger BarbaraFromCalifornia said...

I can understand your concern about such statements. Sometimes racism is so deep seated, and unconscious, that it takes these types of exercises for someone to see his/her own prejudices.

On a similiar note, the movie, and my idol, Borat, is out now. I am going to see it today. He does a similiar exercise, exposing racism, sexism and other isms in a dark comedic way.

Sending you all the best.

7:28 AM, November 04, 2006  
Blogger WinterWheat said...

Many thanks to you both for your comments. B -- I just came back from seeing Borat and it was a hoot.

3:01 PM, November 04, 2006  
Blogger katiedid said...

Poor thing. What a way to go through life... I hope she finds a way out of her own little bubble someday.

However, I am highly amused by her phrasing "ridiculous crimes." Heh. I never knew that black folk committed ridiculous crime.

7:36 PM, November 05, 2006  
Blogger Jamie said...

I think a follow-up conversation could easily be started under the guise of you wanting to know more about her her professor, that is.

Additionally, I think many young people think that the mere disclaimer of "I don't want to sound like a racist, but..." removes them of any liability for the content of their statement. This is a sad comment on our times, and particularly for her, an unfortunate situation.

I'd be very interested to hear about what happens...

10:04 AM, November 06, 2006  
Blogger mreenymo said...

You know, K, I have tried to think of something intelligent, even thoughtful, to say about this girl.

Unfortunately, I cannot think of one positive thing to say.

Frankly, her racist attitude angers me to no end. It's been over fifty years, and at least two generations since Brown v. Board of Education, and we still have young people like her in this country. It makes me want to tear my hair out!

When will this hatred of people of color be eradicated? When will people ever realize that we all just that: people with the same hopes, ambitions and dreams?

No wonder I tend to be wary of white people. I do have close white friends, but to be honest, they have to really "earn" my friendship before I consider them as such. Back in the early nineties, I actually "broke up" with a friend who used the "n" word when relating a story she thought was funny to a group of us. I was mortified. I think she was, too, but we were never able to get past that.


5:46 PM, November 07, 2006  
Blogger WinterWheat said...

R -- Okay, you have definitely motivated me to call her into my office. If my job with these readings was to get students to consider the possibility that their stereotypes have been formed at least in part by media misrepresentations, then clearly I have Left One Child Behind and need to remedy that. She may not change her perspective, but at least I'll feel like I attempted to do the right thing.

9:19 AM, November 08, 2006  
Blogger mreenymo said...

Good for you, professor!

Frankly, I want to slap her, lol! But in your role as the teacher of this course, contacting her for a little chat is the most appropriate course of action.

Thank you, and please let me know what happens after you speak with her.


12:14 PM, November 08, 2006  
Blogger Gillian said...

Hi there
phew. . .I read it as young and scared. Doesn't have a clue which I guess reiterates where you can step in and help adjust the blinds a bit!!IE rip them down entirely. LOL but that might hurt the eyes if done at noon. ..

xx rambling me!

3:45 AM, November 16, 2006  
Blogger BarbaraFromCalifornia said...

Just came by to say hi, K, and wish you, G, Fi and CG a Happy Thanksgiving together.

I too loved Borat!

10:28 AM, November 19, 2006  
Blogger red-queen said...

K, I think you need to talk to this student, not just about her unexamined prejudices, but about her apparent language deficit. She clearly does not understand the concept of 'overrepresentation', and has thereby missed the point of the assignment.

I agree with PJ, that her reactions probably stem from fear - that, and insecurity. She's not quite sure that she's okay, so how can she allow for differences in other people?

7:40 AM, November 21, 2006  

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