What's Race Got to Do with It?



The issues raised in What's Race Got to Do with It? can be challenging for individuals who have never thought much about race or inequality. Below are common examples of resistance that one might encounter, with some possible responses:

“I was raised with no prejudice in my family. We’re really all the same.” “I judge people by the content of their character, not the color of their skin.”

We should all celebrate an absence of prejudice and an appreciation of humanity. But even if we as individuals do not harbor racist feelings, there can still be racial disparities in society. It is everyone’s responsibility to help build an equitable society where everyone can succeed. Unfortunately, “colorblind” policies allow us to ignore, rather than address, those disparities.

“I have worked hard. Why should ‘they’ get ‘my’ admission spot?”

Why is it “your” spot? Many people object to race-based remedies without recognizing the leg up that mostly white and privileged students enjoy, such as early admission, AP courses that inflate GPAs, not to mention expensive admissions coaches and test preparation services. Moreoever, many factors go into college admission – good grades and high test scores are not the whole story, and it’s not about who deserves admission most. The real issue is stiff competition to get into elite colleges. Even without affirmative action, many thousands of qualified applicants – of all races – get rejected, for reasons that have nothing to do with race. (For example, geographic, athletic and alumni preferences often weigh heavily.) Rather than pitting whites against minorities in a zero-sum game, we should be striving to increase educational opportunities for everyone.

“Black people are the ones being racist these days, separating themselves.”

Many college campuses are predominantly white, so students of color (often underrepresented in higher education) may seek the company of peers who can relate to their feelings and experiences both on campus and off. White students, being in the majority, can usually find like companions without special effort. Cultural congregation (like religious congregation or fellowship) is not the same as forced segregation or exclusion.

“We have a lot of people of different colors in our group. We’re already diverse.”

That’s an important start. You can’t measure or achieve racial equity if there are no people of color present. But notice the difference between diversity and equity (access to power, resources, status, and decision-making). Are people of color fully included in significant numbers, not just a few token individuals in support roles? How can you ensure that your circles are more equitable?

“People of color often use self-deprecating remarks. For example, African Americans use the “N-word”, don’t they?”

This is both a cultural and socio-political inquiry. Historically, truly “bad” words (such as “n*gger” “b*tch” and “f*ggot”) were associated with acts of violence, brutality, mutilation and murder. Because of the danger such words connote, target groups defuse their power by using them in non-threatening ways, or they utter the words in order to claim that power and become dangerous themselves. The cultural taboo surrounding these words reflects a group’s history of violence, ostracization, and disenfranchisement, not its equal status in society.

“Our school had a big celebration for Black Heritage Month and we recently launched a Black Studies program. Isn’t the problem solved?”

Not necessarily. Ethnic studies programs are important, but they often get marginalized or don’t receive the same support or status as other disciplines.  And while cultural celebrations can be a good opportunity to shine the spotlight on different communities, there is a marked difference between multiculturalism and equity. To really address social disparities, we need to make consideration of these issues the rule rather than the exception.

“My problems are just as bad as your problems.”

White people get treated badly too - by other whites, by people of color, sometimes even by authority figures. Those situations aren’t right. In fact, they’re wrong. But there’s a difference between an individual case of mistreatment and repeated, systematic discrimination - the most important distinction is the solution that each requires. Also, racism isn’t just about how somebody gets treated, it’s about the underlying social conditions that shape his/her opportunities to succeed. That goes much deeper than any single behavior or experience.

“I am struggling with all this stuff but these problems are big. It’s too much for me. Why should I worry about all this? “

It’s easy to get overwhelmed and feel like there’s nothing you can do or perhaps that you’re not responsible since you didn’t create racial inequality. But as with any other big issue – global warming, the environment – we’ve all inherited the current situation, and unless we make a conscious effort to change, we’ll only perpetuate the problems. Each of us can make a difference by finding solutions that work for us. Every journey begins with a single step, and even the smallest action can make a difference. Purchase or donate purposefully, champion legislation, support local and minority enterprise, create art and communications to inspire others, let prayer lead to action, ask “equity assessment” questions in all our interactions.