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Racial Baggage Challenge: Week 6

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 1, 2013 - Last week we talked a great deal about stereotypes. You might be asking yourself, “So what? I think I get it, but what do I do with all this awareness?”

What I want to focus on this week are the actions we might take or advocate for as a result of being aware of our stereotypes, privilege, identity, unconscious biases and a beginning understanding of how these concepts operate on individual, cultural and institutional levels.

Promote discrimination. One course of action is to discriminate, or to act on our prejudices, stereotypes and unconscious biases. You might think that no one does this on purpose, but I would suggest to you that we do. We rationalize our discriminating so that it “makes sense.” Honestly, I think that is why many people resist awareness raising activities or discussions. When our consciousness is raised, we have to be more accountable for our actions. It’s easier not to be aware or accountable.

The tough thing is that it’s not always clear. OK, blackface is always a bad idea. But, we can’t often see ourselves in the moment. And it’s usually more complicated. We saw a real life example in the story of Sunil Tripathi wrongly assumed to be one of the Boston Marathon bombers, made more believable by his skin tone. Or the 20-year-old injured spectator who was tackled rather than aided while running from the bombing site.

Promote Colorblindness. We could refuse to see race or minimize its importance (i.e., colorblindness). The rationale is that if we do not see color, racial discrimination no longer occurs. In line with Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts' statement that we must stop discriminating on the basis of race,” proponents of colorblind ideology suggest that colorblindness is fair-minded and promotes cooperation. However, research has suggested that the approach increases racial bias, decision-making errors and decreases accuracy of social judgments. The words of another Supreme Court Justice, Harry Blackmun, speak to the importance of acknowledging race “to end racism, we must first take account of race.”

Being colorblind is not the answer to releasing our racial baggage. Once we recognize and take accountability for the ways that our society is shaped by race, the way forward is not to refuse to acknowledge race.

Promote Intergroup Interaction. We could find ways to interact across lines of difference and foster others to do the same. The contact hypothesis is a psychological theory aimed at reducing prejudice.

It’s best if there is equal status, common goals, cooperation, the contact is sanctioned or supported by the institution or norms, and there is some level of informal personal contact. It might not be possible to guarantee all conditions, but it’s good to know what we are aiming for. An example might include a racially diverse group of individuals in the workplace. The participants would need to be at the same level (i.e., don’t mix supervisors and supervisees).

Research also suggests that increasing a common identity is helpful, so you could consider having a friendly competition between a group in a different unit or company around wellness. Simply creating that “team” within a unit can enhance the sense of connection between individuals on the team. In the personal realm, getting to know people from different racial groups on common ground such as a cooking class, book club or service activity can foster positive intergroup interactions.

In St. Louis, the Diversity Awareness Partnership has a great “Be a Friend”  program that can support the diversification of personal and professional networks.

The gist is that interactions don’t happen by osmosis. Having numerical diversity in your neighborhood, church, or workplace is noteworthy, but that is not the same as interactional diversity. It takes intentionality and patience to create positive intergroup interactions.

Promote Equity. Another way to direct our energy post awareness building would be to support equity efforts. While individual acts are relevant, this direction is more often than not made of institutional efforts. You can support an organization working for equity with your time, talents or money. For example, you might have a passion for ensuring that people have adequate legal representation regardless of their means. Or perhaps you want to support efforts to improve education in the city or ensure affordable housing in areas of the city that are being revitalized.

The important point to keep in mind is that equity is not the same as equality. There are specific needs within communities based on the institutions mentioned above. Working for systemic change does not mean equal efforts across groups.

For example, people of high socio-economic means do not have the same needs as the homeless with regard to representation. Efforts within St. Louis public schools, which is comprised of 87 percent children of color, will not bring equal focus on white children. And that’s OK, because equity does not equal equality. Equality would be giving women the same number stalls as men in public restrooms. But the women’s line is 10 times longer. Therefore, to be equitable, just and fair, taking into consideration different needs, we build more stalls in the women’s restroom.

I’m over-simplifying the issues to illustrate a handful of choices we have once we are aware of the racial baggage we are lugging around and, hopefully, desiring to do something different rather than accumulate it.

Goal: Reflect on your personal answer to “So what? Now what?” when it comes to awareness of racial baggage.

Challenge: Write down your personal and professional networks (i.e. the top 10 people that come to mind in each category). Articulate at least one step you will take to racially diversify the lists.

Kira Hudson Banks is a regular contributor to the Beacon.

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