Prior to reading Joe Feagin‘s Racist America and enrolling in this course, race for me felt inherently linked with emotion. I knew, from experience, what it felt like to be a Black woman. I knew from my grandparents about my enslaved ancestors. I knew from my parents about how to converse with White people who could not comprehend how their privilege still functioned today. The one thing that had always been difficult for me to weave together was the connection between each of these events. I knew that slavery and 400 years of White-on-Black oppression affected the way in which race and racism manifest in our country today, but I was unaware of the extent to which this was the case. The majority of my knowledge was emotional and personal, while I am now able to look at the issue through a systemic and historical lens. Because of this, I have loved receiving this new information about a topic that I have thought about almost every day of my life.
In our reading, my eyes were opened to the idea that not only were there millions of indisputable facts and hundreds of years worth of experiences to reaffirm my own, but it also reignited my hope: “Structures of domination shape everyday existence, but an insightful understanding of these structures and their recurring contradictions can assist people in forcefully resisting racial oppression” (xii). Simple statements such as these have generated optimism in my heart and excitement for the future, but also have prompted many questions.
Not only are race and racism ingrained in our earlier systems of commerce, in our Declaration of Independence and in our country’s most powerful leaders, but they remain extremely relevant in all areas of life today. As I sit with this idea that our country was founded on ideals of racism, power and greed, I question whether the problem can ever be fully resolved. If systemic racism–an evil that has been a part of our country’s fabric for the last 400 years–continues to be a factor in housing, schooling, health, and even just day-to-day encounters, can we ever really have a world without racism? We tackled a similar question in class: Is a colorblind society possible? I do not believe that it is.
What is the point of working towards something that may never happen (at least not in my lifetime)? This issue feels too big and convoluted. Although today it seems that more White people are beginning to genuinely care to talk about and study this topic in-depth and are excited to share their “woke-ness” with others, we now have an openly racist and xenophobic President, making it feel as if the task is actually getting more difficult to accomplish. Every time we “take a step forward”, we take ten steps back! I have had the same experiences over and over and over again, heard the same slurs and seen the same violence against my people for years and I doubt that any of that will end anytime in the near future. This is why I believe that the one thing that will help our country most right now in terms of “race relations” and shared goals and understanding is education.
The six aspects/parts of systemic racism as written by Feagin (unjust impoverishment and unjust enrichment, vested group interests, the costs and burdens of racism, the important role of White elites, the rationalization of racial oppression, and the continuing resistance to racism) are fundamentally microcosmic. Depending on who you are and how you identify, these aspects may be obvious, but for others, seemingly irrelevant. But what if, when we first learned about racism as young people, we learned how these six aspects manifest in our daily lives? In order to acknowledge or see the problem, we have to know we should be looking for it.
In exploring possible ideas for our final projects, one idea that was suggested was to explore the U.S. History curriculum in Lower and Middle School. As a student fortunate enough to have received a quality education from Westtown and a West Chester public school, I am amazed that I have never learned from a teacher or textbook the role that slavery played in our current social system today. I was able to see its economic and political impact, but the lasting effects of racism that stemmed from slavery, to Jim Crow, to the Black Lives Matter movement, never completely connected for me in school. I have been able to put the broken pieces together only through personal experience and through conversations with friends of color and family members. In my opinion, it is difficult to understand our current problems with racism in our country if we cannot pinpoint the birthplace of our nation’s prejudices–slavery and the idea that Black Africans were inferior beings that did not deserve the right to humanity.
I have loved being a student at Westtown for the last 10 years. My teachers and peers are constantly helping me strive to be a “steward and leader of a better world.” I now want to expand upon my knowledge so that I, and my peers, can do this purposeful work more effectively. In Kindergarten, the first thing I ever learned about race was that “in the past” (the 1960s came up most often), Martin Luther King, Jr. worked tirelessly to “stand up for the rights of Black people in America, but then was shot and killed… It was sad. But after that, “Everything was better! “There were no more problems!” “Today, the country is integrated and we love each other.”” This history, although understandably complex and challenging to explain to a 5-year-old, is in my opinion, extremely counterproductive. Not only does this narrative set up children to believe that they are living in a post-racial world and confuse the young students of color, but it is feels somewhat trivial.
To be clear, I am not proposing that schools share all of the harsh realities of our immensely racialized world with Kindergarteners or that they discontinue conversations about MLK and racism altogether. Rather, I would be interested in finding new, meaningful and constructive ways to discuss race, racism, and slavery’s effect on our country as a whole. I am no expert, but I am very curious to learn more about other ways of teaching this information to young people, whose minds are quick to pick up on stereotypes, biases and microaggressions. Could there be some sort of training that each teacher would have to undergo before being able to hold conversations of this sort in a classroom?
So, again, I come back to the idea that Joe Feagin stated about how having “an insightful understanding of these structures and their recurring contradictions can assist people in forcefully resisting racial oppression.” My immediate first thought after reading this was: other people need to hear this too! I wholeheartedly believe that educating this new generation of young people will be the first step to creating large-scale change in our communities.
Other lingering questions I have include:
- Are American textbooks and teachers not sharing this information because they do not want us to know it or rather because they were never taught it themselves?
- Where does this problem start? Who creates the curriculum and who finalizes it and says that one certain textbook will be used over another? Who writes the textbooks? Is there certain information they are told cannot be put into textbooks?
- Have there been movements trying to address this issue?
- How has the problem evolved in the last 70 years?