Sunday, April 29, 2018

The creation of racism

I believe categorizing people into “us” and “them” is a natural human instinct, but racism is not. Racism was created. When my children have asked me where it came from, I have always told them that slavery caused racism. In scale and brutality, American slavery was unlike anything the world had seen. The phrase I use is that European slave traders and American planters had to “look at themselves in the mirror every day.” They couldn’t bear facing their own evilness, so they created the myth of racial superiority to justify their actions.

If something was created, that means there was a time before it existed. That’s kind of an obvious point, but I had never really thought about the time before racism existed and about how it was brought into being. Recently I’ve been reading a lot about that time. It’s a very specific time and place – a few decades beginning in 1620 in the English colonies of Virginia and Maryland. I’m learning about the very first time the word “white” was used in law in North America to describe a group of people – in Maryland in 1681.

Before there were “white” people, there were English, Irish, Africans, and Indians; “civilized” people and “savages”; Christians and “heathens”; free people, tenants, and bonded laborers. These were all categories of “us” and “them” and it cannot be overstated how much life SUCKED for almost everyone. A few English landowners grew rich and everyone else struggled to survive and often didn’t.  I am not romanticizing this as an egalitarian society. But in the time before racism, the categories were different, and an Irish bonded laborer aligned himself with an African bonded laborer, not with an English landowner. Before the creation of “white” people, Africans and Europeans in Virginia and Maryland shared experiences of servitude and land ownership, married each other, voted at similar rates, and were treated similarly (mostly poorly) by the law.

During Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676, European and African laborers united against the ruling class (to hasten the theft of native land - again, not romanticizing). To prevent these kinds of rebellions from continuing, the English elite made a conscious and deliberate decision to create the category of “white” and the myth of white racial superiority. It is this consciousness and deliberateness that is new information to me. In the mid and late 17th century, the colonial assemblies of Virginia and Maryland passed law after law establishing different treatment for Europeans and Africans in owning bond laborers, manumission, owning livestock, marriage, holding public office, voting, serving in militias, owning weapons, and punishments for transgressions. They then required parish clerks to read these laws aloud in church once every spring and fall, and sheriffs to read them aloud in courthouses during the June or July terms of court. Historian Theodore Allen writes, “We must conclude that the general public was regularly and systematically subjected to official white-supremacist agitation. It was to be drummed into the minds of the people… thus was the ‘white race’ invented.”

I realize, as I learn this history, that I have participated in a “great forgetting.” Even though I knew race was an invented social category and I could put the creation of racism into its historical context for my children, somehow I had never thought about the details. Realizing this makes me feel horrified at how successful the myth of white supremacy has been. But it also makes me slightly hopeful. If many of us have forgotten, maybe we can collectively try to remember. Life in the English colonies in the mid 17th century was brutal and oppressive, but “white” and “black” people lived and worked and resisted together with no awareness of our current racial divisions. That image, that knowledge that it happened, helps me visualize a world where it will happen again.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Talking to kids about race and racism

There are many great articles about the importance of talking to children about race and racism. Posting some links here, primarily aimed at White parents:

Are We Raising Racists? "White children are exposed to racism daily. If we parents don’t point it out, show how it works and teach why it is false, over time our children are more likely to accept racist messages at face value. When they see racial inequality — when the only doctors or teachers they see are white, or fewer kids in accelerated classes are black, for example — they won’t blame racism. Instead, they’ll blame people of color for somehow falling short."

Color-Blindness as Intellectual ChildAbuse: Raising Anti-Racist Kids in an Unequal Society “You know the explanation… Anyone can make it if they try.’ Problem being, when we teach kids this — the cornerstone of our secular gospel — and then they look around, noticing in the process that some have not made it to the extent others have, what do they then conclude? And can we be surprised when that conclusion might be one that serves to rationalize racial and economic inequities? To make them natural, normal, the result of some groups merely being better and others worse, some smarter and others less so, some harder working and others lazy?"

Your 5-year-old is already racially biased. Here’s what you can do about it. "The crucial question isn’t 'Why bring issues of racial, ethnic, religious and other kinds of bias into our schools?' It’s 'how do we constructively engage the harmful biases we know pervade our schools and just about everywhere else? And what can we do to shape our children’s racial attitudes before and as they emerge?'"

What White Children Need to Know About Race “Because white students receive color-blind messages, they come to believe that merely talking about race is racist and, therefore, something that should be avoided. Students need to learn that there’s a vast difference between talking about race and being racist. Racial talk leads to greater racial understanding and helps undermine the power of racist laws, structures, and traditions.”