Racism — more than skin deep

I’ve been talking to people in the last week about the idea of structural racism- or institutional racism, which pretty much means the same thing. The starting point for these conversations is a recent incident at MCTC, in which the college reprimanded a faculty member, Shannon Gibney, after a group of white male students took issue with the class discussion of structural racism and ended up filing a complaint.

I haven’t been able to interview Gibney, although we have corresponded by email and she speaks at length about the incident in a video shot by MCTC’s school news outlet, and also recently wrote a piece for Gawker about previous incidents that have happened at the college. I also haven’t spoken to the young men who filed the complaint or others in the class, so I can’t know for sure how the whole incident happened. Still, I’ve been a part of or have witnessed enough similar conversations to give me an idea of how it went.

The first time I got an in-depth exposure to the concept of white privilege and institutional racism was when I was in college, when I took part in a weekend-long anti-racism workshop. It was an incredibly challenging and also formative experience. During that training, I first learned of the definition of racism which goes racism = prejudice + power, a concept that I found really difficult to accept at the time. The idea is that, while people of all races and/or backgrounds might have prejudices, it’s only racism when white people do it because in this country, we live in a society that privileges white people, where white people have more power and can use that power to act on their prejudice.

I got stuck on the semantics of it. I fought about the definitions, the wording. I felt like people were calling me a racist. But I didn’t feel I was racist, I felt I was anti-racist in my thoughts and actions.

I grew up pretty sheltered, having attended Catholic school for the first seven years of school, where there were very few people of color at all. In junior high, I went to Anwatin, a very diverse school, which was also pretty segregated, both in the classes (the pre-I.B program was less diverse than the rest of the school) and in the lunch room, where most of the tables were self-segregated by race. I sat at the Hmong table, with a couple of other white girls and one girl named Pam, from Guyana. 

South High School was also very diverse, and I did get some alternative history education, reading books such as Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and Custer Died for Your Sins. I took a Native American Studies class where my teacher espoused the notion that the United States should give back the land they stole from the American Indians. I had some friends who were not white. I felt like I was pretty enlightened about it all. 

That continued in college, and the classes got even more into the intersections of race and class and gender and all that and every once in a while there would be some guy — some white guy — in class who disagreed with the readings and would make a stink about it and everyone else would roll their eyes and think he was a jerk.

The anti-racism workshop was different than the courses I was taking — it was more personal somehow. It wasn’t theory anymore, or history or postmodern deconstruction. I felt myself naked, raw. Well, at least on the first day. By the third day I accepted that I was racist and vowed to do everything in my power to fight racism. (That's not necessarily what they said or wanted me to believe, but I was 18 years old, and that's the message I got.)

And afterwards it’s all I could talk about: this idea of white privilege. I would have endless discussions about it, mostly with my white friends, and we wanted others to learn what we had learned.

I still pretty much accept the racism = prejudice + power definition, although I think it’s easier to understand if you use phrases like structural racism or institutional racism because then it’s easier to understand how racism permeates systems, such as the legal system, or the education system, or the justice system, for example.

I’m still sensitive about being called a racist, though. Of all the mean words people have called me — whore, slut, bitch, Republican (I’m not any of those, by the way) — the word that hurts the most is racist, even though I’m the first to admit my own privilege, even when I admit that sometimes I say or do racist things.  But when someone else calls me on it, it mortifies me.

I’m not sure why racism continues to be such a painful thing to talk about, why as Americans, and particularly as Minnesotans, we avoid talking about it at all costs. For me, it’s something that I revisit regularly, examining my own feelings but also being ready to accept criticism when I “forget” about the color of my skin and what that means in this world. 

  • Racism is a difficult subject for many Minnesotans. I am encouraged the Seattle model is being used and discussed by many jurisdictions in Minneapolis: http://www.seattle.gov/rsji/docs/RacialEquityToolkit_FINAL_August2012.pdf Normalizing conversations about race and focusing on measuring outcomes really helps gets us past the yes/no answer to- are you a racist? It is really hard to discuss that which is not seen. Reading about the invisable knapsack of white privilege was helpful for me as an inroad to understanding insitutional racism. Understanding that there are some basic misunderstandings about racism is an important piece of the puzzle - by Scott Vreeland on Tue, 12/10/2013 - 12:49pm
  • Great piece, Sheila. And I like the racism = prejudice + power definition. Re: being called a racist. This is a country with a near-400 history of overt racism---it was part of our constitution, for heaven's sake. And we still got it going on. I compare racism to second-hand cigarette smoke or any other pollutant. It's in the air. You breathe it in and out. So it's inside of all of us. The best we can do it be aware and try to get as much of it as possible out of the air. And I too had classes where one or two white guys went nuts when challenged on race while the rest of us rolled our eyes and thought they were jerks. - by Lynnell Mickelsen on Mon, 12/09/2013 - 9:42am
  • Excellent and much needed piece. - by Karen Bix on Wed, 12/11/2013 - 3:42pm

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Sheila Regan's picture
Sheila Regan

Sheila Regan (sheila [at] tcdailyplanet [dot] net) is a Minneapolis theater artist and freelance writer.