Getting Real About Race Second Edition
To my students, current and former, whose passion and curiosity continually inspire me. And to my coeditor, whose courage and determination continually humble me.
—Stephanie M. McClure
To my precious daughter and my amazing nephews—may you inherit a world that is a little kinder and understanding toward kids that look like you. To my students over the years who have fought the good fight and decided to do the hard work of understanding and fighting against inequality. And finally, to my coeditor, Steph, whose friendship continues to be generous and patient, and whose brilliance and passion inspire me every day.
—Cherise A. Harris
Getting Real About Race Second Edition
Stephanie M. McClure Georgia College
Cherise A. Harris Connecticut College
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Names: McClure, Stephanie M., editor. | Harris, Cherise A., 1976- editor.
Title: Getting real about race / editors: Stephanie M. McClure, Georgia College & State University; Cherise A. Harris, Connecticut College.
Description: Second edition. | Los Angeles : SAGE, 2018. | Includes bibliographical references.
Identifiers: LCCN 2017021394 | ISBN 9781506339306 (pbk. : alk. paper)
Subjects: LCSH: United States—Race relations. | Stereotypes (Social psychology)— United States. | Race.
Classification: LCC E184.A1 G43 2018 | DDC 305.800973—dc23 LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2017021394
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Contents Preface Acknowledgments I. LAYING THE FOUNDATION In this section, essay authors introduce key concepts and ideas regarding race and racial inequality. These include how race is socially constructed and how the construction process connects with questions of biology, history, and power. The essays also provide students with information about how and why we need to engage in meaningful, inclusive conversations about race in contemporary American society.
Essay 1: “But My Mother Says It’s Rude to Talk About Race!”: How and Why We Need to Discuss Race in the United States Essay 2: “Blacks Are Naturally Good Athletes”: The Myth of a Biological Basis for Race Essay 3: “Native American/Indian, Asian/Oriental, Latino/Hispanic . . . Who Cares?”: Language and the Power of Self-Definition Essay 4: “Is Discrimination Against Muslims Really Racism?”: The Racialization of Islamophobia
II. DEBUNKING INDIVIDUAL ATTITUDES The essays in this section consider widespread individual attitudes and beliefs about the current state of racial inequality in the United States, including beliefs about color blindness, meritocracy, and structures of opportunity. The authors compare these perceptions to social science research and information in psychology, sociology, history, and media studies. The information presented helps students consider the validity of these popular attitudes.
Essay 5: “If People Stopped Talking About Race, It Wouldn’t Be a Problem Anymore”: Silencing the Myth of a Color-Blind Society Essay 6: “Obama Says Blacks Should Just Work Harder; Isn’t That Right?”: The Myth of Meritocracy Essay 7: “If Only He Hadn’t Worn the Hoodie . . .”: Race, Selective Perception, and Stereotype Maintenance Essay 8: “My Family Had to Learn English When They Came, so Why Is Everything in Spanish for Them?”: Race and the Spanish Language in the United States Essay 9: “Asians Are Doing Great, so That Proves Race Really
Doesn’t Matter Anymore”: The Model Minority Myth and the Sociological Reality Essay 10: “But Muslims Aren’t Like Us!”: Deconstructing Myths About Muslims in America Essay 11: “But It’s Honoring! It’s Tradition!”: The Persistence of Racialized Indian Mascots and Confederate Culture in Sports
III. INSTITUTIONS, POLICIES, AND LEGACIES OF OPPRESSION Following up on the history and attitudes discussed in the previous sections, these essays consider how misperceptions and beliefs about patterns of race and racial group differences manifest across social institutions. Some of the areas addressed include the family, education, the state and public policy, and the criminal justice system. In this section, the authors consider the impact of legal history, individual perceptions and beliefs, and media representations of racial dynamics. Family
Essay 12: “But What About the Children?”: Understanding Contemporary Attitudes Toward Interracial Dating and Marriage Essay 13: “Black People Don’t Value Marriage as Much as Others”: Examining Structural Inequalities in Black Marriage Patterns
Education Essay 14: “Well, That Culture Really Values Education”: Culture Versus Structure in Educational Attainment Essay 15: “They Don’t Want to Be Integrated; They Even Have Their Own Greek Organizations”: History, Institutional Context, and “Self-Segregation” Essay 16: “I Had a Friend Who Had Worse Scores Than Me and He Got Into a Better College”: The Legal and Social Realities of the College Admissions Process
Politics, Social Policy, and the State Essay 17: “We Need to Take Care of ‘Real Americans’ First”: Historical and Contemporary Definitions of Citizenship Essay 18: “If Black People Aren’t Criminals, Then Why Are So Many of Them in Prison?”: Confronting Racial Biases in Perceptions of Crime and Criminals Essay 19: “What’s the Point of ‘Black Lives Matter’ Protests?”: Black Lives Matter as a Movement, Not a Moment Essay 20: “If Only They Would Make Better Choices . . .”: Confronting Myths About Ethnoracial Health Disparities Essay 21: “Now All the Good Jobs Go to Them!”: Affirmative
Action in the Labor Market IV. RACE IN EVERYDAY INTERACTIONS This final selection of essays returns students to the level of the individual and considers some of the key questions they may have as they look to engage in further conversation about race. The topics addressed encourage the kind of meaningful dialogue that is necessary to help students think more carefully about how they engage others.
Essay 22: “Why Do They Get to Use the N-Word but I Can’t?”: Privilege, Power, and the Politics of Language Essay 23: “It’s Appreciation, Not Appropriation! I Don’t Know Why You’re Offended!”: Understanding Exploitation and Cultural Appropriation Essay 24: “#BlackLivesMatter Is Racist; It Should Be #AllLivesMatter!”: #AllLivesMatter as Post-Racial Rhetoric Essay 25: “I’m Not Racist; Some of My Best Friends Are . . .”: Debunking the Friends Defense and Revisiting Allyship in the Post-Obama Era
About the Editors
Professors teaching introductory courses in race and ethnicity or “diversity” must not only communicate the long and complicated history, psychology, and sociology of these topics in just one semester but must also repeatedly respond to the myths and misperceptions of race that students bring with them into these courses. Some of these include the idea that race and racial classification systems are based on human biology or genetic variation; that systematic disenfranchisement by race ended with the culmination of the Civil War, the civil rights movement, or the election of the nation’s first Black president; or that evidence for the persistence of racial discrimination is difficult to establish or does not exist. In teaching these topics semester after semester, it can become difficult for professors to summon the patience and empathy needed to engage students in early stages of critical awareness, particularly given how often we hear the same misperceptions. Furthermore, for instructors who may be wary of broaching these questions and discussing them in the classroom, a text that places the latest research at their fingertips can lead to essential learning in an area of society too often fraught with controversy and silence.
Drawing from our experience of teaching race for over 20 years, we believe professors will find it useful to have an engaging text that comprehensively and succinctly addresses the most common misconceptions about race held by students (and by many in the United States, in general). In this book, we have put together a collection of short essays that draw on the latest sociological research on these topics. It is a “one-stop-shopping” reader on the racial topics most often pondered by students and derived from their interests, questions, and concerns. Many scholars write on these topics in various places (e.g., journal articles, books, readers), but what is often lacking is a systematic deconstruction of specific, widely shared myths believed by students. Moreover, with other readers, the professor is left to pull out the key pieces of information in each reading, provide the additional supporting information to debunk a particular myth, and create consistency in a format that is understandable to students. The concise and topic-specific, short-essay format we use here aims to facilitate quicker movement from acknowledging misperceptions about race to examining and discussing the sociological evidence. Each of our contributors has also provided excellent follow-up discussion questions for in-class work and suggested out-of-class activities that can
help students apply their new knowledge to their everyday lives.
What we saw as necessary, and what drove us to put this collection together, is the work of “translation.” The information contained in these essays is available in many other places, and given our space constraints, we point to those outside sources at the end of each essay. What we saw happen in our own courses was that students often had difficulty connecting the primary text readings to the specific kinds of misinformation and misunderstanding they brought with them. We have tried to build a reader that speaks both languages—the language of the commonly held myths and the language of social science—so that the two are together in one book. Our contributors are those who have written books and articles on these topics or who have been “in the trenches” teaching these topics on a regular basis. As scholars who consistently cover these issues in the classroom and in their scholarship, they are well versed in the latest scholarly literature on controversial racial topics such as these.
The primary target audience for this text is lower-level or introductory race and ethnicity or diversity courses, especially those in the core or general education curriculum. Courses of this kind are taught every semester in colleges and universities across the country; class sizes are usually between 30 and 60 students. Other courses where this text might be useful include education courses, social psychology of race or racism courses, introduction to higher education courses, and ethnic studies courses.
Our hope is that this reader will make the work of translation less difficult for the many excellent instructors all across the country engaging these important topics in their classes every semester.
Suggested Additional Resource
Fox, H. (2009). “When race breaks out”: Conversations about race and racism in college classrooms. New York, NY: Peter Lang.
Putting together an edited volume is no small task and requires the assistance of many. As we were deciding on which topics would be covered, we sought the advice of treasured colleagues and friends who gave us the benefit of their many years of experience in the classroom. We would like to thank Nikki Khanna, Keisha Edwards Tassie, Michelle Petrie, Ronald J. O. Flores, Afshan Jafar, Michallene McDaniel, Kelly Manley, Victoria Bruce, Michael Ramirez, and E. M. “Woody” Beck for their input and support during the early stages of our project and for the advice and wisdom they offered along the way. We would also like to thank Jeff Lasser, Eve Oettinger, Adeline Wilson, and the rest of the team at SAGE who worked tirelessly to get this project off the ground and make our vision a reality.
Thanks go to the following reviewers for this second edition: Sofya Aptekar, University of Massachusetts Boston; Stacye A. Blount, Fayetteville State University; Jesus Jaime-Diaz, University of Arizona; and David Oberleitner, University of Bridgeport.
This project is the product of teaching these topics to thousands of students in race and ethnicity courses over many years. In that time, we have witnessed and moderated many challenging discussions—discussions that remind us just how much there is left to know in this area and how important it is that instructors continue to do this difficult work, while having the tools to do so. We thank all the students we have had over the years, as it is their questions and insights that fueled this anthology.
Finally, we would like to express our great appreciation and gratitude to the contributing authors for lending us their expertise and for writing essays that were better than we could have even hoped for when we first envisioned this project. We are honored and humbled to have you as colleagues and are beyond grateful for all you did to make this volume come to life.
Part I Laying the Foundation
Essay 1 “But My Mother Says It’s Rude to Talk About Race!” How and Why We Need to Discuss Race in the United States
Cherise A. Harris
Connecticut College Stephanie M. McClure
In spite of our hesitance to talk about them, racial myths permeate our social world. They are frequently present in the mass media and public discourse, as well as in our everyday conversations with each other. Perhaps in your dorm rooms, dining halls, workplaces, or on social media, you have heard a variation on the following statements:
We elected a Black president twice, which means racism doesn’t exist anymore. We need to look out for “real Americans” first, not immigrants. Native American/Indian, Asian/Oriental, Latino/Hispanic—why does it matter what we call them? Asian Americans are doing very well. If other racial groups had their values, they would do well also. I know a minority who got worse scores than me and got into a better college! When people come here, they should learn the language. I don’t know why people are so upset about team names like the Washington Redskins. It’s really just a way of honoring Native American culture.
These kinds of statements reflect a great deal of the conventional wisdom around race. We define conventional wisdom as the received body of knowledge informally shared by a group or society that is often unstated, internally inconsistent, and resistant to change. This conventional wisdom is full of racial myths and misunderstandings. In this reader, we look at
common racial myths that we and many sociology professors and race scholars have heard from students in race courses. In this essay, we will give you the tools necessary to use this reader and introduce some key ideas and questions to help you navigate discussions about race both inside and outside the classroom.
Early in our schooling, we learn a simplified history of America’s founding that ignores the significant levels of racial conflict and inequality that have existed. For instance, it is often stated that America was founded on ideals of freedom and equality for all, an image that ignores the many groups who were excluded from that freedom and equality—namely, people of color. We also tend to think that racial or ethnic strife happened sometime after that idealized founding. However, as sociologist Joe Feagin (2013) notes in his book The White Racial Frame: Centuries of Racial Framing and Counter-Framing, “racial oppression was not added later on in the development of [U.S.] society, but was the foundation of the original colonial and U.S. social systems, and it remains as a foundation to the present day” (p. ix). Yet there is a tendency in American society to gloss over this history or in other ways minimize the import of race. We see this minimization in the present day when political pundits and others in the media characterize our society as post-racial, asserting that race no longer determines one’s life chances, or determines them to a far lesser extent than it once did.
Indeed, since the election of President Barack Obama in 2008, we have heard more and more that we have moved beyond race, despite much evidence to the contrary. To be sure, the election of the nation’s first Black president signaled a significant shift in the tenor of race relations in the United States, but not always for the positive. For this reason, you may see President Obama mentioned often in the essays in this volume, because his election was a watershed moment in American race relations. Yet his election has also been something of a miner’s canary, signaling that perhaps we haven’t come as far on the issue of race as we would like to think. Unique occurrences during his presidency, such as the “birtherism” movement, which many mark as the beginning of Donald Trump’s political career, or his being called a liar by a congressman during a televised congressional address, suggest that we are far from post-racial. The reemergence of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) in modern political discourse and the power of the white nationalist movement in the form of the “alt-right” in the United States (and abroad) reaffirm evidence that a “post-racial” diagnosis was premature.
The move toward post-racialism and an emphasis on color blindness are what Michael Omi and Howard Winant (1994) have referred to as racial projects. They are “simultaneously an interpretation, representation, or explanation of racial dynamics and an effort to reorganize and redistribute resources along particular racial lines” (p. 56). American history is replete with racial projects that have resulted in negative outcomes for people of color. The defining of Native Americans as savages that coincided with the violent removal of groups from their land; the current dehumanizing construct of Latinos (and Mexican Americans, specifically) as “illegal immigrants,” thus prompting calls for stringent legislation and policy; and the branding of Black women as welfare queens undeserving of public assistance are all examples of racial projects and policies that have disenfranchised people of color. More recently, we have seen the racialization of Muslims as a racial project designed to mark Muslims as threatening (see Garner and Selod in this volume). As Ted Thornhill explains in greater detail in his essay, the post-racial/color-blind discourse also seems to be a racial project designed to convince Americans that the restrictive racial barriers of the past have fallen (particularly with the election of a Black president) and thus keep people from thinking or talking about the reality of race as it plays out in their day-to-day lives.
While empirical information about unequal outcomes in education, the criminal justice system, health, and the labor market clearly show all the ways many Americans’ lives are still affected by race, in the context of a supposedly post-racial and meritocratic society, when people even mention race, they are often subject to silencing and even ridicule. You may have heard the statement, “Why can’t people just stop talking about race? If they stopped talking about it, it would go away!” Perhaps you’ve even said it yourself. As difficult as it is to talk about, our ability to move toward greater social justice is severely limited by the silencing around race. Moreover, as Thornhill explains, “differences in skin color are not the problem; racism, racial discrimination, White racial privilege, and racial inequality are.” Silence only begets further misunderstanding and inhibits progress.
To get the discussion started, let’s talk about the role race plays in the college experience and why you might be hearing more about race than you have at other points in your life.
The Impact of the College Experience on
Racial Thinking As Stephanie McClure (one of the editors of this volume) points out in her essay on Black fraternities and sororities, the college experience has the potential to bring about a great deal of intellectual and personal growth and is an opportunity for students to obtain a degree and also learn more about who they are as individuals and who they would like to become (see also Astin, 1993; Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005). Sociologist Mary C. Waters (2013) writes that the college experience also often puts race in stark relief, where students find themselves thinking about race more than they did when they were younger:
Sociologists and psychologists note that at the time people leave home and begin to live independently from their parents . . . they report a heightened sense of racial and ethnic identity as they sort through how much of their beliefs and behaviors are idiosyncratic to their families and how much are shared with other people. It is not until one comes into close contact with many people who are different from oneself that individuals realize the ways in which their backgrounds may influence their individual personality. (p. 212; see also Aries, 2008; Tatum, 1997)
The effect of this experience may be even greater if the person has had very limited previous exposure to people of different races or ethnicities. Moreover, as Waters (2013) argues, prior to the college experience, many White students’ relationship to their ethnicity is mostly symbolic, meaning that it is a voluntary relationship that is often enjoyable and expressed only intermittently (see also Gans, 1979). For instance, they may celebrate their distant Irish heritage on St. Patrick’s Day, but otherwise rarely acknowledge it. Thus, their relationship to their race or ethnicity is fairly tenuous.
But “for all of the ways in which ethnicity [and race] does not matter for White Americans, it does matter for non-Whites” (Waters, 2013, p. 210). For students of color, and particularly those at predominantly White institutions (PWIs), race and ethnicity play a key role in their college experience. For example, in Elizabeth Aries’s (2008, p. 36) study of race and class at an elite college, she found that race was something that almost every Black student in the study had thought about before arriving, while
only half the White students in the study had (see also Tatum, 1997). In addition, many of the White students in her study seemed unaware of the privileges they possessed as a result of their race. One of those privileges is that college campuses are essentially built around White students’ interests and needs; the food served in the dining halls, the membership and leadership of student organizations, the music played in dorm rooms and at campus parties, and even the course offerings at the college frequently center on the desires and interests of White students (see also Feagin & Sikes, 1995). In other words, the overall culture of the institution frequently reflects the things that Whites value. However, because Whiteness and White privilege is often made invisible (McIntosh, 2013), it is difficult for some White students to see.
Meanwhile, it is within this context that students of color must function. They may have grown up in cultures with different music, foods, and languages, for example, or have different life histories, experiences, and concerns that they find difficult to have validated in the context of a White-dominated institution. Thus, it is challenging for these students to enjoy the full college experience. As Beverly Daniel Tatum (1997) writes, they also frequently find themselves the target of racial prejudice, discrimination, and isolation on campus and in the classroom:
Whether it is the loneliness of being routinely overlooked as a lab partner in science courses, the irritation of being continually asked by curious classmates about Black hairstyles, the discomfort of being singled out by a professor to give the “Black perspective” in class discussion, the pain of racist graffiti scrawled on dormitory room doors, the insult of racist jokes circulated through campus e-mail, or the injury inflicted by racial epithets (and sometimes beer bottles) hurled from a passing car, Black students [and other students of color] on predominantly White campuses must cope with ongoing affronts to their racial identity. (p. 78; see also Feagin, 2013; Feagin & Sikes, 1994)
Recent events on college campuses bear out the nature of this hostility. For instance, in the past five years or so, a rash of “ghetto parties” have been held on college campuses, where attendees are encouraged to wear clothes with “urban” labels (FUBU, Rocawear, etc.), athletic jerseys, and gold teeth. Similarly, in 2012, a White fraternity at a prestigious university allegedly held an Asian-themed party, complete with conical hats, geisha
outfits, and misspellings on the invitation designed to convey an Asian accent (Quan, 2013; see also Kingkade, 2013).
As a result of these hostilities, Black, Asian, Latino, Middle Eastern, and Native American students may find solace in hanging out with other students who belong to their racial or ethnic group. They may even join a racial or ethnic affinity group such as an Asian Student Union, a MeCHA group (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano/a de Aztlán) representing Chicano students, or a Black Greek-letter organization (BGLO) as a way of feeling safe and valued while also feeling connected to the wider campus community. As McClure discusses, this process is known as social integration and is not only necessary for identity development but also plays a key role in successful college completion. Yet when White students enter a college campus and see racial affinity groups, they wonder why such things exist, because their race or ethnicity has never been very important in their lives. They may even feel a sense of being left out when they see students of color gathering together (Aries, 2008) or in organizations built around their interests. This is one of the many ways the college experience highlights the salience of race.
Race is also highlighted in college classrooms in a way that it often isn’t in high school classrooms. For example, college is frequently the first time students are exposed to a history of the United States that analyzes race in a critical way. Historical accounts have long reflected an attempt “to sanitize this country’s collective memories and to downplay or eliminate accurate understandings of our racist history” (Feagin, 2013, p. 17). For example, the story of contact between Native Americans and European settlers is often told (and represented in films such as Disney’s Pocahontas) as two communities who struggled to respect each other’s differences, rather than as a story of violent conflict and ultimate domination, colonization, and genocide on the part of White settlers. In another example, we are taught that true Black oppression ended with slavery or Jim Crow segregation, without looking at the legacy of systemic oppression and the destruction both of these systems left in their wake. In many cases, the college classroom is the first opportunity an individual has to seriously consider the true implications of race and the complicated and painful U.S. racial history. This can be a jarring and difficult experience.
Nonetheless, understanding the legacies of our racial history is a key emphasis of this book, for in understanding the history we can disprove many common racial myths and move toward greater social justice. For
instance, Paula Ioanide disproves the commonly held myth that America is a meritocracy where anyone who works hard enough can get ahead. As Ioanide explains, Blacks and Whites with similar incomes, work histories, and family structures have “radically different relationships to wealth and inheritance,” which is largely a function of Blacks’ difficulty in accumulating wealth under restrictive social structures such as slavery and Jim Crow. Thus, “hard work” isn’t enough to overcome disparities that began long ago. The history of Jim Crow is also connected to persistent educational segregation and inequality, as discussed by Patel, Meanwell, and McClure in this volume. Knowledge of these historical racial inequities in the American educational system are also necessary for understanding questions of affirmative action in higher education, as you’ll read in the essay by OiYan Poon, and in the labor market, a topic analyzed by Wendy Leo Moore.
Legacies of oppression also affect individual attitudes and interpersonal interactions. For example, when Black men are perceived as inherently criminal, every Black man becomes a suspect, as Sara Buck Doude explains in her essay on bias in perceptions of crime and criminals. Stereotypical thinking and what social psychologists refer to as “ultimate attribution error” contribute to how hooded sweatshirts (also known as hoodies) are perceived very differently depending on the race of the wearer, a topic examined by Rashawn Ray. Legacies of racial oppression also live on in present-day attitudes toward interracial dating, as Nikki Khanna, author of Biracial in America: Forming and Performing Racial Identity (2011), discusses in her essay titled “‘But What About the Children?’: Understanding Contemporary Attitudes Toward Interracial Dating and Marriage.” Here, she demonstrates how racist attitudes toward interracial dating are disguised as concern about the children of these unions and also reflect the country’s long legacy of racial antipathy, particularly toward Blacks. In all these ways, race and legacies of racial struggles resonate decades and even centuries later.
When White students are first exposed to the history of White oppression, some feel guilty or ashamed that the racial group of which they are a part has been responsible for colonization, domination, and global hegemony. For instance, once White students learn of this history, they sometimes become anxious to present themselves as “one of the good ones.” They may even say, “I’m not racist! Some of my best friends are [Black, Asian, Latino, Native American, etc.].” In reviewing the evidence from prominent sociologists such as Eduardo Bonilla-Silva and Joe Feagin, Cherise Harris
(coeditor of this volume) points out that often when people claim to have friends of other racial or ethnic backgrounds, their “friendships” lack depth; they may not even know their “friend’s” name, or the friendship disintegrates when the activity in which they have participated is over. They may also still harbor racist ideas despite their supposed friendship. While the friends defense is often an attempt by well-meaning Whites to present themselves as racial allies, as Harris points out, being an ally is a far more complicated process that, among other things, involves taking proactive steps to confront one’s own racism and the racist views and actions of other Whites. Through clearer understanding of our racial history and the nature of our racial dynamics and interactions, we have a far better chance of moving toward a society with greater social justice. That is one of several goals of this book.
Our Job and Your Job Given the United States’ varied, complicated, and difficult racial history, it is no great surprise that race is a challenging sociological topic. This is the case for three important reasons: (1) A good deal of our information about race and ethnicity includes conventional (or folk) wisdom that is frequently incorrect; (2) much of that conventional wisdom has been handed down to us by agents of socialization (e.g., parents, extended family, peers, the church, and media) whose opinions tend to weigh heavily on us; and (3) there is an overall culture of silence around race that permeates the United States (see Tatum, 1997), thus prompting little critical analysis of that conventional wisdom. None of these should be underestimated in terms of their overall impact. For instance, it is problematic that conventional wisdom tends to reflect a sanitized racial history where our ugliest chapters are reimagined or deleted altogether (Feagin, 2013) yet repeated over and over again as truth in the media and in our everyday conversations. That the conventional wisdom is frequently repeated by our agents of socialization is problematic because our tendency is to uncritically accept what they say in their role as significant others to whom we are closest and who have taught us many other important and meaningful life lessons. It is from them that we get many important cues about race. For example, perhaps there were points in your life where a parent, teacher, or friend suggested it was rude to mention race, let alone discuss it as a serious topic. The cue you might have gotten then is to silence any discussion about race. At other times, perhaps you received messages that minimized or dismissed its significance. If you are
a person of color, the cue you might have gotten is not to mention race or racism for fear that you would be accused of being “angry” or “playing the race card”; perhaps worse, you remain silent because you fear that no one will care about your experience. For all of the above reasons, both Whites and people of color remain silent on racial issues, and some are loathe to acknowledge its very existence. This is consistent with contemporary color-blind rhetoric, which leads to a dysfunctional national discourse on race.
The task of this volume is to open up critical discussions about racial topics and debunk many of the commonly held racial myths that college students often bring with them to race courses. Debunking involves unmasking and deconstructing some of our most commonly held notions and beliefs. As Peter Berger (1963) writes in Invitation to Sociology,
The sociological frame of reference, with its built-in procedure of looking for levels of reality other than those given in the official interpretations of society, carries with it a logical imperative to unmask the pretensions and the propaganda by which [people] cloak their actions with each other. (p. 38)
A central premise of this reader is that debunking myths with accurate information and evidence can be an antidote to racism and racial prejudices. This is not an easy task, however. As Liz Grauerholz (2007), former editor of the journal Teaching Sociology, states, “All information that students learn is filtered through their prior understandings of the world and these preconceptions can present major barriers to gaining new knowledge about the social world” (p. 15).
To be clear, mere exposure to the information isn’t sufficient. For good information to change attitudes, there must be a willingness to consider new information and an openness to change. For example, in Asking the Right Questions: A Guide to Critical Thinking, M. Neil Browne and Stuart M. Keeley (2001) explain,
We bring lots of personal baggage to every decision we make— experiences, dreams, values, training, and cultural habits. If you are to grow, however, you need to recognize these feelings, and, as much as you are able, put them on the shelf for a bit. (p. 9)
Barriers to change exist for individuals in terms of their own ego and sense of identity, as well as their sense of the state of justice and fairness in the world. Indeed, we often perceive that we are being personally attacked when someone presents a position opposite to our own. The danger here is that
being emotionally involved in an issue prior to any active thought about it [means] that you may fail to consider potential good reasons for other positions—reasons that might be sufficient to change your mind on the issue if you would only listen to them. (Browne & Keeley, 2001, p. 9)
Part of what you will need to do when considering the essays in this volume is engage your critical thinking skills. Critical thinking involves, among other things, identifying assumptions and value conflicts, evaluating evidence, assessing logic, identifying significant omitted information, coming up with alternative positions and ideas, and developing a reasonable conclusion (Browne & Keeley, 2001). It is through this process that many of our conventional notions about race are debunked.
Early in this volume, we debunk perhaps one of the most commonly held myths about race: that it is a biological entity that is fixed and unchangeable and that can even explain why, for instance, Blacks excel at particular sports. As Daniel Buffington explains, citing scientific evidence where genotype is concerned, human beings are 99.9% identical when looking at nucleotide pairs, one of the building blocks of DNA. Indeed, genetic research suggests great similarity across racial and ethnic groups. When looking at this and other scientific research, Buffington (like most social scientists) concludes that race is mostly a social construct, where “the assignment of social importance to physical features occurred through social relations—such as migration and conquest, competition for scarce resources, and political challenges against the state.” This is a key claim of this volume: Race is a social construct. Because it is a social construct, the explanations for racial dynamics are located in the social as well. Thus, the overrepresentation of Blacks in certain sports, such as basketball, can be more directly attributed to social factors, such as more ample opportunity in those sports (e.g., access to basketball courts in neighborhoods and schools), coupled with limited opportunities in the occupational structure of the United States (e.g., limited employment opportunities, particularly
for Blacks located in neighborhoods with underfunded and underresourced schools).
The essays in this volume similarly reflect critical perspectives on commonly held racial myths. As you read each essay, in addition to the questions raised by the author, consider the following questions: Where or from whom have you heard this myth? Do you believe it yourself? Why or why not? What evidence have you heard in support of this kind of conventional wisdom? How is the myth debunked by the author of the essay? What other information do you think would be useful for considering the questions raised in the essay, and where could you locate this information? Finally, ask yourself, why is this myth so often perpetuated? In other words, whose purposes are served by keeping this myth alive, and who is ultimately hurt by it? By considering these questions, you are deciding to make the effort to understand race in a critical fashion, as opposed to blindly accepting the multitude of racial myths that dominate American society.
Final Thoughts The essays in this volume share several key assumptions:
1. History matters. 2. Context matters. 3. Dialogue matters.
As students of U.S. racial history and racial dynamics, you have the opportunity to change the nature of the dialogue around race. That requires a comprehensive understanding of the context in which we live (e.g., how race intersects with class, gender, and other axes of inequality) and also requires the courage, honesty, and good information needed to dispel conventional racial wisdom. Some of you may have been exposed to the information in this book already, and you may have done the work necessary to modify your ideas and beliefs to fit this reality. As such, it may be difficult to watch your classmates and peers encounter information about race for the first time and not become frustrated and angry. Our hope is that having in one place so much of the information needed to debunk some of the most common myths about race in the United States will be useful to you as you engage your classmates and peers in important conversation.
Cherise A. Harris is an associate professor of sociology at Connecticut College. She specializes in race, class, and gender, and teaches classes on the sociology of ethnic and race relations; the sociology of inequality; race, gender, and the mass media; and middle-class minorities. Her book, The Cosby Cohort: Blessings and Burdens of Growing Up Black Middle Class, was published in 2013. She is on the editorial board of Teaching Sociology and has published in other journals, such as Sociological Spectrum and Journal of African American Studies.
Stephanie M. McClure is a professor of sociology at Georgia College. She teaches classes on racial stratification, social theory, and the sociology of education. Her research interests are in the area of higher education, with a focus on college student persistence and retention across race, class, and gender, and a special emphasis on post-college student experiences that increase student social and academic integration. She has published in the Journal of Higher Education, Symbolic Interaction, and the Journal of African American Studies.
Suggested Additional Resources
Berger, P. L. (1963). Invitation to sociology: A humanistic perspective. New York, NY: Anchor Books.
Browne, M. N., & Keeley, S. (2001). Asking the right questions: A guide to critical thinking. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Feagin, J. R. (2010). The white racial frame: Centuries of racial framing and counter-framing. New York, NY: Routledge.
Kendi, I. X. (2016). Stamped from the beginning: The definitive history of racist ideas in America. New York, NY: Nation Books.
Omi, M., & Winant, H. (1994). Racial formation in the U.S.: From the 1960s to the 1990s. New York, NY: Routledge.
Questions for Further Discussion 1. Prior to beginning college, how often had you thought about your race?
When you did think about it, which events or occurrences prompted it? 2. How would you characterize what you learned about America’s racial
and ethnic history? For example, what is the conventional wisdom you have heard surrounding Whites, Blacks, Latinos, Asians, Native
Americans, and Middle Easterners? 3. As you begin this course, what are some of your questions surrounding
race? If they are not covered in this book, write them down and bring them to class to discuss with your classmates. What can the essays in this book tell you about the answer(s) to your question(s)?
Reaching Beyond the Color Line
Examining Your Attitudes Toward Race and Ethnicity: A Pretest and Posttest Directions: At the beginning of the term, answer the questionnaire below. It is important to answer the questions as HONESTLY as possible, no matter how you think your answers may be perceived. After you have completed the course, look at your answers again to see if any have changed or if you think of these questions in a different way. What do you now know about race and ethnicity that you didn’t know before?
1. When you were a child, did your parents talk about race? What messages about race did you receive from them? What messages did you receive from other relatives or agents of socialization (e.g., media, teachers, peers, religious figures)? What would you teach your children about race?
2. Do you think race is mostly about biology? Why or why not? 3. How do you define racism? Can anyone be racist? 4. Do you think Islamophobia should be considered a type of
racism? Why or why not? 5. How have your views about race changed in the past 10 years?
Have they changed at all since you began college? In what ways? 6. What comes to mind when you think of #blacklivesmatter? 7. Do you think it’s time for people to stop talking about racism?
Explain your answer. 8. Do you believe it is okay to make judgments about people based
on how they dress, like whether they are wearing a hoodie, hijab, or turban? Can making judgments based on people’s appearance ever be justified?
9. Consider our use of cultural items typically associated with groups of color, such as hip-hop music and Native American or (ostensibly) Asian symbols. Where is the line between respecting or celebrating these cultures and appropriating or exploiting them?
10. How do you explain the large numbers of Black men in prison? Is
this the result of bad choices or something else? 11. Do some racial or ethnic groups value marriage more than others,
or are there structural reasons that might account for any differences in marital rates?
12. Have we become more tolerant toward interracial relationships? Why or why not? Is the answer dependent on the racial or ethnic combination of the couple in question?
13. What do you think accounts for health disparities across different racial and ethnic groups?
14. Do Asian Americans value education more than other racial or ethnic groups? Is this a positive stereotype, or is it harmful to Asian Americans or other racial and ethnic groups in some way?
15. Why do you think people who come to this country don’t immediately learn English?
16. American culture subscribes heavily to the idea that with hard work, anyone can succeed. Do you think this is true? What should we glean from the successes of people like Barack Obama or Oprah Winfrey? When figures like this promote meritocratic ideals, do you think that makes the American public cling harder to this notion? Why or why not?
17. Do you think that affirmative action is a good way to deal with racial or ethnic disparities in education or employment? Why or why not?
18. Consider the current debates over citizenship. Are our notions of citizenship based solely on documentation and paperwork? What other things might shape our understanding of who is and isn’t a citizen or who should or shouldn’t be a citizen?
19. Do you believe people are overly concerned with how we refer to racial or ethnic groups? Does it matter whether or not we use African American or Black, Indian or Native American, Hispanic or Latino?
20. Is it ever okay for non-Black groups to use the N-word? Why or why not?
21. Consider your campus community. Do students of different racial groups socialize with one another? Do you witness deep friendships across racial and ethnic lines? Why or why not?
22. Is it possible to be friends with someone of a different race and still be racist? Explain your answer.
23. What other questions would you add to this list?
References Aries, E. (2008). Race and class matters at an elite college. Philadelphia,
PA: Temple University Press.
Astin, A. W. (1993). What matters in college? Four critical years revisited. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Berger, P. L. (1963). Invitation to sociology: A humanistic perspective. New York, NY: Anchor Books.
Browne, M. N., & Keeley, S. (2001). Asking the right questions: A guide to critical thinking. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Feagin, J. R. (2013). The white racial frame: Centuries of racial framing and counter-framing. New York, NY: Routledge.
Feagin, J. R., & Sikes, M. P. (1994). Living with racism: The Black middle-class experience. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.