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What is Race and Racism?


What is Race and Racism?

Written by
Aisha White
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7 minutes
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White families should be talking more about race and racism so that we can understand it. However, it is important that we have common definitions of race and racism when talking with children. In the following article, Aisha White talks about how to define race and racism, how it is used in society, and how to start the conversation with children.

Before you read, reflect on these big-idea questions before you read the article.Then revisit them after you finish the series. Notice if any of your responses change.

Talking to children after racial incidents

Families should be talking more about race. That may be obvious given the level and frequency of anti-racism protests across the country over the past six months. But the talking I’m referring to is serious, thoughtful, and ongoing conversations about race, not short term reactions to current events.

We must talk about race so that we can understand it. We need to talk about race specifically in America because the ways it has been used are truly problematic and harmful. And we have to discuss it regularly so that we can become more aware of the unquestionable danger of its evil partner — racism. Race as an American concept cannot be separated from the way it has been crafted and manipulated historically, to the benefit of some and the detriment of others.

What is race?

There are probably as many definitions of race as there are scholarly fields that explore the human condition. Pulling from the field of anthropology can be helpful in taking a somewhat objective view of the topic. According to the American Anthropological Association: Race is a recent human invention. It’s only a few hundred years old, in comparison to the lengthy span of human history. Although not scientific, the idea of race proposed that there were significant differences among people that allowed them to be grouped into a limited number of categories or races.

What does that mean?

It means race is recent. It’s a new concept when considered within the long history of human development. It’s an invention, not a universal truth. It is not scientific. Race is not based on rigorous study or investigation — it is, essentially, made up. And, according to the definition, it allows the grouping of people into categories. Lumping people into groups is not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, it’s when we assign inherent attributes — typically negative ones — to groups because we have the power to do so, that problems begin to emerge.

How is race used in society?

First, the biological differences we see in each other — skin color, hair texture, facial features, are not only superficial, but they emerged as a result of adaptations to geography. That means many of the physical differences are the result of climate, not real group distinctions.

Second, the racial labels used to categorize the people presenting physical differences were created by others — that is, they are not fundamental to those very people. The labels were created to divide. Black people are Kikuyu or Yoruba, white people are German or Italian, Indigenous people are Odawa or Haudenosaunee.

Third, the values and qualities that are assigned to different races, particularly people of color, were devised for the benefit of people outside their so-called race — specifically white people. Claiming people were lesser benefited some and harmed others.

And lastly, although the idea of race is fundamentally woven into our minds and institutions, I believe we can change the way that we understand race, but we must understand it first. It was constructed so it can be deconstructed.

What is racism?

I would be remiss if I didn’t talk at least briefly about racism and the ongoing efforts throughout history to dismantle it. My standard definition of racism is: Racial prejudice combined with power. And in a country founded on the idea that white is better, that power is not typically wielded by people of color. It was white (elite) power that enabled and preserved legal segregation (the enforced separation of different racial groups) for nearly 90 years. A power that was also wielded by non-elite whites. But, it was grassroots people power (that also included many white people) that dismantled it and led to desegregation — the ending of the policy of racial segregation.

Of course, the struggle to end segregation would not have been possible without the work of advocates, people speaking out in support or defense of a cause. These days we sometimes refer to them as upstanders. We’ve seen thousands of them in the recent public protests and demonstrations in support of Black Lives Matter (BLM), a movement that advocates for non-violent civil disobedience to protest police brutality and other racially motivated violence against Black people. I can imagine that BLM started with a conversation about race.

So how do we start talking about race?

Although I began this article strongly promoting the need for dialogue, the kind of talk I’m suggesting necessarily requires some kind of action. And it begins with changing ourselves.

  1. First do the hard self-work. Learn and share, read and write, reflect and consider, talk and question. Devote as much time as you have available to read books, listen to talks, sit in on webinars and chat with people who can support you in your learning. But also spend an equal amount of time thinking — about your conversations, about your physical reactions during those conversations, and about the future ‘self’ you imagine yourself to be with regards to race. How do you see yourself transformed? What are you better able to say and do? How might you be better equipped to help the cause?
  2. Share the knowledge by starting with our youngest. Once you’ve done enough of that self-work to feel comfortable, share what you know with the young children (your own, your students) around you in age-appropriate ways. Make it a regular practice, something that you do on a consistent basis. If you are struggling with where to start, find a few books about some of the heroes and heroines, advocates, and upstanders you and your child/students can learn about. Or talk to people in your circle who are further along the path than you, people who can help you in your journey.
  3. Develop a thorough plan. Create a plan that takes into account the years of growth and development that are required for us to feel really comfortable talking about the topic, helping young people understand it, and working for change. It may feel like a huge challenge — but if we are really committed to understanding race, to dismantling racism, and to changing our world for the better, this should be a constant struggle we’re willing to take on.

After reading this article, consider the following questions:

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Aisha White

Aisha White

Dr. Aisha White is the director of the P.R.I.D.E. (Positive Racial Identity Development in Early Education) Program at the University of Pittsburgh Office of Child Development.

Learn more about the program here.