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Commentary: Why do we need to talk frankly about race?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 6, 2009 - Race is a social construction. Science tells us that there is more commonality across what we know as racial groups than within groups. So, why is it that we continue to see race, when it has no scientific basis? The reason is that we have given it significant social meaning. We have constructed norms and even laws based on what we understand as race. 

I teach college students and am increasingly surprised by how quickly they claim not to see race. Some argue that this claim is positive. Perhaps we have entered the post-racial era where race no longer matters. I would see it as positive, if I did not also hear the ways in which these same students regurgitate rhetoric entrenched in traditional ideas of race.

When we discuss what they know about other racial groups, the information often includes stereotypes such as the effeminate Asian male, the gangbanging African-American male, the landscaping Latino. These students are frequently making assumptions about people from different racial groups, which look dangerously like those of the past.

With that, I wonder how far we have really come. As we move further into the semester, students become aware of how they have picked up ideas about race without even realizing it. Our awareness of race has morphed from being blatant to less overt. Traditionally we had explicit laws that expressed our ideas about race. When discussing race, we often discuss the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case (1954). However, we fail to recognize lesser known cases such as Ozawa v. U.S. (1922) and U.S. v. Thind (1923), which denied Ozawa and Thind citizenship on the basis that they were not White, or Loving v. Virginia (1967), which declared the state’s anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional.

In some ways, we prefer remembering those decisions that make us look good. We would rather not recognize the negative ways we have made decisions based on race and the legacy that we created. It’s uncomfortable yet necessary.

For example, multi-racial individuals are a growing sector of our population. Yet, I would bet that many of us would not need to think long to recall someone in our lives who has spoken negatively about people in cross-racial relationships or having pity on children of such unions. What helped fuel such attitudes? Our long history of state laws, which made it illegal to have these relationships, sanctioned the fear and judgment.

When a case finally made it all the way to the Supreme Court in 1967, hearts and minds did not change immediately. While it is important that the court recognized the unconstitutionality of such laws, we cannot deny the ways in which years of miscegenation laws influenced people’s beliefs. Even today, we are perpetuating racially biased beliefs even though much of the legal structure has been dismantled. It would be unrealistic to claim that we are no longer enacting our history of socially constructed racial dynamics.

So, as much as we have scientific evidence to debunk race, we still have to do the interpersonal work to deconstruct the assumptions we have constructed based on race. Dialogue and working to understand the experiences of people from different backgrounds are the keys to moving forward, which is a major part of why the Beacon is inviting us all to examine and discuss the concept of race over the coming months.

Our job is to be willing to recognize and then face when we are enacting our racial baggage. Because, as sociologist Allen Johnson states, “a trouble we can’t talk about, is a trouble we can’t do anything about.”

Kira Hudson Banks, PhD., is assistant professor of psychology at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington. The native of Edwardsville is a regular contributor to the Beacon.