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Commentary: Race: defining terms

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 20, 2009 - As the “Race, Frankly” series begins, I feel it is essential that we have a conversation about terminology. Notice that I said “conversation,” because I do not assume that we will agree on every definition or concept. That is not the goal. The goal is for us to engage in meaningful dialog rather than isolated monologues.

When talking about race, we use terms such as race, colorblindness, racism, prejudice in unclear and overlapping ways, which make conversations more difficult than they might be inherently. I wrote in-depth about the way we tangle definitions in a previous piece, so I will only quickly summarize here.

We all have prejudices or biases, which mean to pre-judge. However, when it comes to race, we often create these prejudices based on misinformation.

Psychologist Beverly Daniel Tatum discusses these common errors - omissions, distortions and misinformation - in her book “Why are all the Black Kids Sitting together in the Cafeteria.” For example, many people assume African Americans have a special muscle or gene that helps them excel in sports (misinformation), and others perceive black male domination in certain sports as inherent (distortion). However, my guess is that most of those people would not also make those assumptions about Jewish men, who dominated professional basketball in its early days. Partial information with a limited historical scope is often at the root of many prejudices and stereotypes.

Racism is on another level in that the group in power gains systematic advantages over other groups, often engaging stereotypes as aids to keep things in check. The group in power gets to decide what is favorable and deserves reward. For example, William Tucker discusses the way science has manipulated race, noting that when Black children were found to have superior memory compared to White children, scientists concluded that memory should not be considered part of intelligence. Similarly, quick reflexes were indicative of lower intelligence when Blacks excelled, but when Whites had faster reflexes it meant higher intelligence.

The collective power of the White scientific community to make such interpretations is precisely why I feel that the “prejudice plus power” conceptualization of racism is more descriptive than a basic “prejudice based on race” definition. It is the power piece of the puzzle, which allows the “us vs. them” categorization to extend beyond the personal level to a cultural and institutional level.

The concept of colorblindness has become increasingly popular. Some argue that we have arrived at a realization of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of people being judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. Others say it is a modern day tactic to obscure racism, which continues to persist, with our premature hope that is has dissipated.

At the heart of this controversy is the reality that, given our race conscious society, many have developed a racial identity - how they think about themselves with regard to race. Therefore, whether we see race or not, it has become a salient part of many individual’s self concept.

It is similar to religious identity in Ireland. Given the history of religion and power in that region, it is no wonder that religious identity is experienced as a significant part of development.

For others it is a sport, gender, sexuality or even statehood. If you know someone from Texas, you understand how that heritage is often a salient part of how they conceptualize who they are. If I minimized their sense of connection with the state, I would most likely get an earful. And rightfully so. If being a Texan is a salient part of how they see themselves, who am I to blow it off or claim it is unimportant?

Similarly, I think it is important to consider how race has become a part of how people see themselves and experience the world - for better or for worse.

Given all of these intricacies, complexities and definitions, it is no wonder that we often choose not to enter into conversations about race. Even with those we love, it can be a hot button issue let along complete strangers. Yet, we are asking you to take the leap and join us in talking frankly and honestly about race over the coming months.

A quick look at some recent headlines will remind us that there is plenty to ponder. The most startling story was the Philadelphia pool incident, where race seemed to be the predominant factor in a group of children of color being turned away from a predominantly White swimming pool. It was assumed that the group would cause problems because of their race.

In a similar case of children being judged negatively solely on the color of their skin was the firestorm of reactions to Malia Obama. Being a young Black girl unfortunately conjures a host of negative expectations and assumptions. Less overt examples of how race continues to shape our conversations include the nomination of Dr. Regina Benjamin as an African-American woman nominated for surgeon general, the hearings for Sonia Sotomayor as the first Latina Supreme Court justice, and the 100th anniversary of the NAACP. Race is ever present in blatant and subtle ways, and it will continue to be so as our country becomes more racially diverse.

My hope is that these terms and concepts give us a starting point to talk to and learn from each other.

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.