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Racial Baggage Challenge: Week 2

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Welcome to week two! If you didn't get a chance to participate in week one, you can always revisit previous challenges throughout this process.

This week we will focus on race as a social construct. That might sound odd if this is the first time you are hearing the term. But, to break it down, it means that race is real yet not real -- biologically, a weak differentiator, yet socially a strong determinant.

Scientists have found that there is more genetic variation within groups rather than across. We think we see race, but what we are actually seeing is a mixture of phenotypically clustered markers (i.e., skin tone, eye shape, etc.) and the conscious and unconscious biases we have been socialized to endorse. As a society we have socially constructed what it means to be one race or another.

And we have socially constructed race through our laws and institutional norms.

So if race is something we constructed socially rather than something that is genetically determining, we have a responsibility to see what we have done and perhaps deconstruct and reconstruct.

It isn’t that the Black boy who plays basketball has an extra muscle in his thigh; rather he was socialized to excel in basketball (e.g. access to materials and knowledge in his environment). The Asian woman isn’t naturally a powerhouse at the violin; rather her environment socialized and supported her to excel.

Goal for Week 2: Understand race as a social construct.

Challenge for Week 2: Race: the Power of an Illusion is a great PBS documentary that illustrates the social construction of race within the U.S. There are three parts, but at least check out this segment of part three (short clipor long clip). The explanation of the ways post WW II housing practices and suburban sprawl have and continue to impact housing and wealth is powerful. The historical context of citizenship laws and policies are informative, especially given today’s immigration debates.

1. Watch the documentary.

2. Talk to someone about it.

3. Begin to think about and recognize ways that race has socialized you and those around you.

Please do let me know what is on your mind, what you are experiencing as you go through these challenges, topics you want to make sure we get to.

We at the Beacon would like you to share your thoughts with others who read the Beacon. Send your reactions to dkorando@stlbeacon.org with social construct in the subject line.

Response to Challenge 1:

Jayne Nucete, who lived in Washington, D.C., and who identifies herself as a friend of Kira's from high school, said she works in diversity and social justice training. She says: "So, my results on the race IAT were terribly neutral, and I was struck simultaneously with competing thoughts. First, what is this, a gold star? And then, immediately -- oh, no, have I fallen prey to the illusion of colorblindness?

Oh, no no no. I have taught about that mistake for years. I have based my entire philosophy on the need to recognize, not hide or gloss over the impact of race, gender and sexual orientation on people's lives. Here I am thinking I'm doing the work, and then this ambiguous IAT result leaves me wondering if I'm back at square one, or if I really am seeing people as who they are (with identities attached, not truncated). I'm sure there's some baggage attached to that question, so here we go.

A reader from Normandy who asked for her name to not be used said, "I thought that I was very much innocent of the bad behavior but see that I do have some tendencies that need to be looked at. ... How can we expect people to change when in fact we need to look within and make the change with the "person in the mirror."

Priscilla Block, who lives in Tower Grove South, said she took the challenge because a friend asked her to and "because there is too much or a racial, gender and age divide in this city and county." She said the exercises were "weird" and "felt like the outcome was preset."

Amy Gill, from Skinker Debaliviere, said she "thought a lot of the questions and tests were subliminally biased. I thought the questions were supposed to find out racial bias, but they also were intended to be biased towards socio-economic levels as well. For example, one of the questions asks about private schools and if you vote against the question I was sure it counted against you as being prejudiced. But what if you don't believe public money should pay for private schools?

Kira Hudson Banks