Concept of the Month
In light of our commitment to foster continual racial justice learning (and unlearning), there will be a highlighted term or concept located here. Each term/concept is selected to broaden the racial knowledge and wisdom of those who come to this site.
“Liberate the minds of men and ultimately you will liberate the bodies of men.” - Marcus Garvey
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” – Martin Luther King Jr.
Birth to Burial: How Jim Crow looked to a black person.
As a black person living in the late 1800s to mid-1960s, signs such as “No negroes allowed”, “Help wanted white only”, and “Colored only” were plastered to the outside of businesses, schools, churches, restaurants, restrooms, and drinking fountains. This was normal and routine. It was clearly known which laws and expectations were to be followed, as well as the penalties for disobedience of these norms. From birth to burial a black person was legally separated from the dominant race – white people. Simply upsetting a white person could result in death. Welcome to Jim Crow America.
What was Jim Crow?
Jim Crow coined its name in the 1830s from the Father of Minstrelsy, Thomas Dartmouth Rice – otherwise known as “Daddy Rice”. Rice was a known performer who created a blackface, racially demeaning character, named Jim Crow. Jim Crow further became known as the racial caste system that governed and limited the rights of black people while empowering white people during the time period of 1877 to the mid-1960s. While physical slavery was dead, the souls of black people were still enslaved due to government sanctioned demeaning practices.
By the late 1800s racism was flourishing in the U.S. The 1896 landmark U.S. Supreme Court case, Plessy v. Ferguson legalized segregation. The 7-2 decision ruled that the 14th amendment was not violated by the Separate Car Act, and that laws requiring racial separation did not violate the amendment or imply inferiority of a race.
Forgotten but not Gone
While the laws of Jim Crow are long gone, the aftermath of it is still felt in present day. Redlining practices are still being used by declining mortgages to alienate people of color based on their credit, however a white person can be approved with the same credit score. This practice continues the creation of segregated communities and neighborhoods.
The long-term effects of Jim Crow are also visible in the area of medical care as people of color are twice as likely to be without health insurance as white people. In addition, police brutality and increased surveillance of minority populations (particularly black people) has resulted in harsher punishments for small offenses, which has greatly contributed to the influx of minorities in the prison system. These are all simply a small collection of facts demonstrating the ongoing impact of the Jim Crow era upon the institutions within U.S. society.
Let’s talk about White Privilege. This phrase can be controversial. It can also be a conversation stopper – but don’t let it be one here – keep reading!
The phrase “White Privilege” has been loaded with societal meaning, and a quick Google search will pull up endless articles, Facebook posts, and websites with passionate responses (in defense or refutation) to the phrase.
So what does it mean? Let’s start by breaking down the two words that make up the phrase.
What does it mean to be “White”? This definition has changed over time and continues to change. If you’re White, it might just be a box checked on a census form or job application to you. Let’s look at how it came to be a box to be checked in the first place.
When most European immigrants (the ancestors of many people who are “White” today) came to the United States, they did not identify as being White. Instead, they identified much more strongly with their ethnicity (i.e. Swedish, German, etc.) and/or religion. Before coming to the United States, the most prominent distinction would have been between Catholics and Protestants. As these groups of newcomers formed a society, they began to create groups – for both legal and social purposes.
At a time where there was extreme oppression being exerted over Native/ Indigenous people and African Slaves, there was also a need to classify who could own land, exist in public spaces, vote, and yes – whether you could own people or be owned. And so, Whiteness was born. That can be a hard truth to swallow for many White people, but in reality, Whiteness was created as a way to grant individuals power, access to legal participation, and freedom – and to exclude other people from these options. That history is not the fault of anyone who is alive today (more on this later), but it is a truth.
“But wait!” you say, “What about the Irish?” It’s true, the Irish were originally included in the non-White category due to strongly held biases about the Irish people. The idea was that “those people” were not enough like “us” to possibly be the same race. This is additional proof that this whole Whiteness concept is completely made up and not based on legitimate physical attributes. However, please note that just because it’s not “real,” it doesn’t mean race doesn’t have significant implications!
Eventually, people of Irish descent were accepted into the White category. Mostly though, the definition of Whiteness has continued to be narrowed over time. For example, Supreme Court Cases defined immigrants from India as non-White in 1918 and added all Asian immigrants to that classification in 1927 – revoking the citizenship of those who already held it, as only Whites could hold citizenship at that time. Today, our census forms even state “White, non-Hispanic,” further defining who is counted as “truly White.”
Given this history, it’s no wonder that some White people have a hard time identifying the implications of this past – and sometimes struggle to even identify themselves as White. This brings us to the second part of the phrase: privilege.
There are many kinds of privilege. Economic privilege may be the type that is most universally recognized, but there are many other forms of privilege including gender, ability, sexual orientation, country, language, and racial.
A privilege is an advantage. Most of us can acknowledge that some people and groups lack privilege or are “underprivileged,” but the other, more difficult, side of that coin is that other people and groups are “overprivileged.” Almost everyone has privilege in one way or another.
What do we mean when we say “White Privilege?”
White Privilege is the societal privilege granted to those whom society identifies as White.
White Privilege today might look like:
Being taken more seriously in a job than a coworker of color
Having access to education, books, music, and art that reflect and include your lived experience
Not having to think about how you are going to wear your hair to work so that you seem “professional"
Not having to be concerned about how race may impact interactions with law enforcement
Not being asked to speak on behalf of your entire race
There are many other examples, including those listed in Peggy McIntosh’s essay White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack
Individually, these things might seem like small annoyances or minor roadblocks, but when they happen repeatedly and systematically to a group of people, they have a very real impact on things like income, healthcare, education, housing, and overall opportunities for entire groups of people. And when these roadblocks are not present to other groups, it creates an advantage, further escalating power and influence disparities.
White Privilege does not mean:
White Privilege does not mean that White people do not work hard for what they accomplish
White Privilege does not mean that all White people are bad
White Privilege does not mean that White people today chose to create societal advantages for themselves
However, none of those things mean that White people aren’t responsible for helping to change and dismantle the systems that exist.
To truly understand White Privilege, we must think beyond the individual level. Every individual will have challenges and opportunities in their lives based on a variety of factors. However, when you take a step back and acknowledge both the historic actions (for instance, the racial discrimination in the distribution of housing and the G.I. Bill) and those still taking place today against people of color, one can see, as a whole, White people have certain advantages and privileges solely as a result of being White.
McIntosh describes privilege as invisible, because it is often very hard to see for those who have it. Put another way, if you don’t have to think about an aspect of your identity, you probably have privilege in that area.
A few points to remember as you go forward:
It’s generally unhelpful to simply tell someone to “check their privilege” and leave it there. If you think someone is unaware of a privilege they hold, try asking more questions and/or sharing other perspectives. Perhaps share this concept of the month post.
Remember that racial privilege is NOT the same thing as economic privilege. There are correlations and relationships between economic privilege and racial privilege, but the experience of a poor White person may be different in some important ways from that of a poor Person of Color. Additionally, be careful not to take correlations and turn them into assumptions or expectations. Not every Person of Color grew up poor or lacks economic privilege.
White Privilege can be a difficult subject – but it’s a very important one for White folks to continue to acknowledge and unpack. The goal of discussing White Privilege is not make White people feel guilty or helpless – instead, we hope that this knowledge empowers individuals to keep learning and leverage privilege, in whatever forms, to eliminate systems of oppression.
Cultural Appropriation and Cultural Assimilation
What does it mean to appropriate culture? What does it mean to assimilate into a culture? These actions may appear to be similar on a surface level – but upon deeper investigation, we can begin to see how they differ.
Cultural Appropriation is when one culture takes on elements from another culture without proper context, credit, or compensation. Culture appropriation often happens when there is a presence of power in a dominant group and the dominant group exploits the minority groups' traditions. Sometimes, the dominant group may seek to make money off an aspect of the minority culture. One example of this can be seen in jewelry. In Indian culture it is common to wear a jewel or dot in between the eyebrows, called a “bindi,” to signify marriage, as well as carrying religious meaning for some. The dominant culture in the United States has in many ways taken this symbol and made it as simple as a decorative head piece to wear to festivals or concerts. The commercialization of the bindi has resulted in it becoming far separated from its meaning.
Cultural appropriation is problematic because of the significance of what is being taken – and how. When one culture takes something from another, the meaning can be diluted and changed. Examples of cultural appropriation are widespread during Halloween, when many people dress up in costumes depicting a culture. Most of the time, these costumes do not come with any context or reasoning, and the wearer of the costume is unaware of their significance. A key aspect of cultural appropriation is how the culture, dress, traditions the exoticized and trivialized by the dominant culture. This is especially problematic because many minority groups have historically been denied the right to practice cultural traditions and are still discouraged from doing so today.
Cultural assimilation is when a minority group or individual changes and conforms by adopting the traditions of the dominant group to become more like the dominant culture. This can be problematic because it can contribute to minority groups losing important cultural traditions and meaning. It is common for people to assimilate with the dominant group when trying not to draw attention to oneself. Often, assimilation is less of a choice than it is a survival strategy in the workplace, school environment, and public places.
For example, from an outsider’s perspective, if a black person attends a predominately white college, it may seem as if they may not have to assimilate, but the black individual may find themselves going to events that are more representative of the dominant (white) culture, as well as doing things such as changing their hairstyle to straight to look more like the dominant culture. This draws less attention to them and gives the dominant group a better ability to accept the minority. Unfortunately, these actions of conformity can and do actually result in increased acceptance by members of the dominant culture and improved opportunities for members of the minority culture. This experience could negatively impact a person’s sense of self and identity, however, it may also prove to be positive as that individual gains an understanding of the dominant culture -. We can ultimately learn and share with one another without the exploitation of one another’s culture or the erasure of the identity of others.
FAQs about Cultural Appropriation
Does this mean I can’t enjoy cultures other than my own?
No - it’s important and valuable to experience and learn about cultures other than your own. However, it’s important to participate in a respectful way and to do your own background research when necessary. If you’re not sure what is respectful – ask someone or do some more research!
Can I dress up as _______ for Halloween?
If you’re asking this question – the answer is probably not. If you are dressing up as a real group of people who exist today, you should reconsider. Would you dress up as a Christian or a White person? Likely not because you recognize that these identities are complex and not easily represented by just one outfit or caricature – the same reasons not to dress up as an “Indian Princess” or an “Afro Disco Diva.”
Also remember, you might have the privilege to wear these items safely or “as a joke” while others were or are persecuted for wearing the real deal. Not to mention, you’ll likely be surrounded by ghosts and storm troopers and a variety of other fictional/ extinct/ mythical creatures and inanimate objects. Clothing that might be acceptable while attending a cultural celebration hosted by a group of its origin might not be acceptable for a Halloween party.
Click here to view My Culture is Not a Costume
As individuals who want to relate to one another, we often believe that people experience life the same way that we do, especially when they share the same gender, nationality, race, or other identity as us. We might express this by saying, “I know how she feels, because I am a woman and so is she!” or “We’re all Americans and we’re all treated the same.”
However, because identities have many parts; it can sometimes be difficult to imagine how different other people’s lives really are compared to ours. For example, women may share some similar experiences, but there are also many components of their lives that will be different from each other. A Black woman will experience life as a woman differently than a White or Asian woman. All of these cross-sections of identities have unique experiences of their own, some of which can get lost when we focus too much on single population groups. This is when intersectionality comes into play. Intersectionality acknowledges the intersecting experiences that come with these identities, and recognizes that these identity markers do not exist independently of each other, but often create a unique combination of experiences that are interrelated.
Intersectionality and Oppression
One place where these intersections are relevant is when talking about systems of oppression. There are different types of oppression that an individual may encounter when their identities overlap with a variety of minority statuses such as: gender, class, ethnicity, ability, and other characteristics. For example, a woman of color may face sexism in the workplace, but she can also experience racism - and the sexism she does experience will likely be different than the sexism a white woman colleague may experience and vice versa. Similarly, a man of color who identifies as gay may face racism and homophobic discrimination together. It is also important to note that a person of color who is a woman, or gay, or physically disabled, or from outside of the United States face additional oppressions than those who belong to those groups and are White. A person belonging to those groups are already experiencing a form of oppression. When race is factored in along with these multiple minority statuses, this person will be further marginalized within an already marginalized group.
So why is intersectionality important?
Let’s take a look at history and examine why we need to incorporate an intersectional approach to our systems, policies, as well as our personal and professional lives.
Two decades ago, many Black feminists began to speak out about the mainstream feminist movement, voicing that they found it difficult to identify with the issues suggested by the mainstream (White) feminist movement. For example, many Black women did not encounter the pressure of being a homemaker because they had no choice but to work in order to support their families. Further, Black women were denied leadership positions during the Civil Rights movement, and experienced sexism while participating in this movement. As a result, Black women advocated (and are still advocating) for a feminist practice that would allow their experiences to be addressed, and would enable individuals of various overlapping identities to speak on issues that matter to them as well. This long-felt experience was given a name when the term intersectionality was coined by Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989.
It is important to utilize an intersectional lens when working for change, as movements without an intersectional lens may aim to address inequities within a certain group, but could potentially perpetuate systems of injustice towards other groups. Engaging in conversations centered around the different experiences among people with different overlapping identities will allow communities to better understand how systems of oppression affect the people around them. Focusing only on one oppressive system leaves out the other systems that harm the rest of our community. In order to achieve true racial and social equity, we must continue using an intersectional approach when seeking to make changes to our systems. We must include the voices and experiences of all individuals and deconstruct our own biases by actively engaging with our diverse communities. When intersectionality becomes a commitment, we will begin to create spaces, movements, and communities where all people can thrive and succeed.
To learn more, check out this TED Talk: The Urgency of Intersectionality by Legal Scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw
“I don’t see color!” “I’m colorblind.” “I don’t see you as Black/Asian/Latinx!” “The world would be better if we just didn’t see race!"
Have you heard one or more of these sentiments? Have you said them yourself? Often the person saying these things is seeking to communicate that they are accepting, non-discriminating, open-minded and most definitely not a racist. While intentions behind these statements are often good, the impact can be harmful.
Here are four reasons why saying that you are “colorblind” or “don’t see color” can be problematic:
1. It’s probably not true
With the exception of being medically colorblind or blind, most people can and do see skin color, eye shape, and other phenotypical characteristics that have been classified into races. Most people (including non-white people) carry biases related to those races – even if they aren’t actively discriminating against a group. For example, most of us can easily list racial stereotypes ranging from driving ability and intelligence to athletic ability, motivation, economic status and many more. We may not necessarily believe that these stereotypes are true, but it’s important to acknowledge that we truly do see race and that cultural assumptions based on racial identity exist.
2. It erases the experiences and identities of People of Color
Imagine if you were telling a friend about something that has shaped your life in a major way – such as growing up in a different state, being raised by a single parent, or serving in the military and they responded with “Well, I don’t really see you as a veteran/ Minnesotan/ child of a single parent.” To respond that way to someone’s lived experience is to erase something that may be important to them – something that they might be very proud of or might have caused them a lot of pain (sometimes both).
Additionally, telling a person of color that you “don’t see their color” can imply that seeing and acknowledging their color (or race) would be a negative thing in general. Do we feel the need to tell White people that we don’t see their color? Not usually, because there isn’t already an assumption that their race would be a negative quality or a hinderance if it were to be “seen.”
3. It disregards systemic racism
Those well-intentioned folks who are hoping to communicate that they are not racist by claiming colorblindness are leaving out a very big piece of the puzzle. Unfortunately, the racism of United States’ history includes far more than individual “bad apples” yelling racial slurs or choosing not to hire one job candidate one time. This means that individuals can’t undo racism by just “not seeing race” – even if that were actually possible. In fact, if we want to undo systems of oppression, we need to do the opposite by acknowledging the problems that exist, who they affect and how, and developing solutions that address inequitable policies and practices. In fact, these inequitable policies and practices can persist unintentionally when people are trying so hard to be “colorblind” that they miss meaningful patterns and instances that could signal discriminatory policies, practices, and attitudes around them.
4. It contributes to white being viewed as “normal”
Many White people do not think about their race often – some White people may not even think of themselves as having a race at all. In contrast, many People of Color must think about their race on a daily or hourly basis. If we don’t feel the same need to tell White people that we don’t “see their color,” it’s because we see whiteness as “normal” or the default race and therefore there is no reason to comment – as it is the expectation. Our definition of normalcy is important because it shapes who is envisioned for certain roles (CEO, Professor, Employee, etc.), who feels like “a good fit” in a hiring process, who is welcomed in a community, and who is seen as a potential friend vs. a potential threat.
What if we told you the real way to be anti-racist is to actually SEE color – as coined by Melody Hobson in her TED Talk, let’s strive to be Color Brave!
Equity and Equality
A common sentiment when discussing racial equity is, “I treat everyone the same.” While well-intentioned, this mindset ignores each individual’s starting point (as shown by the hill in the illustration below). Starting points can be influenced by many factors, such as historic oppression, inequitable policies, and small acts of daily discrimination that add up over time.
In the United States, our history includes 250 years of slavery of African Americans (1619 – 1865), followed by 100 years of legalized segregation, discrimination, and violence, leading to discriminatory practices, policies, and attitudes that persist today; a long legacy of extermination and forced relocation of Native people and involuntary separation of Native children from families in boarding schools that remained fully legal until 1978; the internment of Japanese Americans; and many other examples that have led us to a very steep hill of injustice.
It is important to note that while people of all races can and do experience a variety of challenges related to socio-economic status, ability/ disability, gender identity, sexual orientation, and many other aspects of identity, people of color and indigenous people experience those challenges differently, and at disproportionate rates as well as experiencing a set of unique challenges related to race. Because we know that these unique challenges impact whole groups of people disproportionately, we also know that it will not be sufficient to just “treat everyone the same.” Imagine, if all you needed to complete your new bookshelf was a hammer, while your friend, who already owns a hammer, just needed one more nail. If both of you received one nail - equal treatment - only one of you would be able to complete your bookshelf!
In the first photo, we see that providing each person one box to stand on seems to be fair (equal) treatment, but in reality, this setup only allows one person to see over the fence to enjoy the view of the mountains. In the second picture, each individual receives the appropriate number of boxes to allow them to see over the fence – this is what equity looks like. To truly pursue justice, however, would be to eliminate the inequity-causing environment (the hill) altogether. However, while the hill (inequitable policies, practices, and attitudes) is painstakingly and slowly leveled, “boxes” are required.
YWCA Mankato defines racism as the combination of prejudice and power to exert an outcome upon another based on that person’s racial identity. Currently, in the United States, power rests within the white community.
How does the YWCA define “power”?
In defining racism, power refers to an encompassing societal understanding of power. The financial and corporate industries are run by a white majority. The major media outlets in the country are led by a white majority. This is societal power and why only the white community can be racist. Certainly, there are specific instances in which people of color have “power” but these situations are temporal, situational, and not overarching.
Can a person of color be racist?
No. This is not to say that bias, stereotypes, and prejudices do not exist within communities of color.
Certainly, they do; both internally and externally. Communities of color rely on bias, stereotypes, and prejudices both amongst their own members and between their own community and other communities of color or the white community. They can be discriminatory in nature and even exhibit bigotry (hatred of another group because of racial differences). However, it is not racism because there is a lack of widely recognized power.
Forms of Racism
Racism can exhibit itself in many forms including: individual, institutional, structural, and systemic racism.
The beliefs, attitudes, and actions of individuals that support or perpetuate racism. Individual racism can occur at both an unconscious and conscious level.
Individual Racism at the subconscious level. A non-Black person who locks the car doors when a Black man walks by. Seeking out an Asian colleague to assist you with a work challenge involving mathematics. (these are all stereotypes that he/she may believe)
Individual Racism at the conscious level is refusing to date Asian men because of their perceived emasculation. Refusing to date a Black woman because of an anticipated bad attitude. Not hiring a Latinx individual because of the perceived expectation that the person is lazy.
Institutional racism is done by individuals or informal social groups, governed by behavioral norms that support racist thinking within social and political institutions such as school districts, the criminal justice system, or housing.
Whether implicitly or explicitly expressed, institutional racism occurs when a certain group is targeted and discriminated against based upon race inside institutions. Institutional racism is mostly implicit in our ideas and attitudes, so it is often unnoticed by the individual expressing it.
Structural Racism in the U.S. is the normalization and legitimization of an array of dynamics – historical, cultural, institutional and interpersonal – that routinely advantage whites while producing cumulative and chronic adverse outcomes for people of color. It is a system of hierarchy and inequity, primarily characterized by white supremacy – the preferential treatment, privilege and power for white people at the expense of Black, Latinx, Asian, Pacific Islander, Indigenous/Native, Arab and other racially/ethnically oppressed people.
Systemic racism is composed of intersecting, overlapping, and codependent racist institutions, policies, practices, ideas, and behaviors that give an unjust amount of resources, rights, and power to white people while denying them to people of color. These systems of oppression are everywhere and impact every portion of American society.