Teaching Racism as an Idea

If we teach students to see racism as an idea that's expressed through behaviors, institutions and cultures rather than an immutable character trait, we free them to see things more accurately and with more openness to change, argues Cyndi Kernahan.

October 31, 2019
 
 
Istockphoto.com/piccerella

This past summer, President Trump tweeted that four elected representatives, all women of color, should “go back” to where they came from. Despite their American citizenship, the President stated that they should “go back and help fix” the “places from which they came,” even as they came from the United States.

And while some news outlets called out the president as a racist, most chose not to explicitly label the comments as such, instead saying that the tweet was “widely denounced as racist.”

Once again, we were asked to consider, in hundreds of headlines and essays, “Is the president being a racist?” It’s the same debate we often have whenever anyone of note does something or says something that demonstrates a racist idea. In this case, the president was using a well-worn and long-standing American racist idea: that people of color are not or cannot be American in the same way as white people and so should return to their “own country.”

Despite this, however, the president and his supporters have been quick to claim that he does not “have a racist bone in his body” -- another long-standing American idea: that to be racist is to have some unseen and essential character defect.

If you teach about race in the United States, you have likely encountered the “bone” theory of racism. Your students, if they are mostly white like mine, probably do not use that old phrase about “racist bones” in one’s body, but they still seem to believe that racism is like an on or off switch -- something that a person either has or doesn’t have. An essential essence that can come popping out to reveal a person’s true character, a previously well-hidden flaw.

For white students and most white people generally, that is something to fear: being revealed as a racist. As a result, many of us are reluctant to label a person “racist,” preferring instead to say that we cannot truly know what is in a person’s heart or mind and moving along. But if we teach white students to see racism for what it is -- an idea that can be expressed through behaviors, institutions and cultures -- we free them and ourselves to see things more accurately and with more openness to change.

Ibram X. Kendi, in his award-winning book Stamped From the Beginning, defines a racist idea as “any concept that regards one racial group as inferior or superior to another racial group in any way.” Racism, then, is easily defined as supporting or upholding racist ideas. This simple definition belies a powerful way of thinking about a complex problem, allowing us to fold multiple types of racism into a single understanding.

For example, if a search committee member argues that an Asian applicant might not be right for a faculty position because that applicant “might not be comfortable on our (mostly white) campus,” this is a racist idea expressing itself through a (discriminatory) behavior. It might be a racist idea that the speaker implicitly holds, but it is still an idea that is being expressed and one that will have consequences. Scaling up and out, we can see how racist ideas are built into the rules and policies and culture we create, ensuring that white people are elevated and that other racial groups are deemed inferior or even un-American.

To expand this notion to our larger culture, consider how we think about attractiveness and beauty. Research on dating and marriage has consistently shown that black women and Asian men are less likely to get callbacks or to marry “out,” compared to other racial groups, and particularly compared to black men and Asian women. Why? Because our ideas about what good masculinity and femininity entail match up better with racist ideas and stereotypes about black men (strong, virile) and Asian women (submissive, passive) than with black women (strong, angry) and Asian men (submissive, quiet). Here, racist ideas are being expressed through the choices of millions of people to create the disparities we see.

Rethinking How We Teach

Teaching racism as an idea -- rather than as something essential about a person or even as a set of attitudes that a person carries -- has a number of advantages. First, it is more accurate. For a number of years, I have taught about racism as both individual (how we individually treat other people) and institutional (how our policies differentially advantage white people over other races). This is not wrong, but the notion of racism as an idea is more elegant and allows for a tighter fit to the kinds of racism students are likely to see and learn about. It provides a simple, understandable principle that can then be applied to the different levels of racism: individual, institutional and cultural.

For example, why do some banks have policies that prescribe subprime loans for mostly black and brown neighborhoods while saving the good loans for white ones, often regardless of income? Redlining, of course. Redlining is the marking of some neighborhoods as “risky” for loans based on the race of the people who live there, with black neighborhoods viewed as hazardous while white neighborhoods received investment. This well-documented policy initiated in the 1930s by the Federal Housing Administration was based on the racist idea that black people are more dangerous and less creditworthy. Some local and state governments, along with private banks, followed the federal government’s lead and have continued to follow it to this day, with banks still determining what loans to give and even where to place banks based on race. Just as with the individual (casually racist remark) and cultural (racist ideas about what is attractive) examples I gave earlier, that is how a racist idea is expressed through a set of policies. That is how we get institutional racism.

The other major advantage of teaching racism as an idea is that it allows students to learn, grow and change. As Kendi has noted, people can hold a variety of ideas about race all at the same time. We may sometimes express both racist and antiracist sentiments in the same conversation or even the same sentence. I have heard such contradictory statements from students many times.

Once a student from rural Wisconsin explained to the class that she did not believe people of various races were really that different (“everyone is the same”), but that black people were not into the “country lifestyle” that she had grown up with. She had never seen any black people who wanted to live in her town, so she assumed that black folks did not like that way of life and were more suited to the city. Obviously, a lot was missing from her analysis, namely the racist ideas that have informed housing and land ownership policies and practices. But labeling her as a racist would not necessarily be helpful or fully accurate. At the moment she made those comments, she was expressing both an antiracist ideal and a racist assumption.

Viewing racism as an idea that informed her socialization and her thinking is easier to talk about and unpack in a classroom than is labeling her or even her attitudes as racist. The former is something that has influenced her, something that is malleable based on learning, whereas the latter is more fixed and unchanging.

In any class on any topic, it is useful for students to have a growth mind-set. It’s no different and may be even more important when students, especially white ones, are learning about race. If these students see themselves, and if we view them, as fixed in their attitudes -- as inherently racist -- they will not learn how to see racism for what it is: a noxious idea that diminishes us all. Instead, those students will focus intently on not being seen as racist. They will be quiet and disengaged for fear of learning that they may indeed harbor racist ideas or, worse yet, that they will be revealed as racist to us and to their classmates.

Thus, to help our students gain a more accurate understanding of racism, we would do well to focus on racism as an idea rather than as a trait or personality characteristic.

Bio

Cyndi Kernahan is a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin River Falls and author of the forthcoming book Teaching About Race and Racism in the College Classroom: Notes From a White Professor (West Virginia University Press Series on Teaching and Learning in Higher Education).

Read more by

Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.

 

Back to Top