Recently I was involved in a discussion about experiences of racism among some friends on campus. A white girl interrupted the minorities who were speaking and said, “I’m so sick of you guys complaining. Racism would probably go away if you just didn’t talk about it so much.” Without any hesitation, my group of friends responded simultaneously, “No, it won’t.”
Racism will not go away if minorities stop talking about it. Moreover, non-minorities speak of racism so selectively, that minorities feel a sense of urgency to participate in the discourse that affects our lives daily whenever possible.
I have been told by a lot of white people that maybe there’s a bias or a negligence or an ignorance towards black people in Utah, but it is not near as bad as the racism that one would encounter on the east coast or the south. I’ve had Caucasians relate to me their experience being the only person of their race at a job or at school. They tell me, “I know what discrimination is like.” They also tell me that it’s not as bad as I think.
Having lived as a black woman in Utah, on the east coast and in the south, I’d like to explain what I feel is the difference.
Much of the racism I encountered on the east coast and in the south was so blatant that you could not dismiss it as anything else. When I experienced dismissal or disrespect as a result of my ethnicity, I was also in a diverse community where others like me could empathize. They were able to encourage me and reassure me that the instances of injustice were, in fact, unjust. When something happens that is obviously discriminatory, there’s almost a comfort in the ability to know that it has nothing to do with you, but with someone else’s myopic worldview.
I use the word “comfort” quite literally because being the “only one” is lived with a certain amount of discomfort. On the east coast, for example, Martin Luther King Day is a big deal. People aren’t just talking about it on panels in college but on the front porch, around the dinner tables and at the parade. While people here in Utah take the day to say, “Look how far we’ve come,” the southern response would probably be, “Yeah, we ain’t far enough!” The east coast might take a look around the valley and say, “Yeah, define ‘we’?”
In this age of political correctness, most people know better than to say and do what will get them sued. Much of the racism that I have confronted here in Utah has been so subtle it’s easy to internalize and justify. I will think things like, “I know they judged my work unfairly but perhaps they don’t like me as a person and it has nothing to do with being black.” When I talked with a white psychologist about my experiences with a lot of people here, she told me, “You seem to have a problem of very black and white thinking.” In response, I told her that I literally have some very black and white experiences.
I started at this university when I was fifteen. I’m the first black woman to graduate with a philosophy degree in the entire history of the school, which is strange to think about. My very first semester I got called into professor’s offices on a weekly basis with concerns that I had plagiarized. Never once was I found guilty of it, because I never submitted any work which was not my own. However, I concluded from these experiences that I was not supposed to write as well, or in some cases better than, the white males who were in most of my classes. From that semester to this day I am more paranoid and thorough about citations and bibliographies than anyone I know. I had never heard of the phrase, “token black person,” until college and found myself disoriented by my constant labeling as such. I was alienated and excluded from study groups and review sessions even though my excellent grades were well known. I learned quickly that if I were to attain a degree, it was going to be quite a lonesome undertaking.
I’m older now. Looking back, there were things I accomplished wwagainst odds that now seem pretty enormous. I’ve adjusted to the kinds of quirks you find in a lot of mostly white places. I’ve gotten used to racial jokes, listening to justifications for slavery or being told that I look like every famous black female on television. I know how to answer questions like, “What’s the black perspective on the death of Michael Jackson?” I have learned how to constructively confront other students who have justified my success in my program with the excuse that affirmative action put me here. There’s been a curious rise in the usage of the “N word” this semester and I rarely hesitate to tell the person who used it that if they continue to be so lacking in self-awareness, one day, someone somewhere, will probably beat them within an inch of their life. I figure it’s nice to warn people.
There are maybe some folks who after reading this article will think, “Yeah, but I’m not racist.” Maybe this thought will be followed by, “I have a ton of black friends, or black family members.” This reply always startles me in two ways. First, the underlying tone is, “I’m not racist, because I happen to know and enjoy other people who are not of my race.” This is a sentiment that can usually be expressed by the privileged alone and it just sounds silly. Secondly, the black friends being referenced might say, “There’s a difference between friends and friendliness.” Unfortunately, a lot of white people think they are on better terms with the black people they know than they actually are.
There’s this funny phrase recently developed in academia called, “post civil rights.” It’s funny cause it feels like the leftovers in the fridge that look fine on the outside but you don’t trust it enough to nuke it or ingest it because of what’s lurking in its depths. To me the phrase smacks of careful avoidance, because I feel like we aren’t “post” anything. There are more black men ages 18-25 in prison than in college. Segregation, environmental exploitation, latent white supremacist thinking and discrimination in almost all social systems flourish in ways that aren’t civil or right or, least of all things, in the past.
Acquiring my degree in a white, male dominated program has been difficult. My survival kit for hard days consist of Tupac albums, calling my friends from out of state and developing a healthy balance of anger and patience for the meanness that targets me so often. There’s a palpable tension resulting from my presence in classrooms the first few weeks of class. There’s a lot of staring and, on my end, there’s a lot of smiling. Overall, though, there is hope inside me – not that racial problems will be over, but that people around here will more readily accept the fact that they aren’t.
By FELICIA JOY