Michigan in Color: The danger in denying racism

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By Margaret Decker, Michigan in Color Contributor
Published January 25, 2015

I have been taught that racism is over. It’s no longer a problem, so it’s time to stop whining about it. “We have a Black president!” “I don’t see color!” “Everyone faces challenges in life, not just minorities!”

In light of the lack of indictment in the Michael Brown case this past November, and in light of the many other black victims of police violence, I would like to disagree. Racism is real and present, and it is dangerous.

It seems that most people in the United States agree that racism is bad. People were outraged when racial slurs were hurled at current Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner, the n-word is pretty much off limits for non-Blacks, and the general consensus is that the KKK has no place in our society. No one wants to be labeled a racist.

I am a biracial Black woman, and I have hidden behind the privilege of being light-skinned. I have distanced myself from what it means to be Black in America. But when cashiers at the grocery store always ask my Black mother for her ID but never my white father, I can’t remain separate. When Black friends speak of being followed in department stores, I can’t distance myself. When I see peers post on Facebook that “it’s not about race” and remember specific times that I’ve heard each of them make derogatory racial comments, I can’t ignore it.

It seems like we are not all on the same page in terms of what racism really means. By definition, racism is the belief that certain racial groups are inferior to others, accompanied and legitimized by historical inequity and unequal power dynamics. Racism is not only racial slurs, or housing discrimination or not hiring someone for a job because of their race. It’s the perceptions held by the group in power and the actions that result from those perceptions.

Racism is very hard to recognize and very easy to internalize. Biases are stronger than we give them credit for. They linger in the background of our lives, quietly whispering messages that cause us to lean certain ways.

I’ll give the example of Black representation in the media. When Black people are mentioned in news stories, the story often contains the words “thug,” “animal” or other dehumanizing terms. Hearing these representations over and over creates the racist idea that Black people are dangerous. But those exact words will never be uttered aloud, so the racism behind those thoughts will never be acknowledged.

And then you watch movies or flip on the TV, and Black characters, or any characters of color, are rare. If they are present, they are often supporting someone white, or play an insignificant role. My roommate last year prefaced a question with, “I’m not trying to be racist…” and then asked why there were “Black” movies, and why Black Entertainment Television got its own channel. I explained to her that the rest of popular culture could accurately be called “White Entertainment Television.” One study showed that out of all movies produced in 2012, the proportion of black characters featured was 70 percent less than that of the Black population in the United States. Black people are unimportant and unappealing.

These notions are subtly spread from person to person. After a basketball game where my primarily white high school faced a primarily Black high school, my high school friends ogled at how “Maddie’s talking to those Black guys!” Black men are scary. Over the summer, another student in my internship talked about how a bar “had great reviews on Yelp, but when I went in there were all these homeless Black guys!” Black people are poor and do not belong in the same circles as me. When a group of Black U of M students arrived at a house party I was attending, the host suddenly decided there were too many people and it was time for the party to end. I do not want dangerous Black people in my house. I don’t know how many of my friends have joked about getting shot in “ghetto Detroit.” Black cities are violent.

Every Black person I know has been followed by employees while shopping in a store. Black people are criminals. I, and other Black friends, have been told by white peers that it was “easier” for us to get into that school, or to get that job offer, as if we are unqualified but were given a boost by our skin color. Black people are unintelligent.

So many Black people have had negative experiences with the police. In the first half of 2014, out of all those stopped because of New York City’s “Stop and Frisk” practice, 53 percent were black, whereas Blacks represent only 25 percent of the New York City population. Black people are suspicious. Black people are up to no good.

But no one said the n-word, no one said a slur, so these many instances were not recognized as racism. And this is a huge problem. When a problematic behavior is being exhibited, yet people are constantly affirming themselves that it is not problematic, the behavior is encouraged and continues. Denying the existence of racism is actually promoting and perpetuating it.

It’s hard to admit it, for fear of being labeled racist, but everyone has biases. And when you acknowledge this fact, you can actively work against it. However, ignoring biases causes action that is much more serious than crossing the street when a Black person approaches at night.

All of these biases compound and lead to violence. I do not believe that when an unarmed Black man or woman, or in the case of Tamir Rice — an unarmed Black boy — is killed by the police, that the police officer simply shoots them “because they are Black.” And I do not deny that there is also police brutality against whites, and every other race.

But I do believe that years of internalized racism have caused distrust and fear toward the Black community. And these subconscious, but still racist, biases cause the officer to be more suspicious, more on edge, more afraid, if a person were Black than if they were white. They are more likely to expect violence and to assume criminal activity, they are more likely to respond with excessive force. They are quicker to draw their weapon. They are quicker to shoot.

It is unproductive to pretend that racism is not a problem. It is unproductive to continually treat each time the police murder a Black person as an isolated incident. It is unproductive to think that just because racism doesn’t happen to you, it doesn’t happen.

Until we change our culture, until we stop perpetuating stereotypes through the media, until we reject internalized racism, nothing will change. Until we can label our biases as what they really are, until we can name racism, there will be another Aura Rosser, another Tamir Rice, another Michael Brown.