Mirror Mirror - 2019


Racism and Discrimination: Understanding the Why behind the What

By Jennifer Allen

“Like a nontechnical user trying to understand a technical problem, our racial illiteracy limits our ability to have meaningful conversations about race." ~ Robin DiAngelo

It seems like you cannot go five feet within this world without experiencing some type of predetermined racial profiling. Another person sees your skin, your hair, your face, or whichever body part places you in a particular racial group. That same physical trait or traits will also determine for this other person within three seconds which racial stereotype you are a part of before he or she even interacts with you. This is especially true if you are of mixed race, and often you can almost see the gears turning as the other person tries to figure out whether you're more inclined toward one particular race or another.

Racism is a double-edged sword. Many young people today are told “Racism is bad" but then are not fully taught as to why it's bad. By the same token, your race and your biological background is a hot topic these days with all the DNA testing kits out there. Spit into a tube and learn about your genealogical past, but then you may have to deal with that past being something you were told is bad. It's a lot to take in, to be honest.

Despite the moniker of how racism is so repugnant, it still exists. It's still the main cause of most of the violent altercations that have been talked about since humanity has been around. Our brains are wired to not only label things a certain way, but also to instinctively be aware when something or someone is “different'" than we are. Humanity has always been objectively divided into timeless, genetic races, yet at the same time we have had to be taught that thinking about people in those terms is self-evidently evil.

The truth is that as much as we want to fight the concept of racial supremacy, teaching racial tolerance and multiculturalism in History class isn't going to cut it. Instead, America's classrooms should instead use all that aforementioned DNA data that we're so eager to collect with all those kits and instead use that knowledge to abolish the country's biggest conceptual flaw. To combat racism, we must work harder to destroy the concept of what we as human beings inherently learn “race" is.

Not too long ago, we were taught in school about race as a conceptualization of genetics. We learned about dominant and recessive genes which could determine if you had blue eyes instead of brown, or if you got freckles while your parents did not. Because of your ancestors, you had a certain percentile chance of being taller or having lighter skin. I personally found those tables to be more like a DNA lottery with certain traits popping up more like a surprise rather than being part of some “dominant" or “recessive" scientific explanation.

Science has also proven that certain “racial traits" are simply due to human evolution adapting to their environment. Skin color in particular is a major factor in how we as people are able to protect ourselves from the elements.

Because of these realizations, our “race" is not as clean cut as some would think. People who identify as White are not that different from those identify as Asian, African-Americans, Latina or whichever. These categories have become more diluted over time due to interracial pairings and therefore racial theorists can no longer attribute certain traits, such as how fast you can run or if you'll be better at math, to your DNA alone.

When Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Marvel Comics gave us the concept of “Mutants" back in the 60's, they were offering a metaphor for civil rights and the fact that we're all human beings who simply have tiny differences depending on our genetic makeup. The only thing that separates us is how our mind perceives these differences. The X-men wanted to prove that humans and mutants could co-exist. The Brotherhood of Mutants instead believed that mutants were superior to everyone else and would rather have the rest of humanity see them as such. The irony of these two groups was that the leader of the X-men (Charles Xavier, aka Professor X) came from a privileged British family and had everything he ever wanted, while the leader of the Brotherhood (Erik Lehnsherr, aka Magneto) was a Jewish prisoner at Auschwitz during the Third Reich. One learned to see past what he had experienced as a child, while the other in turn became the thing he hated most.

Today we seem to have personifications of both Xavier and Lehnsherr coming up in the news. A story about a child who wears an orange “I Will be Your Friend" T-shirt on his first day of school is placed alongside a story of a twenty-something who decided to grab guns and shoot random patrons at a Wal-Mart. Again, one has realized that he can see past race and accept any and all classmates as friends, and the other has become the monster he probably had already seen in the news before.

While we are on the right track to eliminate race as a concept, there will always be a history deep-seated in past societal customs and circumstances concerning the topic. India, Brazil, and many East Asian countries, for example, still have systems in place to label their own inhabitants. Race and other forms of identity continue to be deeply “biologized;" spoken of as if they were rooted deep inside an individual's being. Whenever we fill out an important document with personal information, there is still that section with pre-set boxes for racial category, though some now at least have either an “other" answer or “prefer not to say" - the latter being my usual answer as of late.

Honestly, today's schools should instead discuss the topic of race openly in science class as well as history. There is no more powerful tool against prejudice than the skepticism that comes with the scientific research. By the same token, be willing to accept that your own observations may be flawed, and criticism from others could further expand your education. Everyone has a biological background, whether your skin is light, dark or in-between. We also have a history of social discrimination, such as the Caste system in India or gender identity and sexuality in contemporary America. Then, compare them to what people typically think about either the rigidity or fluidity of race.

In a world where we learn about people like Mahatma Gandhi, Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela, Harvey Milk, or Susan B Anthony, we also should have the chance to learn why our world's history of racism is a scientific caricature as much as it is a moral one. Only then can we see more Professor X and less Magneto who will make their mark within our children's history.

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Jennifer Allen works at Saathee and is also a Podcaster, Blogger, Photographer & Graphic Artist.