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Talking About Race -- Memo

Talking About Race -- Memo

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Published by Terrance Heath
Resetting a vision of race for the 21st century.
Resetting a vision of race for the 21st century.

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Published by: Terrance Heath on Aug 27, 2013
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09/11/2013

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RESETTINGAVISIONOFRACEFORTHE21STCENTURY:INSIGHTSFROMTHEMINDSCIENCES
ByRachelGodsilandAlexisMcGillJohnsonAugust13,2013
Americansrememberthenowiconic“IHaveaDreamSpeech”asthecrystallizationoftheCivilRightsMovement’svisionofracialequality.Theupcoming50
th
Anniversaryofthespeechcreatesaremarkableopportunitytodefinea21
st
Centuryvisionofracialequality.Thismomentwillbeinterpretedbymanyasareferendumontherelatedbutdistinctquestionsofhowmuchprogresswe’vemadeandwhetherracecontinuestomatter.OurracialprogressisundeniableandthevastmajorityofAmericansholdegalitarianaspirations.Yetourpracticesdonotliveuptoourconsciousaspirations.Thechallengeistoaddressthisrealitywithoutfurtherpolarizingthecountry-particularlybecausetheculturalconversationwilloccurinthefraughtaftermathoftheZimmermanverdictandSupremeCourtrulingsonaffirmativeactionandtheVotingRightsAct.Despitecontinuedsegregationandintenseracialpolarization,theSupremeCourtinparticularistiltingtowardanadoptionofthe“color-blind”visionandawayfromtheideathatgovernmenthasaroletoplayinensuringracialequality.Theconceptofcolor-blindness,ofcourse,isacaricatureoftheimageof“anationwheretheywillnotbejudgedbythecoloroftheirskinbutbytheircharacter”andatransformationofthatcaricatureintoanideology.Thecolor-blindmemehasalsobeenaverysuccessfulstrategyfortheRight.ItappealstoWhitepeople’ssenseoffairnessandegalitarianvalues,isaspirationalinnature,appealstoAmericanindividualism,andallowstheRighttocallanyonewhodiscussesracearacist.Mostegregiously,weseethisstrategyatworkinthelabelingofPresidentObamathe“race-baiterinchief”duetohiseffortstospeaktotherealitiesofraceincontemporarysociety.Thecurrentstrategyforrespondingto“color-blindness”istohighlightdisparities,butforreasonsdiscussedbelow,thatstrategyislikelytofail,and,indeed,hasnotbeensuccessfulthusfar.Thoughthecolor-blindideologyhaspermeatedourculture,ithasnotenteredoursubconscious.Neuroscienceandsocialpsychologyshowempiricallythat21
st
centuryAmericansarefarfrom“color-blind.”Instead,weallhavedeeplyembeddedstereotypicalassociations(implicitbiases)thataffectourbehavioranddecisions.Studiesfurthershowthatpeopleofallracesexperience“racial”anxietywheninteractingwithpeopleofotherraces.Equallyimportant,however,istheresearchshowingthat:
 
Ournegativestereotypesflowfromimagesthatpermeatetheculture.Accordingly,wecantransformperceptionsbychallengingthosenegativeimagesandintroducingmorefullyhumanizedvisionsofpeopleofcolorthatwilltransformournegativeassociations.
 
2
 
Ifweknowaboutourbiasesandanxieties,wecanfollowourconsciousegalitarianvalues.
 
Racialbiasandanxietyarenotintractable–butracialequalityrequiresustounderstand
how 
racematters.Socialscienceresearchprovidestheempiricalsupporttodeconstructthetenetsthatunderlietheideologyofcolorblindnessandtheclaimsthatwearepost-racial.Butthisresearchallowsustocommunicatethismessagewhileaffirmingpeople’segalitarianaspirationsandpositiveintentions.Weneedtodrawadistinctionbetweenthecommonunderstandingof“racism”asexplicitandintentional,theprovinceofWhitesupremacistslikeBullConnor,and“race”asanimplicitandunconsciousdriverofouropinionsandactions.Andweneedtobemorecoordinatedanddisciplinedaroundmessagesthatspeaktothefollowing:
 
Peopleliterallyandphysiologicallycannotbecolorblind;“color-blindness”doesnotworkasapractice.
 
Whiletheideathatweallcanjudgeandbejudgedbasedpurelyon“thecontentofourcharacter”mayseemtobeawonderfulaspirationtoworktowards,itisnotactuallypossible.
 
Theideologyofindividualresponsibilityignoresthemultitudeofracializedpracticesthatcausemuchpresentdayinequality.Weneednotandshouldnotdenyindividualagencyorpersonalresponsibility–butweshouldalsonotrelyonitasasoleexplanationforracialdisparity.Weneedtomakeclearthatgovernmentvisavispolicyhasaroletoplayinallowingindividualstheopportunitytoreachtheirpotential.
 
Ourculturalhistory(indeedtheCivilRightsMovementsoontobecelebrated)alsosupportsamodelofcollectiveresponsibilitythatcanbesignificantlymoreempoweringthanconsumeristindividualism.
 
Racializedactionsrarelystemfromtheactionsof“racists,”butratheroftenresultfromin-grouppreferences,implicitbiases,andracialanxieties.
 
A21
st
Centuryvisionforracialjusticeisacollectivevision.Onethatisn’tjustaboutindividualactionsandanindividual’sexplicitviews,butinsteadfocusesontheindividualandcollectiveactionsthatreducemicro-aggressionsagainstpeopleofcoloraswellascontext-specificinterventionsthatmitigatetheeffectsofbias.Collectively,wehaveanopportunitytousethepowerfulinsightsfromthemindsciencestoredefineavisionofracialjustice.Ideally,the21
st
centurywillallowustorealizeanotherofDr.King’simages“thatonedayrightdowninAlabamalittleblackboysandblackgirlswillbeabletojoinhandswithlittlewhiteboysandwhitegirlsassistersandbrothers.”Together,weneedtoengageculturetotransformperception,andholdaccountablemediadepictionsthatreinforcenegativeassociations.Weneedtoengageourowncommunity,andrealizethatwehavemorepowerthanwethinktoholdpolicymakersaccountableanddemandbetterpolicy,particularlyinthewakeoftheSupremeCourt’sguttingoftheVotingRightsAct.Wealsoneedtoarguethatwhilevisionsofracialjusticemaydiffer,weknowthatcolor-blindnessisnotracial
 
3
 justice,andneitherisaworldinwhicheverynewsstoryandutterancebyapoliticianisracialized.Thismemooutlinesmessagingstrategiesthatflowfromtheaboveunderstandingofthecurrentlandscapearoundissuesofrace,aswellasanunderstandingofhowimplicitbiasworksandhowimplicitbiasinsightscanhelppointthewaytoanewmoreconstructiveracialconversation.
TheultimategoalofmessagingmustnotbetosilenceouropponentsbutrathertochangetheconversationbyaffirmingourcollectivehumanityandbringpeopleofcolormorestronglyintotheAmericannarrative.Toaccomplishthisrequiresmessagesthatdisarmpredictabledefensemechanismsandhelpusreducebothracialbiasandracialanxiety.
I
NORDERTOTALKABOUTRACE
,
ITISCRUCIALFIRSTTODISARMRACIALANXIETY
:
Researchrevealsthatdiscussionsaboutraceandinter-racialinteractionscantriggerheightenedanxietyinbothpeopleofcolorandWhitepeople.Thisanxietymanifestsinourbloodpressure,ourheartratereactions,andcandiminishourcognitivecapacities.Whitepeople–forwhomdiscussionsofraceareoftenguiltinducing–oftenshutdownentirelyandceaselistening.Welosetheabilitytohaveaconstructiveconversationifpeopleareinadefensiveposture.
Racialanxietycanbeeffectivelyreducedwhen:
 
Aspeakerwithmoralauthorityaffirmsthelistener’saspirationalintentions;
 
Addressesthesourceoftheanxiety–whichisthedissonancethelistenerexperiencesbetweenegalitarianidealsandsometimesbiasedpracticesorthefearthatactionswillbeperceivedasbiased(orworsecalledoutasracist);
 
Explainsthatourbiasesarenotaresultofmoralfailings,butourbrain’sresponsetothenegativestereotypesthatpermeateourculture;and
 
Describeshowwecanovercomeourimplicitbiasesandactionsthatcorrespondtothembyconsciouslyoverridingthosebiasesandlivingaccordingtoourconsciousvalues.Howbiasworks:
Everymomentofourlives,weencounteranenormousamountofstimuliwhilecontendingwithourmemoriesandemotions.Ourabilitytonavigatetheworldispossibleonlybecausemostofourmentalprocessingoccurswithoutourconsciousawareness.Ourbrainshavealreadycreatedcategories(or“schemas”tousethescientificterm)formostofthesightsandsoundsweencounter.Theschemasincludecategoriesfordifferentkindsofpeople,calledstereotypes.Thesestereotypesserveusefulpurposeswhentheyallowusautomaticallytodistinguishbetweenachildandanadult,buttheyareriskywhentheyinvolvecategoriessuchasrace.Whenaparticularcategorybecomesassociatedwithnegativestereotypesintheculture,ourbrainautomaticallyassociatesthesestereotypeswithanyone

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