Critical Race Theory in Action

The thing about practicing radical, intentional belief — or wearing your “race goggles” — is that once you start, it becomes increasingly uncomfortable; both to keep the goggles on, but also, interestingly, to take them off.

My students remarked on that as we went around and reported on our week of intentionally seeing race and racism everywhere and in everything.  From reality t.v. to neighborhood list serves to bridal party planning to grocery delivery men to NFL commentary, my students described their experiences of dissonance and discomfort at being both white, and aware of their whiteness.

Because it’s the awareness that is the key, right? Without our race goggles on, we don’t have to be aware of our whiteness because whiteness is something that just IS.  Like air.  It is only when something is other than white that we become aware of it.  Just as  we only notice air when it is smoggy, or full of pollen.

But whiteness is not like air.  Indeed can you tell me what whiteness is exactly? What makes someone white? What makes someone non-white? You see how easily we can go down an ugly path that leads straight to Dr. Josef Mengele and the Nazi Eugenics Program; or, closer to home, to our current Attorney General’s support for the 1924 Immigration Bill that restricted immigrants based on their genetic makeup.

Ta Nehisi Coates describes race as being the child of racism, not the reverse. Another way of saying that is that race is socially constructed in such a way as to support and maintain a hierarchy whereby the constructors of racial categories retain power, and members of the other constructed categories do not.  This is not a new or even particularly complicated idea.

But it is an important one for those of us committed to practicing radical, intentional belief. With our race goggles on,  we become aware of whiteness as a race.  We come to realize that far from being like air — something that just is — our whiteness is just as much a social construction as others’ non-whiteness. That is the dissonance and discomfort we feel, and why many people never put the race goggles on to begin with.  Because, as my students have come to realize, once they’re on, it is really hard to take those race goggles off.  Simply put, once you see  it, Race — yes, with a capital R — cannot be unseen.

Becoming aware and attuned to our individual experiences of race and racism provides the foundation for unpacking those experiences.  After all, if race is a construction of a racist hierarchy, all we have to do is identify, recognize and deconstruct that hierarchy.  Right?

If we start with the proposition that race is socially constructed, and that the United States is built on a construction of race that perpetuates the superiority and power of whites at the direct expense of blacks and other “non-whites,” we move quickly to the next proposition that the political, legal, social systems and institutions that make up what we think of as “the United States” are also built on such a foundation.  And here is where things need to get both specific and general.

Think about all the political, legal, social and other systems or institutions that intersected with Philando Castile’s life, as a black man living in the Twin Cities in Minnesota in 2016 — the police, the criminal justice system, public schools, National Rifle Association, neighborhood and church, family, etc.  What if we assume that every one of those systems was built and operates in the shadow of this racist hierarchy of White Supremacy? How does that inform our information gathering and understanding about each system and how it enhances or undermines the life of someone like Philando Castile?

We know, for example, that Philando Castile was pulled over for traffic stops or speeding more than 50 times in the 13 years he was driving.  That’s an average of more than 3 times a month.  How many times have you been pulled over?

There is no looking away from this.  We are not mere observers of a slow-moving, massive and ultimately fatal traffic pileup; we are passengers, we are victims, and in some cases we are drivers.  While it is clearly beyond any one of us to stop the pileup, let alone undo the devastation it has already caused, each one of us can try to slow it down, and work to mitigate the damage.  We do this by keeping our race goggles on and describing what we see — in stark, honest, and exhausting detail — no matter who listens and what they say.

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