Friday, May 13, 2011

Shocking, Ain't It?

I am a regular reader of both Cracked and Love Isn't Enough. I read them for very different purposes because they are very different types of writing. Cracked (as I'm assuming you probably know) is a witty and sometimes mildly-inappropriate humor website that comments on everything from movies and songs to psychology and ancient history. Love Isn't Enough is a wonderfully written blog "on raising a family in a colorstruck world" with a writing style that (appropriately) runs much more serious in tone than Cracked's.

I turn to Cracked when I need a good laugh and am searching out a photoshop contest on "If Textbooks Were Written by the Students." Love Isn't Enough is where I turn as the white mother of a biracial child when I want thoughtful commentary on race issues and child-rearing, like this article on black girls and teasing over hair. And never the twain shall meet.

Imagine my surprise, then, to find the two talking about almost identical topics a mere one day apart.

On May 8, Cracked writer Kathy Benjamin posted "5 Shocking Ways You Overestimate Yourself." Number five explains how we are more racist than we think we are. She discusses this serious issue through a humor-tinted lens, but that doesn't detract from the serious implications of the studies she cites. The one that I found most interesting/disturbing was a study that showed participants videos of someone being poked in the hand with a needle excruciatingly slowly. They found that white participants felt much less empathetic pain for black hands and vice versa. Even more disturbing, the participants felt the same level of empathy for a purple hand as they did for a hand of their respective race. As Benjamin put it "That's right -- the subjects couldn't muster empathy for a fellow human of another race but cringed at the thought of somebody hurting a fucking Night Elf."
Or Barney. Image from ranesbluesky

So, basically, the Cracked article examined studies that suggest that survey results (which very rarely show participants willing to admit they're racist, no matter how anonymous they are) are at odds with the way that we react in everyday situations.

On May 9, Julia at Love Isn't Enough posted "Stop Being 'Shocked' by 'Isms'" where she expresses her disgust at the media's portrayal of the racist UCLA student's YouTube video (you know, the one that just can't stand the fact that the Asian students come to the library and have help with their laundry) as a "shocking" occurrence.

I think it's interesting that both of these articles discuss the subverted racism imbedded in our society as "shocking." Julia explains why this portrayal is problematic:
Words have meaning. And I think the repeated framing of modern racism and other “isms” as surprising reflects a mainstream belief that these things really don’t exist anymore.
 So, here we have two very different media outlets discussing the same issue: our communal disregard of the very real phenomenon of institutionalized racism.

And I agree with Lisa that this portrayal of racism as surprising is problematic. I've seen it play out, particularly in the freshmen college students I teach.

See, I am not that old (25 years), but I can remember a time when it wasn't nearly as socially unacceptable to act out in overtly racist ways as it is today (though these were usually shielded under the guise of playfulness).

My students, on the other hand, have most likely always been submerged in a much more neatly maintained paradigm. They have been drilled on the right messages: everyone is equal, racism is bad. And they have seen outward signs that these things are true: Obama's election, lip service diversity sprinkled into their day-to-day lives and the media they consume.

Many of them (even the minority students) are quick to tell me that I'm overthinking things when I suggest that a song, movie, commercial, etc. sends subtly racist messages. They also are quick to denounce affirmative action as unfair. They have been raised to know that racism is bad, and I highly doubt many (if any) of them would consider themselves racists. (And I mean this genuinely; most of these are very good students who see themselves as advocates for social justice, and I believe they will do great things with that drive).

But until they can see themselves as participants in the racism that still exists, it will continue to exist. As long as we can point racism (and all the other ism's) out as "shocking," we get to feel like we're outside of the problem. We also get to feel like the problem is isolated, maybe even not really a problem at all.

As the studies in the Cracked article and the data on everything from health stats to incarceration rates tell us, it is definitely a problem, a problem we are all a part of and all responsible for fixing. 

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