I hope Black History Month won’t be like a birthday: a big deal for a short time and then unacknowledged the rest of the year. I hope that honoring the achievements of Black Americans will continue.
And I trust the discussion of racism won’t stop. The discussion can’t stop because racism hasn’t stopped. And, of course, it isn’t just African Americans who are discriminated against.
In a commentary by LZ Granderson, he stated, “…discrimination hasn’t died. It just evolved.” 1
Racism and Prejudice
The words we use to discuss race relations have changed, too. When I was growing up we used the word prejudice, rather than racism, when a person discriminated against others based on skin color or ethnicity.
I think both words are useful in discussing problems between ethnic groups, as well as conflict between individuals, based on race and ethnicity. “Racism” captures the essence of discrimination: it’s fundamentally about how one feels about people who look different. But “prejudice” captures the root of the problem: it’s about making conclusions in ignorance; it is beliefs or actions based on assumptions. And these assumptions are often wrong.
Society may be able to regulate overt acts of racism, but changing how one thinks and feels can’t be forced. It takes exposure and learning. It begins with being open to new information. It requires dialogue.
Discrimination may have evolved, but discussion in this country has devolved. It’s hard to find conversation, especially public discourse, that is actually dialogue. Much more prevalent is two or more people monologuing simultaneously.
While as a Hispanic I have experienced being the object of discrimination and racist comments, I owe much of what I know about discrimination to personal conversations with other people of color who have shared their particular experiences with me. And, just as importantly, I have had the benefit of gentle schooling by friends who took the time to discuss, from their point of view, my misunderstanding of racism and racist language.
Respectful, honest dialogue has increased my understanding of the many forms racism takes and how it affects individuals and society. But I fear that the current trend in which those who even inadvertently use a word or make a statement that is deemed intolerant are villainized beyond redemption is a throwback to promoting discussion that leads to positive change. I can’t always keep up with words that become placed on the list of “must not use,” so I find myself joining those who don’t say anything for fear of being attacked for saying something that came out wrong. And if I can’t be heard as well as listen, I don’t call it a dialogue.
Have you ever had a conversation which helped either you or the other person to move past a prejudice?