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The Shocking Normalcy of Racism

Last week, Dr. Shaun Harper, Penn Professor and Executive Director of the Center for the Study of Race & Equity in Education, came to Miami’s campus to speak to students, faculty, and student affairs educators about racial literacy and engaging race in the classroom.

I’m teaching a class this semester called “Diversity, Equity, and Dialogue in Student Affairs and Higher Education Contexts,” which uses dialogue as a form of communication to engage issues of privilege, power, and oppression. Students in my class often joke that there’s something in the air in our classroom because it provokes tears every week from students. Last week, it was my turn to shed some tears. There are a complex array of reasons for my tears last week, but what was most present was the notion of validation and the normalcy of racism.

Everyday, we see people of color in our circles talking about the racism they experience in their bodies. And white folks often minimize our pain and do not validate that our experience is real. We needed an outside expert, in this case Dr. Harper, to share stories of racism among participants for white people on my campus to believe racism is real when we (students and faculty and staff of color) have been telling them for years. I was astounded by the ways white people in the audience clinged to Shaun’s words and nodded affirmatively about the harmful effects of racism. Meanwhile, people of color within these same white people’s spheres have been saying this for years and are not validated or heard. Shaun is a masterful orator. And I can see why people listen to him. And he has amassed a reputation as a strong scholar and bold educator who names racism. And we also need not have three letters behind our name, research publications, and grant dollars to be believed when we name racism.

This brings me to the normalcy of racism. During Shaun’s session with faculty, as he talked about racial microaggressions people of color face, I heard several folks in the audience, most of whom were white, laughing. I interpreted their laughter to mean two things: (1) they were laughing at the absurdity of some of these racial microaggressions (e.g., telling a black person that they are so articulate) or (2) they laughed to distance themselves from those white people making these absurd microaggressions. Surely, they would never make such a microaggression. By laughing at racial microaggressions, we minimize and trivialize them. Sure, some people of color laugh in the face of racism, as a defense mechanism. I am not critiquing this form of laughter. However, I did not find the microaggressions Shaun was naming to be particularly funny. In fact, every time I heard laughter from white folks in the audience, I became angrier. Perhaps I am in a sensitive place with racism (and there is my internalized oppression showing up, as I have internalized that I am being too sensitive), but racial microaggressions are no laughing matter. And in fact, those white folks laughing are likely reinforcing some form of microaggressions in their own classrooms. Because the thing about racial microaggressions is that they are so easy to perpetuate often unknowingly.

A question I am still pondering following Dr. Harper’s session is: How do you talk and write about racism in a way that both normalizes and sensationalizes it? I worry that we are becoming numb to racism. One of the tenets of CRT is the ordinariness of racism -- that racism is an ordinary, everyday thing that occurs. And yet, I don’t want racism to be so ordinary that we lose the ability to be shocked and outraged by it. This article speaks to that point. I fear that this is happening. Even so, I also want people to see racism as normal, as something that is so woven into the fabric of our society that they need not see it overtly to believe that it happens.

So, what can white people do? First, validate that racism is real when people of color tell you about it. And don’t just listen when experts tell you. Next, don’t minimize the impact of racism. Even if people of color are no longer shocked by it, it doesn’t mean it’s not impactful. Finally, be shocked by racism to the point that you do something about it. And yet, you need not demonstrate to people of color how shocked you are in order to prove how much you get it. Even as you are shocked into action by racism, learn to see it as a normal, everyday occurrence that is embedded in values, laws, policies, and beliefs (i.e., systemic racism).

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