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Racism and Discrimination in Education Essay

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Racism and Discrimination in Education Essay

One of my classmates commented that he was at a disadvantage as a white student in this class because students of color had significantly more experience with dealing with race than he did. Coming into the class I, too, believed that I had knowledge from personal experiences that my white classmates would know little or nothing about. Consequently, I felt that I was in a position to educate my classmates on some issues that I felt they may not have been aware of. However, I did not feel that this would be a righteous task, but rather a frustrating and tedious one. Since race is inherently a part of my life and the oppression that tends to follow it has been ever so visible to me, I struggle believing that people, in this case a seemingly large group of white people at Colgate, can possibly be oblivious to racial issues, white privilege, prejudice, and discrimination. Looking back at my attitude in the beginning of the semester and in past similar conversations, I think I felt compelled to inform naïve white classmates that there was a different way of life beyond their viewpoint. I have since grown intellectually and shifted my attention from the individual level to the institutional and cultural levels; at least pondering how to address racist or simply race-related behavior on the institutional and cultural levels puts my feelings in perspective and helps me to understand that one cannot choose the setting which he or she is born into and whether he or she is exposed to different races and cultures as a result. Ultimately, although I felt that I was more knowledgeable than many of my white classmates about race, I neglected the notion that I still had plenty of room to learn more and, perhaps more importantly, that I could be wrong in some of my judgments or ideas about race. I will refer to some previous assignments and pertinent anecdotes to explore and reflect on my growth over this past semester.

Who should be held accountable when a group of people is unaware of particular issues that are so important to another group of people and that affects everyone in one way or another? After a couple of years of being surprised that some white people could be so ignorant about issues of race and sharing my perspective with them, my frustrations developed and festered. At that point I interpreted the answer to this question of who should be held accountable to be that white people ought to get informed and wake up to some of the issues that plague our country or at least its affects on our campus; hence, I placed the blame on white people. Perhaps as a result of my maturity or, more likely, having engaged several of the readings and class discussions, it is clearer to me that addressing race must be a collaborative effort, despite the potential obstacle that people of color, for the most part, are much more passionate about reshaping society to be race conscious than white people, who are not negatively affected by white privilege and the different levels of racism. This is not a compromise I would have been willing to make in the beginning of the semester.

To explore my growth over the semester it is important to consider my beliefs at the beginning of the semester. When I was asked to define race on the first day of class I wrote down, “how one defines oneself based on ones ethnic background.” While I do not completely disagree with that definition now, if I were asked to define race again my response would be different. It would include how race inevitably includes stereotypes and is often used, albeit subconsciously, as a tool to create a hierarchy. According to Jones (1997), “… race takes on a hierarchical meaning. It serves to help us separate groups that have been defined by `race' into superior and inferior categories” (p. 348). Schools, corporations, and organizations across America often claim the value of diversity, referring to racial diversity, and how it is important to them for several reasons. I'm not sure of the integrity of these various institutions, but I do firmly believe that racial diversity ought to be embraced and celebrated, not reduced to only focus on negative stereotypes and hierarchical rankings that preserve some sort of hegemony of power and white privilege. Unfortunately, when defining race, it is equally important to be aware that racial minorities are oppressed and oppression overshadows the richness and value of culture.

Early in the semester, having read Tatum and some other texts and articles related to racial identity development theories, I was uncomfortable with identifying with any of them. I believed that I was an individual and saw identifying with a preset racial identity development as putting myself into a box that would limit and restrict my personality. I struggled with the idea of blending in with a whole group of people, even the group that I do identify with—Latino.

This quest for finding where I'd willingly fit in led me to question my knowledge of my own culture. I concluded that my academic experience omitted Latino culture from elementary school straight through college. I could always learn the Spanish language, but not about Latino-American history. I mentioned in my racial identity exploration that I've spent years learning about Hitler, Teddy Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, white people in the 1960's, Martin Luther King jr., the civil rights movement, and some about the women's rights movement, but little to nothing about Latinos. And why? I suppose it's expected that if you are not Black or white, then you can learn about your history at home or in your `ghetto' community. What if there is a Latino who does not happen to live in a community of other Latinos and Latinas? Should that person automatically assimilate to the nearest, most accessible culture? It is absurd to expect that schools adequately teach students about all races and cultures through the course of a year or semester. However, does that make it acceptable to confine the options to Black and white American culture? Is it impossible to learn about all of the races and cultures represented in America between fourth grade and college (randomly selected as a possible time when this education can occur)? Sometimes I wonder if Shakespeare and Aristotle are more important than creating a healthy social climate where issues that evoke discomfort, like sex and race, can be discussed openly for educational purposes.

One indication of my growth is how I learned from my mistakes with dealing with some of the texts and concepts within the course. At first, I misinterpreted the level of analysis of racism in society. I thought, in order of least impact to most widespread impact, it went from the individual level to the cultural level to the institutional level. It was my understanding that the institutional was the highest of levels because it seemed to me that institutional racism had the largest affect on people in terms of getting jobs and being treating equally or the opposite—being treated unfairly and being denied certain jobs. I figured that since the institutional level seemed to be the level most closely associated with racial discrimination that it did the most damage and had the largest impact on society. Having inquired and taking a closer look at different texts on this level of analysis it has become clearer to me why the cultural level is, in fact, the largest and most widespread level of racism. The cultural level addresses the roots of racism and preconceived notions that lead to prejudice and discrimination throughout history—cultural racism penetrated institutions where it could be destructive. While I must admit that it seems that the distinction between the institutional and cultural levels is a little ambiguous because all of the levels of analysis for racism seem to be connected and intertwined in some capacity with overlap among them, it is now clear to me that the cultural level has a much more profound impact than the institutional level because if cultural racism did not exist, then racism would not exist on the institutional level or possibly not at all.

Over this fall semester I've come to realize that individual racism, while still a problem, should not get me as upset as I've allowed it to in the past. Racism is racism and I would not suggest that there is an acceptable level or type of racism, but I've developed an understanding of the origins of some individual racism and, as I noted earlier, I cannot blame someone for their limited contact with diversity; although that alone is not enough to tolerate hate toward a group of people based on their race. Early in the semester I would immediately react to an ignorant comment about race and be upset about it for a long time after class. Now, since engaging some of the reading, I feel like there is a deeper level to be addressed, like the institutional and cultural levels of racism. I see how only attacking individual racism is tedious, yet important but also a slow approach to addressing the larger issue of racism.

In class discussion, the king of the hill game was brought up a number of times and it comes to mind again because it seems that improving individual racism is only a small battle and not many people are focused on the larger war so to say. Lee (1996) alludes to this idea, “While Asian Americans and African Americans are fighting among themselves, the racial barriers that limit Asian Americans and African Americans remain unchallenged” (p. 9). I'm not sure that institutional and cultural racism have not been or are not currently being challenged at all, but they certainly do still exist.

Knowing that there is something much larger than individual racism has helped me to understand how some people can be oblivious to some racial issues, but more importantly that I should not allow individual racism to aggravate me as much and ought to focus my attention on the institutional and cultural levels of racism. This is not to be misunderstood to mean that individual racism is ok or that I plan to simply ignore it when I encounter it, but just that I will no longer get excited about it or at least try not to because I am conscious of the greater cause seeking to eliminate or improve racial issues.

One other indication of my growth is that I was able to engage and challenge some of the texts, particularly Ginwright. To challenge a text one must first understand what that text addresses and critically analyze it, then engage it. Ginwright (2004) claims that, “To seriously discuss black youth identity, educators, policy makers, and researchers must consider the inseparable relationship between black youth identity and [hip-hop] culture. Failing to do so is a gross oversight” (p. 32). I agree with Ginwright that hip-hop can be incorporated into the classroom to excite and engage black youth and many of today's youth in general. However, Ginwright seems to dedicate minimal time to his ideas for hip-hop in the classroom, which I think may account for some of the problems I see within his argument.

Nevertheless, Ginwright does not discuss the general message of hip-hop music and he limits his research to a narrow group of hip-hop artists. Ginwright (2004) mentions how to add to his lessons he “would play a video or CD from either Dead Prez or Talib Kweli, both of whom provide a critical analysis and commentary about social, economic, and political issues” (133). This is problematic because it is a skewed and incomplete representation of hip-hop culture. While Dead Prez and Talib Kweli are each skilled and conscious rappers, they are not the mainstream artists whose message(s) reach the most people in America and in the world. The message of hip-hop culture through music has been evolving from discussing issues of poverty and struggle to venerating materialism and eroticism. I happen to identify with the hip-hop culture and favor the type of hip-hop that Ginwright mentions, however the point is to demonstrate that Ginwright leaves out a significant part of hip-hop when he claims that black youth identify with this culture. This is significant because I believe that most youth actually identify with or at least imitate the mainstream hip-hop culture in terms of fashion and style despite possibly living the struggle. Ginwright adds that, “Because the students are often familiar with such artists [as Dead Prez and Talib Kweli] and have all memorized the lyrics, I use these artists' political commentary as a springboard into a larger discussion about democracy” (p. 133). This is a claim that I challenge because neither of the two mentioned artists sell nearly enough records to be considered on the top fifty billboard charts, let alone get much rotation on urban hip-hop oriented radio stations or have their music videos played on MTV, BET, or VH1 which are the most popular channels that play music videos. Thus, I have a hard time accepting that all the students that Ginwright mentions have memorized such lyrics outside of their classroom where these songs are played; it would be more likely that students could recite the words to a 50 Cent song, which is more mainstream and less conscious of political issues.

Ginwright leaves out the hip-hop songs that idolize expensive cars, jewelry, mansions, yachts, `video vixens,' drugs, and violence from his discussion on hip-hop. Certainly, many of these issues, too, can be tools for education, but it is important to note the shift of attention from overcoming adversity to boasting about how some of the successful artists have acquired more than many of the listeners will ever be able to afford. I'm not saying that hip-hop is about many of these negative things or that it is inappropriate for classroom discussion, but rather that Ginwright chooses one piece of hip-hop music to get his point across and assumes that because it is under the hip-hop umbrella that it is automatically popular with youth, particularly black youth.

Engaging material is one sign of grappling the text and understanding it. Toward the end of the semester the readings and class discussions prompted ideas to solve or improve racial issues in society, which requires engaging the material and having a firm understanding of it; well these are requirements for considering and forming suggestions for improvement from an informed standpoint.

Upon reflection of the concepts, ideas, and anecdotes covered in class it is clear that complacency is an obstacle when facing racism and white privilege in particular. It also seems that education is the perfect venue to increase awareness and assist the most people at a time in becoming race conscious. The three E's come to mind here: engage, empower, enact. Once one grapples with pertinent material to race, that then empowers that person through his or her knowledge. I suppose it seems like the cliché of knowledge is power, but what else, if not knowledge and awareness, can be used as a tool to address racism? After all, once one knows about race and is race conscious he or she can neglect that knowledge, but cannot omit it from his or her pool of knowledge. After the knowledge is acquired and the empowerment in place, then one will be in a position to enact and be proactive in improving racial issues in society.

This development process may coincide with racial identity development and where one stands with his or her own identity because having the tools does not mean that one will automatically want to create change. After sorting out racial identity development and being comfortable and prepared, one may consider potential options for progress in addressing racism.

Having explored my own racial identity development and being confident that I am in the Latino-Identified stage in addition to engaging topics germane to race and racial issues, I feel that I can contribute some informed suggestions that may or may not help make progress with regard to race in society. Since education seems to be the best venue to make such progress and the idea is to address racism at the institutional and cultural levels, I believe that adding or incorporating a significant component to standardized tests, which are the same across the country in line with the No Child Left Behind Act, that covers issues of race and race or racism in America.

If this component were created it would significantly change classrooms in America because students and teachers alike would have to face issues of race and engage the material on an intellectual level. It seems that many teachers teach toward the SAT exams and there are even supplemental classes that many students take in order to increase their chances of performing well on the exams. Imagine if they needed to learn about issues of race in this manner and throughout these sessions. All people across the country would need to learn about these issues if they wanted to achieve high test scores, which would help them get into the top colleges, and so on from there. This would mean that colleges could assess, with a tangible statistic, the level of race consciousness students have achieved. It would not necessarily allow for admissions offices in colleges to base their judgment of students' racial awareness solely on this scale, but it appears that such a method would be more than what is currently available to determine such qualities in a given student. The component would have to be significant enough that if a student failed that section on race, then it would reflect as poorly as if they failed the math section or writing section; this way this new component would not be a minimal piece of the exam that can easily be overlooked and undermined.

Many of my classmates mentioned that some of the reading for the class should be done before the semester and that perhaps a mandatory core class on racial issues should be implemented into the curriculum. While these may be effective ideas, it is plausible that students who had to prepare for the race section of the standardized test would add something to the class by coming in at a more progressive starting point. For example, some of my classmates pointed out that it took time before the class felt comfortable with expressing their feelings early on in the semester because they feared reactions from other classmates and were not confident enough. Perhaps, if they had already gained some knowledge and had fruitful discussions guided by pertinent reading material, then the class would start somewhere closer to the level our class was at closer to the end of the semester and be able to skip the `honeymoon' so to say—the class may be able to start off with dialectic and substantial conversations as opposed to having to wait for people to build confidence. Furthermore, white students may not feel at a disadvantage because students of color may have had more exposure to racial issues than they did; since white students will have studied such things beforehand and have as much or even more to contribute to class as the students of color who they believe have an upper hand because of their personal experiences.

I have given this idea much thought, but am not sure exactly how one would convince the country or the government or board of education or whom it may concern that this or a version of this idea would have the potential to significantly impact issues of racism in our society. I would not know where to begin looking in terms of exactly whom the right person or people would be to contact. Nevertheless, if such a program were instituted it would inevitably restructure the way that classes are taught and curriculums across the country because time and focus would require shifting in order to prepare for the new exam. However, if I cannot figure out how to present such an idea or to whom, I believe that I can find someone to assist me in this task. I believe that this idea would reach beyond racism at the individual level because school institutions would have to cover these issues and educate its matriculated students about race, which will hopefully make the students and teachers race conscious. Consequently, people will no longer hold prejudiced and ignorant beliefs about people who are not of the same race because they will have engaged material that addressed such issues.

Ultimately, it appears to me that racial diversity as well as intellectual diversity ought to be celebrated and embraced. Perhaps if knowledge of this subject would be praised in the same way as math, reading, writing, and standardized tests are everyone will have grown to a certain extent and perhaps much sooner than their college years. Over the course of the semester I have grown to understand a bigger part of the picture that depicts racism, prejudice, and white privilege. I have been able to find my racial identity despite being reluctant to identify with any racial identity development model at first. I have matured enough to see and understand beyond the individual level. I recognize that I have been empowered by the knowledge I've acquired and have built a passion to continue learning about my Latino culture as well as other cultures to the extent that I will be able to say to someone of a different race than me, “I may not be in your shoes, but I recognize what you may have to deal with.” I believe I am race conscious and have a passion to enact where I can. Hopefully, I am able to have an impact that will be valuable to someone else in a similar or the same way that this knowledge has affected me. To conclude, I agree with Takaki (1993) when he says, “Our denied history `bursts with telling.' As we hear America singing, we find ourselves invited to bring our rich cultural diversity on deck, to accept ourselves” (p. 428). I believe these words emphasize the value of diversity and the importance of being educated on various races. These skills and my change in attitude over time throughout this semester ought to illustrate that I have grown quite a bit and continue to grow as I learn more and more about my own race and ethnicity but also those of others who are not necessarily Latino as well as the similarities and differences among them, which are worth exploring in great detail.