What is racism?
Now, before you answer that question, I want you to ponder how you, the individual, would choose to answer that question.
Would you go to the dictionary? Search your brain for a logical answer? Ask someone you know?
If you’d go to the dictionary, how do you know you can trust it?
If you’d search your brain, how do you know your answer is logical?
If you’d ask someone, how do you know they are speaking truth?
At this point, you might be a tiny bit irritated. Wondering where these questions are going. Please humor me, I promise I’m making a point.
I’m going to guess that if you’d go the dictionary, it’s because you know the dictionary is a tool to define words. But who made the tool?
I’m going to guess that if you’d have searched your brain, it’s because you’ve learned the answer to the question in a previous moment in life. But how do you know you learned correctly?
I’m going to guess that the person you’d ask would be someone who knows about the topic, or who is a trusted friend. But who taught them?
I hope you are starting to see where we are headed. Just humor me a little longer.
So, if the dictionary is a tool made by some people, is it objective?
If you learned the information, was it learned objectively?
If someone taught you the information, was the teacher objective?
So, really, the question should be: Do you believe yourself capable of objectivity? In other words, are you free from bias?
Are you sure?
What about your own bias? Think about it this way: you are the sum of your experiences. But also, the sum of how you experience. You are not just what happens to you, but how it happens to you. You learn what is taught to you through the tool of experience. But, like any tool, it’s the user that matters.
So, if life is a process of using tools, then is it possible to be objective? Or is what we call objectivity really a form of confirmation bias? Are we creatures of objectivity or bias?
So, how do you know what you know?? Let’s start over.
What is racism?
The dictionary gives a very simple answer: prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.
Our brains probably depict the KKK or Nazis.
Our teachers tell us it is stuff that existed largely in the past, and in small pockets today.
BUT I also know that Racism is systemic and institutional. That it’s passed down by parents to children in warnings to be safe or not date “those people”. It’s in redlining and “good districts”. It’s in poll taxes and “you speak so well!”. It’s in Jim Crow and mandatory minimums. It is at the heart of modernity; a product of extreme greed. It is born from fear. To justify owning slaves, racism was born. To justify slaughtering whole continents, racism was born. Not simply to slaughter or own, but for survival.
And that deep fear remains. It pervades American society, because we never unlearned it. It just became common sense; it became an objective truth. But really, it’s confirmation bias—we already believe something (the inferiority of lesser races) and that belief shapes reality.
It’s why we can’t agree on what racism is. It’s why we don’t think critically about race. Ever.
We can’t think critically. Too much of our existence is predicated on racism. It props up inherited wealth. It props up new wealth. It props up the model minority and talented tenth. It props up suburbs and gated communities. It props up American capitalism.
But it doesn’t have to. It’s a modern Plato’s Cave.
So, do we need to talk more about racism in education? Yes. Because the textbooks were created by people who lived in a racist society. Because the universities that trained them were occupied by people who lived in a racist society. Because it goes back through history, hand in hand with the racist society. In the past racism was akin to air or water: just a part of life and all that was ever known. And we are still in a racist society today.
Ask yourself how you know what you know. Think about who taught it to you. Think about how you learned it. What tools have you been given? Are they capable of doing what you think they are doing? Are there better tools out there that you have not yet learned about?
I’m telling you there are better tools. I’d be happy to help you learn how to use them. There is a big world to build outside the cave, and we could use your help. It might hurt at first, just like the light does when you exit a dark cave. You might want to run back, because your entire world was safer as a lie (confirmation bias!). And this is why we need to talk about racism in education: because when you return to the cave to get others, you stop making sense to them. You’re not capable of confirming the bias of the cave. How can you unshackle someone who wants to stay shackled? What if they won’t unlock themselves?
I don’t have a perfect answer for that, but it surely has not stopped me from trying.