In the current context of the United States, it is more important to talk about race – and to deconstruct it — than ever. Our culture, unfortunately, is dominated with “common sense” notions of race that owe much too much to eugenicist thinking, false biology, and plain old wrongheadedness. These notions of race are, from a scientific point of view, incorrect. However, their clear social power is undeniable. Just a few months ago, one study documented that a startling proportion of white medical students hold spurious ideas about biological differences among races, including the ridiculous notion that Blacks feel less pain, a belief that has had direct and measurable implications for how the medical profession has responded to the physical pain reported by Black people – for centuries.
The social reality of race, then, is inescapable. For me and for many others, it is also terrifyingly personal.
As a scholar of race, I have one position. As a woman of color and as the mother of a mixed race child who has attended primarily white institutions most of her life, the experience is not theoretical, but profoundly lived and often deeply painful.
When my daughter came home from her lovely Quaker school in 2nd grade and told me she’d had to lick a boy’s shoe because they were playing master and slave, the bloody reality of racial ideas was being played out through my child’s body. Theoretical notions of race being contested were of absolutely no use in confronting what had happened. One friend said “I would have taken her out of that school so fast!” Yet for me, the incident did not point out a failing of the school, the teacher, the child, or that child’s parents. What it told me was that even in a Quaker school in Southern California, my daughter and her classmate already understood who was the master and who was the slave if playing slavery was the game. Kids learn those things growing up in the United States. It is inevitable.
Similarly, when her very lovely high performing middle school “forgot” Black History month, there was nothing about that erasure of my child, and the other children like her — much less the creation of an entire school culture ready and willing to erase them — that could be approached by utilizing notions of the contested status of racial categories. When the school responded to the protest that she and other Black girls lodged, their response was to ask them to plan and program it for the following year. Great pedagogical approach, South Pasadena! When her sixth grade play about Native Americans included an entire cast of children dressed up in shamefully stereotypical “Indian” garb, and when the white school principal herself presided over the event in a bright blue faux Native American dress, I was speechless. Here, in the urban area of the United States that includes more Native people than any other, my child had been enlisted in something so close to a minstrel show that I wanted to scream. Instead, I took her to a pow wow the next weekend.
In the US, race has always been, and remains, a noxious, destructive, social fact. Contested or not, it has measurable health outcomes, results in economic disparity, differential life spans, and all of us suffer for it whether we believe that or not. The knowledge that race has no biological basis has never protected anybody from a single racist slight or insult, and it certainly has done nothing to significantly increase the life expectancies of racialized minorities, their access to higher education, or their capacity to send their children out into the world in the morning with the expectation that they will come home whole and unharmed either in body or in spirit.
When my daughter’s father is pulled over by police who pull out their guns, (This is something that has actually happened. He is a screenwriter. So threatening.) It doesn’t matter that I know the biological basis of race isn’t real.
And when I am bicycling to work, as I was just the other day, and a woman I don’t know and have never seen before screams at me that she voted for Trump so that people like me couldn’t come to “her” country, the contested status of racial categories is irrelevant. Never mind that on the Chinese side I am sixth-generation born in the United States and on the white side my family goes straight back to the Mayflower, so why don’t you go back to where YOU came from?
After struggling too hard with our “good” school district, we moved my daughter to a “bad” school that is majority Black and Brown. It made all the difference. My daughter leaves for college in just a couple of weeks. She is headed to a wonderful institution. But she has already voiced worries that being in a primarily white institution again is going to be really difficult. No doubt it will be.
As a scholar of race, I can tell her the facts and cite the studies. As a mother, I equip her the best I can, with the advice, prayers, and oral history that parents of color have had to instill in their kids for far too many generations.
In the primarily white institution where I work, our leading administrators quite literally cannot say the words “racial prejudice.” Racist graffiti was reported in our building, and the administration couldn’t figure out how to take it down. Students have been called the n-word in class, and the administration doesn’t know what to do. Students have been told by faculty to go back to Mexico because they’re “lazy”. Chinese students are routinely penalized for seeming too foreign.
When, in a meeting of the college’s diversity committee, I once asked “what is being done to address white privilege?” a vice-president responded “well, white students are in the minority here, you know.” I am sure that person does not self-identify as a racist. Yet the racist assumptions in that statement are directly connected to the utter inability to address the pervasive inequities perpetuated in large and small ways on my campus, in my community, in my state, and throughout this nation – connecting the dots is not all that hard. I am ashamed to say that I have been sitting on a paper that describes the difficulties of working at this fragile white institution, but have not submitted it for publication for fear of retaliation. I wish I were braver. My students deserve that. My daughter deserves that. My institution deserves to look itself in its face.
I offer all of these examples, which really are the tip of the iceberg, because raising the issue that race is a contested category does nothing to change the daily experiences of either whites or people of color in the United States whose experiences are racialized in every conceivable manner, and much too often in ways that are inconceivable, or at least ought to be.
As educators, we are in the front lines here — our students are looking for tools and frameworks, and it is incumbent upon us to equip them in the best way we can. It simply is not enough to say that race is a contested category.
Elizabeth Chin, PhD is a Professor at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA teaching in the MFA program Media Design Practices. Her work spans a variety of topics–race, consumption, Barbie–but nearly always engages marginalized youth in collaboratively taking on the complexities of the world around them. She is author of My Life with Things: The Consumer Diaries and Purchasing Power: Black Kids and American Consumer Culture. She is also editor and contributor to Katherine Dunham: Recovering an Anthropological Legacy, Choreographing Ethnographic Futures. Her ongoing project The Laboratory of Speculative Ethnology engages design and anthropology to examine possibility through the lens of Afro- and Ethnofuturism. More about her work can be found at elizabethjchin.com.