What We See: An Open Forum on Race in the Era of Trump
There is only one race: the human race.
As a former social studies teacher, this was the lesson I hoped to impart upon my students. In discussing the socially constructed term of race, I would teach my students about the Spanish encomienda system, a system put in place by European colonists to control native populations and to establish an arbitrary hierarchy to ensure the White "race" would be able to establish and maintain its power in a new world where they were vastly outnumbered by the native populations. It was this system that eventually gave birth of such terms as mestizo and mulatto and would establish a series of favorable laws that gave preference to groups based on how close to the "White race" they were. It was this line of thinking that would eventually give rise to the social Darwinism school of thought which would be used to justify slavery, Native American genocide, and every modern-day policy that favors one "race" over another.
Despite the fact that race is a socially constructed term, it has real world consequences. As a White male growing up in an affluent suburb that was 94% White, I can honestly say that for the first eighteen years of my life, I had little to no understanding of how my race gave me systemic advantages. I simply assumed everyone had the same opportunities I had. Taking summer vacations. Playing travel team sports. Taking Honors and AP classes. Taking an SAT prep course. Having my own automobile. It was not until I got to college that I began to realize that not everyone had the same opportunities I had growing up. My college roommate was on a work-study program to help pay tuition. I had close friends who were only able to attend college thanks to the school's ROTC program. I had an African-American fraternity brother who was the first in his family to attend college. All of these interactions helped me see a world that I didn't know existed.
But more importantly, these interactions helped me realize how fortunate I was. After two years of working at a low-performing middle school, I returned to grad school to study ESL. A large part of the program was understanding the challenges and struggles of a student learning English as a second language. To understand these students, we had to understand ourselves. For myself, this process involved me admitting my own White privilege for the very first time. My own success that I had often attributed to self-confidence was actually a system that had been designed to place the odds ever in my favor. Once this light bulb went off, I began seeing how fortunate I had been to be where I was. I was keenly aware that I opportunities in this world that were afforded to me simply because my ancestors were of European heritage.
Yet despite the fact I am aware of my White privilege, I still struggle with its implications on a daily basis. After reading White Like Me by Tim Wise, I knew that it would be difficult to try and be an advocate for others whose struggle I would never truly understand. While in graduate school, I participated in a three-week study abroad course where we helped establish a school library at a remote school in Kenya. During that experience, I couldn't help but be troubled. Was I feeling guilty for carrying on the tradition of the White man's burden? Would these students now see the White men as their savior? Or would they see us as opportunists, like the missionaries of the 18th century who tried to impart their Western values and ideals on a population that didn't need their help? Being the only White male on the trip, I couldn't help but wonder if I was actually doing more harm than good in the long run.
And so, as it currently stands I remain deeply conflicted. I know movements like Black Lives Matter need White allies. But I also know that these movements need their own people to take the lead. As much as I know race is a socially constructed term, I am keenly aware of how it has benefitted me and how it will one day benefit my children. As I work to address issues in low-income communities, I know that I will never truly understand what these populations face on a daily basis. For myself, all I can do is be an open and willing set of ears for these people and these communities. I know that I'll never have the experiences they had. My only hope is to somehow find a way to use my own privilege to try and open doors for others. Because it is thanks to my own privilege that I am well aware of how the game works and how it has been stacked in my favor. All I can do is do my best to share my own knowledge of the game with those who have been never allowed to play.
But in the end, I know I still have much to learn about race. And so with this idea in mind, I'd like to extend an invitation to the TPV community to share their own thoughts on race in 21st century America. The stories we share can only help not only unite us but to give us an opportunity to learn about others' experiences as well. As pragmatic Democrats, we all have an empathy that those on the right simply don't have. I personally look forward to hearing and learning from you all, as I do time and time again. Discussing race is never easy, but the more we do it, the better we will be in the long run.
This is your race open thread.
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