Lucretia Berry • September 26, 2023
“I enrolled in this course because its title, ‘What is Race/ism?’ made me question my understanding of racism,” explained the high school student. “I walked into the class confident that I knew what racism was. But as the class unfolded throughout the school year, I realized that I knew so little, actually close to nothing about racism.”
I assured her that she is not alone. Like gravity, most people are familiar with racism, but very few people actually understand its complexity or can articulate how it operates as a fundamental force that dominates our conscious experience.
For the past five years, I’ve been joyfully teaching a course that I designed with the help of high school students, that builds their racial literacy.
Racial literacy refers to the capacity to understand, analyze, and navigate issues related to race, racism, and racial identity. It involves the ability to recognize and challenge stereotypes, biases, and systemic racial inequalities while promoting racial equity and justice. Racial literacy goes beyond mere awareness of racial issues; it encompasses the skills and knowledge necessary to engage in informed and constructive conversations about race/ism and to be an advocate for an equitable and just society.
Amid legislative intent to mis-represent and weaponize any education about race/ism, high school students who enroll in this school year-long course simply want to be empowered with understanding. Some of them have been teased by their peers who sarcastically taunt, “you need a whole school year to learn what racism is?” Actually, because they are eager to overcome the knowledge deficit, some students elect to take the course more than once. They not only want to be competent, but students also want to participate in creating change. They know that you can’t solve a problem that you don’t truly understand. The course helps them comprehend the complexities of racism.
Racism is a multifaceted and oppressive force that perpetuates a complex system of social inequality. It is characterized by one racial or ethnic group holding the power to systematically discriminate against others through the major institutions of society. This discrimination is rooted in white supremacy. Racism manifests at various levels, including systemic, institutional, and individual, and it is not to be confused with mere racial prejudice or hatred. Overall, racism is a system of advantage and oppression based on race, which is historically supported by an all-class collaboration termed “white” designed to maintain hierarchical racial arrangements and prevent cross-racial solidarity.
Having developed a more nuanced understanding of racism, these students are disburdened from common misconceptions that hinder efforts to combat it and ultimately perpetuate it, like
- Reducing racism to individual acts – Many people mistakenly believe that racism is solely about individual acts of prejudice or hatred. While these actions are part of racism, it’s important to recognize that racism also encompasses systemic and structural elements that perpetuate racial inequalities.
- Colorblindness – Some folks claim to be “colorblind,” arguing that they don’t see race and treat everyone equally. However, this approach can ignore the realities of racial disparities and systemic racism, as it fails to address the unique experiences and challenges faced by different racial groups.
- Belief in reverse racism – The concept of “reverse racism” suggests that people racialized as Black can discriminate against people racialized as White in the same way racism operates. This idea is often used to deflect conversations about systemic racism and power imbalances.
- Denial of privilege – Some people resist acknowledging their racial privilege, believing that acknowledging it implies personal wrongdoing. Understanding privilege is not about guilt but about recognizing societal advantages conferred based on racial identity.
- Ignoring historical context – A limited understanding of racism may neglect the historical context of racial injustices, such as colonization, chattel slavery, and segregation, which have enduring effects on all communities today.
- Blaming people while ignoring systems – Blaming marginalized individuals for their own disadvantaged circumstances and suggesting that they are solely responsible for overcoming racism overlooks the systemic barriers they face.
- Tokenism – Tokenism involves including a small number of individuals from underrepresented racial groups to create the appearance of diversity without addressing systemic inequalities. This practice does not address the root causes of racism.
- Cultural appropriation vs. appreciation – Some people confuse cultural appreciation with cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation involves taking elements of a marginalized culture without permission, often for profit, while cultural appreciation involves respecting and learning about other cultures.
- Ignoring intersectionality – Racism often intersects with other forms of discrimination, such as sexism, homophobia, or ableism. Failing to consider these intersections can result in an incomplete understanding of how discrimination operates.
Do you recall when you believed any of these ideas or engaged in any of these practices? We can end ‘reverse racism,’ race-colorblindness, and these other misconceptions through robust learning.
American philosopher and author, Dr. Debasish Mridha wrote, “Fear comes from the lack of knowledge and a state of ignorance. The best remedy for fear is to gain knowledge.” Imagine the weight of fear being lifted from these young people as they have the opportunity to unravel racism’s web of confusion.
At the end of the school year, I ask students to share their biggest take-away from the course. The most common response is, “I thought race/ism was __________ (insert a popular oversimplified definition). But now that I know what it actually is, I see everything differently!” Our children (and we) deserve to be empowered with understanding, to have space to contemplate and reimagine, to develop tools to heal societal schisms and chart the way forward. They (and we) deserve to not live in fear of saying or doing the wrong thing!
One student began the school year with, “I took this course because I want to learn something that I can use in the real world!” I was elated to help meet her demand! The knowledge and confidence gained from understanding racism can have real-world impact. Young people can contemplate and reimagine a future free from the divisive forces of racism and actively pave the way for positive change.
“If we don’t keep them in the dark, our children will light up the world.”Lucretia Carter Berry (TED Talk 2017)
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Lucretia Carter Berry, PhD, is a distinguished author, educator, and speaker, as well as the visionary founder of Brownicity, an agency dedicated to accessible and scholarly-informed antiracism education. Lucretia is also a valued contributor to incourage.me, sharing her insights and wisdom on topics of faith, resilience, and personal growth. Through her books, Teaching for Justice and Belonging – A Journey for Educators and Parents (2022), Hues of You – An Activity Book for Learning About the Skin You Are In (2022), and What LIES Between Us – Fostering First Steps Toward Racial Healing (2016), her impactful TED Talk, and her commitment to building just communities, Lucretia encourages meaningful engagement that transcends boundaries, fostering personal development, resilience, and the transformative capacity within each of us.