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Racism Is Not Isolated

Racism happens more than many people realize. When we are not the individuals directly targeted, we may not recognize it. But racism happens in our own backyards.
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The year has been filled with news stories about racist e-mails sent by Ferguson, Missouri police department officials and officers, University of Oklahoma fraternity members chanting "There will never be a ni***r in SAE," and nine members of a Bible study group in South Carolina being slain for racial motivations.

It would be a mistake to look at these racist events as isolated occurrences.

While Charleston represents the worst consequences of racism, we also need to recognize, as President Obama said in June, that we are not cured of racism and the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.

A few months ago at summer camp, a white girl told my seven-year-old, African-American daughter that she could not play with her because my daughter is "dark."

This past March, a girl shouted at my daughter in the play area of a McDonald's "You're just jealous because I'm white, and you have brown skin!"

At school last fall, third grade girls disparaged my daughter in the girls' bathroom at recess over her hair.

My daughter has experienced what former Daily Show host Jon Stewart has referred to as "an unending series of isolated events."

When my daughter was five, some boys told her that she was ugly because her skin was dark, and some girls added that her hair was ugly too. I went into the school office to discuss the matter. The administrator expressed concern and said she would look into situation.

I was surprised two days later when the school told me that my daughter was "confused." The kids had denied that they had ever said anything about my daughter's skin or hair.

Their parents were shocked and told the administrator that their children could not possibly have said such things because everyone apparently had some extended family member or good friend who was not white -- ergo their kids could never have said something racist. The administrator assured me that the kids came from "good families."

My intention in addressing the incident was never to make judgments about the goodness of the kids' families nor have Scarlet Rs placed upon the children's chests. My child deserves freedom from further racist incidents. I wanted the kids to understand they were in the wrong and be shown how to conduct themselves civilly in the future.

Such understanding, however, requires people being open to the possibility that racism happens where and by whom they may not expect it.

Addressing racism starts with awareness on multiple fronts. First, the news media can help by providing contextual information when reporting current events.

Research by Stanford University Professor Shanto Iyengar shows that when people are presented with news stories that discuss issues in terms of isolated or episodic events, they tend to place blame and responsibility on specific individuals rather than to consider that the root of the problem is widespread and may require community level efforts. In other words, context matters. Providing context changes how people understand issues, who is responsible for them, and thus what solutions may be sought.

Second, schools can help by not sweeping "isolated incidents" under the rug and informing parents when uncomfortable issues have occurred or been alleged. When children have been accused of using racist language, the parents should be told. Schools should realize that even children from "good families" may use racist speech.

Third, for those of us who are parents, we should be open to the possibility that our children may make mistakes that hurt others and may use race as an unfair criterion for judging others at one time or another. That judgment may or may not have come from what we personally have taught them explicitly or by example. Regardless of the source of racism, we can make our children's future better by talking about these uncomfortable events openly and transparently.

Fourth, it is important for all people to recognize that racism is widespread. It happens outside of Missouri, Oklahoma, and South Carolina and not only by fraternity members, NBA franchise owners, or those seeking a "race war." When we hear or see acts of racism, even if they seem trivial or do not appear to impact us directly, we should confront them. Discussing why a situation is an example of racism and therefore problematic is an important step for treating the venom behind it.

Fifth, we need to consider the possibility that we all have biases that impede our judgment, even when we feel as though we embrace egalitarian values. That impeded judgment could involve recognizing when and where racism has taken place or involve how we evaluate others.

One way to expand our awareness is by taking implicit attitude tests, the results of which may reveal how subtle out-group prejudices can be. Such tests can provide us with a better understanding of our own limitations. Although we may not want to admit it, all humans have limitations.

Racism happens more than many people realize. When we are not the individuals directly targeted, we may not recognize it. But racism happens in our own backyards.