Race Education at Your Front Door
After a devastating report about racial stratification in Madison, Wisconsin, the city in which I live, I am thinking a lot about social stratification and the way in which we keep reenacting it. In the report in Madison, the findings maintained that although the city is outwardly progressive, with a major university and many self-proclaimed White liberals, it way may also be one of the “racist cities in America” in terms of racial stratification; over three-quarters of the city’s Black population live in poverty, and there are persistent racial disparities in educational outcomes.
As a White scholar of race in education, I am particularly interested in the “education” that people are getting about race, not just in our formal brick-and-mortar institutions, but in everyday life. Recently, a woman in a suburb of Detroit, Renisha McBride, had a car accident in the middle of the night. Unarmed, and needing help, she knocked on a door of a suburban White homeowner, and she was shot in the head. Since then, the homeowner has made a claim that the shooting was “justified” because he feared for his safety. While the homeowner is facing murder and manslaughter charges, his case is likely to rest on whether he was “reasonable” to shoot an unarmed Black woman in the face.
Why aren’t people screaming about this? To be sure, some people definitely are screaming, but why aren’t people who look like me screaming about it? Why are we, as a larger society, leaving it up to communities of color to have to scream all the time?
This incident seems to rest on a so-called “fear response,” because the woman came in the middle of the night. But, let’s be honest about this. Would she have been shot dead had she not had dark skin?
Similar instances in recent months suggest that the fact that Renisha McBride was a Black woman absolutely played a role in the “fear response,” and in some people’s acceptance of this shooting as “justified.” Had McBride been a White woman what would be the reaction?
One lesson we can take from this is that it is scary for many people to encounter a person of color in this country. Some people have been driven to literally shooting Black people dead, even in situations where these people are in desperate need of our collective care. We are teaching our children that they cannot ask for help, they cannot turn to their neighbor. This also has serious consequences for social mobility and educational attainment; we have known for quite a while now that students who feel alienated are less likely to go as far in education.
As a White woman, I have been taught in subtle and overt ways that I am supposed to fear Black men. Of course, this lesson hasn’t worked on me for a lot of reasons, ranging from my interpersonal relationships to international travel to my own scholarship. And I should say upfront that as a White woman who mostly researches issues related to Black women, it is not the Black communities from which I have felt excluded or fearful. Rather, it is mostly the White communities that have questioned my work and whether I should do it.
Still I am a White woman and I know, anecdotally and from sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s empirical research, the lessons that White children get in this country when it comes to race; they are taught to fear people who have darker skin than them, particularly men. But, sometimes we may be ignoring that way in which Black women are treated a villains too. At a certain point, we must actively work to unlearn these lessons, and if we don’t, it hurts us all.
I fear that each and every time that something like these doorstep shootings occur, it sends a signal to communities of color that they are less safe in this country. I recently had a conversation with a scholar of color who said that he was afraid to walk his dog too early in the morning for fear of getting shot. We have created an environment where peoples’ everyday freedoms are in question because of their skin color. All this is amidst a so-called “post-racial” society.
For White people, the ways in which this environment is hurtful is in countless missed opportunities. Fear responses keep us from having meaningful interactions, acquaintances, and friendships. And fear responses certainly keep White people from being able to help all of their neighbors, to model to their children what it means to be a part of a larger community.
Children are quick to learn if there are some members of the “larger community” that their parents won’t help. And they will perpetuate that behavior.If the moral imperative of simply being a better nation and community is not enough, there are serious economic consequences to these kinds of fear responses because it limits participation in educational and social institutions.
How do we move beyond the fear response?Race is an interaction; we re-enact racial stratification and racial scripts in our daily interactions, on doorsteps, sidewalks, and classrooms. But, the interaction also is not just interpersonal; it is between oneself and the larger society. In other words, for many people of color, they may look out into a society that continually interacts with them as deviants, problems, and something to be feared.
If we can rethink the interaction, we might be able to begin to rethink the outcomes of race. But, this theoretical idea may not work in the moment when fear takes over. Angela Locks, Sylvia Hurtado, and others demonstrate the shift of people’s perceptions of race after they have interactions of diverse others (those who are not like them).
So, one recommendation is that we facilitate these interactions within all levels of our educational system. We also need to work on the fear response and what this means for our social world. If people really are moved to kill one another out of fear, based on skin color, we have to teach people about “racism” and “structural inequality” again. We may need to contend with the idea of a “racist America” as Joe Feagin puts it in the title of his book. We need to say these things loudly and we need to be saying them in and outside of formal educational institutions. And it can’t just come from people who identify as people of color. It needs to come from those of us who identify as White too. Race is already at our front door – we need to educate people about it.