Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Do you judge people by their race?

Earlier this week, I found this:

The U.M. Magazine Poll Results
We asked you...
With all honesty, do you judge people (whether negatively or positively) by their race?
We ran our poll for one year and it resulted in 33% of our voters choosing "yes" and 66% choosing "no".

Well, this is odd, I thought. I wondered to myself if the third admitting “yes” to pre-judgment was a more self-aware and open-minded bunch than the 2 thirds voting “no.” I thought the demographic for the poll complicated the results anyway. Urban Mozaik is a multicultural, e-magazine, intended for celebrating diversity. Anyone taking their poll is presumably a lover of all races and cultures, why else would he or she read the magazine? I trust UM recognized that they were basically asking, “Are you aware of your natural, human tendency to judge people (whether negatively or positively) by their race?” My big question is, did the pollsters realize as much? Then I had a good laugh imagining myself taking the poll, and staring for a half-hour at the question, unsure of its intent. What kind of answer would they prefer to see in the ideal future? 100% “yes, I’m self-aware of my racism?” Or 100% “no, I’m not racist, period?” 

I’ve been enjoying UM’s free-response questionnaires. Reading them, I mean. They ask candid questions about controversial race and immigration questions, and post volunteers’ thorough responses

What I’d like to publish here today is not a questionnaire response submitted to UM, but one submitted to The Culturalist.

Meet Jennifer [name changed.] She’s a University of Utah student in her mid-twenties, she’s Mormon (LDS), and she’s white. Jennifer attended a course this year in which she was instructed to watch A Class Divided, a film about a race-prejudice experiment in a rural elementary school. In 1968, elementary school teacher, Jane Elliott, taught white students in an all-white town about racism by dividing them by eye-color. The first day of the experiment she told the class that blue-eyed people were superior. The second day of the experiment she told the class that brown-eyed people were superior. Every student felt what it was to both perpetrate and suffer discrimination.
Below is the set of unit response questions put together by the course instructor, complete with Jennifer's forthright answers.

1. Start out by defining the terms racism, prejudice, and stereotyping as described in our textbook.
Racism: the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, esp. so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.

Prejudice: preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience.

Stereotype: a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing.

2. Looking into yourself, do you believe that you have any prejudice or racist beliefs? Has watching the documentary changed your ideas or attitudes? How?
This topic has been brought to mind time and again. Do I engage in prejudiced
tendencies? If I was completely honest with myself, I would have to say yes. It's not something I am proud of. I consider it programming. As I have grown up and gained a better understanding of the implications of this way of thinking, I've striven to abolish these tendencies within myself. I would never outwardly harass someone, but some of the thoughts that come to my mind are terrible. I make judgements of people according to the way they act and look.

Some of these feelings stem from cultural differences more than color. I've known several people of different races who [elicit] no negative feelings. Most of those individuals were living in mainstream American society and had similar lifestyles to mine. Why should that matter? It shouldn't.

Learning to get to know and respect differences however takes a concerted effort. Another aspect of my behavior involves the constant worry that people of a different color or race think I am judging them. I suppose in some situations the answer would be yes.

Jane Elliott, 1970
Watching this documentary has been eye opening. The quote that Jane Elliott shared about walking a mile in someone else's moccasins was very powerful. I've heard that quote lots of times, but seeing it come to life in this study blew me away. I watched the first day when the blue-eyed children were superior, identified with what was going on (since I had blue eyes) and felt myself reacting just as the children would. Then on the second day when the roles were reversed, I could feel the children's pain and frustration. It made me sick to my stomach.

I feel like my eyes have been opened to a whole new level of understanding. I need to look at all men and women as people. I need to treat them as I would have myself be treated. This principle is so simple, but so powerful. Treat all mankind equally without reference to anything physical.

3. How do you think you would have reacted to the Blue Eyes Brown Eyes exercise if you would have participated? Do you think the end (countering racism) justifies the means (i.e, being humiliated, treated disrespectfully, etc, even for a few hours)? Why (not)?

I know this exercise would stress me out and make me feel extremely uncomfortable. However, I see it as a very valuable experience that everyone should either participate in or watch. The real life experience of being treated less than another group of people cannot be taught in any other way. You need to feel the humiliation and treatment to know what others go through.

In the interview Jane mentioned how there were several people in her community who were outraged that she taught this lesson. Those people ought to go through the lesson themselves. Obviously they have racist thoughts or it would not matter to them so much.
Jane Elliott, 2010
4. In her 2002 interview, Jane Elliott comments that the Blue Eyes Brown Eyes exercise was as necessary as in 1968. Now it is 2011, 43 years since she first conducted her exercise. Do you think the exercise is still necessary? Why (not)?

Yes. This exercise is still necessary. Its sad but true. I admit myself that I have been taught and improved by just watching the video. The problem is that there are still huge pockets of white people who harbor feelings of superiority. A prime example of this is in the criminal justice system. More often than not it seems like any race but white is the target of a news story when crime takes place. This is unfair and needs to stop. How will it stop? Education. Hands on, hard-core education.
5. In the interview, Elliott says, "The only thing necessary for the perpetuation of evil is for good people to do nothing." What do you think about this phrase? 

This phrase nails the point of discrimination to the core. How often does society experience this sad reality? So many times good people just stand on the sidelines instead of having the courage to do something. I'm ashamed to admit being one of the masses who do just that. What can I do to be brave enough to make a stand? I'm still trying to figure it out.

Thanks, Jennifer. Your willingness to be candid is, itself, an important stand.

I don't think people should be called upon to speak for their race. But I'd like to voluntarily do so now. Many well-meaning whites feel defensive when confronted with the idea of their own privilege. They have anxiety, as Jennifer puts it, a "constant worry" about hurting someone's feelings, or being accused of racism. In conversation, when race comes up, they close the topic with simple catch-phrases advocating "colorblindness," because they suppose it's the right thing to do. Geoffry Dobbins, a young, black journalist puts it this way:
[In high school,] it seemed like a lot of energy went into downplaying racial difference in favor of "colorblind" attitudes. But, to me, colorblindness is a really bad idea. It surrenders to the premise that we can't see differences without devaluing others. When colorblindness is the goal, then race is a "problem" that has to be ignored. ("Race Matters", Cincinnati Magazine, June 2008)
First thing to accept: Human beings judge each other based on appearance. We judge based on hair-color, race, body-type, clothing, hygiene, social suavity, height, nose-shape.  We do it all day long with or without realizing it.  

Second thing to accept: Racism is a particularly complicated kind of judgment. It exists covertly as well as overtly. It is compounded by a history of tragic oppression and contemporary consequences (psychological, social, and economic) that our society still suffers.

Third thing to accept: We are not all the same. And that's okay. It's not a problem.

Instead of pretending that we are without judgment, let's hold our judgments out before our eyes so that we can see which ones are shallow and seek to overcome our ignorance.


  1. If I were to answer the question in your title I would answer: yes. I am not proud of it, but I know that I do. A lot of it I am sure is out of ignorance, and some of it is based off perceptions from previous experience. Either way, it isn't always good.

    We are meaning making creatures, and we naturally try to organize our world by categorizing, attaching, and relating feelings, thoughts and meaning to the people and things around us. It happens. But, I love the last thing you said about not pretending that we don't judge, but rather using the judgments we naturally begin to make as an opportunity to see our ignorance and overcome it.

    I thought that #4 of the questions that "jennifer" wrote about was very interesting about “Do you think the exercise is still necessary?”. I think most people would say no. I think we THINK racism is no long an issue. However, there have been several things that people (in MY community, sometimes in my family (on my husband's side)) have said that absolutely blow me away. For example, my younger sister was becoming interested in possibly dating a boy (who happened to be African-American). When one of her friend's parents found out she said something to the effect of, "And your parents are going to allow that?!" My mom, having been born and raised in New York, and having dating several people that were not Caucasian, just laughed. Really?

    Then I was discussing with someone who thought it wasn’t fair that their school was moving from 4A to 5A because she felt as though they wouldn’t be able to compete well in sports. I explained how if she went online and looked at the number of students attending the school you could see it was rather large and a comparable size to other 5A schools, meaning they would probably do just fine. She promptly replied, “But their counting the MEXICANS! They don’t contribute anything!” What!? My jaw literally dropped.

    I think that there are some who definitely could still benefit from the lessons taught by Jane Elliot. But, like you mentioned, there is the total opposite end of the spectrum that a lot of us in order to try to NOT be racist and not offend try to pretend that there are no differences at all. Which isn’t good either. It is a hard balance!

  2. (part II)

    When I read the story about racism at Alta High I thought of your blog and wondered what you would have to say about it. I was fascinated by it all and watched and read every news story I could find on it and read comments on the story, the victims blog, and facebook. I think part of it was that I worked in a high school and I absolutely cannot imagine that behavior being tolerated, which led me to be a little skeptical of it all.

    After listening to several witness accounts besides that of the victim (which most of the media DID NOT cover—which is weird, why in an auditorium full of thousands of people would you only take the account of one person to report from ?) I believe that most likely the kid accused of the racist act genuinely did not know the iconic image he happened to somewhat look like. Also, I don’t think he was taunting that ONE student nor doing the 'heil Hitler' salute but rather just running around the gym raising his arms up to get a reaction from the crowd. In a room SWARMING with teachers and administrators (and other students for that matter) I highly doubt blatantly racist behavior that the victim claims happened would be allowed to persist during an assembly. Just my feelings on it, but I wasn’t there so I don’t know what happened. However, if what I assumed happened was the case, then the story was blown WAY out of proportion.
    Now as for the other accusations of racism at Alta, I have no idea about and have not read anything.
    The most fascinating thing to me about the whole story in the media was when someone would comment on a news comment board and would say something similar to what I just said (that the kid was probably being dumb and ignorant (not knowing what he looked like) and not racist. There would be a slew of people accusing that person to be racist and telling them that they were the reason problems like this were perpetuated. I also found it funny when people would begin their comments with “I’m not a racist, but . . .” Never a good way to start a sentence.

    I saw on facebook someone mention the Implicit Association Test. My husband had to take it last year for one of his MBA classes. It was interesting to see his results and discuss them . . . reading this makes me want to go take the quiz as well.

    Wow. This was so long blogger made me do it it two posts. I guess I just had a lot on my mind relating (and sort of relating) to this.

  3. One more thing: if the student accused at Alta actually did what he was accused of, and was trying to single a student out a student and mock him because of his race, I feel that all the actions taken were completely appropriate.

    Just wanted to clarify that. Like I said, I wasn't there, so I don't know what actually happened.

  4. All I have to add to this is the following: