Open thread: Talking about race and role models

Love Isn’t Enough columnist Jason Sperber sent me a link to this article: “Talking About Race and Role Models.” I’m wondering what you all think of it. In the post from Almighty Dad, the writer asserts that it is “racist” to root for someone, for instance a sports figure, merely based on their race:

Jesse Owens came along at a time when segregation in the United States was as strong as ever, and he accomplished his gold medal performances in front of a stadium full of state sponsored racists.  That is truly a case of defying odds that deserves recognition.  These days though no such barriers exist.  The black kids who are now motivated to be speed skaters because of Shani Davis have no legitimate reason to be any more impressed with him than Apollo Ohno, both of whom deserve all the attention they get.  When there are political barriers or social barriers or personal barriers like illness then that is what really should drive us to be inspired. Race can play a part, but only in so much as we identify with that person because of something more than ethnicity. Read more…

What concerns me is that this post seems to be written with little insight into the experiences of people of color. It is all well and good that the writer, who appears from his profile photo to be a white male, thinks that racial barriers no longer exist. Many people of color would disagree based on their lived experiences. Not only does prejudice exist among all racial groups, but institutional racism still exists against minority groups. Studies have shown, for instance, that resumes submitted by people with “black sounding” names receive far fewer call backs from employers. Black women still make less on the dollar than white men and women. All people of color are still underrepresented in the media, particularly when it comes to positive representation. When our children learn about American history, the contributions of people of color are routinely excluded unless slavery or the genocide of Native Americans is being discussed. I wrote about this in an earlier post:

In the spring, my nephew’s class at his predominantly white school studied the people, places and cultures of Europe and the Americas. And he says that he noticed this study included very little about the contributions of people of African descent. In the history of America, his ancestors were slaves and, it seems, nothing else. I am proud that my nephew had the presence of mind to recognize this inequity and ask his teacher whether some information about black Americans and the role of Africa in the building of the United States might be forthcoming. I am enraged, however, to know the answer he received from his teacher. The class wouldn’t be covering information about black and African peoples, because “The school system doesn’t want any trouble.”
WTF?
This classroom exploration and celebration of the rich history of Europe and the brave European men who “discovered, “conquered and colonized America (to the exclusion of any acknowlegdment of the history and contributions of anyone else–particularly people of color) left my nephew feeling rootless and unsure of his place in his own country. After all, to discuss his people is merely to invite “trouble.”

In the spring, my nephew’s class at his predominantly white school studied the people, places and cultures of Europe and the Americas. And he says that he noticed this study included very little about the contributions of people of African descent. In the history of America, his ancestors were slaves and, it seems, nothing else. I am proud that my nephew had the presence of mind to recognize this inequity and ask his teacher whether some information about black Americans and the role of Africa in the building of the United States might be forthcoming. I am enraged, however, to know the answer he received from his teacher. The class wouldn’t be covering information about black and African peoples, because “The school system doesn’t want any trouble.”

WTF?

This classroom exploration and celebration of the rich history of Europe and the brave European men who “discovered, “conquered and colonized America (to the exclusion of any acknowlegdment of the history and contributions of anyone else–particularly people of color) left my nephew feeling rootless and unsure of his place in his own country. After all, to discuss his people is merely to invite “trouble.” Read more…

Given this experience, would it be any wonder that my nephew would feel special pride in hearing the story of, say, Daniel Hale Williams or Crispus Attucks or other African American historical figures. Is it any wonder than a little black girl who grew up being the only brown face in tennis club would take special joy in the Williams’ sisters? Wouldn’t  a black fashionista who rarely sees models who look like her in women’s magazines treasure that Italian Vogue filled with black models?

When the story of African Americans is told by the mainstream, the message is often one of dysfunction or despair. The same can be said for Latino and Native cultures. Look at CNN’s recent attempts to chronicle what it means to be black and Latino in America. Given that, can one really say it is racist for people of color to take special pride in those who share our culture. It is not that we don’t think success is possible. We know that it is. But we also recognize the barriers that people like us face to success and recognition.

What do you think?

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About Tami

Tami Winfrey Harris writes about race, feminism, politics and pop culture at the blog What Tami Said. Her work has also appeared online at The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ms. Magazine blog, Newsweek, Change.org, Huffington Post and Racialicious. She is a graduate of the Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism. She is mom to two awesome stepkids and spends her spare time researching her family history and cultivating a righteous 'fro.
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