Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

Seeing Clearly without Being Blinded: Obstacles to Black Self-Examination

Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

Seeing Clearly without Being Blinded: Obstacles to Black Self-Examination

Article excerpt

We live in a society where racialized concepts have become so much a part of our lives that we may not realize how we are affected. Racial dialogues are a useful tool for deconstructing a racialized worldview, yet often the focus for analysis and critique is only on Whites. Black dialogue participants who have lived in the same racially charged society also may be harboring assumptions that could be pernicious. This paper represents an attempt to systematize and analyze my observations of those assumptions that African Americans may bring to racial dialogues which may hinder their movement forward out of the shadow of a racist society.

Some people say there is too much talk about race and racism in the United States. I say there is not enough. (Tatum, 1997, p. 193)

We live in a society where consciousness of race and its implicit racial divide affect our concepts and attitudes toward beauty, fashion, intelligence, physical prowess, career choice, justice, and even truth. As African Americans, we may feel that the people whose views are affected by the racialized assumptions are White, but if one grows up in this society, it is impossible to escape the influence of these pernicious concepts that seem to find hosts, replicate, and flourish within our society with the tenacity of deadly viruses. The idea of race, with its attendant hierarchy and catalog of privileges or privations, represents a pandemic disease against which no one in this society is inoculated. As Marable (1995) corroborated in Beyond Black and White, "many Americans view the world through the prism of permanent racial categories" (p. 186). Particularly in society-wide institutions like schools, hard work is required to overcome the power of pervasive ideas about race (i.e., beautiful means White; intelligent means White or Asian and probably male; powerful means White and male).

As codirector of the Institute for the Study of Race Relations at our university, I have participated in many discussions of race and organized race dialogues. I have also taught courses with racial content to both predominantly Black and predominantly White student populations. Over the years, I have noticed recurrent themes bubbling up from African Americans that I find troubling. This article represents an attempt to systematize and analyze my observations of attitudes and assumptions that I believe represent obstacles to African Americans ever overcoming the detrimental and stifling legacies of their past. For one, it is important to distinguish between external and internal factors coloring the racialized lenses of African Americans, or between demonstrable systemic and cultural forms of racism that persist in American society, and the perceptions and responses to this cultural reality on the part of Blacks. Secondly, I am interested in the effects of African American perceptions and responses-whether justified or not-on their own ability to surmount the crippling consequences of cultural racism. The self-fulfilling effects of stifling-and, at times, lethal-White racism are well documented: if a White lender, for instance, considers a Black applicant for a loan to be "high risk," and thus either turns down the applicant or provides very unfavorable loan conditions, s/he in effect creates the very conditions that in turn inevitably make the Black applicant "high risk." But what if internalized African American responses to systemic and cultural racism likewise perpetuate and/or heighten the very problem that generated the response in the first place? Are there themes, responses, perceptions on the part of African Americans, in short, that may turn out to be either immobilizing and/or self-defeating? And if so, how can they be conceptualized and understood?

As an optimist, I believe that although systemic racism and discrimination still exist in our country, there will come a joyful day when these institutions will finally be dismantled. If, however, we African Americans still harbor ideas and concepts that may have been formerly useful, but are now injurious, then we may trip over these vestigial elements and cripple our own forward movement. …

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