“…But what does this have to do with today?” Discussing Race and Systemic Inequality [Part I]

“Why did they do that?” Will asks me on the afternoon of my first day at Miller’s Hill. I have just explained how scientists let four hundred black men go with untreated syphilis for nearly half a century in order to study the effects of the disease.

I hesitate, my eyes lingering on his otherwise blank “Tuskegee Experiment” note card. How do you explain the dehumanization of racism to an eleven year old? “Well, the scientists, who were white, thought that they could do whatever they wanted to black people.”

“But why?” He scrunches his brow, genuinely confused.

I continue, “Since white people were in power – and for the most part, they still are – they could do horrible things to black people without consequences. So sometimes, they used them for experiments.”

Will’s eyes suddenly widen. “That’s awful!”

“It is. And the experiment would have continued if the press hadn’t found out about it and made it public in the seventies. Of course by then, many of the subjects had already died from the disease, and the others were very sick.”

Will is suddenly solemn, his mouth opening and closing slightly as his eyes dart from me to the Wikipedia page. Outside of Slavery, it might be the first time he has heard of any state sanctioned atrocities his racial group has perpetrated.

One month later, Naomi and I sit with the class on the carpet for our race and racism lesson. “So, who can tell me the definition of racism?” I ask the class, soliciting the mainstream definition before expanding it into racial prejudice plus institutional power. Surprisingly, students accept this new definition with little contestation.

“So how do people have power in our society?” I continue, “What does that mean?”

“Like, having a lot of money?” offers Sara, a quiet, tall, and tremendously freckled white student.

“Right! Having money is one way people can be powerful in society. What else?” Students consider the question for a moment. When no responses are forthcoming, I direct their attention to the back wall, where we have hung the ads from the gender lesson, under the heading, “What do these images tell us about ourselves?”

“What about those ads and the messages they send? Do you think people who control the media are powerful?” The class offers a collective noise of agreement before we discuss other powerful people in society, like politicians, lawmakers, police, corporate leaders, and education administrators.

“And what race are most of people in these positions?”

Without hesitation – and almost in unison – the class responds, “White.”

Alexis suddenly perks up. “They’re all men, too!” I am increasingly awed by students’ perceptiveness and acceptance of concepts and information so contrary to mainstream messages.

“Being in power is about more than political positions or laws. As we just mentioned, it’s also about the media and who we see.” Naomi tells them, “For example, think about Disney movies. What race are the main characters usually?”

Several students murmur, “White,” Before Jaden, exclaims, “But what about Mulan or Pocahontas? They’re not white!” A few students nod their heads in support.

“That’s true, there are definitely exceptions to the rule,” I say. “But generally, if you can count all the exceptions on one hand, it’s actually proving the rule.” Jaden gawks, and then leads the class in counting off Disney princesses of color one by one.     Continue reading