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Implicit Racism at AU: UNMASKING PREJUDICE

Three black students were sitting next to each other in a row—one of them was SPA junior Tatiana Laing—in a constitutional law class. The professor began discussing affirmative action. He mentioned an argument made by one of the Supreme Court justices in favor of affirmative action: a diverse racial breakdown of the classroom leads to better discussion. The professor then turned to the three black students in the class and asked, “So what do you three students have to add to this conversation?”

They laughed. Then they turned to each other in both shock and confusion. Laing thought if they said something, they would be playing into the comment; if they didn’t, they would make it seem as though the comment was acceptable. Laing responded, “I don’t think the argument was supposed to be taken that literally,” and the class laughed. 

Laing said affirmative action is the “most uncomfortable issue” for black students to discuss because “as a black student, you don’t know why you were accepted to this school.” She said black students are plagued with the question of whether or not they were admitted due to merit or race.

Given this anxiety about one’s status at the University, being placed in the position of being a public representative or spokesperson for an entire race is difficult, if not demeaning.  And Laing’s experience is not an isolated happening. This sentiment was echoed by sociology professor Judy Lubin, who was the lead author on a statement signed by over 1,800 sociologists demanding justice in Ferguson, Missouri. 

“If you’re a minority, and the subject comes up about race, sometimes people assume that you’re going to be the person of color to speak about the issue,” Lubin said. “Or that you must have something to say because you’re black or because you’re Latina. And sometimes the students of color might feel a certain type of burden that makes them uncomfortable.”

Lubin says that particularly in mixed-race classrooms, students are less comfortable discussing race. She frames discussions about race in the classroom as not only a problem people of color deal with, but rather a “societal ill” that should matter to all. When bringing up race in the classroom, she says she uses videos or brings up current events, such as Ferguson, to frame the issue.

As a black professor, Lubin says she has also experienced classroom bias directed at her.  For example, she says she feels there are higher standards for her being black and a young woman, which she says shows the intersectionality of oppression. 

Modern racism is more subtle and nuanced than its predecessor: we no longer have “white” and “colored” signs over drinking fountains, yet racism still exists. We are socialized to look at people differently. In a report published by the Justice Policy Institute, researchers said that depictions of crime were disproportionate to people of color. We see the concrete examples in everyday life: a woman on a bus pulls her bag closer to her as a black man passes or a security guard keeps a close watch on a black shopper.

“We all harbor [implicit biases] one way or another and we do need to be aware of them,” Lubin said. “And it may be race, it may be gender, it may be sexuality; but we have to be conscious of the biases—our standpoints—and the ways in which we view the world, and [make] sure we are treating people the same and not letting biases cloud the way in which we interact with each other.”

More explicitly, racist comments are seen on Yik Yak, an anonymous Twitter of sorts where users can up-vote or down-vote posts. On Yik Yak, we have seen the proliferation of racism within the last couple of months. Following a Black Lives Matter protest on campus called The Darkening, a student posted “Black lives matter. But only 3/5 as much.” Another posted, “Minstrel show outside of mgc at 3, everybody’s welcome!” In response, the AU administration released a statement condemning the racist posts. 

More racist posts occurred over spring break. One said, “Slavery was the worst thing to happen to this country, bringing them over here…ugh” to which someone responded “^completely agree. The sad fact is they complain about racism when 99% of the time there [sic] have totally racist views towards white people. At my school I literally get made fun of for being white.”

“What we are experiencing on campus is just a microcosm of what is happening in society,” Lubin said. A University of Washington study in 2009 found that 70 percent of those surveyed harbor an unconscious preference for white people over black people in comparison to 20 percent who consciously admitted racial preference in the Implicit Association Test (IAT). IAT measures how quickly people associated positive or negative words with white or black faces. It found that people of all races were quicker to associate positive words, such as “peace,” “love,” and “happy,” with white faces and “awful,” “agony,” and “hate” with black faces.  

The grouping of people into in-groups and out-groups has evolutionary roots: we are disposed to favor our own side. Prehistoric humans who favored their own group while hunting were poised to survive, and this inherent bias to individuals is present today. The combination of the ease of inter-group discrimination and the difficulty of addressing implicit racism leads to people becoming very defensive.

“People start to take it really personally when you start to talk about race,” Laing said. “People know there is racial inequality in this country. […] Like if I say the criminal justice system treats black people differently than it treats white people, that makes people really uncomfortable right off the bat and they look at themselves and say, ‘Well, I’m not racist and I don’t hate black people.’ […] And in this school especially, they say, ‘I want to be a police officer, I want to be a prosecutor, I want to be a congressperson, I want to be president. I’m not racist.’ They associate [systems and institutions] with themselves.”

Addressing race and racism is more a matter of what Lubin terms “consciousness-raising,” or allowing people to challenge their beliefs in a safe space. Both Laing and Lubin cite Black Lives Matter as a way of raising awareness about implicit and institutional racism. Laing, along with other students, has been talking to the Office of Campus Life to create a more inclusive community for black students and lasting initiatives such as coalition building. She wants to continue dialogue on campus. 

“We’re not mad at any person who has a negative or racist opinion, because what I’ve realized over time is that it’s not that person’s fault,” Laing said. “If I’m walking in the street by myself as an African American woman and I see a black male on the other side of the street, I am just as conditioned to be afraid as every other person in this room. […] We are all products of living in the United States […] It’s just overcoming those perceptions and understanding where they come from because I also feel that’s where the combativeness comes from.” 



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