Life Notes: Confront Institutional Racism
by Cindy Wyatt, LCSW

The song goes, “Ebony and Ivory live together in perfect harmony, side by side on my piano keyboard. Why can’t we?” The songwriter pleas for racial unity–wondering why it is so hard. I wonder, too. Am I just terribly naive?

In an ideal world, we would all recognize the superficiality of skin color, value the uniqueness and similarity of other cultures, be multi-lingual and value diversity. But, we mostly don’t. Instead, we judge first by skin color and only secondarily by the “content of … character” – if we even let someone get that far with us. We buy into stereotypes and generalizations-which can be funny and even close to the truth-but still do damage because we don’t look deeper.

I’ve observed that the youth here at the Children’s Home are like a microcosm of the real world. There are some who carry racist attitudes and don’t question them. Some, by virtue of close proximity with youth of many colors, begin questioning their earlier beliefs about each other and begin to be colorblind. Then, you might hear someone openly embrace another culture and glorify it. They make seemingly complimentary comments such as “All black girls are …” or “all white boys are …” They don’t realize that these are still polarizing views.

I think my four-year old daughter, who is of East Indian descent, notices differences in the value people place on color. It might be because she so identifies with me and wants to look like her Mom that she has gone through a stage recently in which she wants to be “beige-y” instead of brown. Could it be that as she observes fair-skinned Cinderella, Ariel, and Sleeping Beauty, she wonders if that is the “right” color to be a Princess?

There is a concept called institutional racism. It refers to the racism that is so insidious and pervasive that we don’t even recognize it. For instance, we don’t question that a disproportionate number of dark-skinned people all over the world live in third world countries or at poverty level. We might get caught with our misperceptions out when we meet someone in a job not normally associated with a person who looks like them. Racism is that fleeting moment of discomfort we experience when someone unlike us enters our world. It is the complacent acceptance of the all-black or all-white neighborhoods and schools and churches that exist despite desegregation.

We all have been influenced by institutional racism. It is hard to confront and deal with our own version of it-much less take on the whole world. But … try. Help your child think differently. Question their global comments. Act differently yourself despite discomfort. Love your neighbors and really get to know them. And then love and interact beyond your neighborhood. Volunteer some where outside your comfort zone. Desegregate your world however you can-hire someone, invite someone to your church, question how it is and always has been! Like the bumper sticker says: “Think Globally, Act Locally.” Live harmoniously in this world of many colors.

The Life Notes articles are written by staff of Louisiana Methodist Children’s Home and are published in The Ruston Daily Leader.

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