YAKIMA, Wash. — While images of Nazi salutes in Charlottesville served as a rude awakening for those who thought we left the Klan in the 1960s, for people of color, the fact that white supremacy is alive and kicking comes as no surprise.
Nor does it surprise local communities to see that — in response to the ideology on display in Virginia — many Yakima residents expressed more support for the white supremacists than the protesters opposing them.
“(Racism) is more subtle today than it had been in the past ... They’re not out there wearing white robes and hoods,” said longtime Yakima resident Billie J. Cox, who is black. What’s troubling is knowing that those people can be found throughout the community, including in positions of authority, she said. “And to be a person of color, you have to put your lives in these people’s hands, and that’s pretty darn scary.”
For people feeling overwhelmed and horrified by last weekend’s events, it can be hard to know how to respond in a helpful way, to take the outrage generated by Charlottesville and turn it into meaningful action alongside the people of color leading the charge.
In the aftermath of a tumultuous week, local experts offered their insight on steps that can be taken in everyday interactions to make change now.
“The funny thing about Charlottesville,” said Central Washington University assistant professor Rodrigo Renteria-Valencia, “is it’s just rendering visible what has always been there.”
Where bias originates
“If you want to talk to people and change their minds, you have to understand why they have these beliefs in the first place,” said sociology professor Nelson Pichardo Almanzar, who heads the ethnic studies minor at Central.
Sometimes, he said, the reason is the psychological benefit of feeling superior to other people. In other cases, people fear economic insecurity or job competition, despite the fact that they compete for those same resources within their own racial group.
So why do we draw tribal lines?
Some still cite imagined biological inferiority or superiority between people of different races. But beyond the fact that humans are 99.9 percent genetically identical regardless of race, Pichardo Almanzar says a look back at U.S. history shows how fluid and culture-dependent the very concept of race is.
In the 1830s, he said, Irish immigrants were not considered white, and black people were referred to as “burnt Irish.” Nor were German immigrants considered white; in the 1700s Benjamin Franklin was saying that only Anglo-Saxons (English people) were truly white. Italians and Jews suffered under the same bias at various points, and Armenians had to go to court in the 1920s to argue for their whiteness.
It took more than a century for all European groups to be accepted as white, Pichardo Almanzar said.
And religion follows the same path: “In terms of Muslims in the modern day, we look at them much as we looked at Catholics 150 years ago. With Catholicism, they feared about ‘Pope-ry’ — that the pope would say, ‘Attack America!’ and every Catholic would stand up and attack America.
“Which, raised Catholic myself, is absurd,” he said, “but this was a genuine fear expressed.”
To combat racism, Pichardo Almanzar said, schools from a young age need to teach accurate American history in a consistent version throughout the country, so that a common American narrative can help shape the American identity.
“Americans don’t know their own history,” he said. “They don’t know the history of race; they think it’s a genetic reality.”
Why bias perpetuates
Some people have tried to say that racism is a form of mental illness. But looking through an anthropological lens, Renteria-Valencia says the reason racism persists as an ideology is much simpler.
“It’s something that is socialized as an idea, and maintained because it serves as a structure of power — it’s as easy as that,” he said. “It’s an approach to reality that’s socialized as acceptable because it justifies a structure of power of certain people over other people.”
The good news is that, because it’s a social construct, racism can be challenged and changed, he said.
“But it is not up to the African-American guy or the Latino woman to say, ‘Enough; this is unfair.’ No,” he said. “Racism is a white problem, and it needs to be changed by those who have white privilege.”
Any mention of “white privilege” will invariably cause many people to stop reading, but that’s the root of the problem, Renteria-Valencia says: White people don’t ever talk about whiteness, and so when it comes up in conversations of racism or implicit bias, things get uncomfortable fast.
When he starts talking about privilege in his classes, the initial reactions are either guilt or denial, he said. Students say they didn’t ask for any privileges, and that simply being white doesn’t make them racist.
So he talks about Spider-Man: great power and great responsibility.
“White privilege can be a two-edged sword: Yeah, it’s something you didn’t ask for, but if you have it, you can use it for something different,” he said. “It’s a very Spider-Man-conflict in the sense of, ‘I don’t want this power, I just want to be a normal person.’ No; you have this power. Use it.”
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White privilege assumes that everyone starts out on a level playing field, so whatever they end up with, they deserve. Thus, a CEO earned his own way to the top position; an apple picker could have done the same but simply lacked ambition.
But such an assertion strips away the larger context in which people live, says professor Maria Cuevas, who leads the Chicano Studies department at Yakima Valley College.
“Our common understanding of racism is being the victim or target of somebody’s actions or behavior — calling you a racial slur, or not hiring you or not serving you because of the color of your skin or because you’re not speaking English,” she said. “That’s kind of the tip of the iceberg. What’s below the iceberg is the acceptable white supremacy, if you will — the institutionalized racism.”
Institutional racism, she said, is the everyday practices of any institution where the outcomes reveal that there are discrepancies in who participates in that institution and in who ends up advantaged or disadvantaged.
For example, “We can look at the percentage of people who have been presidents of the United States,” Cuevas said. Or the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. Or university presidents. Or airline pilots.
Here in Yakima, Cox remembers trying to get a job at a local retail shop and having the owner tell her flat-out, “I can’t hire you because I’d lose all my customers.”
And she can name many times when she and her husband were looking for housing, and as soon as the landlords learned they were black, the house mysteriously went off the market.
“There was a time we had actually paid down a deposit to rent a place in Richland, because my husband worked at Hanford; we gave the person a check, and by the time we got back to Yakima, that owner was sitting at our home to bring the check back,” she said.
He told them he’d forgotten his son was coming home from the military and would need the house.
Looking back to the foundation of the U.S., Cuevas said, you can see how bias against people of color was built into the law — limiting property ownership, citizenship, and access to education based on whiteness — and institutions have been building on the same premises ever since, perpetuating the same inequalities. And textbooks documenting or, more often, excluding that history have been largely written by white men.
“We can see how, what we think about the world in education, and about ourselves and each other, has been skewed because the voices that have been allowed to participate ... have been incomplete,” Cuevas said. “All we’re doing by adding these other perspectives is getting a more complete picture, and that complete picture brings us closer to truth.”
Guilt and denial are fun and all, but moving forward requires engaging with racism on a personal, day-to-day, baby-step basis, and putting privilege to good use.
“When we’re dealing with things as intense as racism, dealing with both the past and present, it touches a lot of people’s cores,” said Bernardo Cruz, staff attorney with Columbia Legal Services in Yakima, which handles many cases about discrimination. “And especially when you as a person, white or of color, see yourself as a good person, or trying to be a good person, if someone points out something you’ve said or done, your first reaction may be to reject it.”
Here are some ideas for how to start:
• Question defensiveness: “I’ll catch myself, if something happens and I have a reaction to it, I go, ‘Wait; why am I reacting this way?’” Cruz said. “It’s a simple idea to identify, but it’s so hard to practice.”
• Educate yourself: Listen to people of color when they share their experiences, but don’t make it their job to teach you about racism.
• Read: Cuevas recommends “Toward a New Vision: Race, Class, and Gender as Categories of Analysis and Connection” by Patricia Hill Collins; Renteria-Valencia suggests Robin DiAngelo’s seminal “White Fragility” paper. Other helpful titles include “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander, and “Between The World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates. (For more ideas, see this list: 17 Books On Race Every White Person Needs To Read.)
• Participate: Seek out community forums and panel discussions that talk about racism and inequality, such as the annual Diversity Series at Yakima Valley College.
• Foster empathy: Inequality flourishes when we can’t put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and imagine how their world feels, says Pichardo Almanzar.
“If we just had deeper levels of empathy and deeper levels of sympathy for the hardships of others, we’d have a better country,” he said. Unfortunately, “Unless it happens to you, or somebody close to you in your family, it’s hard to develop empathy.”
• Have the conversation: If someone makes a racist joke, don’t laugh, Cox says; ask why they think that way.
Renteria-Valencia agrees: “You can march; you can engage in Facebook debates; sure,” he said. “But it’s here, in the intimacy of daily interactions, where you’re exposed to something, you say, ‘This is not right.’”
And start with your inner circle, Cruz says: “If you aren’t willing to do that with your family or friends, you’ll never want to do that with a stranger. ... But if you really care for a person, and they’re important in your life, you want to confront them on these issues which are so important.”
• Get loud: “I wish that people would confront it,” Cox said. “If we don’t speak on certain things that are happening, then we’re condoning it. ... People really do need to stand up and say, ‘We don’t believe that and it’s not going to happen here.’”
• Molly Rosbach can be reached at 509-577-7728 or firstname.lastname@example.org.