After I spoke to a group of high school students in a small, homogenous town whose citizens were predominantly of European descent (i.e. White), a young woman sent me a message that described her prejudices against me before hearing me speak.
She said, “I was sitting in a classroom a few days ago waiting to fall asleep as some Black guy—a stranger—was preparing to talk to a group of [White] high school students. I was thinking ahead to what your sob story would be, what a waste of time your speech would be, how you would not be able to relate to us on ‘our level,’ and how soon it would hopefully be over with.”
She eventually went on to apologize for her wrong “assumptions” about me and thanked me for giving her a new perspective about “Black people,” for giving her hope, and inspiration to improve her own life.
That was not the first time I have heard such sentiments being expressed. In fact, that young woman’s ideas are probably more common than one would like to believe.
But how did she get those ideas about Black people? What would lead her to think that the color of my skin would determine the content of my speech, my intellectual capacity, and my qualifications as a speaker? As an educator?
More specifically, I wondered, how did White people come to see people of African descent, or “Black people,” as ignorant, unqualified, lazy, intellectually inferior, and devoid of civility?
The idea that one’s skin color predetermines one’s biology and behavior has a fascinating and complex history.
The Origin and History of “Race”
In his book, Race: The History of an Idea in the West, Ivan Hannaford meticulously argues that race as an organizing idea—a lens through which much of the world is seen today—was remarkably absent in the ancient world.
He says the seed of the idea of race did not emerge until the 13th to 16th centuries. However, it was not until the 17th century that the scientific community legitimized the idea of race.
For example, European scientists, basing their research on Darwin’s theory of evolution, developed the theory of Unilinear Cultural Evolution, which is the theory that all cultures evolve from simple to complex along a single trajectory of progress.
They argued that societies with social and political systems such as market economies or democracies had “higher development.” In comparison, cultures that did not have market economies or democracies had “lower development.” Not surprisingly, the northern European scientists who developed that theory defined northern Europeans as having progressed to having the “most Culture,” while non-European people were seen as less evolved, living in a simpler, less civilized, less “cultured” state.
For decades European and U.S. anthropologists used culture to classify societies as higher or lower on a scale of cultural development. This led people to believe that one person could have more “culture” than someone else.
That unexamined ethnocentricity through which European and American scientists saw ethnic “others” skewed their analysis and their conclusions, thus reinforcing the ideological racism that had been laid in previous centuries.
With the scientific authority behind them, Europeans saw race as a means by which to justify the exclusion, oppression, colonization, and eventual enslavement of ethnic others.
Scholars have pointed out that the very idea of race emerged as an informal ideology that legitimated slavery and oppression of African and indigenous people.
In Jamestown, Massachusetts, we catch a glimpse of the nascent stages of race in the United States.
When the British began to settle in the New World and sought to make a profit, they initially hired indentured servants from Europe to work the land. However, because those indentured Europeans knew the language and looked like their overseers, they could escape and blend in with people who had settled in other colonies, so the British quickly realized that they needed another plan.
At that point, the British turned to Native Americans, forcing them into indentured servitude. However, because Native Americans knew the terrain better than their European masters, they, like their European predecessors, escaped and returned to their families.
With no labor force in place and with the trans-Atlantic slave trade becoming increasingly efficient, the British decided to purchase African slaves. Because African captives did not know English, the settlers’ language, they did not share the same British culture, and because they did not look anything like the British settlers, African slaves had a much harder time trying to escape. After all, they could not blend in with other colonists. Therefore, Africans were deemed the perfect solution to the British problem regarding labor.
The British became so dependent on those African slaves that they created categories to make their arrangements permanent. In his book, In the Matter of Color: Race and The American Legal Process: The Colonial Period (1978), Higginbotham explains that:
“This preference for African labor was institutionalized in custom and law. Within thirty years of Jamestown’s founding, color terms began to appear in colony legislation. For example, ‘negro’ servants could be held for life, but not ‘whites.’ The idea of race, or color, then, was created to subjugate African slaves and make sure that their enslavement ended in death only.”
With these arrangements in place, race became a marker, a banner, for social status. Those in power did not realize that the meanings they attributed to race were a mirror of the political and social realities they had created.
Of course, because Africans and people of African descent were denied the opportunities to get education and develop culturally, it would make sense that they could not read, write, or excel in other, more culturally refined, areas.
Their realities were the consequence of the social and political conditions under which they lived, not their biological make-ups.
Blind to their own ethnocentricity, the British equated “Black” as someone inferior, undeserving of rights, and incapable of being civilized. Black symbolized savagery, ignorance, lacking intelligence, and uncivilized.
Although almost no scientist or anthropologist today would argue that race, as we have described it, exists ontologically (in real life), the consequences of such an ideology permeate the world today.
Race has shaped what we see and how we see it.
Do you agree?
The fact that a young girl of European descent would question my legitimacy as a speaker and question my intellectual capacity simply because I’m Black is a remnant of centuries of systemic racism.
Critical Race Theory and What it Means
This leads me to Critical Race Theory (CRT), which is a hot topic in education right now. Now, I have never used the term Critical Race Theory in my 20+ years of working in schools. In fact, I never even heard of the term until a few years ago.
The term means different things to different people, and has become the new boogeyman to some people. But I’m not sure that they always understand what it intends.
In their book, Critical Race Theory (2017), Delgado, Stefancic, and Harris explain that CRT is founded on the belief that people of color are marginalized and oppressed by power structures that are rooted in white privilege and white supremacy; and, as such, those structures should be transformed.
Is it true that people of color have been marginalized and oppressed?
And is it true that people of color have been marginalized and oppressed by power structures that are rooted in white privilege and white supremacy?
If what I have said about the origin and history of “race” is historically accurate–and it is–then anyone who has an unwavering commitment to truth should have no problem admitting that, historically, power, wealth, prestige, status, education, justice, etc. have been clustered to privilege people with white skin and disadvantage everyone else.
That system must be dismantled, and I believe that parents and educators are in the best position to help eliminate the power that “race” has in our world.
Whether schools use the term CRT to talk about those systems, or some other term, does not matter to me or most Black people.
Honestly, I believe it is sometimes better to avoid such trigger terminology, and use different words to express concerns about systemic and institutional racism.
Again, regardless of the terms used, any system that unfairly disadvantages people of color from enjoying the right to life, liberty, justice, and opportunities to pursue happiness ought to be transformed.
How? How can it be transformed? How should it be transformed?
That, my friend, is a much bigger question for another day.
What I’m Doing Today
For now, I do know how to help reach, teach, and empower students of color so that they can overcome those systems in order to succeed in school and graduate prepared for work and life.
By God’s grace, I’ve been able to succeed despite those unfair systems because of very hard work, the help of educators, and other loving adults.
And, for the past 20+ years, that’s what I’ve been helping others do, in schools, jails, at conferences and convention centers.
I’ll continue to do this work as long as I can.
No matter what you do for a living, I hope that you, too, are somehow doing equity work so that America can really become great for everyone.