Striving to Become Color Brave

Local educators are finding new ways to discuss race The early weeks of 2018 in greater Cincinnati have been discouraging for those who believed that the United States has made progress in recent decades with inclusion and tolerance. Incidents involving students and the adults around them reminded everyone that intolerance is rampant.

It is impossible to believe that the recreational basketball team for high school-aged boys in the Kings Local School District who put derogatory names on their jerseys or that the Holmes High School teacher using the term “porch monkey,” were acting out of blatant and conscious racism.

A teacher in Mason City Schools threatened an African American student with lynching if he did not obey. Though this word probably lurked in the teacher’s subconscious and came out in a moment of stress, the incident is a reminder that each of us carry unconscious biases that when spoken aloud are grounded in centuries of discrimination and brutality.

At a basketball game between St. Xavier High School in The Pit, Elder students repeatedly chanted belittling cheers at two St. X students, one of Asian American and one of African American descent. As in Kings, adults who were present were slow to react and shut down the offensive cheers.

Commentators expressed shock and community members demanded action that sent school leaders scrambling. The traditional response is to employ diversity and inclusion training to help students, faculty and administrators recognize their biases and begin to address them. Having started my career as a high school teacher, I know this sort of experience can be very impactful for young people who are working out their personal value systems. And under the pressure of a crisis, some adults are willing to reevaluate their stances. But this is what we as a society have been trying for five decades; why do we find ourselves stuck here?

At least on the issue of race, what if the way we think about what divides us, the paradigm of white and black, is fundamentally flawed? If it is, then traditional responses are flawed.

The good news is that a concrete effort to rethink the traditional paradigm is being pushed forward by Professor Joan Ferrante at Northern Kentucky University. For over 20 years, she and Prince Brown (now retired) taught a course entitled “The Social Construction of Race in the United States.”

Their argument rests on several points. First, race is not a biological reality. Despite centuries of arguments, the origin and significance of differences has nothing to do with biology. Second, the creation of white and black “races” is rooted in the contact experience between Europeans and sub Saharan Africans in the 15th and 16th centuries, which triggered deep cultural responses. As Winthrop Jordan wrote in his groundbreaking work White Over Black (1968), in English liturgical, literary and popular language, no two colors were so fraught with meaning and so utterly opposed. “White and black connoted purity and filthiness, virginity and sin, virtue and baseness, beauty and ugliness, beneficence and evil.”

Third, in the rough and tumble cauldron of early American society, groups of immigrants who hated each other in Europe—French and Germans, English and Irish, Protestants and Catholics—found common cause in “becoming white” and targeting a single group to oppress, people of African descent. This sociological process of manufacturing two supposedly distinct “races,” one white, one black, is explored by Noel Ignatiev in How the Irish Became White.

In a new initiative, “Mourning the Creation of Racial Categories,” Professor Ferrante gathered 15 NKU students—majors in dance, music, theater, visual design and literature. For 10 months they struggled with creating a new vocabulary and a new set of attitudes—a new paradigm—for speaking about identities that had traditionally been lumped under race. They had to learn to be “Color Brave.” In the end, they created visual images, original music, dance, theater and literature that expressed ways to mourn the creation of race categories. Their work is captured in a 60-minute documentary.

India Hackle, an international studies/theater major, summed up the importance of this experience by noting that without learning a new way of thinking and speaking, “I would have passed on the same lack of understanding that was passed on to me.”

Breaking the old paradigm has practical implications. After more than a century of thinking of sickle cell anemia as a “black disease,” medical researchers now recognize that this genetic adaptation is related to exposure to the malaria belt, and places that Americans think of as “white,” like certain villages in Greece, carry the gene in much higher proportions than Africans. Leading researchers like Professor Michael Yudell of Drexel University argue that scientists need to push past the race concept. Adherence to racial categories hinders researchers’ ability to recognize that evidence demonstrates that many health discrepancies are best explained by social factors. Put simply, zip codes better explain life expectancy than genetic codes. Locally, a 2015 Hamilton County Public Health Department study found variations as wide as 17 years in the county.

The good news is that Ferrante is expanding and deepening her work to develop ways for more of us to be color brave, shift our paradigms and break the chains of racial categories that have trapped Americans for centuries.

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