Even the smallest of events can have the most significant impact. On this past Saturday night, I was walking with a friend through the city of Providence, Rhode Island. We were in the neighborhood where Brown University is. Brown, an Ivy League University, is located in an extremely wealth area in Providence. What this most likely means is that this neighborhood is a very safe one. My friend and I were walking down this one street. It was silent as a soundproof room. Some yards in front of us was a black man who was leaning on his car, looking on his phone. I automatically felt a sense of hesitation. The feeling that I had was that this man would threaten me and my friend. We pursued onward until we passed the man. The irony of God epiphanized in that moment when I realized that the man was wearing a bright neon vest that was labeled “security” on the back. I interpreted this man to be a violent entity, when in fact he was there to protect me.
This thirty second occurrence is going to need a lot of time to unpack. What I engaged in during my walk towards the black security guard was racial profiling. I saw the man’s skin color and the simple grey hat that was on his head and thought him to be hostile. If this security guard was white, I would most likely have not felt threatened. And yes, I would like to emphasize that it was a feeling, not a thought that I had. There is this famous statement of “trust your gut.” I trusted my gut in that moment and it told me that this black man was bad. The “trust your gut” philosophy is usually effective for helping us protective ourselves. In my Diversity class, we talk about how racism is smog. Everybody breathes it in. Not one is exempt. Thus, what if racism is so integrated into our being that we constantly act out of those racist tendencies even when we don’t notice? The “trust your gut” philosophy is seen as natural, good and safe. But, what if our “trust your gut” philosophy is influenced by the racism that has been fused into our internal anatomy (mental and emotional selves). Thus, we interpret our racial profiling tendencies to be our “gut” and because of that, our racial profiling seems natural, good and safe. This is a terrifying reality to consider.
Yes, you did hear me mention that I am studying in a Diversity class. Diversity is a sociology elective that studies the diversity of individuals that is located within the United States. To be able to talk about the diversity in the U.S., we also need to talk about the fact that all of these groups that do not identify as white, straight cis-gender and male are oppressed. What this means is that there are those in the U.S. who do not have access to material possessions, status, personal wellbeing, etc. simply because of who they are. We learn in this class that the United States exists under a white supremacist structure. I am not referring to the KKK or the Neo-Nazis, but I am talking about the fact that white people hold significantly more power than anybody else. This white supremacist structures exists because of a long history of the creation of a societal structure in which whites are benefited over everybody else. What I would like to point out is that I am thoroughly engaging myself in this class by day and racially profiling black men by night. How twisted is that?
The teacher of the class explained to us a couple weeks ago that we might be able to play with these sociological theories, but in actuality, we have no idea how to practice implementing this information in the real world. Our teacher was simply explaining the reality of the situation. This statement of hers I found to be true on Saturday night. I am able to grasp these theories, speak up in class and speak up among my friends about the white hegemonic structure of the United States. I can make myself seem enlightened and righteous. And maybe I am, maybe I am not. But, when it is my turn to flex these scholarly muscles outside of college, I come out appearing weak. Racism is so ingrained into our beings that I am acting racist even though I am simultaneously learning about the evils of it. I would then like to suggest that even if I, a sociology student studying racism in the United States, can racially profile people, then wouldn’t it also be possible for police officers to engage in racially profiling others. The public opposition that has come up in the cases for Michael Brown and Eric Garner has included statements that the men were not obeying the law or that the police officers were trying to defend their selves. But, could it be possible that there is subconscious psychological racism that is running through that police officer’s mind that causes him to pull that trigger (it’s a totally different discussion to recognize the fact that Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown six times). Everybody breathes the smog of racism.
We cannot talk about individual discrimination without talking about societal structures. My racial profiling of that man in Providence didn’t just come from nowhere. My entire life, I have lived in homogeneous environments. I grew up in a rural town in Northeastern Connecticut and almost everybody there is white. The college that I go to is very homogeneous as well. Interacting with people of different skin colors is a rarity for me. The environments that I grew up in affected what happened in Providence. I have implicitly learned that white is natural, good and safe. White is familiar. Those who exist outside of that paradigm are unfamiliar and abnormal. Unsafe. This is not the reality, but it is my virtual reality that has been silently constructed around me for my whole life. Moreover, I have learned that urban areas are primarily composed of people of color who are violent. This is not necessarily the truth. There are violent urban areas that are composed of people of color. (If this is the truth, shouldn’t’ we question why that is instead of dismissing the situation by saying that these people are thugs and lack self-control?) Our environment subconsciously influences us to think what is good, natural and comfortable. Because of the spaces that I have grown up in, a black man in the city is not considered normal or familiar. Because of that lack of familiarity, I will treat that man as if he is a threat to my well being.
Our environment affects how we think and operate. A few weeks ago, my college released a sexual ethics statement that clearly stated what the school believed in in regards to human sexuality. In that letter, the Board of Trustee of my college discussed topics such as sex before marriage, LGBTQ+ peoples, etc. A friend of mine copied the link of the statement and with it, posted a paragraph on why he thinks that the letter is discriminatory. In this paragraph, he included the fact that it was written by the Board of Trustees, which is largely made up of wealthy, white, straight cis-gendered people. In addition, the majority of the research that the Board referred to were books written by white, straight cis-gendered men. I then shared this post, which was quickly followed by a response by a friend of mine who disagreed with what I had shared. He said that the identity of those who are writing the sexual ethics statements has nothing to do with the fact that they are white, straight, cis-gendered and male. Considering what I have said earlier in this essay, I would like to respond and say that the identity of the writers has everything to do with it! The environment here at my college is heavily influenced by the identity of the majority of the peoples, which is white, straight, and cis-gendered. Because of that, we end up being psychologically and subconsciously impacted by the beliefs of the majority people. It’s not necessarily wrong to believe what the majority believes, but we cannot allow our beliefs to restrict our awareness of the real experiences of the minority students.
We need to be able to analyze the composition of our environment. Then, we need to question how it is impacting our thought process. It is very likely that our thought process is being impacted in a manner that is discriminatory. It goes back to the idea that whatever exists outside of the environment that we are familiar with is subliminally considered abnormal or bad.
A friend of mine, Carl Brooks, wrote a reflection on police brutality. I thought that his writing would speak even further to the idea of police brutality and racial profiling. I highly encourage you to read his piece, Fear the badge. The link to the essay is: http://tartan.gordon.edu/2015/10/03/guest-opinion-fearing-the-badge/ .