Civil Rights Stereotypes

I grew up in a rural Ohio town with very few minorities.  Although I had witnessed discrimination for various reasons where I lived, racial discrimination was never something that was truly brought to my attention.  It wasn’t until I moved to North Carolina during my junior year of high school that my eyes were opened to other races, cultures, and backgrounds.

In many ways it was a shock to move somewhere so diverse.  I have vivid memories of my first encounters with other cultures.  I remember being in Golden Corral and thinking to myself that it was the first time I had ever seen a black family.  Until the age of 16, I had never had a Hispanic friend or met someone who was Indian.  As if moving to the South wasn’t a transition in of itself, I was also curiously observant of all these new types of people I was meeting.

As I settled into my new home, I began making friends with people from very different backgrounds, and I was perplexed by some of things I witnessed and experienced.  I heard white friends and non-friends make racist jokes that were met without opposition.  Sports, clubs, and activities were all very strictly divided by race.  There were things that “white people couldn’t do” or that “black people were made for.”  Students who were learning English were basically invisible.  I noticed that my Asian friends frequently had to laugh at and embody Asian stereotypes and jokes.

I could go into many specific examples, but it upset me how unnecessarily divided the high school and town was; how minority students were treated; and how some minority students had such low expectations for themselves or believed the false stereotypes that others perpetuated.  I had always seen myself as someone who sticks up for those who are ostracized or bullied for any reason, and race was no exception.  Moving to North Carolina had given me so many new opportunities, so many things to be excited about–and I wanted others to feel that they could seize these open doors as well.

If I could not be considered an activist in some form of the word before, then my activism can be traced back to when I joined the Wilson Youth Council during my senior year. The purpose of the group was leadership development and community involvement. To spare you a long story, WYC ended up being one of the best experiences of my life, and I made great strides in sticking up for all students who felt bullied or discriminated against (in any way) as the chair of an anti-bullying campaign.

As you might imagine, standing up for what is right had some consequences. There were a lot of people who didn’t understand what I was fighting for or, worse, denied there was a problem. Some people treated me differently, as if by standing up for minorities (among other groups), I was somehow “less white.” I had a racist track coach that did everything in his power to ensure that I wouldn’t run the 400 m dash, which “wasn’t a race for white people.” My sister, who was equally upset by the situation in our community, also struggled fiercely during this time—she was seen as someone who hung out with minorities (as if you can only have a white or non-white friend base), and she was highly discriminated against as the only white girl on a black step team.

It was frustrating when my family or I were discriminated against when we were rooting for minority equality, but I tried to never let it get to me. I knew that there would always be hateful people in the world and that it shouldn’t discourage or stop me from supporting an equal rights movement. Like any difficult situation, it was going to take patience and understanding from everyone.

The next eye-opening experience I had was my study abroad trip to Argentina the summer after my freshman year of college. I arrived eager to explore a new place, make new friends, and become fluent in Spanish…I had never even ridden in a plane before, so I was nothing less than starry-eyed and hopeful. But when I arrived at my host mom’s house, I quickly learned that not only was she not going to patiently help me learn the language, but that she had clear opinions about white people from the United States. She constantly told me how privileged I was. Random people on the street would glare at me, cuss at me, or laugh at my Spanish. The school coordinator would dismiss my health concerns or reports that I wasn’t being fed by my host mom because she attributed them to my privileged upbringing. It didn’t matter that I was someone who wanted to immerse themselves into the culture, learn the language, and appreciate another way of life—there were some people who would always treat me differently because of the color of my skin and the stereotypes about my country.

It has now been four years since I moved to North Carolina on a snowy December night, and I can say that my views haven’t changed. I still believe in equality and kind treatment of everyone; I don’t turn away from activities where I will be a token white person, and I feel strongly about extinguishing pointless stereotypes. However, after four years of being some form of an activist, I can also say that I am utterly exhausted and unwillingly frustrated.

As a white person with a huge heart and concern for other people, I can only take so many accusations of what white people “are.” Privileged, racist, stuck up, exclusive. There are some white people who are those things. You could argue that many white people are those things. But as someone who has spent so much time fighting for equality—risking my social situation and reputation, in some cases—it was only going to be a matter of time before these comments unintentionally wore me down.

I understand where these catch-all statements come from, and I know that so many bad experiences with a certain group of people can make you feel that they are all tainted or “bad” in some way. (I find this similar to when a girl who has been in bad relationships says that all guys are “pigs” or horrible.) But you can’t let bad experiences in life shape the way you feel about people as a whole; not only does it discourage those who care about you and your situation, but it is also hard to fight stereotypes by accusing white people of being a certain stereotype.

I don’t want some sort of gold star for being the white girl that stands up for minorities. I really don’t need any recognition at all—I just don’t want to be included with other racist or otherwise exclusive white people.

For those minorities who are heavily involved with social and racial issues, think about your audience and who you are trying to gain respect from. For the most part, it’s white people. As it is often pointed out, the people in charge of many of our institutions are in fact white. By basing an argument in the fact that “white people aren’t accepting” or using an accusatory style, nothing will ever change. People will get defensive—both those who aren’t accepting and those who are.

The best way for us to move forward with this conversation is to continue to assert, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. did, that all people are created equal and deserve equal treatment. Don’t push that “white people are given many more opportunities than minorities”—even though you will often find this to be the case, you are only going to upset and shut down the white people you want listening to you. Instead, you should be pushing “we notice that there aren’t as many minorities in leadership positions, and we want to provide more opportunities for mentorship and education.” Instead of arguing that “white people aren’t accepting,” tell people—show people—why it is hard to be a token minority amongst white people without being accusatory.

I know that pointing out discrimination is a touchy situation, and I hope the points I’m trying to make aren’t offensive to anyone—they’re not intended to be. My hope is that anyone who reads this will use it to encourage white activists and to make a stronger argument for equal treatment. Regardless of your feelings of white people or how they behave, the point of this whole movement is to restore equality, and this cannot be accomplished without also restoring harmony. The point isn’t just to force respect—it’s to create a community in which those who are different are valued…where two people of different histories don’t view each other as “privileged” or as someone who “was just handed opportunities,” but as integral pillars of a civilized society.

I warn you—don’t twist this to show how white people are mistreated or to prove I’m subconsciously racist. This is an honest conversation, and no issue is black or white.

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