Surprise! Communicated Stereotypes Contribute To Structural Racism

November 8th, 2012 | Categories: Uncategorized

On Wednesday November 7th, TCS’s guest blogger Cid Nichols wrote a post about the play “Ruined” being performed at her college. To date this post received one extremely important comment. It’s important because it provides a common counter argument to the structural racism argument Cid talked about in her post.

I’m sure our guest blog author Cid is going to have a response to the comment, if indirectly, in her “Part 2″ post. In the meantime I thought I would offer my perspective on the matter. I started to write my response in the comments section of her blog post and realized that it warranted its own post. Before reading my post here I recommend you read Cid’s post first and the comment it received.

Go ahead.

Go read it.

Take your time.

I’ll wait.

So here goes…

Let’s imagine for a minute that not all students are slackers trying to get away with less work, unwilling to be challenged, and complaining about any little inconvenience. In a word, let’s not stereotype.

Let’s imagine also for a minute that small decisions could potentially have big impacts. I’m not saying we all need to buy into the butterfly effect. I’m just saying that small decisions can sometimes have a larger impact than we intend.

Let’s imagine that something what is said in a situation could be interpreted differently than how it was intended.

Let’s imagine that a bad thing can happen even when the person who caused that thing had good intentions.

All of this imaginary thinking is not so out of the realm of possibility. Most people would accept these premises as reasonable. Okay, this next one is where things get more difficult!

Let’s imagine that over time the messages we send create reality. Okay, remember I warned you this is a tough one.

For example, imagine that if you tell something to someone enough that what was said is treated like it is real (true) or is at least perceived as real (true). I use one particular example in my classes when I talk about this.

I ask my students how they know I have a PhD.

They respond indignantly at first laughing at such a stupid question. But then they struggle to come up with an answer.

Inevitably the answer is that they hear people call me “Dr. Kurylo.” They also say because I’ve talked about my PhD program and completing my dissertation in class or in other conversations with them before. Seems reasonable.

Well, then I tell them, what if I had lied to everyone?

The next response from some, the more determined/stubborn, is that they’ve seen my doctorate degree hanging in my office. This is the funniest answer for me. I’ve never hung my doctorate in my office. It’s hanging very high in a ridiculously large frame in my home with my other two degrees.

So, how do they know I have a PhD?

They don’t.

Instead, they treat it as real or true because of how people communicate with me and how I communicate about it. In other words, over time the messages we send create reality or truth. And, this is the important part, this happens even in the absence of any evidence of that thing we created actually being real or true.

Now, let’s revisit the author’s point. Using all the premises I’ve stated, which admittedly she didn’t, she makes the point that structural racism exists in the example of the selection of “Ruined” for the school play.

One play in itself may not be an issue. But consider the message that gets communicated through an overall selection of plays (the context). The author seems to be saying that “Ruined” is the only predominantly black oriented play produced in the theater’s season programming. Well, it is great on one hand that there is even one in the season. But on the other hand, as the author questions, why this one?

Well, “Ruined” is a recent play first performed in 2007. The subject matter is important because it talks about a horrendous historical moment that is too often unfamiliar to an American audience. It won several awards and had a considerably long run on Broadway. It is clearly a challenging play for students in a way that colleges value. And, it provides an outlet for black oriented themes. So what could be bad, let alone racist, about any of this?

Barring all else that the author might say in her Part 2, which I am looking forward to, all I can offer is this.

If this is the only play that could be considered black oriented in the repertoire this year, then what message does that send about blacks? Well, if the message it sends communicates stereotypes of blacks, and if that is the only black oriented play in the season, then it reinforces those stereotypes because the repertoire doesn’t offer other equally focused messages about other less stereotypical black experiences.

What’s worse regarding structural racism is that the play could actually create those stereotypes as true for the audience if those messages are not contextualized with messages that portray less stereotypical portrayals of blacks. In other words, when messages get communicated often enough or even in a concentrated amount then the message may be treated as real or true. If my students are so convinced I’m a doctor that they think they’ve actually seen my diploma, then what must people think of blacks when they leave a performance of “Ruined” at Marymount Manhattan College (or anywhere that doesn’t balance this depiction with other less stereotypical depictions of blacks).

The author can make the claim of structural racism because the selection of the play potentially feeds into the stereotypes that exist within the culture and creates them again as real and true for its audience.

David Chappelle recognized the power for structural racism to exist in his work which at least in part caused him to end his short lived but exceedingly well received show The Chappelle Show.

After having worn blackface in one of his skits, he famously said, “it was the first time I felt that someone was not laughing with me but laughing at me.” In an interview with Anderson Cooper he said he began to feel like he was being “socially irresponsible.” Chappelle recognized the power that his performance had to reinforce the same stereotypes he was trying to advocate against. Chappelle provides an example, like the example provided by Cid, that people and institutions can play a role in structural racism without realizing it.

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