Racism's subtle side

Jim Haskins is a University of Florida English professor and author. "I have an average of 10 students - white - drop my class every semester when I walk in the classroom . . . because they've never had a black professor in their whole life," he said.

Lee Ferinden/Special to the Sun
Published: Wednesday, January 22, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 21, 2003 at 10:39 p.m.
The white-only drinking fountains are gone. The "we reserve the right to refuse service" signs are no longer hanging behind the restaurant counters. But racism persists, only in more subtle forms.
The stare of a clerk who watches her every move, giving her more assistance, more attention than necessary - is something Debra Walker King says she can't get used to.
"If it was once or twice, no, it wouldn't bother me. But if it happens regularly, and it does, then it does become bothersome. It does become a problem," said King, a University of Florida English professor.
"I don't feel racism is running rampant in Gainesville, " King said. "I just feel that sometimes people are unaware that things that may not bother them may bother someone who is accustomed to being excluded or misjudged based upon the color of their skin or gender."
University of Florida sociology professor Joe Feagin has studied racism for 40 years and published 44 books on the topic, including "The Many Costs of Racism," which he wrote with Karyn D. McKinney in 2002.
"Racist ideas and stereotypes are built into the woodwork," he said. "They're constantly reinforced as you grow."
Feagin said these ideas and assumptions can manifest themselves in ways that whites may not even notice, what scholars call "micro-aggressions."
For example, Feagin said, a black man gets onto an elevator and conversation stops. People edge away, a woman grabs at her pocketbook and holds it tightly. A black man walks by a car, and he's greeted by the sound of door locks clicking. The idea of a black man being dangerous, Feagin says, comes partly from the media's over-emphasis on black crime.
"A lot of the stuff we've learned is not countered in any effective way in our schooling or in the media," Feagin said.
Jim Haskins is the author of more than 100 books and a veteran English professor at UF. He says if he's walking downtown, people will strike up a conversation, and one of the first questions asked is, "What do you do?"
"Or they'll ask you if you're a minister, because you have a suit and tie on at 12 o'clock," he said.
When he replies that he teaches, the next question is, "What high school?" Even with his academic and professional track record, Haskins sees disbelief in the white faces when he tells them he's a professor. But the doubt isn't limited to downtown.
"I have an average of 10 students - white - drop my class every semester when I walk in the classroom . . . because they've never had a black professor in their whole life," he said.
And for those who do decide to stay, the dealings can at times be less than cordial.
"There's a real emotional level of disrespect by their questions, by their very tone in which they ask you where you went to school, that they don't believe you are legitimate, they think you got there by being affirmative action," he said.
Michael Leslie is a professor in the department of telecommunications in the UF College of Journalism and Communications. He teaches on the issues of race, class and gender in mass media. He sees the nearly invisible hand of racism in what he calls structural bias of standardized tests. While people will talk about the objectivity and fairness of comparing scores, they are not as eager to consider that the exams may favor applicants of certain racial or ethnic groups.
"It doesn't have to be intentional, that's the beauty of it, in terms of its defensibility, is that it doesn't look like it has any racial component, and yet the outcomes are racist if you think in terms of always having one group always dominate the positions of authority and power and influence in society," Leslie said.
In the debate on public education, Leslie says, people want to believe school systems are fair and equitable and that the playing field is level, even when there's a correlation between the average income in a neighborhood and the quality of schools students can attend. But bring the topic up, even in academic settings, and Leslie says you are faced with silence. One colleague described it as like having a conversation with an abusive spouse.
"You tell your spouse there's a problem here and it's something that needs to be addressed, and instead of the spouse listening, they tell you you are dysfunctional, or you are racist, or you have a chip on your shoulder because you're bringing it up," Leslie said.
Sharon Rush has a unique perspective on subtle racism. A law professor at UF, Rush is white, her 13-year-old daughter is black. She's the author of the book "Loving Across The Color Line."
"Unconscious racism is really hard. White folks don't see racism the same way as people of color see it," she said.
Raising her daughter, whom she adopted when she was a month old, was an eye-opener on the subject.
"Even as a civil rights lawyer, I thought I got it, but it wasn't until she came into my life that I realized how little I got it, how much more I had to learn," she said.
Now Rush sees how when strangers pass each other, whites will often greet other whites, but seldom does a greeting cross the color line. Unconscious racism shows up in many ways, and she's not immune.
"I have become hyper-vigilant also, in catching myself, trying not to make mistakes," she said.
And while the incidents can be small, Feagin said the subjects he's interviewed have told him, "these little events can trigger bad memories."
He recalled the story of an African-American woman in Houston who told of going shopping for drapes and of the kindly treatment she received from the clerk at the counter. But then she heard the voice from the storeroom say, "I'll get the drapes for the nigger woman." Her comment after telling that story stuck with him.
"The hardest thing for me to endure is the little murders every day," she said.
Gary Kirkland can be reached at 338-3104 or kirklag@gville

What is subtle racism?

University of Florida sociology professor Joe Feagin offers one example, backed by several major studies: Blacks and whites are treated quite differently when it comes to renting a home or an apartment. A survey in Boston found discrimination 60 percent of the time, a 2001 study in Houston found discrimination 80 percent of the time.
In some cases this discrimination was quite blatant, with people told "we don't rent to black people." But the majority is what Feigin calls "happy face" discrimination.
While blacks would be told, "Oh, I'd love to rent you this apartment, but it has just been rented," whites would be welcomed to look around. Blacks would also get the run around, being told "a place is being cleaned" and can't be shown, when whites would be free to see it.
-- Gary Kirkland

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