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The Daily Tar Heel

Racism Can Be Difficult to Notice

Growing up white in a white system, I was systematically taught to look down on those who were different from me.

I do not blame my parents or my teachers or my peers for teaching me racism. This is absolutely not the case. Most of them did the best job they could in teaching me to love all different kinds of people. Unfortunately, the system was not set up so they would always succeed.

Let's define our terms so there is no confusion here.

Discrimination is the personal act of say, not hiring someone because they are black, or even because they are white.

Racism, however only occurs when white people, consciously or unconsciously, discriminate against people of color. This is because in our society white people have power. People of color do not. Don't believe me? Keep reading.

Of all the forms of racist discrimination, systematic racism is the most menacing. We're carefully trained not to see it. When you were in elementary school, did you notice that the vast majority of pictures in your history texts were of white people and almost always of men?

Have you ever stopped to question why we have never had a president or even a Congress that truly reflected America's diversity?

Systematic racism works two ways. The most obvious component is that blacks are excluded and discriminated against. What is harder to see, however, is that white people have privilege over people of color that allows them to often unknowingly perpetuate the exclusion and discrimination of them. This white privilege is what we white people need to focus on giving up if we want to truly end racism.

Paul Kivel was here last semester. I went to his workshop on building alliances across race and gender. One of the most memorable parts of this workshop illustrated the way white privilege works. He read a series of statements and asked the white people in the room to stand when the statement applied to us. He also requested that if the participants did not know if the statement applied to us, that we think about why we did not know. The people of color were asked to remain seated and observe the exercise.

The following were some of his statements:

1. My property is on land that used to belong to Native Americans.

2. I can be reasonably well assured that the buildings I visit on a daily basis are cleaned by those of a different race than I am.

3. It is also probable that I do or will eventually make more money than these people.

4. The majority of the food that I eat is grown by people of a different race than I am.

5. The majority of the clothes that I wear are woven and assembled by workers of a different race.

Because I can't remember all the statements Kivel used, here are similar aspects of white privilege from a Peggy McIntosh article:

6. I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to "the person in charge," I will be facing a person of my race.

7. I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having co-workers suspect that I got it because of my race.

8. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.

9. I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.

10. Whenever I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.

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The majority of the room was standing most of the time. What was more interesting to me was a phenomenon that occurred during some of the least obvious statements. Especially during the questions about food and clothes, some of the white people would wait and look around at everyone else to see if they were standing.

I actually saw one person stand up for one of those questions and then slug the person next to her implying, "come on, stand up." The person next to her gave this look like, "I didn't know that most of my food was grown by people of color."

And that is exactly the problem: We don't know. We do not see these things until we stop and think about them, and we surely are not trained to stop and think about them.

Systematic racism is insidious and frightening because it means that privilege and discrimination are built into our systems. They are systematic -- we are not even conscious of some of them.

I don't believe in racism. So, as a white person, I'm working on learning about how to recognize and eliminating my privilege. It is not easy. There are things I do every day that I'm not even aware of, but as a person who believes in equality and justice, it is my duty to try.

At 8 p.m. Wednesday in the Joyner Residence Hall lounge, Feminist Students United is hosting a speak-out on white privilege and internalized racism. If you've got something to say or would like to learn ways you can combat racism, please come!

Linda Chupkowski just shaved her head because she was worried that her dreads were racist. E-mail her at

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