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Op-ed: Utahns should confront their 'unconscious' racism

Published September 18, 2016 5:58 pm
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

When I think of my Utah home, I'm reminded of the song from "Avenue Q," "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist." As an educator, I confront racism frequently. It is not the overt, public displays of racism where individuals intend to harm or damage another, but rather the covert, "unconscious" and subtle racism embedded in the very fabric of our most treasured institutions.

I know that some of you are already getting defensive and formulating how to respond. You might counter with, "Oh, no we're not! You're racist for making this an issue of race!" I will admit that as a white American I have benefited from the color of my skin. White privilege is real, and denying it is tantamount to burying our heads in the sand.

A large aspect of unconscious racism in Utah is our own unwillingness to examine our institutions or ourselves. Generally, we're happier if we don't look too closely. Please reflect with me about the following:



Could it be that we are all part of structurally racist systems in Utah when few people of color are present within our schools, businesses, churches and social circles? After whom do we name our buildings? How many are people of color? While walking through these very same buildings — government, hospital, university, church — whose pictures are displayed, and how many are people of color? If you look at your own business, school or other organization, who are those in leadership at the top? If people of color are part of your organization or business, are they always the ones chosen to serve on committees in an attempt to satisfy diversity goals?

Depending on how these questions are answered, unconscious racism could be present.

I'm aware that you and I may never agree about racism in Utah. I have lived in Utah since 1975, but I spent my younger years in Chicago. The pre-school, kindergarten and first grade classes in Hyde Park were 50/50 white and Americans of African descent. I have been around people of color all of my life, and my perceptions and attitudes about race and diversity have been profoundly affected in a positive way!

The bottom line is that the path to success for black people and other people of color is more difficult than it is for whites. Many of our federal, state and local, as well as religious, institutions are organized in a way to benefit white people. One example that immediately comes to mind is Early Childhood Education. It's one of the first things cut from budgets by legislators in spite of the fact that all research identifies the tremendous benefits to children — especially those from families that cannot afford pre-school, and whose parents are unable to attend to their children due to having to work. This mostly impacts low-income families whose demographic is often predominantly people of color.

Do I think there are elected officials actively plotting to keep the "black man down"? There might be a few, but I doubt it. Not in our state. The racism I'm talking about is "unconscious." We don't think about it, and I believe the thought that we might be racist rarely enters our minds or the minds of our leaders. We are uncomfortable with the thought that the unconscious choices and decisions we make might have a negative impact on the very people we profess to love and care about.

Communities of color do exist in the Salt Lake area — African Americans who came here as slaves, Americans of Chinese descent and Latinos who initially arrived with the railroad and worked in the mines, and Americans of Japanese lineage who stayed here with their families after being released from their internment after World War II.

Why don't more people of color want to move here, work here, go to school here? Could it be that our institutions are not welcoming? And if they are not welcoming, shouldn't we be talking about why and how to remedy it? And if we don't want to talk or find a remedy, shouldn't we be asking ourselves why? Could it be that we "unconsciously" create an environment through our institutions that is unwelcoming to people of color? That is racism.

Jonathan Gochberg is a life-long educator and doctoral student at the University of Utah Department of Educational Leadership and Policy. He currently serves as principal of Sunset Junior High School in the Davis School District.

 

 

 

 

 

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