Monday, August 31, 2009

Colored Perspectives

By Rachel O’Connor, Summer Intern at the Kirwan Institute

I was firmly opposed to affirmative action in the tenth grade. One of my best friends had scored lower than I did on the PSAT, yet received national recognition and a scholarship for it. We grew up in the same suburban neighborhood, were enrolled in the same AP classes, and our fathers were in the same profession. The only difference was that his father was Black.

I couldn’t understand how a policy of awarding money to privileged children based solely on the color of their skin equated to fairness or how it helped anybody. At the time, the only thing I could focus on was that I was being denied opportunities because I was White and others were being rewarded because they were Black.

Through my studies, I have come to understand the many ways that I have been indirectly rewarded for the color of my skin. I have played fearlessly on the streets of my neighborhood, received a high quality education, had access to any healthcare I’ve ever needed, and have always found a job when I was looking for one. I now know that policies like affirmative action are a needed remedy for the decades African-Americans were denied access to higher education. Some who don’t need it, such as my friend, may benefit; but overall it is aimed at helping the truly disadvantaged.

As I describe my internship studying race to friends and family, I see a lot of my tenth-grade self in them. They quickly go on the defensive, explaining why they hold their prejudices and rejecting the research I have done. All they know is the Black kids in the neighboring town received new computers and their children didn’t. Holiday Masses are now long and tedious because they are bilingual to accommodate a large Hispanic church population. Violent Black criminals appear regularly on their nightly news. They know what they have seen and how race impacts their life and that is all that matters. They fail to recognize all the advantages they have from simply being born White and how many are suffering from the inherent racism in our institutions and societal structure.

It is natural to understand abstract concepts, like race, through concrete experiences. In the homogenous community in which I grew up, not many positive concrete interracial experiences for people to draw on exist. However, if we are to truly make progress toward a post-racial society, we need to take the time and effort to see beyond our immediate perspectives. It is the responsibility of every citizen, and every race, to open their minds to facts that are not readily apparent and place themselves in others’ shoes. We need to learn to dissociate individual experiences from the overall state of racial relations so that we can come to an understanding that recognizes everybody’s perspectives.

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