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If we teach students to see racism as an idea that's expressed through behaviors, institutions and cultures rather than an immutable character trait, we free them to see things more accurately and with more openness to change, argues Cyndi Kernahan. For white students and most white people generally, that is something to fear: being revealed as a racist.

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But if we teach white students to see racism for what it is -- an idea that can be expressed through behaviors, institutions and cultures -- we free them and ourselves to see things more accurately and with more openness to change. Ibram X. This simple definition belies a powerful way of thinking about a complex problem, allowing us to fold multiple types of racism into a single understanding. It might be a racist idea that the speaker implicitly holds, but it is still an idea that is being expressed and one that will have consequences.

Scaling up and out, we can see how racist ideas are built into the rules and policies and culture we create, ensuring that white people are elevated and that other racial groups are deemed inferior or even un-American. To expand this notion to our larger culture, consider how we think about attractiveness and beauty. Because our ideas about what good masculinity and femininity entail match up better with racist ideas and stereotypes about black men strong, virile and Asian women submissive, passive than with black women strong, angry and Asian men submissive, quiet.

Here, racist ideas are being expressed through the choices of millions of people to create the disparities we see. Teaching racism as an idea -- rather than as something essential about a person or even as a set of attitudes that a person carries -- has a of advantages. First, it is more accurate.

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For a of years, I have taught about racism as both individual how we individually treat other people and institutional how our policies differentially advantage white people over other races. This is not wrong, but the notion of racism as an idea is more elegant and allows for a tighter fit to the kinds of racism students are likely to see and learn about. It provides a simple, understandable principle that can then be applied to the different levels of racism: individual, institutional and cultural.

For example, why do some banks have policies that prescribe subprime loans for mostly black and brown neighborhoods while saving the good loans for white ones, often regardless of income? Redlining, of course. This well-documented policy initiated in the s by the Federal Housing Administration was based on the racist idea that black people are more dangerous and less creditworthy. Just as with the individual casually racist remark and cultural racist ideas about what is attractive examples I gave earlier, that is how a racist idea is expressed through a set of policies.

That is how we get institutional racism. The other major advantage of teaching racism as an idea is that it allows students to learn, grow and change. As Kendi has noted, people can hold a variety of ideas about race all at the same time. We may sometimes express both racist and antiracist sentiments in the same conversation or even the same sentence. I have heard such contradictory statements from students many times.

She had never seen any black people who wanted to live Lets hang out black men only her town, so she assumed that black folks did not like that way of life and were more suited to the city. Obviously, a lot was missing from her analysis, namely the racist ideas that have informed housing and land ownership policies and practices. But labeling her as a racist would not necessarily be helpful or fully accurate.

At the moment she made those comments, she was expressing both an antiracist ideal and a racist assumption. Viewing racism as an idea that informed her socialization and her thinking is easier to talk about and unpack in a classroom than is labeling her or even her attitudes as racist. The former is something that has influenced her, something that is malleable based on learning, whereas the latter is more fixed and unchanging.

In any class on any topic, it is useful for students to have a growth mind-set. If these students see themselves, and if we view them, as fixed in their attitudes -- as inherently racist -- they will not learn how to see racism for what it is: a noxious idea that diminishes us all. Instead, those students will focus intently on not being seen as racist. They will be quiet and disengaged for fear of learning that they may indeed harbor racist ideas or, worse yet, that they will be revealed as racist to us and to their classmates.

Thus, to help our students gain a more accurate understanding of racism, we would do well to focus on racism as an idea rather than as a trait or personality characteristic. Expand comments Hide comments. View the discussion thread.

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We have retired comments and introduced Letters to the Editor. Share your thoughts ยป. Advertise About Contact Subscribe. Coronavirus Live Updates - 2 hours 20 min ago. Topics Teaching and Learning. Teaching Racism as an Idea.

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By Cyndi Kernahan. October 31, Rethinking How We Teach Teaching racism as an idea -- rather than as something essential about a person or even as a set of attitudes that a person carries -- has a of advantages. by Cyndi Kernahan. Inside Higher Ed Careers Hiring?

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