‘Silent Racism’ book sheds light on current racial climate

By Marc Speir
University News Service
June 27, 2007

Barbara Trepagnier, sociology professor at Texas State University-San Marcos, says that people should replace the question of whether or not they are racist with asking themselves how they are racist.

“It’s a much more fruitful question,” Trepagnier said. “We’re this way because of the stereotypes we all grew up with and the ideas in our head have everything to do with our actions. My point is that those stereotypes matter.”

Trepagnier argues that every person harbors some racist thoughts and feelings, and that the acknowledgements of these attitudes are important to changing racial inequality.

The 66 year-old recently celebrated Paradigm Publishers’ March 30 paperback  release of her book entitled, Silent Racism: How Well-Meaning White People Perpetuate the Racial Divide, as it continues to find further shelf space in bookstores nationwide.

Trepagnier says while blacks can act with prejudice, there is a difference between being prejudiced and being racist.

“I’m referring to systemic racism,” Trepagnier said. “Blacks can certainly act with prejudice. But with whites as the majority in our society, racism becomes an institutional structure practiced by the dominant group.”

Recent developments involving the firing of CBS radio host Don Imus have raised concerns of how to approach the institutional structure of race in the United States. Imus was dismissed by CBS after a week of uproar surrounding comments he made about the largely black Rutgers women’s basketball team, referring to them as “nappy-headed hos.”

“I sent him a book,” a chuckling Trepagnier said. “I wished he hadn’t been fired until I read an interview where Imus said that he and (radio sidekick Bernie McGuirk) would get into racist humor that was calculated for the show. Although, if his race awareness was increased by the incident, he could have had a very positive effect.”

Trepagnier argues that judging others as racist acts as a red herring and does nothing to improve racial equality.

"It allows us to scapegoat one person as racist, thinking to ourselves, 'I would never say that,'" Trepagnier said. "Our own racism stays intact."

Instead, she says the only treatment of institutional racism is connected to facilitating discussion of racism between whites and blacks and realizing the complex meaning of “silent racism.”

The 181-page book explains that “silent racism,” while rarely noticed by the white community, constructs an institutional framework that perpetuates an inequality between whites and blacks in the United States.

“Silent racism refers to the negative thoughts and images white people have about other groups,” Trepagnier said. “They’re harmful because they come out sometimes without our realizing it, and not just to other races or ethnic groups, but any oppressed group.”

She says a good example comes from the furor ignited when former Senate majority leader Trent Lott spoke at Strom Thurmond’s 100th birthday celebration. Lott commented that the United States would have avoided “all these problems” if the former-segregationist candidate had been elected president when he ran in 1948. Lott’s defense was that he was speaking “off the cuff.”

“I argue when we say things off the cuff, that’s what we really mean,” Trepagnier said. “His comments weren’t taken out of context.”

Her book contends that “silent racism” fosters routine actions not recognized by an individual as racist, but upholds the status quo.

Trepagnier says that this form of superiority remains prevalent in American society, and is a major reason African-Americans continue to struggle. Blacks are outperformed by their white counterparts in most social demographics, including factors such as education, employment and income. She says that whites that deny the existence of racism or dismiss it as unimportant are often protecting white privilege.

Trepagnier says that some whites become detached from the race issue while others are so concerned with it that they become apprehensive about it, avoiding even the mention of the topic. In both cases, this passive stance silently provides the racist actions of others an endorsement, or worse, encouragement.

“When I hear people say the n-word I wait a few minutes to get my point across,” said Bob Mann, adjunct professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication. “I insert words such as African-American in my conversation to let them know where I stand.”

Mann says that in his younger years, he was quick to argue with other whites and became furiously heated in racist conversations. Now he says his newer approach of diffusing the situation is more effective.

“They immediately get the point that I don’t use the word and I don’t appreciate them using it,” Mann said.  “I haven’t had to use my method for a couple of years, but if you need to, it’s effective without having to get argumentative or knock someone off a bar stool.”

Mann covered the assassination of Martin Luther King in Alabama on April 4, 1968.

“At the time, I didn’t know much of King except that he was portrayed as a troublemaker when I was sent to cover him,” Mann said. “I found out how incredible he was. The struggle isn’t over, but it’s a different kind of struggle now. It’s institutional rather than personal.” 

Trepagnier claims that even individuals who feel enlightened in race relations often miss the point. In one of her studies, 25 white women who considered themselves progressive voiced their opinions to Trepagnier in eight group sessions from Santa Barbara, Calif.

In the discussions, the women who were most race-aware said that they could identify racist actions they had performed as recently as a week ago. Among the least race-aware was a woman who responded, “Racism has nothing to do with me.”

That makes no sense because as whites, we all benefit from the way race plays out in our lives. I found out that I was racist on some level,” Trepagnier said. “I admitted to things I’ve said that were racist, which helped participants also open up. Recognizing how I perpetuate the problem, too, was a factor in my deciding to do the study.”

Trepagnier says that understanding the black struggle from a historical context is critical to diminishing racism in America and is the first step a person must make towards grasping the issue of race awareness. 

According to her research, the institution of slavery and its legacy in the South has passed on the idea that blacks are incapable of caring for themselves, one of the long documented justifications used by slave owners known as the “white man’s burden.” The treatment by whites left blacks playing "Sambo” to their masters, pretending to be stupid and helpless to appease whites and unfortunately adding justification and defense to a negative perception.

Modern-day stereotypical images of blacks as uneducated leave whites often surprised to hear that a black individual has a degree or a professional occupation.

“I’ve heard teachers say, ‘I have a bright black student in my class,’” Trepagnier said. “But why would you bring up that they are black?”

Although the emancipation proclamation declaring the freedom of slaves in the United States is considered common knowledge, many of the hardships blacks endured afterward aren’t highlighted in the same manner.

“Segregation was more formal in the South, but the North wasn’t much better,” Trepagnier said. “They just had fewer blacks.”

Jim Crow laws advocating the “separate but equal” policies from the 1870s through the 1960s and the rise of Ku Klux Klan serve as examples of historical suppression of blacks.  The refusal of state governments to acknowledge voting rights or allow for the integration of schools showed further opposition towards equality. 

“It also led to an idea that they need to be taken care of,” Trepagnier said. “Many of us exhibit paternalistic actions towards blacks.”

Trepagnier cited an example from her study, a story about a white woman who admitted ordering for her black friend at an ice cream parlor. The woman felt vindicated because she felt her black friend wouldn’t be able to order correctly because it was a “white ice cream shop.”

Another example is the assumption of what blacks want by whites. Trepagnier said it’s akin to a real estate broker taking a black family only to other neighborhoods dominated by black populations.

Once the history of the black struggle is clear, Trepagnier says that the next step is to understand how institutional racism works. This includes studying organizations in society such as the media, courts and schools, and exposing how different races are depicted and treated accordingly.

Trepagnier says that every white person, as a member of the majority group of American society, must come to an understanding that they are part of the institutional structure when perceiving minorities.

As a last step, she claims that fostering close relationships with people from other races alleviate these tensions and are essential for heightening race awareness.

“We’re not going to end racism, but we can lessen it,” Trepagnier said. “I wrote this book for the least racist people in the white community because they are the most race-aware group. I want this to shift their thinking about racism, including their own.”

She claims that this is the most she can do to aid race relations, noting that the struggle within the black community rests in their hands.

“As a white woman, its not my place to talk about what needs to be done in the black community,” Trepagnier said. “My crusade is with the white community. Black leaders will have to decide on the best course.”

Trepagnier plans to promote her book through the rest of the summer.

“Everyone tells me I should go on the Colbert Report because (Stephen Colbert) says he’s color-blind,” a laughing Trepagnier said. “I address that in my book. It would be a lot of fun to talk about.”