- Posted August 15, 2013 by
This iReport is part of an assignment:
Everyday racism: Your stories
An Italian teaching English
This story is part of CNN iReport’s Everyday Racism project, an effort to shine light on and spark discussion about racism in today’s world. Please note that CNN cannot independently verify the events described in this post.
- Jareen, CNN iReport producer
I am an English teacher in a small town in Oklahoma. With my obviously Italian name posted over the classroom door, I routinely get questions like, "Are you connected?" and (much worse) "So are you like a Jersey Shore guy?" I don't think much of this combination of ignorance and stereotyping. It is harmless, and sometimes there is a kind of well-meaning curiosity behind it. They ask silly questions because they genuinely want to know more about my background.
One time, however, I encountered a kind of racism that surprised me, and reminded me that racism is more than skin deep. One day, I talked to a struggling student about how he planned to improve his grades. He recounted a recent conversation that he had had with his father. Both the student and the father came to the conclusion that, "It doesn't make any sense having an Italian teaching an English class." I was more surprised than offended by this. Other than my difficult-to-pronounce last name, I would never be mistaken for anything other white. I am half Anglo-American and half Italian-American. On the Italian side, I am third generation, and both myself and my father only speak English with no hint of an accent. I realized that the negativity did not stem from my appearance or even my ethnicity. The student and father wanted to believe something bad about me because it was a way to excuse the student's poor performance. The choice they made was to highlight a difference, even a minute difference, in ethnicity and create from it a reason to judge negatively. A similar thing happened to a Japanese-American colleague of mine. She speaks perfect English, but the parent of a failing student blamed the "language barrier" for the student's inability to succeed.
These comments raise a question for me. Which comes first: the identification of differences or the decision to make negative judgments? In my case it seems that the negativity came first and the ethnic difference was just a reason to apply it. I think we often assume that the larger scale (and much more serious) issue of white on black racism works in reverse; white people identify an obvious difference and choose to hate what is different. But consider this, perhaps the reason for anti-black racism is not at heart a difference in ethnicity and skin color, but the fact that the racist person needs a reason to excuse the harm they wish to commit against the victim (i.e. a reason to hate). If we take it this way, we could say that slave traders did not choose Africans because they believed them to be subhuman, but rather the culture manufactured the belief that Africans were subhuman because the culture wanted slaves.
Today, it may not be the case that racist Americans hate black Americans because they believe that black Americans are inferior or somehow worse than others. Rather, it seems to me that racists wish to continue to believe that segregation and in some cases even slavery was part of a noble and desirable culture. Rather than confronting the hatred and harmfulness of these beliefs, the racist chooses to maintain a negative view of the person s/he wishes to think harmfully about. Perhaps the most concise way to put it, I don't believe the root of racism is differences between people, I believe it is a hatred and a desire for harm that only uses the differences as an excuse to express itself. Racism is not a skin disease afflicting the victim; it is a disease of the heart and mind afflicting the offender.