I was talking with a physician recently, a specialist, really good at his work and a darn nice guy. He asked me about a book I was reading on health disparities by race and class and then commented, “That’s really interesting, but come to think of it, all my patients are White.”
He’s been practicing medicine for 20 years or so, and from what I could see, that conversation was the first time he’d thought about the racial make-up of his patient population. He works in a county in which 25% of the population is not White, and he draws patients from all over. People of color are just as likely as Whites to need his particular services. Like most of us, however, he’d never stopped to think about the people who weren’t there, the ones not sitting in his waiting room. And therefore he’d never wondered why.
One of my goals for my Race in America students is that by the end of the term they will notice who is and isn’t in the room (or the school or the church or the board meeting or the doctor’s office), and then ask why.
By some measures, at least, we live in the most racially segregated nation on the planet, but we’re so used to that we take it all in stride. Sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva (2003) argues that racism has become self-perpetuating in the U.S., and doesn’t really need additional support from bigots. The inertia of the status quo is enough to keep things going as before: racism without racists. That is possible, in part, because we have naturalized racism, including segregation, meaning that we take it for granted, and assume that it simply reflects the natural order of things. We’re so used to it we don’t notice it. And therefore we can’t question it.
Once you notice who isn’t in the room, and begin to ask why, you can get some very interesting answers. Segregation, like other aspects of racism, is deeply embedded in organizational policies and practices that can be difficult to change. But if you talk with people who have been excluded from your room, and listen to their stories, you usually can find at least one barrier you can begin to dismantle with the help of like-minded allies.
But first you have to notice who isn’t there.
Charles W. Green, Professor of Psychology, Hope College