Look Ma! A BIG Racism”

by Jada Elata ‘03

Many a female midshipman walking through T-court at the Naval Academy has heard a childish voice loudly proclaiming “look, it’s a girl one!”. Upon swiveling towards the voice, one generally finds tiny fingers pointed in their direction and smiling parents with cameras . Small children recognize that “one of these things is not like the others”  and they loudly point out when they find the much smaller population of “girl” ones. It’s like “Where’s Waldo?” come to life.

I thought about this the other day when someone posted the story about the midshipman and his racist tweets into a FB group. The comments below the article condemned his actions and there was a lot of (justified) outrage and accompanying commentary,  but  the part that most intrigued me was that the anger never connected this individual issue to the systemic problems extant in the Academy and the Navy. Like pointing out the uniqueness of the girl ones and never linking that to a history of gender-based exclusion, we identify these acts as discrete, isolated examples of racism untethered from the roots of a larger system. Racism is thus a standalone, spectacular event, and, by its very nature, easy to spot, like the girl ones.  “Look, Ma, a BIG racism.”

With the country-wide awakening to and reckoning with ongoing racial injustice, we have daily examples of BIG racisms to gawk at and condemn. The Amy Coopers, the Tom Austins, the husband and wife duos, the never ending march of daily encounters where everyday white people enforce a system of violent racial domination. The video or photo is posted and we all gather together underneath to condemn the BIG racisms. And then we get up the next day to do it all over again.

BIG racisms serve as touchstones, like the KKK or burning crosses, or the “n word,” it signifies something we can all come together and say is definitely racist. We excoriate en masse the racism and it acts as a psychic release of sorts, a ritual cleansing. Some individual is being held accountable for racism and we can all breathe a sigh of relief. Whew, thats enough racism for the day. BIG racisms become a barometer for determining what is and isn’t racism.  In fact, one could compare themselves to the actions captured on video and think “I would never behave like that; therefore I am not racist” and go on about their lives. And therein lies the problem with BIG racisms.

Focusing on BIG racisms keeps our gaze trained outward, trying to catch the spectacular, instead of linking these acts to the greater system already existing around us. Racism is a structural or systemic problem.  According to the Aspen Institute, It is a “system in which public policies, institutional practices, cultural representations, and other norms work in various, often reinforcing ways to perpetuate racial group inequity. It identifies dimensions of our history and culture that have allowed privileges associated with “whiteness” and disadvantages associated with “color” to endure and adapt over time.” That means that the discrimination so evident in BIG racisms is here in our neighborhoods, our workplaces, and in every aspect of our society. It is so much a part of our everyday lives, that many remain ignorant of it.   I suspect we focus so much on the spectacle of BIG racisms because it is far easier to condemn a problem external to ourselves — one that we can easily see in someone else, say a “Karen” or a “Becky”- and thus,  distance ourselves from the problem that entangles us all.

The truth is, we could gather up everyone committing BIG racisms, we could wait until the “old generation” or “old white men” or “the South”, or whatever group we’ve identified as the carriers of racism, dies out, and racism would still exist. Racism isn’t caused by a few people doing “abnormal” things; it *is* the norm. We must start with the understanding that racism is already present in whatever rooms we find ourselves and it is these, every day places (our kids’ schools, our wardrooms, our commands, etc) that require our attention and our action.  We must continually ask ourselves “what are the policies, practices, and cultural norms that make up the scaffolding of institutional racism in this place where I am standing?” and then we must take action to root it out and reimagine our institutions.

By all means continue to call out the BIG racisms, but, more importantly, do the uncomfortable and necessary work of turning both our gaze and concomitant action, inward.  None of this is easy. It will be a long, difficult process to undo 400 years worth of injustice and inequality. At some point you will be tempted to return to pointing out the daily spectacle of  BIG racisms in place of doing the hard work required for systemic change. To stay the course, perhaps we should place a banner over the entrance to our work places, or a sticky on our bathroom mirrors, or a yard sign between our tulips that says “Racism lives here,” an ever present exhortation to refocus our gaze and attention, and most importantly, our actions, to the system that surrounds us.

Jada Elata is a graduate of USNA ‘03. #BeatArmy but #BeatRacismFirst


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