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Examples of Subtle Racism and the Problems It Poses


Ridiculing Based on Race

Subtle racism not only takes the form of ignoring people of color or treating them differently but of ridiculing them. But how can ridicule on the basis of race be covert? Gossip writer Kitty Kelley's unauthorized biography Oprah is a case in point. In the book, the talk show queen's looks are excoriated--but in a particularly racialized way.

Kelley quotes a source who says, "Oprah without hair and makeup is a pretty scary sight. But once her prep people do their magic, she becomes super glam. They narrow her nose and thin her lips with three different liners…and her hair. Well, I can't even begin to describe the wonders they perform with her hair."

Why does this description reek of subtle racism? Well, the source isn't just saying she finds Oprah unattractive without the help of a hair and makeup team but criticizing the "blackness" of Oprah's features. Her nose is too wide, her lips are too big, and her hair is unmanageable, the source asserts. Such features are all commonly associated with African Americans. In short, the source suggests that Oprah is mainly unattractive because she's black.

How else are minorities subtly ridiculed based on race or national origin? Say an immigrant of color speaks English fluently but has a slight accent. The immigrant may encounter Americans who constantly ask that he repeat himself, speak to him loudly or interrupt him when he tries to engage them in discussion. These are subtle forms of ridicule that send a message to the immigrant that he's unworthy of their conversation. Before long, the immigrant may develop a complex about his accent, despite the fact that he speaks fluent English, and withdraw from conversations before he's rejected.

How to Cope With Subtle Racism

If you have proof or a strong hunch that you're being treated differently, ignored or ridiculed based on race, make it an issue. According to Alvarez' study, which appears in the April 2010 issue of the Journal of Counseling Psychology, men who reported incidents of subtle racism or confronted those responsible, lowered amounts of personal distress while boosting self-esteem. On the other hand, the study found that women who disregarded incidents of subtle racism developed increased levels of stress. In short, speak out about racism in all its forms for your own mental health.

The Cost of Disregarding Everyday Racism

When we think of racism only in extremes we allow subtle racism to continue wreaking havoc in people's lives. In an essay called "Everyday Racism, White Liberals and the Limits of Tolerance," antiracist activist Tim Wise explains, "Since hardly anyone will admit to racial prejudice of any type, focusing on bigotry, hatred, and acts of intolerance only solidifies the belief that racism is something 'out there,' a problem for others, 'but not me,' or anyone I know." Wise argues that because everyday racism is much more prevalent than extreme racism, the former actually reaches more people's lives and does more lasting damage. That's why it's important to make an issue out of everyday racism.

More than racial extremists, "I'm more concerned about the 44 percent (of Americans) who still believe it's all right for white homeowners to discriminate against black renters or buyers, or the fact that less than half of all whites think the government should have any laws to ensure equal opportunity in employment, than I am about guys running around in the woods with guns, or lighting birthday cakes to Hitler every April 20th," Wise says.

While racial extremists are no doubt dangerous, they are largely isolated from most of society. Why not focus on tackling the pernicious forms of racism that affect Americans regularly? If awareness about subtle racism is raised, more people will recognize how they contribute to the problem and work to change. The result? Race relations will improve for the better.

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