Sonjay Singh ’15
Last Monday, guest speaker Professor Eduardo Bonilla-Silva gave a talk in the Washington Room entitled: “Don’t Sleep: Understanding, Facing, and Fighting Modern-Day Racism.”
Bonilla-Silva is a professor of sociology at Duke University where he focuses on “new racism,” an idea which essentially states that racism in the twenty-first century is of a more hidden and difficult-to-detect variety than the outright version from the civil rights movement. As Bonilla-Silva says: “It is a mistake to think that just because Barack Obama is in office, racism is over.” Instead Bonilla-Silva says that racism has only changed faces; rather than outright discrimination, people of color instead experience more subtle social cues which hint at biased tendencies.
To demonstrate this, Bonilla-Silva points to a common occurrence in his own life when he visits retail outlets. He says that as soon as he enters one of these places, employees immediately flock to him with their pseudo-smiles and queries of: “can I help you?” “As soon as I am finished telling one of them ‘no thanks, I’m just looking” he continues, “immediately, another one is there again. Can I help you, can I help you, can I help you?” Bonilla-Silva’s parable shows how for many minorities, their lives are looked at under a scrutiny that a Caucasian person would not experience. To silence naysayers who believe that he is imagining racism because of his specialty, Bonilla-Silva has recently started using the simple reply, “Can I help you?” at which point, the person usually becomes very uncomfortable, often stammering: “I didn’t mean it like that.” “Well, the fact that that is your reply, means that you did,” replies Bonilla-Silva.
Many of these problems stems from what Bonilla-Silva refers to as “color-blindness” or the modern trend of individuals and communities acting as though they cannot “see” race (examples of this include race-blind college admissions or job hiring). Bonilla-Silva criticizes this term because, as he says, “it assumes that we live in a post-race world when this is not really the case. Instead, Bonilla-Silva claims that we should be embracing race as a way to examine social conventions and seeking to understand racism so that it can be minimized.
Bonilla-Silva also identifies problems with the climate of many universities that, in a nod to schools such as Howard University, he labels as HWCU’s or “Historically White Colleges and Universities.” These colleges he claims are oppressive in their culture as everything from manner of dress, to campus traditions to even décor such as statues of former slave-owners serve to create an environment of exclusion to non-white students. He also says that often, the burden of blame is placed on the students of color when people look at, for example, the configuration of a dining hall and ask why all the black students are sitting at the “black” table. “Well,” Bonilla-Silva replies, “why does no one ask why the white students are sitting at the white table?” Bonilla-Silva goes on to point out that the students at schools such as those regularly report being miserable because of the climate and often transfer, which only reinforce the school’s status an HWCU.
In talking of ways to move forward, Bonilla-Silva made the potentially inflammatory remark that “whites have the upper hand,” referring to the way in which society tends to believe racism has ended when nothing, in his opinion, could be farther from the truth. He even talks of President Obama’s election as a step backward in the fight against racism since it disguised the issue, making it seem like the races were fully equal in the eyes of the public. The first step therefore to truly eliminating racism is to create awareness of it. Bonilla-Silva’s Malcolm X quote at the end of his presentation emphasized this point, saying: “Nobody can give you freedom. Nobody can give you equality or justice or anything. If you’re a man, you take it.”
These remarks, among others, suggest an interesting nature to Bonilla-Silva’s brand of movement towards racial equality. Many activists have begun to separate themselves from Malcolm X, partially for his potentially violent modus operandi and partially because his comments, including the above quote, seem to support traditional gender roles and by relation, the sexist policies that sometimes accompany them. However, Bonilla-Silva’s philosophy seems in tandem with Malcolm X and perhaps missing the sexist undertone is an oversight; understandable as he is a sociologist focused on race not gender.
Bonilla-Silva’s support for Malcolm X seems also to extend to X’s embrace of divisive and occasionally violent methods of reform. When speaking of his mission, he often referred to “the whites” or “them,” language which suggests that unlike the famed preacher and activist, Martin Luther King Jr., Bonilla-Silva does believe one race is more at fault for racial divide than others. This philosophy is extraordinarily interesting because of its distinctiveness in comparison to modern reform theories and it was received warmly by at least some members in the crowd.
As the speech ended and the floor opened for questions, one student asked what students of color could do to better tolerate the climate on so-called HWCU’s. At this point, Bonilla-Silva seemed to be at his weakest, reiterating the points that racism was a subtle and multi-faceted issue but giving few concrete of examples of how it could be dealt with on a personal basis. Perhaps this points to just how difficult this “new racism” is to handle. Unlike some activists who believe that racist tendencies can be fixed by minorities subtly defying the norm, Bonilla-Silva seems to believe that instead a complete systemic overhaul is necessary; something that cannot be achieved.
If you are interested in Bonilla-Silva’s ideas, keep an eye out for the two books he has currently in the works entitled: “Anything but Racism: How Social Analysts Limit the Significance of Race” (with Gianpaolo Baiocchi and Hayward Horton) and “White Logic, White Methods: Racism and Methodology” coming out soon.