Words by Michael Alles
Illustration by Katie Herchenroeder
2019 is proving to be an excellent year for racism. Here are some of the highlights in no particular order. A group of white boys in MAGA hats surrounded a Native American elder and taunted him with smiles on their faces, in a video that quickly spread across social media. Virginia governor Ralph Northam is grappling with calls for his resignation after photos resurfaced from his yearbook page, showing a man in blackface and another in a KKK outfit. A University of Oklahoma student has been banned from her campus after a video showed her in blackface using the N-word. In an interview with the Independent, Liam Neeson admitted that he had contemplated murdering a “black bastard.” Gucci has apologized after they released an $890 sweater that can be pulled over the lower half of the face to emulate blackface. James Watson, one of the fathers of DNA, reiterated his unsubstantiated belief that there is a link between race and intelligence in a PBS documentary released in January.
And that is just the tip of the iceberg.
So, how do we fix this problem and educate people? A good start would be educating ourselves. CCNY does not explicitly require students to take critical race theory classes. We have some required areas of study, like math and FIQWS, but nothing for race theory. Unless you are a math or an English major, you will probably not use calculus or FIQWS in your everyday life. But, the lessons learned in a critical race course will follow you for the rest of your life.
The Middle States Commission on Higher Education, the organization that accredits our university and universities across the country, writes that their mission is to make sure that “students are well served; that society is well served.” In a deeply racist society like the United States, introducing mandatory courses on race theory will not only help students be the best they can be in their prospective fields, but it will benefit society as a whole. I am not arguing that it will cure the racism that continues to plague our politics and culture, but it would be a start on the right path.
Growing up in Long Island, I was pretty oblivious when it came to issues on race and racism – not as oblivious as some of the people listed above – but I had a lot of learning to do. I still do. My fellow white peers used the n-word with no hesitation, and said soooo many problematic things that I was not educated enough to challenge at the time.
Then I came to CCNY, one of the most diverse campuses in the country. The first class I took centered around race was “Hip-Hop and Social Inequality,” taught by professor L’Heureux Lewis-Mccoy. We learned about the origins of hip-hop, white flight, housing discrimination, and so much more. When I first read Bonilla-Silva’s theory of a tri-racial system, my mind was blown.
Throughout my college career, I continued to take classes focused on race theory, both domestically and internationally. I still have a lot to learn, and I will continue to learn my entire life. Learning about race can be frustrating and leave you with a lot of unanswered questions. Learning about history, learning about the continued discrimination of people of color, learning about how my privilege is at the expense of people of color, occasionally makes me want to run away. I want to run away, but not to a place. I want to run away to an idea, something abstract. A place where society was not structured in this inequitable way. But no such place exists. So where do I go?
I could move to Romania and live with my family. As far as I know, I belong there. But every society has its problems. In Romania, I would be contributing to a system that discriminates against the Roma, or as my family calls them, “gypsies.” But running away from a deeply racist and problematic society won’t fix anything, and I won’t learn anything that way either.
All we can do is continue to educate ourselves. But most people won’t go out of their way to do so. If that was the case, maybe we wouldn’t be arguing about why blackface is problematic. Which is the very reason why we need to make these courses mandatory.
As Black History Month comes to an end, take some time to educate yourself on the history of our country, and check your privilege. If you are enrolling in classes next semester, take a class on race, no matter what your major is. You might be surprised at what you learn.